Picking Coffee for the Revolution

A British Solidarity Brigade in Sandinista Nicaragua

E-book memoir by Keith Doyle


A women who’d been on a coffee-picking brigade described mortars going off in the hills and an army escort as they were taken to their farm. It sounded exciting, and I knew straight away that I had to go on one myself. I raised the £1,000 needed for the trip, learnt some Spanish, and read up on Nicaragua – becoming increasingly angry with the injustice of Nicaragua’s treatment by Reagan’s US administration and horrified by the appalling conduct of the Contras.

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With the communication difficulties in those pre-internet days, it was hard to know what Nicaragua would really be like. ‘How, what, where,’ one of my friends asked, ‘and has there really been a People’s Revolution?’ Even so, Nicaragua was a beacon of hope when Britain was suffering a Tory onslaught, so how liberating it would be to visit a country where the radical was the norm!

I was a member of the second of four brigades in the 1988-89 season, and our experience was quite different from those who’d visited in earlier years. There’d been a Sandinista unilateral ceasefire for nine months, so the Contra War was much quieter, although there were still Contra atrocities such as a baby murdered in its mother’s womb; hyperinflation had returned but, unlike during the previous round, the exchange rate was now sensible for brigadistas so we didn’t have to go against government and NSC policy to not use the black market. Due to the economic crisis, Managua was no longer one of the safest capitals in the world, and I met at least five people who were robbed – by internationalists as well as by locals. Although the Contra War was coming to an end with the Sandinistas having succeeded militarily, the country had just been devastated by Hurricane Joan which, at that time, was the most powerful category four to hit that far south, so it became all the more crucial for us to report back on how the country had been affected.

Thousands of people from all over the world went there to support the Revolution and Nicaragua’s right to determine its own future without interference from the United States. I’d meet people doing construction, fixing bicycles, working with AMNLAE – the women’s organisation, health volunteers, or on brigades like mine. It was highly unusual to meet a foreigner who wasn’t aware of and interested in the political situation.

Our brigade picked coffee on a state farm for two-and-a-half weeks, meeting the teacher and a trade unionist. However, the brigade was somewhat insular and we had disputes between those who wanted to have a good night’s sleep and pick as much coffee as possible, against those who wanted to reach out and meet Nicaraguans (or go to the pub and get drunk, as the first group put it).

For me, the most memorable parts of the time on the farm were finding out about the military experiences of the Sandinista Youth attached to our brigade; at Christmas when the mandador in charge of the farm gave a moving speech to the orphans and to the children of those who’d been killed, kidnapped, or disappeared in the war; and the death of a baby on the farm, which made me feel hopelessly powerless when, in the UK, such things could be easily treated by a visit to the hospital.

We had a political program for a few days after the farm, and these included some of the most inspiring parts of the trip: visiting Matagalpa Prison, which was movingly humane; and going to a military hospital, which brought home what war really means – death; mutilation; emotional, psychological, and physical scars.

After the brigade I helped with reconstruction in Bluefields on the Atlantic Coast, the region worst-affected by the hurricane. This made me realise that my solidarity was with all people of Nicaragua, not just those who supported the FSLN. I also visited Bradford and Halifax’s twin towns, which showed what the Revolution meant to ordinary people and how it had helped their lives. As one women put it, ‘Military spending is needed in order to get the peace but, despite this, the government is still working on the good things in life.’

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