Historical Perspective

A The United States and Nicaragua in the 1980s

Hallie’s impassioned letters to Codi about the political situation in Nicaragua reflect a major foreign policy issue of the times. Throughout the 1980s, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua was in the forefront of public debate.

The origins of the controversy go back to 1979 when the Nicaraguan dictator General Anastasio Somoza was overthrown by an insurgency led by Marxist Sandinista guerrillas. Relations between Nicaragua and the U.S., which had supported Somoza, quickly deteriorated. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he forcefully advocated the cause of the Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras. The justification for the policy was to prevent the Sandinistas from promoting communist revolutions throughout Central America. In support of his views, Reagan produced evidence that the Sandinistas were sending arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.

Reagan’s policy ran into stiff opposition from many Democratic lawmakers who feared it would lead to American troops being sent to Nicaragua. In 1984 Congress voted to cut off U.S. aid to the contras. This was in the wake of excesses by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which included the blowing up of Nicaraguan oil depots and the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by Latin American commandos under the direction of CIA agents. The latter actions were declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Congress voted to restore humanitarian aid to the contras in 1985, and in 1986, Congress approved $100 million in military and other aid. The United States also imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua in 1985 and urged international financial institutions not to approve loans to the Sandinista government.

The result of the U.S. measures was a slump in the Nicaraguan economy. In 1988 inflation skyrocketed, and unemployment was 21 percent.

Peace talks between the warring parties began in 1987. In 1989 a peace agreement, endorsed by five Central American countries, was signed. Under the plan, the contras would be disbanded in exchange for free elections in Nicaragua. Those elections were held in 1990, and the Sandinistas were defeated by a coalition of opposition groups led by Violeta de Chamorro, who became president. As a result of the peace agreement and the election, U.S.-Nicaraguan relations were normalized.

During the eight-year civil war, the contras were sometimes accused of atrocities. Hallie refers to these atrocities in her letters to Codi, and it is apparent that Hallie vehemently opposes the U.S. policy of supporting the contras. The incident referred to in one of Hallie’s letters-in which a helicopter piloted by U.S. National Guardsmen is shot down by the Sandinistas, who take one man prisoner-is loosely based on a real incident that occurred in 1986. At the time when U.S. military aid to the contras was banned, a U.S. cargo plane carrying arms supplies to the contras was shot down. The one survivor of the crash, an American citizen, was charged by Nicaragua with terrorism. He was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment but was later released as part of a prisoner exchange agreement. The CIA denied any involvement in the incident, and just as in the novel, the American government claimed that the helicopter pilot was an ex-mercenary and a drugrunner, with no ties to the government.

Hallie, who in the novel is killed by the contras, also has a real life model, a young man named Ben Linder. Linder was a hydroelectric engineer from Portland, Oregon, who traveled to Nicaragua for the same purpose as Hallie, to help the Nicaraguan farmers. He was killed by the contras. When Kingsolver dedicated Animal Dreams to Linder, she was making it clear that her own views on the contras, and U.S. policy in the region, were close to those expressed by Hallie.

B Eco-Feminism

During the 1980s, a new subgenre began to emerge in American literature, and it was sometimes known as eco-feminism. Paul Gray, in his review of Animal Dreams in Time, sketched the basic elements of eco-feminist literature: Women, relying on intuition and one another, mobilize to save the planet, or their immediate neighborhoods, from the ravages-war, pollution, racism, etc.-wrought by white males. This reformation of human nature usually entails the adoption of older, often Native American, ways.

Gray points out that Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) contains most of the elements of the form.

Eco-feminists believe in the sacredness and interconnectedness of all forms of life. They oppose patriarchal attitudes, which they believe lead to exploitation of the earth’s resources without concern for long-term consequences. Many eco-feminists see a link between the way society treats animals and the natural environment and the way it treats women.

Eco-feminist themes are clearly present in Animal Dreams. It is the women of Grace, not the men, who organize to save the town from industrial pollution. (In an amusing scene in which Codi addresses a special meeting of the Stitch and Bitch Club, it is clear that the men are more interested in staying at home and watching the Miss America Pageant on television than in becoming social activists.) The Native American social organization that is presented in such a positive light is matriarchal: “The women are kind of the center of things up here,” Loyd says of the Santa Rosalia Pueblo. Hallie’s concern for the environment is apparent throughout, and Codi, in addition to her emerging environmental awareness, is horrified by cruelty to animals.

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