Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz - feminist, revolutionary, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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Blood on the Border
A Memoir of the Contra War
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
300 pages
ISBN: 0-89608-742-5
Format: cloth; also available in paper



San Francisco Bay Guardian

LIT April 2006

Un-seeing and believing
Writer-activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reflects on American imperialisms past and present

By Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore

For anyone who remembers the 1980s more for its leg warmers and feathered perms than for the consolidation of free-market tyranny, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's latest memoir, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, is a wake-up call. Dunbar-Ortiz combines a scholarly attention to detail and a stunning knowledge of history with decades of radical organizing experience and the memory of an accomplished storyteller. In Blood on the Border, she delivers a gripping firsthand account of the devastation wrought by United States–sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua, urging us to take a closer look at the continuing legacy of US military intervention.

SFBG Early in the book, you say, "Once you become a revolutionary, there is no other possible life, only self-destruction if you try to escape that commitment."

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Most people from the '60s who made that commitment — whether it was in civil rights or in the women's movement or antiwar — none of us are very good for anything else, because it's like opening a window and you see something, and you can't un-see it. You can't un-see the sort of internal structure of the United States: the militarism, the racism, the sexism, the colonialism. You see all those things, you see them being played out still institutionally, and you can't ever un-see that. So, I think for some people, they did kind of try to get out of it, but usually with self-destructive acts: drug abuse or alcohol abuse, or even, in some cases, suicide.

SFBG What about the way some people assimilate into the image of revolution, without the actual politics? Especially as things like the nonprofit industrial complex have developed, where people get drawn into these models of supposed resistance that end up bolstering the status quo.

RDO If you can't organize it with people power, then it's probably not worth doing. But the nonprofit world makes people think they can't do things without money, and so they're writing proposals all the time. And then they're changing, or having to fit what they're going to do within the parameters of the requirements of that NGO.

SFBG It's interesting to see, in Blood on the Border, all the ways you cross lines of identity and when that works for you and when that works against you. I was thinking about your interactions with drug lords in Honduras and how they would immediately assume that you were their ally because they had placed you as this white US citizen. You even had an encounter with Oliver North.

RDO Yes, at a reception in Honduras. He just said outright, "What do you do with the Miskitos?" I actually told him I was a linguist, which wasn't true; I just wanted an apolitical thing. And he said, "I work with them: I train them in underwater sabotage." OK? And he was proud of it. The US media who were down there, they met all these people too. Everyone stayed in the same hotel. The mercenaries stayed there, the CIA stayed there, the drug kingpins of Latin America stayed there, the reporters stayed there. I stayed there a few times. The US military was constantly there because they had war games.

SFBG How did you deal with not being — well, not necessarily not being afraid, but continuing to work nonetheless?

RDO I was scared all the time. I always tell people, you can read this and say, "Oh, here's one of these intrepid women explorers." I'm not that kind of person at all. It was like each time just ... kind of numbing myself, and part of that was drinking, but just sort of going into some kind of neutral state and shutting down the emotions, because I don't think you can do these things, fly on decrepit airplanes and run rapids and be without food and kind of tiptoe through land mines, without being kind of shattered by it.

SFBG You talk about seeing these architects of the contra war, like John Negroponte or Dick Cheney, in similar, or greater, positions of power today, combined with US occupations or incursions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti. Do you think this is just a continuation of that same pattern becoming even worse, or is there something new?

RDO It's an arc. This is all close to Vietnam, when the US was defeated, and we really had a few years there [when] we could have made certain choices, like renouncing imperialist ventures and all. And I think they kind of tied it all up in the impeachment proceedings and then in the resignation of Nixon, kind of creating an "OK, we've resolved that." But nothing really got changed.

SFBG I love it that going to a secret court to authorize surveillance of US citizens was just too much for George W. Bush. Like that was hemming him in.

RDO I read this thing by Jane Smiley on Arianna Huffington's Web site, and she said it's very clear that this is the purpose: to not have any restraints and to be able to spy. Bush said it himself: "I'm not a dictator." Which immediately makes you think, "Maybe he is a dictator." He shouldn't have said that. It's like Nixon saying, "I'm not a crook."

I think that this trajectory that becomes visible really goes back to the founding of the United States — and that's the other part of this book. The Indian wars and the taking of the continent really defined what the United States is — and no one wants to admit this. Iraq is another Indian war. *


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