Nicaragua: Where there's Smoke, there's Fire - page 3

In the U.S., the title 'General,' though worthy of respect, does not command what it used to. The power of the military, along with its size and might, has been pared over the years and, along with it, the intimidating aspect of the General. In Central America, however, generals wield the big stick feared by politicians and citizenry alike. In Nicaragua, there is one man who is referred to simply as the General.

Naturally, it was Kiki Berger who arranged this interview. In his irrepressibly jocular manner, Kiki presented us at the Esteli military base, calling himself Colonel Cigar, and asked the commander there to arrange for a meeting with the General. And it actually happened. The General, you see, is a cigar smoker, and Kiki always ensures that he has something good to smoke.

The General can be found in a ponderous office in the center of the impressive military headquarters in Managua. The office, we learn, formerly served as the bunker command post for the dictator Samosa in his last days, though the General says he has redecorated. Not certain of the etiquette when meeting the General in the former office of the dictator he helped dispose, I attempted to be as unobtrusive as possible, insofar as I was supposed to be interviewing the man. Sitting on the leather couch, we were served excellent Nicaraguan coffee and Fig Newton-like cookies.

General Juaquin Cuadra is not a scary guy He is handsome, neatly groomed, of average height and light build, and speaks softly. He admits that he isn't fond of public speaking, and appears even a bit shy. He comes from a background which seems unlikely to yield the supreme military commander of a country. But do not read anything into that - he is definitely in charge.

The General's family is in the coffee business, and he grew up prosperous and was well-educated, progressing to a Jesuit law school. But even with his social position, there was no escaping the oppression of Samosa. 'All of us who wanted to see change had the doors closed," he says, "and we were induced by the circumstances to throw out Samosa for the good of the country."

It is clear that Cuadra felt there were no other options, and in 1972 he left law school to join the Sandinista movement. It is also clear that, much the same as the diverse Castro forces in Cuba, the Sandinistas were the only alternative to the dictatorship. Cuadra became a guerrilla, and was instrumental in organizing the opposition to Samosa in Managua. In 1979, after the fall of Samosa, he was handed the messy job of organizing the army, and was almost immediately confronted with the war against the Contras. The eventual political end of this war reflected the military outcome, Cuadra explains with a wry smile, "or else I wouldn't be here."

In spite of the fact that he and his peers truly believed the U.S. was preparing to invade Nicaragua, Cuadra holds no ill will for Americans. He encourages interaction with the U.S., and knows that Nicaragua's involvement with its massive neighbor to the north will be imperative for the continued progress of the nation.

"I would like to get the impression to the average American, that in all of Central America, Nicaragua is, other than Costa Rica, the safest place to come for visiting, sightseeing, and investing," he says earnestly This is so, says the General, because of the efforts of his army to prevent groups from rearming after the war, thereby instilling the countryside with a sense of peace. Mostly due to Cuadra's commitment to reshaping the army and stripping it of any political machinations, his institution is one of the most credible with the public. He is proud of these accomplishments, and relishes the list of goals he will tackle while still in office as Commander in Chief (Cuadra is the first man to hold this position with a term limit - his will expire in 2000).

Eventually, the tone of the conversation turns a bit from the serious, the cigars come out, and Cuadra displays the more reflective side of his personality. He is enthusiastic about the importance of the tobacco industry to his small nation, and is proud to smoke Nicaraguan cigars. With boyish enthusiasm, he reveals, "I love to fish, and tranquillity to me is smoking a good cigar on the sea."

"I have smoked cigars with so many different kinds of people," muses Cuadra, "with Fidel, and many others. I've become friends through the passion of cigars." [Note to the State Department - always pack cigars.] - D. Mickelsen

SMOKE - Fall 98

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