LT: That is pretty insensitive!
RDO: The Miskitos had their own system of land tenure and it was just being messed up by the Sandinistas. That’s why I was invited down by Roberto Vargas, since I had done similar work around Indigenous land tenure in New Mexico. By the time I got there, in 1981, the Sandinistas were beginning to get it, but a few Miskito leaders and their followers had already decided on war.
The Sandinistas had really over reacted when Reagan took office in January 1981. Carter was really bad, cutting off food aid to Nicaragua, but Reagan had made it his campaign platform to oust the Sandinistas. Richard Perle and many of the other Republican players met in Santa Fe, New Mexico to draft the Santa Fe paper on how they were going to oust the Sandinistas within a year. That paper was leaked and the Sandinistas got a hold of it.
In February 1981, the Sandinistas arrested the Miskito leadership. Then there was a shoot-out in one of the villages at a graduation ceremony for one of the Miskito literacy program. Sandinista police went into a Moravian church, where the ceremony was being held, to arrest a leader. Two drunken Sandinista soldiers heard the ruckus and began shooting. When the dust settled, four Sandinista police and four Miskito civilians were dead. By the time I got to the northeast in May 1981, there was really a lot of tension.
LT: Did you try to engage the Sandinistas on Indigenous issues after that?
RDO: We engaged. I always kicked myself for not going earlier. I felt if I had been down there a year before, I could have done much more. But I never have felt comfortable chasing revolutions, I thought it was like following fire trucks. It took a lot of persuasion to get me there. Once the Sandinistas were under attack, they had to defend themselves. They learned in the process and in dialog with Miskito leaders who had stayed, some amazing young leaders like Dr. Mirna Cunningham, a Miskito and a surgeon who was appointed governor of the Miskito region, and many others.
LT: I think a lot of people with anti-authoritarian politics in the U.S. were suspicious that the Miskito situation was a repeat of the Kronstadt situation in revolutionary Russia; proof that state-based socialism would end in tyranny.
RDO: The situation was much more complex than that. People who came to that conclusion were believing the propaganda here, it was everywhere. There was a great propaganda machine, The Office of Public Diplomacy, headed by Otto Reich who was until recently was Bush’s point person on Latin American affairs.
LT: Moving up to today’s movements--most of us who participate in them from here in the United States are always struggling to link international solidarity work with meaningful local work. We rarely succeed. Do you have any thoughts on how to get better at this?
RDO: I certainly thought that many of our solidarity movements in the 1970s suffered from that. After the breakdown of much of our efforts in the sixties, international solidarity became the focus for many. We were organizing people in their own communities to act in solidarity with people all over the world, but not necessarily relating it to what was going on in their own lives. So you bring in students, but the work isn’t really affecting much in the local community. I think now it is just the opposite. The younger generation of activists are amazingly interested in grassroots work. But I think they don’t connect up enough the larger picture. There seems to be a fear of bringing the two together. That has changed a bit with the war in Iraq, but it seems to remain compartmentalized.
LT: The anti-war movement lost a great opportunity to link the massive cuts in social spending, like housing, to the bigger picture, no?
RDO: Yes, In some way it is human nature. Those of us who have a foot in both worlds have an important role to play to make the connections. This generation is a little more cautious about spreading itself too thin, much more than we were in the 1960s.
LT: You have worked for years within the United Nations to raise the issues of indigenous people. A lot of people might be really cynical about the potential to work there to make any meaningful change. Have gains ever really been made there?
RDO: Yes. Most people in the United States aren’t aware of any part of the United Nations except for the Security Council which is completely US dominated. You have to have nuclear weapons to sit on that council. The rest of the UN does deal with social and economic and cultural issues, human rights. Ever since the UN came to exist, there had been the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War invasion, when the US rode in and announced, “Now its ours.” The first UN meeting I attended after the invasion of Iraq in 1991 was like going into a room filled with rape victims.
But, two things happened during the 1990s that broke the deadness of the UN. One was the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, which was remarkable. 200,000 women mostly from Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America were there. The other was the conference on Racism in Durban in 2001. That conference ended on Sunday September 8th, then September 11th happened.
LT: Were you traveling back to the US when September 11th hit?
RDO: I arrived home the morning of September 11th, about 1am, I had jet lag, I couldn’t sleep. I watched the whole thing on television and said there goes everything we gained at that conference. It was a remarkable conference, people from all over the world together. It was so successful the US walked out. The Bush administration sent two jerks, white guys, who just sat at their desks and talked, didn’t listen! But the UN, even the Security Council, became bold enough that it refused to endorse the invasion of Iraq.
Now the US is trying to get rid of the UN Commission on Human Rights , and all of the parts of the UN in which civil society can participate and lobby and have an effect. It remains to be seen how much they will destroy in the process.
LT: But is it still contested space?
RDO: It is, and a lot is at stake for the international indigenous movement. The American Indian Movement formed the International Indian Treaty Council in 1974 and decided, right after Wounded Knee, to take US-Indian treaties to the United Nations. We built machinery within the UN that makes a difference in relation to the governments. There are times when the US State Department has to give in to some victories there. I always wanted to see more African Americans and immigrants involved. There was no grassroots US representation in the UN process, except for Native Americans, until Durban. Now there is working group on people of African descent.
LT: Today, what keeps you inspired instead of retired?
RDO: This isn’t a world I could live in without going mad unless I had a culture within a culture, world within a world to function in. Being inside a movement, no matter how fractious, is necessary. Sometimes I have an image of a castle with a moat around it. The trick is to get people out into the plains, then to storm the castle. That was a beautiful thing about the 1960s, it allowed us to create a new space. Even today, you can go anywhere in the world and find communities of activists, in the jungles of the Amazon, indigenous villages. People have always struggled but it wasn’t always that you could be inside a network like that.
That is what keeps me going, not being alone and isolated. I remember in the 1960s when all of the terrible things started to happen like COINTELPRO, the movement became so shut down. Mistrust grew. People were reluctant to let anyone in. New people didn’t know how to join the movement, they were not made to feel welcome. We have to build it to be stronger, so people know there is a refuge. We have to be very kind to each other. We're in it for the long haul. It is life itself.
LT: I’m sure what you described helped sectarianism grow like a cancer.
RDO: Yes, the Communist Party had the same problem in the 1950s. It became very insular. I just feel so lucky, maybe it was moving to San Francisco. I feel lucky that I didn’t become alienated due to the things I talk about in Outlaw Woman, being working-class, unsure of myself, not sure of the movement lingo. But the movement seemed so massive then, always somewhere to go. You don’t have that today, but it is better than it was in the 1980s. You don’t have to travel to remote places anymore to protest, which placed dissent in very elite hands.
LT: If you can say one good thing about the newer Global Justice Movement is that it is trying to move politics far beyond some of the old generation’s faultlines. But it wants to listen to the veterans as well, no?
RDO: When Betita wrote “Where Was the Color in Seattle?” people really responded. There was an openness, a lot of people said let us work together on that.
LT: She wouldn’t have gotten the same reaction in the 1980s!
RDO: Right. I feel very inspired by the younger generation. And it isn’t just because I live in this cocoon here. There are very real pockets of resistance now, and they don’t argue as much as we did in the 1960s. It is more dangerous to do so today.