Diary of a TecNica Volunteer: Andy Berman

Andy Berman graciously volunteered his diary of this TecNica Volunteer trip to Nicaragua in 1985.  The text is duplicated here in case the link were to disappear (which often happens!).  Here is the link to the original transcription of his Nicaragua trip diary.

A Telephone Man in Nicaragua: 1985 Journal




Andy Berman, May 1985

Introduction by Max Watts:

Andy Berman sent me a xeroxed copy of his Nicaragua diary some time ago. I had long ago intended doing something about it, but it took Cat, a young Australian woman engineer, telling me that she would soon go to Central America and work there, to move me onto my butt, my word-processor, and to type it up.

Apart from Anglicizing the dates, I have left the text exactly as Berman wrote it, hour by hour at the time. No doubt he could have edited, re-written it, but the feeling and the facts come through better this way than they would if I mucked around with it.

I’m proud to know Andy Berman(click for continuation)

We met when he was a Spec/4, and a member of the American Serviceman’s Union (ASU), a Rita (resister inside the Army) in the Mannheim-Heidelberg area during the early 1970s, the last years of the Vietnam War. He was probably the most dependable and reliable of the hundreds, the thousands of GI resisters I knew in those years. Berman now works as an electronical engineer in Chicago. He has stayed with it. As you can see…..       MW


The Diary

Airborne, May 10, 1985

Flying now from Dallas to Mexico City, transitioning worlds. As expected, I didn’t sleep all that well last night due to the excitement of the trip. But why does my body betray me so?

Richie called last night to find out if my card of introduction to Rosaria Murillo (Nicaraguan Culture Association leader and wife of Daniel Ortega) had arrived. It had.
Transitioning worlds. Cab driver in Chicago taking me to the airport talking about the Dotson case, saying rape wasn’t always a crime, blaming it all on the blacks, condemning the unions. I really didn’t need to hear that nonsense.
Chatting with a couple on the plane. Looks of disgust at the mention of Nicaragua. In Dallas at the airport I met up with Les and Tom coming from Boston, also on this Tecnica trip and also going to work at Telcor, the telephone company in Nicaragua.  It’s good to have company!  We’ll be meeting the west coast Tecnica folks at the airport in Mexico.

Mexico City, 10:30 PM, 10 May 1985

Met the rest of the group. We are 15 in all, computer programmers, electronics engineers, economists, a computer science professor, a librarian and 2 translators.
I’m very impressed at the caliber of the people as well as the good group dynamics so far: a good bunch of folks with a lot of enthusiasm for what we’re going to do in solidarity with Nicaragua.

Several folks are going to install computer programs at various Ministries, one will teach a class on network systems. Two people will work on the Telex problem. Two will install a library book search computer system.
My own specific work at Telcor is still not fully clear. I’m somewhat anxious, but we’ll find out soon enough.

The day was long. Two flights and a three hour wait in Mexico City for all the planes to arrive. People came from the east coast, the west coast and the mid-west into Mexico.
Flying into Mexico City was impressive. A huge sprawling city. Massive traffic. Driving to the Hotel Ambassador, then an evening out on the town. Strolling through a park where street theater players drew large crowds. At a technical bookstore we bought computer books in Spanish. I found a great book on Telephone Systems Maintenance. Dinner in a comfortable restaurant, then a walk back to the hotel. I’m pretty worn out tonight, but I recognize that my spirits haven not been this high in years.

Mexico City,  11 May 1985   8:30 AM

Slept reasonably well. News this morning of severe rainstorms in Nicaragua and the closing of the airport.  Michael (Tecnica Administrator) says we’ll need luck to get to Nicaragua today.

I’m amazed to find out that with the exception of the two Costa Ricans who are going to be our translators, my Spanish is the strongest in the group. Last night I did all the translations at the bookstore and the restaurant. It is certainly encouraging that I’ll be able to be of use in that respect.

Mexico City, 11 May 1985 1:30 PM

Waiting for the plane to Managua to depart.  Up early this morning. Breakfast at the hotel, then a trip to the Zocalo district, Mexico City’s center. We walked through Aztec ruins under Mexico City that were only recently uncovered. Also visited the old Cathedral. But the real highlight was the visit to the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace.
Now, after long bureaucratic paperwork and formalities at the airport, we should hopefully be leaving fairly soon.
2:30 PM

On the plane finally, but still on the ground! The plane is an ancient B-722, a predecessor to the 727  I think. The signs about not smoking are in English and Greek!
4:00 PM

Airborne at last! Now about to begin the descent into San Salvador where the plane stops briefly (hopefully very briefly!). I can look down now and see the coast of what must be Honduras!

I’m still very uneasy about just what I’ll be doing at the Nicaraguan Telephone Company TELCOR. I met the three guys (Tom, Charlie, Les) who will also be working there, on an immediate problem in the Telex department. My own work is supposed to be in the long distance billing area, looking into an alternative billing systems. I can’t press anyone for a better picture since no one here really has any more information.  Still I note that I have a lot of emotion invested in this. I will be flying high if I can make a concrete substantial contribution. And so, there is indeed some anxiety in my heart.

El Salvador, 11 May 85, 5pm

We’ve been on the ground for ½ an hour in San Salvador now. There is supposedly an oil problem in one of the jets. My mind reels with the possibilities.
Flying into El Salvador I could see some fancy houses with swimming pools by the coast on the northwest side of the country. Also sheep grazing. But I could not identify any signs of war. Also I couldn’t really see the city very much. The airport must be pretty far from San Salvador.  Finally, now we are about to take off.

Some visual observations at the San Salvador airport:

  • The demo with the oxygen masks we didn’t get it leaving Mexico City, but we did get leaving El Salvador
  • TACA (El Salvador Airlines) has modern, clean 737s, 5-6 seen at the airport.
  • LASCA (Costa Rica airlines) – one plane on the ground here, a 727
  • Aeronica (Nicaragua) has just two ancient planes. This Greek-purchased Boeing 720 is one of the two;
  • Refueling in San Salvador. Why? After a two hour flight and before a 25 minute flight to Managua. My wild guess is that it reduces the need to import fuel into Managua.

Managua 11 May 85  11pm

Just had a talk with Charlie, the guy from MIT and one of the 4 of us who will be at Telcor, the telephone company. I now feel a lot better and more hopeful about my role here. The 3 other guys (Les, Charlie, Tom) are hardware types. I’m the only one with a background in switching software. They may need me to get involved in the Telex problem just on that basis.  My Spanish is also the strongest.
Anyway we arrived in Nicaragua tonight without really any problem. Along with 15people and their luggage, we came with 60 – 70 boxes of equipment and supplies: everything from medicines for hospitals to a full IBM PC computer! Even if our two weeks of work turn out less than phenomenal, I see that TechNICA really is making a significant contribution. The supplies are all specific, i.e. responses to previous given requests from a variety of places.
Flying into Managua:  at the airport I spotted the (famous) 2 Soviet helicopters painted in camouflage.

We came into the country with none of the usual customs hassles – in fact we came thru the VIP lounge with no baggage inspection at all!
We were driven to the ASTC’s “hotelito” – the guest house of the Cultural Workers Association, a very nice place.  A good cold beer and dinner (rice, beans & macaroni), then a dip in the pool.

I made a collect call back to the States with some difficulty.  The system is clearly overburdened.  The telephone itself has Cyrillic letters – either Bulgarian or Soviet in origin.  AT&T makes better stuff.

12 May 85, 7:00 AM, Managua
A few observations on this ASTC guest house – which is really two houses of Somocistas who fled the country.  It’s well built, some nice furniture, and a patio and swimming pools.  No blankets on the beds – bedcovers used instead.  Numbers – i.e. inventory numbers on every lamp, even the plastic wastebasket.  The toilet has an inventory number written in magic marker.  I imagine it’s a means of accountability of state property but really can’t be terribly effective since one could erase the numbers after stealing the items.
3:00 PM

Left ATSC hotelito for “permanent” residence at Hotel San Juan.  A tour of Masaya Volcano (?), the market place by the bus station for lunch and shopping.  A quick stop at La Palacco Nacional.  Now waiting for a group meeting of all 15 of us with our various sponsors:

Telcor – Telephone Company

Ministry of Education, ASTC

Institute of Informatics and Computers

Ministry of Finance

Economics Research Institute

Alas the hotel room is very tiny and without air conditioning.  But great body comfort is not the object of this trip.
Lunch in the market place, outdoors at a market café, with hungry people asking for the leftovers.  A reminder of the terrible human injustice of our world.
6 PM, Managua, 12 May, 85

A brutally frank meeting and discussion with representatives of the government ministries.  Jose of the Ministry of Finance said that their IBM 370 computer was down and that no public employees would be getting their pay checks for awhile.  His appeal to us was two-fold:

– help solve his immediate problem and tell them what is the alternative to an ever-less reliable relationship with IBM.  Michael Urmann (Director of Technica) really couldn’t respond directly.  To take volunteers committed to other agencies (even if someone could help out) would be wrong on our part (and might cause inter-ministry conflicts).
12 May 85, 7:30 PM

Dinner at the hotel.  Telcor never showed up.  Barbara promises to resolve this first thing in the morning.

Discussion with Debbie, an American woman who came here on an earlier Technica trip, then returned to teach Lotus 1-2-3 (microcomputer spreadsheet program) at the bank for use on 2 IBM – PCs.

I begin to understand the extreme sensitivities involved in the Tecnica project.  Assistance must not replace Nicaraguans;  it must stress training local people to do the local technical chores.  It must seek to avoid dependencies.  It should avoid systems that don’t have manual backups or are vulnerable to the trade embargo.
Monday, 13 May 85, 10 AM

This morning the various agencies came to pick up the volunteers.  Alas, no Telcor!  A few phone calls and a promise that they will get us at 1 pm.
I begin to understand the depth of the incredible situation this country is in, (economically at least).  So much of the budget committed to defense, falling exports and falling commodity prices;  a band-aid approach to fixing things, and no hard currency to spare.
The needs are so many – training programs, transition program out of dependence on US manufactured equipment.  Certainly a massive infusion of capital would help.  The contradictions of a mixed economy are massive.
Monday, 13 May 85, 1:00 PM

Well, things aren’t going that smoothly anymore.  Telcor is supposed to get us this afternoon, but my work on the billing systems assessment hasn’t been fully arranged yet.  So this afternoon, if it works out, I’ll work with the Telex people.
7:30 PM

My heart shivers with the depth of the problems at the telephone company as well as with pride at the possibility we may be able to help out in some small way.
I look out at the peaceful street and, in my mind’s eye, I see the horror as US troops, or US sponsored Honduran troops, or contras, come down the street bringing bloodshed and destruction.

Some of the technical details of what I saw I won’t write down in this notebook because the danger of this being seized and xeroxed by US customs upon my return, as has happened in recent days.  There is no need to give the exact details of some of Nicaragua’s technical problems to the US authorities.
As we entered Telcor, passed the armed guard, leaving passports, getting handwritten passes to visit highly restricted areas, my fears of our inadequacy, my sense of our immense responsibility was tremendous.

Besides the Telcor work, it looks like Charlie has lined up some work at the UCA University.  Spain has donated a computer – a Data General Nova machine.  But it has rested unused because the power supply need is incompatible with the local supply.  Charlie thinks he can rewire it, get it running.  He wants me to write a FORTRAN program to test it out.
13 May 85 9:30 pm

We had a meeting of the group tonight and it looks like things are generally going well for people at the various mininstries. Alas my billing computer job seems to have fallen through. But if it can’t be revived, I’m still confident that I’ll be doing productive work at Telcor or elsewhere. A lot of people are doing “Dbase” work which I can help out on as well.
I exchanged some US $ today. The rate is 80 to 1. It was 10 to 1 when I was here last (then the black market was 25 to 1; now the black market is 600 to 1) The economy is in absolutely dire straights!
14 May 85 Tuesday 7:30pm

No water today. This area of the city doesn’t get water on Tuesdays and Fridays from 6 AM to 9PM due to rationing.
No bread on the table since our arrival due to the unavailability of wheat. We are eating quite well, however – eggs, rice, beans, cooked vegetables and some chicken. Also coffee, milk and Coca-Cola. The local beer is quite good.
The weather has been hot and extremely muggy. Without air-conditioning, I realize how soft I am. But after a few days, I’m getting used to it.
A discussion this morning with Don Francisco, the retired man who is in charge of the little boarding home where we 15 are staying. He worked 30 years in social security system, now retired and very supportive of the Revolution, concerned about the shortages and high prices due to the war, but recognizing their inevitability. He wonders how Reagan can be “so old and yet so strong and stubborn. He doesn’t think the war will end soon.

5:30 pm

Along day at Telcor working on the Telex switch problem with Les and Charlie. We think we’re near the solution.  If absolutely sure tomorrow we’ll return at midnight (when telex traffic is minimal) and make the changes.
Hector is our main contact in the Telex department. Intelligent and friendly. We had lunch in the workers’ cafeteria and chatted about many things, mostly political. Working at an extremely important task, eating in the worker’s cafeteria is an experience far better than touristic ramblings to understand this country and its revolution.

I try not to think about how good I feel about the work we’re doing. Just thinking about it, just allowing myself to feel the pride, is distracting from the task at hand. I shudder slightly when I think that we may in fact solve a major telecommunications problem in this country: the frequent outages of the telex network. What a contribution that would be!
Still, every time we stick our hands into the machine, on line handling live traffic, I have a brief hesitation out of fear we could cause worse damage. But the people I’m working with are competent, so the fear is only momentary.
Lunch in the Telcor workers’ cafeteria was fine. For 12 Cordobas (a few cents) we had meat, rice, noodles and juice….and a long political talk with Hector about the political and economic situation, as well as his personal situation.
Minimum Telcor salary is 4500 Cordobas per month. Maximum is 29,500. His rent is 250 Cordobas per month.
14 May 85, Tuesday 7:00 pm

Notes from the evening meeting with Valpi Fitzgerald (Irish advisor on economy to the Presidency of Nicaragua) here since 1979:

Objective of the embargo is to cut off Nicaragua from the west. Embargo says Nicaragua presents an “extraordinary and unusual menace to the security of the United States”
Steps of Reagan’s pressure:

1980 – Cut off aid

1981, no credits for oil or wheat, blocking World Bank loans, suspension of sugar quota, cutting off of trade.

Contras have ground to air missiles. Nicaraguans have planned to the embargo. Trade in 1985 WOULD HAVE been:  Exports $50 million – meat, lobsters, bananas. Meat and lobsters to Canada. Bananas to Europe.  Imports would have been:

Exports $50 million: meat and lobsters to Canada, bananas to Europe

Imports $100 million: spare parts for textile machines, hospital supplies, petroleum, parts for buses and cars.

The embargo hits the private sector much worse than the public sector, which gets machines from eastern bloc nations. The Conservative Party opposes the embargo.
Reasons why the embargo is illegal:

  • one-year notice was not given
  • violates GATT
  • US Senate didn’t vote on it

The multinationals are not happy about the embargo. Shell, IBM, etc. IBM Mexico will continue to supply Nicaragua. This shows the transitional nature of capital. The major problem for Nicaragua from the embargo is one-of-a-kind spare parts (for industry).
Response of Nicaragua to the embargo:

  • Innovators to produce spare parts
  • Drive to increase food and agricultural production

Future steps US might take:

  • Freeze Nicaraguan funds (none really, and would cause problems for the Contras)
  • Travel restrictions
  • Deny Nicaragua use of US banking facilities worldwide

US technology is dominant in tropical agricultural equipment (e.g. cotton combine)

The first line of defense of Nicaragua is the US solidarity movement.

Price controls are still on, but prices have been adjusted. Only one-half the country is wage earners. Others are peasants, owners, professionals or merchants.  Wages are adjusted with prices.

Move to the cities has been strong over five years. New drive is on to raise town and field wages.
Wednesday May 15, 1985  7:00 AM

Some notes on the work we’ve been doing over the last two days. The problem involves the Fredericks-Plantronics Telex switch. Telex is an old method for sending typed messages over a wired network. The switch here is a $250,000 machine for switching telex traffic from the originator’s line to the intended destination line. The machine is in pretty good shape, maybe 3 or 4 years old, but has a problem in the automatic switching between the dual processors.  Dual processors are a common technique to increase reliability. If there is a problem in one processor, the other should automatically take over. This however is not happening in the Telcor telex machine.

Yesterday we checked it out looking at the internal wiring, looking at schematics, and discussing things with Hector and the other Telcor worker with us.
We seem to be narrowing down on the probable cause of the problem. We think it is due to a miss-cabling that occurred in the past when cables were disconnected then reconnected following a swapping of printed circuit boards. Side A should monitor the state of Side B and Side B should monitor the state of Side A. Instead  A is monitoring A, and B is monitoring B. Thus communication between the two sides is cut off. If Side A fails, Side B does not know and can’t take action (i.e to assume the load of all the traffic). We need to swap the cables so that each side monitors the other.  I’ve seen this configuration commonly in AT&T equipment as standard practice.
My own role has been both technical assistance and language translation. Les and Charlie are competent hardware engineers, and I begin to feel that we just might pull off this repair job successfully! That would be great!
We are proceeding very cautiously however, wanting to avoid at all costs causing further problems. If we are convinced that we understand exactly what is wrong and what the correct cabling should be, we’ll come in a midnight tonight and fix it. We will have to shut power to the telex system, interrupting all telex calls while we do the repair. From midnight to 4 AM is when telex traffic is normally at its minimum, so the least amount of interference should occur.
7:00 PM

A crazy day.  In the morning Les, Charlie and I went back to the Telcor office where the Plantronics Telex switch was located.  We continued pouring thru schematics and taking ohmmeter continuity checks, firming up our theory on just how the interconnect cables were wrongly placed, and how they should be instead.  We presented our results formally to Hector and the other Nicaraguan worker (whose name I have not caught) along with Dionisio.  I did the translation.

Dionisio is the 26-year old head of all of Nicaragua’s telex!  Literally 10 minutes after our formal presentation of our theory of the problem and how to correct it, Charlie found the wiring diagram!!!  Embarrassingly we discovered that our theory was wrong!!!  We were correct in saying the cabling was wrong but we were incorrect in the way to correct it!!!
I had the embarrassing task of explaining to the Nicaraguans why our theory had to be revised.

We looked again at the schematics and convinced ourselves that the wiring diagram was correct.  (I had expressed reservations about the original theory’s fundamental assumption.  That assumption was that the names of electronic signals did not change from side A to B of the system.  I suggested that the suffixes A & B indicated not different signals, but rather the same signal in the 2 different parts – A & B – of the switch – I was right!)
Our methodology disturbs me.  Here we are 3 experienced engineers.  We enter into a problem.  Instead of surveying all the documentation, we plunged headlong and immediately began to develop theories.  We should have studied the entire situation first.
At least no damage was done.
There was one moment of tension.  We ran diagnostics on one side.  When we were done, Hector booted the system erroneously, and it crashed.  Immediately he knew what he had done and re-started it correctly.  All calls on-line during that period were not billed.  No great tragedy, just some revenue lost.
Our plan at this point is to return tomorrow night, when telex traffic is low.  We’ll then shut the machine off, change the cables, then restart.  I pray there will be no hitch.
Around 4 pm Tom V. brought me to the other Telcor building.  We met with Francisco Cuadro and others of the Planning Department.  They want to do traffic analysis and other calculations on their TRS-80 or HP 85 computer.  It’s a long range project.  I could at least help get it started.  But there’s a lot of wrangling going on by Tecnica administrators about my job.  It’s mostly protocol questions and questions of commitments to various departments within Telcor.  Hopefully it will get resolved tomorrow when Barbara (Technical Administrator of Tecnica) speaks to the head of the Technical Department of Telcor.  My own attitude is that I’m only here for 9 work days and want them to be as productive as possible.  So far have been very productive!
Tomorrow, demonstration by US residents in Nicaragua in front of US Embassy!  Every Thursday at 7:30 AM – 8 AM, the Americans living in Nicaragua demonstrate (“CUSCLIN” = Committee of US Citizens Living in Nicaragua).
15 May 85  Evening

Presentation of Orlando Tardencia, candidate for presidency of secondary school students in Managua, representative of FSLN in the National Assembly.
This is the fellow who embarrassed the US in El Salvador a while back after a confession under torture in El Salvador (that he was a Nicaraguan fighting in El Salvador) that he recanted in Washington DC at a press conference that embarrassed the Reagan Administration.

– His “vacation” in the US.

– Came from a poor family – 11 brothers in a house 15 feet x 15 feet.  Became a guerilla at age 13 in 1976.  Saw the Nicaraguan victory at age 17.  Left voluntarily to El Salvador, voluntarily, to aid the Salvadoran struggle.  Proud of Nicaragua – only 15 days after the revolution, the FSLN started the literacy campaign.

March 1980 – went alone to El Salvador by foot and joined the guerrillas.  Was in armed struggle for 1 year.  Was captured in battle.  Tortured by a long time.  Nature of the torture:

– slept naked on earth floor.                                                                                                                                                           – beaten on bottom of feet.                                                                                                                                                                                   – electric shock of hands, feet.  Dry, electric shock on tongue, testicles, wire on with stones.            Hung by thumbs with 5 pounds of stone tied to his testicles.

Put wire into his penis.  Attached it to electric shock.  Hung upside down and repeated the same torture.  Pushed head into pile of excrement.  Five months of diverse continuous torture.  Said nothing.  Then needles under his fingernails, introducing electric shock to nose, head, face, ears.

At the seventh month he was taken to a small room.  Took off blindfold that had been on for 7 months.  Shown girl of 14 years.  Asked him if revolutionaries “fought for life”.  Told him if he didn’t talk they would kill her.
Asked:  where camps were, where arms came from, who were leaders, and the road by which arms came from Nicaragua to El Salvador? How many Cubans, Libyans, Soviets, Ethiopians, Palestinians were there?

Little girl said to him:  “Don’t talk, you son of a bitch.”  They raped her in front of him.  Put electric probes into her vagina and started electric shock.  They put a rat into her vagina.  This killed her.

Took him to another woman who was pregnant.  Beat her on stomach until she died.  Took him to watch a man get his testicles cut off and forced to eat them.  The man bled to death.
Put in isolation for another 7 months.  Began to fantasize his friends in the walls and mice.

After 8 months of torture and 7 months of isolation, the process of recruitment into the CIA began.

They began talking to him for 6 hours.  They repeated the tortures, each just one time.  Returned him to his cell.  Next day at 6 AM brought his excellent meal – fried chicken, coffee;  at 10 AM they brought him Marlboro cigarettes.  Then gently took him out from cell; treated kindly, taken to a very nice room to meet a man who said:  “You have 2 options – live or die.”

“You must abandon your posture and tell the world who sent you here and how the Cubans are here.  You must tell the world how the government sent you here.”
He agreed to cooperate.

“We want you to talk to a specialist and then to the Congress of the United States.”  Shown a list of questions.  Told he will first talk to a specialist.  The specialist introduced himself as an official of the US Army.  Taken to a nice cell, with good meal, soap & towel, cigarettes.

Next day at 8 AM – taken on a trip.  Had a US visa in 24 hours.  Taken to US along with 2 Salvadoran Intelligence agents.  Welcomed coldly by 10 members of CIA.  Handcuffed.  Flew from Miami to Washington.  Taken to a CIA security house for 5 days.  Instructed for 5 days how to speak.  Offered political asylum.  Given $200,000, 2 cars; offered a choice of house.  Brought 3 suitcases of clothing, Christian Dior, etc.  6 pairs of shoes.  Told that they wanted him to feel calm.  Asked what kind of woman he wanted – what race – what measurements?  Brought him 4 women who acted aggressively.  Shown pornographic films.  Cameras were around.

He said no thanks.
Given lie detector test.  He defeated the test.  Told he would talk to press, Congress and then go on a trip to Europe.

Dean Fischer arrived.  Embraced him with a hug.  Next day taken to Department of State for the Press Conference.

To the journalists he told the truth – about the torture, etc.  CIA was furious, as well as Dean Fischer.

He denounced US intervention in El Salvador.  After speaking for 25 minutes, they stopped the press conference.  Two guards forcibly took him out.  Taken back to CIA security base.  Tortured for 9 hours.  Dean Fischer kicked him.  Told he was KGB.  At 3 AM, because of international pressure, he was delivered to the Nicaraguan Embassy.  Taken to Mexico.  In 2 months he returned to Nicaragua.

On Nicaraguan Youth:  It is highly politicized.  Two clear kinds of thought:

  • Those who want to defend the country
  • And those who don’t.

Thurs. 16 May 85  5:00 PM

A long day, and not yet over.  At 7:30 Charlie, Les, and Tom V. and I drove to the weekly demonstration at the US Embassy.  It was fine.  Perhaps 100 – 125 persons were there, mostly American and Canadians.  After a brief picket line with signs opposing US intervention, we held a rally.  I gave an impromptu speech on behalf of Tecnica.  It felt just wonderful to be there, in my Chicago Cubs baseball cap and thick New York accent speaking into the microphone in front of the embassy of my beloved country with such rotten leadership.  A moment of great pride in the American spirit shared with 100 of my compatriots!
Lots of press was there, including CIA-hack Georgie Ann Geyer.  I was interviewed by the New Orleans Picayune Times and the Orlando (Florida) Times.
Afterwards we drove to the downtown Telcor to look at other Telex problems with the “Tax 500” and the “EXT 5…”  Telex switches, (i.e. not the Plantronics).  There is lots of trouble.  We looked also into the repair lab and spoke with several technical people there.

Lunch in the main workers cafeteria:  rice, chicken and some vegetables.
There were 3 system crashes while we were there!  Both machines run simplex, meaning there is no automatic change to another processor in case of trouble.  To restart the machines they must use an ancient paper tape reader and they only have one paper tape!  (No backup!)
We took a list of important repair parts and manuals they need.  We left early because we’ll go back at 9:30 pm tonight to do the re-cabling on the Plantronics Telex.  This is really a moment of truth that can do considerable good (or great damage if we fuck up!)  My heart is racing with anxiety and hope!
Friday   17 May 85  6:00 AM

Can’t sleep.  Must write some of this down.  It’s now 6 AM and we went to bed just 2 hours ago!

I can say with certainty that yesterday was one of the most intense days of my life.  The depth of feelings running through my body – I don’t remember quite this spectrum ever before.

The procedure we had hoped to go smoothly didn’t go smoothly at all! Our Nicaraguan counterparts, Hector and two others, came to get us at 9:45PM last night.  We went directly to the Telex switch. We briefly discussed our plan saying exactly what we would do and what our contingencies were if something went wrong.
First we shut down the switch, making a drastic reduction in Nicaragua’s telecommunications traffic. We then made the planned cable change, following the cable diagram of the switch manufacturer.

We then powered up!
Trouble began!
A circuit breaker – one of six – would not take – and would shut down the entire system!  As my heart raced, and I rapidly translated back and forth from English to Spanish/Spanish to English.  We determined that there was an electrical power problem in the circuit breaker or fan, independent of the telex switch problem we worked on.  This process took about 5 minutes.
At this point I suggested that since we were having difficulties at a critical point, we should call Octavio – a Chilean working with TecNICA who could translate much better than I.

Before he could be called, we tried the Telex switch – NO IMPROVEMENT!  STILL THE SAME PROBLEM!  At this point I demanded that Octavio be called.  The pressure I was feeling – and the knowledge that I was missing subtle points in the Spanish – particularly verb tenses in the explaining of the previous history of problems with the switch did not help!.
Before Octavio came, we put the key printed circuit board out on an extender so as to take oscilloscope readings.  Many problems setting up the equipment.  Poor electrical grounds…  We blew a fuse on the board.  Octavio arrived.  By now it was 1:00 AM or so.  I began to think that we should perhaps not go any further, concede that our theories on the switch were wrong, and avoid any potential further problems.

Les and Charlie, particularly Charlie, pushed ahead.  They were convinced we could find the problem.

Since at 2:00 AM there isn’t much traffic to interrupt, we plowed on.  Using the scope and schematics, we finally came up with a 3rd configuration of the cables.  This configuration would contradict both the schematic drawings and our original theory!
Again we shut the switch down and changed cables.  We powered up the machine, loaded the program – and despair turned into joy!  At 3:00 AM we had the fucking machine working just beautifully!!!

And there we were – 5 North Americans and 5 Nicaraguans – all of us electronics technicians – joyously celebrating our success at 3:30 AM!!!
We wrapped things up after a few quick tests and bid farewell.  After a shower and a round of (Cuban) rum and toasted to “Nicaragua Libre” – we crashed.
Now that I’ve written this, perhaps I can sleep some more.
Matagalpa, Saturday, 18 May 85, 6:30 AM

A more relaxed pace now.

Couldn’t really sleep much after yesterday’s adventures, but it also was the beginning of our 3-day weekend tour into the countryside.
We left in a small bus, about 20 of us, volunteers and Tecnica staff.  We left Managua about 10 AM and drove leisurely towards Matagalpa.
We stopped at a famous Nicaraguan historical site – where Andres Castro and his men defeated a North American military group moving on to Managua in the year 1856.  There is a small museum there.

We wandered the streets of Matagalpa for a few hours.  It is a town of 65,000 people in the mountains.  Coffee coming in from the mountains is dried in Matagalpa and shipped out.
We spent the night in a nice privately owned mountain retreat. The lack of the revolutionary posters and the absence of other indications of Sandinista fervor were quite noticeable.
18 May 85 8:30 AM

Notes from the meeting with Daniel Nunez, head of the Union of Small and Medium Agricultural Producers,  and Francisco Javier of the same organization.
We are basically a Christian people, more “Christian” than “Catholic”. Prior to the Revolution there was little contact between private agricultural producers and North Americans (purchasers and consumers) because Somoza did all the business himself.
There is a contraction he said: Americans have conquered space but they have so little understanding of social reality.
Here then is some of our social reality:

  • At the time of slavery, after carrying sacks of gold on their backs, it was easiest to remove the sacks of gold by decapitation. Our only “crime” has been to defend ourselves when attacked.
  • We distinguish between the people of the United States and the politics of the US government. People are in general good. Governments often don’t represent the interests of all their people.
  • In the name of Christianity and anti-Communism, Reagan has declared Christianity of action. The high hierarchy of the Church is friends of the rich. The Church as an institution has abandoned the people.
  • The most oppressed part of Nicaraguan society was the agricultural workers.  Prior to the Revolution, it was the US Embassy, in particular AID, that organized the agricultural producers.
  • One year after the revolution, the government organized the UNAP (Union of Agricultural Producers) to offset the traditional exploitation of small and medium agricultural producers by business middlemen.
  • UNAP is now 4 years old.
  • The government has the monopoly on foreign trade. It buys all products for export.
  • Nicaragua has ample natural resources and WILL overcome underdevelopment
  • There is a system of goals (quotas) for agricultural production. They are incentives for production, but there are no sanctions for not meeting goals.
  • COSEP has been threatening to stop production. But “the dog that barks does not bite.”
  • Property in Nicaragua (productive land): 20% state owned, 80% private enterprise.
  • Of the private holdings: 20% large, 50% small and medium, 10% coops, Sandinista coops.
  • Irrigation is absolutely KEY to production.
  • US people are KEY to stopping Reagan’s war. We would already be fighting in the mountains if it hadn’t been for the opposition of US people to Reagan’s policies. It is extremely important for US citizens to visit Nicaragua.
  • In Nicaragua, philosophy begins in the stomach.

Sunday 19 May 85 7:30 AM

Yesterday was a long day with considerable unplanned excitement. In brief, we got caught very close to a battle with the Contras. By one report they were as close as a mile away. We could hear the mortar fire!

We left Matagalpa early and headed north, passing through Jinotega and then still further north on progressively worse dirt roads.
We visited an agricultural collective – coffee, basic grains and cattle raising, where they explained the daily life and organization – work, defense against contras, education of children and adults, etc.

We also say the coffee drying center which had been attacked by contras who destroyed the machinery, vehicles and burned the child care center.
Further north we visited a resettlement camp, a place where refugees from the war gather with reasonably adequate housing and farming going on. We were warmly welcomed. This was the most defense-oriented place of our visit.
The day’s itinerary was:

  1. UPE “La Colonia” (UPE = State Farm)
  2. Cooperativa Ernesto Acuna (Farm co-op)
  3. Escamray: “Cooperativa Jose Benito Escombar Heros y Maritiros de Ayulpar”, a “Sandinista Self-Defense Cooperative”, mostly coffee growers.

At the last place we saw the trenches of the militia, kids and adults with rifles. We spent an hour or so in the town, talking informally to the people. Some were Miskquito Indians, resettled away from more dangerous areas. The sense of identification with the government and the nation struck us as very strong. The ideological level of development of these peasants is higher than that of most Americans.
We were about to depart when a report came of fighting nearby. The concern was that some Contras running away might wind up on the dirt road that our bus was to take.
A militia patrol was sent out to investigate. We were told to be ready to spend the night in the village. Militia defense units were sent out around the perimeter. We waited about an hour while darkness approached.

The patrol returned and we were told that we could take off. With militia soldiers in front and behind our convoy of 2 small buses, we took off slowly on the dirt road. One tire had already gone flat and the concern that another flat would put us in a bad situation. After a while the militia jeep in front slowed and the militia dismounted, walking slowly on foot leading our convoy.
We returned to the previous town where we had stopped and learned that they had heard shots after we left and thought that our bus had been ambushed. They had mobilized a militia patrol and sent them out to rescue us!
The tension dissipated among jokes and laughter. We then set out on safe terrain for a 2-3 drive back to Matagalpa. We arrived around 11 PM, dead tired from the long day and the tension. We came to an Agricultural Mechanization School, found bunks and crashed. The mosquitoes were horrid, but a heavy dose of insect repellent made it possible to sleep.
1:15 PM

The Agricultural Mechanization School at Sebaco is quite an interesting place. Basically it is where Americans teach Nicaraguans how to drive Soviet tractors!
We met the vice-director, a guy from Florida named Fred Royce. He explained how the school was one of several set up 4 years ago by the Ministry of Agriculture. Now in addition to teaching tractor driving, they teach machining, gardening and other course associated with mechanized agriculture.

They have set up a machinist shop and thus have become a major center of repair and production of spare parts in Nicaragua.
We drove back to Managua for a free afternoon. Some folks went to the beach, but I decided to catch up on sleep. This is the first “free time” I’ve had since we’ve arrived.

On the way back into town we passed the house of “Witness for Peace”, a church-based group of
Americans who presence in the northern villages is intended to stop US-backed Contra attacks.

Monday 20 May 85    7:00 AM

About to begin the second week of work!  Last night we went to a Catholic Mass at the “Church of the Angels”.  This was liberation theology at its most eloquent.  The sermon was a fiery revolutionary speech on behalf of the poor and against exploitation.
About 1/3 of the audience were “Internationalistas”, North Americans and Europeans.  A considerable number of “Witness for Peace” activists as well as work brigades of various sorts.

The mass consisted of guitar and drum playing, along with the more traditional Catholic rituals.  At one point the congregation joined hands and sang “We shall overcome”.  Then there was the traditional taking of communion – the wine and the water.
6:30 PM

A long and somewhat inconclusive day at Telcor.  A good deal of it was spent at the “planning department”, discussing various projects of theirs.  One project, in particular, is to input paper tape containing telephone trunk usage data into a TRS–80 Radio Shack computer in order to do traffic analysis.  Also discussed numerous other projects and plans of Telcor to expand improve telephone trunks.
Tuesday   21 May 85       6:00 PM

Another long day at Telcor, but some joyful success.  Bob Greene and I managed to fix the TRS-80 computer that had been broken for two months.  Another great success.  It even got a smile from the face of Daniel Mesa, the head of the billing computation department of Telcor.  He is a Lieutenant in the Sandinista Army and has a very cold demeanor, wears his army uniform with a sidearm.  Now they are in place to do data base inventory work.
We’re beginning to get quite a reputation at Telcor! The word is getting around.

Still the next problem we’re looking at is a mess.  The TAX-500 Telex machine – 15 years old, bad hardware, bad software.  We’ll need a miracle to make big improvements on that system. Only 3 days of work left.
21 May 85

Remarks of Silvia McKuan from Nicaraguan Committee of Friendship with Peoples of the World, FSLN Member.

Contras are the “dogs of war”

Regarding El Salvador, we understand and sympathize with the DR forces in El Salvador. We understand that Duarte is an assassin like Somoza. We can only give our moral support to El Salvador. We give no arms to them.
Nicaraguan statistics since the revolution:  Illiteracy was 80%, now 12%. Not one case of polio since the Revolution. It is no longer possible to have adult education in the war zones. 1,500 Cuban teachers came. Now they are gone.
This is a Christian country, mostly Catholic, but also Protestant. The Church hierarchy represents only a small part of the Church. The Revolutionary Church is very strong.
Wednesday, 21 May 85, 5:00PM

Time slipping by. We are to leave Nicaragua in 2 ½ days.

A day of various tasks at Telcor. We met with Daniel Mesa of the Computing/Accounting Department and did some further work on the TAX 500 Telex switch. Also some general translation work with Tom V at the Telcor planning department.
Daniel Mesa is the tough-looking Army Lieutenant in charge of the Billing Department. After fixing his TRS-80 computer we seemed to have gained a little credibility with him. Also the word finally came down that we were to do a survey recommendation for the new billing system computer.
We spoke for an hour pulling out bit by bit information on their current billing system. He had a certain reluctance to give information — a lot of the details he didn’t know off hand – and I had a certain reluctance asking. I said directly that any documentation that I had on me was in danger of being seized by US Customs. He seemed to appreciate that remark. Finally we agreed that I would submit a list of written questions to the Telcor Planning Department concerning the current billing system. All I can do is pass on the information to another volunteer coming next month who presumably knows quite a lot about the IBM system.  They are considering my remarks to Daniel about weaning them away from IBM and onto Japanese or Spanish computers (for reasons of better political relations with Japan and Spain than with the USA) also seemed to win his respect.
Then he wanted to talk politics.  He started it.  Could I refuse?  No!  How the US People would respond to an invasion of Nicaragua, he asked.  What did I think about Nicaragua and Reagan’s politics?  It was a lively discussion.
Then I helped out back at the TAX 500 Telex switch where Les & Charlie are plugging away.  We’ll go in at 10 PM tonight, shut the system down and try to find the computer memory problem (one of many, many problems) on the switch.  Despite only 2 ½ days left, many deeds cry out to be done!
Thursday     23/5/85      1:50 PM

Sitting in the Telcor Post Office waiting till 2 PM when (I hope) the office opens where you get the pass to get into the interior of the building.

Last night we worked from 10 PM to 12:30 AM with no results to speak of on the TAX 500 Telex.

This morning Tom and I first went to the regular Thursday demonstration in front of the US Embassy.  Again I spoke on behalf of Tecnica.  This time my speech was better prepared!
Then we went to a couple of Telcor offices to make some arrangements for work back in the States.  I helped write the legal letter authorizing Tecnica to take possession of Telcor Computer equipment bought in the USA but seized by US customs before shipment.  We also went to the repair lab, where the Telcor people were extremely appreciative and thankful for our work.

Charlie and Les presumably went to continue on the TAX 500 and I will join them if ever the office here opens up.

Lunch at a nice vegetarian place with an American woman who has been working at a research institute here for 8 months.  Then a terrific ice cream cone (coffee, of course) at a local hideaway.
6:00 PM

The office never opened, but I was able to talk to the soldier guarding the entrance to the offices with no problem.  By now the 4 of us are well-known in the Nicaraguan Telephone Company!  Les and Charlie had worked out a slow and tedious procedure for duplicating paper tapes, a serious need at Telcor.  We’ll go in to work again tonight at 9 PM hopefully to make a copy of the master tape.
We’ve also begun to seriously unload the supplies – books, transistors, floppy disks and integrated circuits that we have brought with us.  It is clear that every little thing we’ve brought is highly appreciated, often extremely important and likely to be put to use.
Friday     24/5/85     7:30 PM

A long night and a long final day.
We worked until 1 AM last night but successfully copied some important paper tapes.

Up early this morning.  First to Daniel Mesa, Department of Billing, where Bob and I tried to review his software with him.  But it was all screwed up, messed up floppy disks.  A promise to try to round up some in the States.
Then off to a long meeting, all four of us with Anastacio Gonzalez, the Technical Head of Telcor.  For 2 hours I translated back and forth between English and Spanish.  That was a task! As diplomacy was at its highest.
Lunch for the four of us with Dionisio at a fine, but disgustingly expensive restaurant.

Then off with Tom on missions to various Telcor offices and the Earth Station (Antenna).  Met some very interesting and always appreciative folks.  Now I’m exhausted.  Tasks all done, with incredible rapidity and efficiency in these last few days.  Lots of Tecnica/Telcor plans for the future.  Lots of tasks back in the US.

People are now exchanging addresses and packing for the trip home.  There’s a farewell party tonight, but I fear one beer and I will collapse.  Better pack first.
It was a fine trip.  Tremendous satisfaction in my technical work and great pride as well.  The sentiment is not a personal one only;  it is a social pride in people – how so much can be overcome.  The pride too is in the tremendous political task we have done – building internationalist solidarity in its truest form.

I confess that, with physical fatigue, the mind is at peace as rarely ever before…


Posted 8th May 2013 by Andy Berman