|Central American University - UCA
Number 371 | Junio 2012
Memories of a scholarship generation
Through the Sandinista revolutionary government
thousands of Nicaraguans received grants in the eighties
to study in the Soviet Union or other East European countries.
How did they live while they were studying so far away?
What do they think of their experiences in retrospect?
What did they learn about perestroika and the final years of European socialism? Below are eight experiences of such youths. Each one is a story of survival.
William Grigsby Vergara
Many young people left Nicaragua in the eighties with grants to study in countries that were part of the Socialist Bloc. The majority of them went to the Soviet Union and East Germany. They saw it as a wonderful if risky opportunity to learn about the socialist system from the inside and to compare it with what they knew about Nicaragua. Investing in the education of future professionals trained in socialist Europe was a priority of the Sandinista leadership’s project.
The idea was that these students would return to Nicaragua with solid knowledge. History, however, changed sharply and everything started to fall apart. The Nicaraguan students in those countries at the time witnessed the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of modern history—the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nicaragua itself joined the collapse of the worldwide Left when the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) lost the 1990 elections to Violeta Chamorro and President Daniel Ortega had to hand over the government of a country worn down by war.
The opposition’s unexpected victory buried the dreams of many Nicaraguans. It was the end of an era for both Nicaragua and the world.
What was it like when these young Nicaraguans who went to socialist Europe in search of knowledge, personal betterment and experience returned to their country? What experiences did they have living so far away from their beloved homeland? How did they survive the last years of the Cold War? And, in spite of everything, what did they learn? Here are eight accounts of Nicaraguans who lived in the USSR and the German Democratic Republic and their stories of survival.
Victor, 65 years old: I was born in Mina La India, in Leon. I went to the USSR in 1981 but had to return in 1982. The plan was to study marine biology, but on the flight it was discovered that all our documents had gotten lost somehow. There were thirteen of us in this situation—all from the National Autonomous University (UNAN) in Managua—but I was one of only two professors. All our diplomas and degrees were lost. The two of us spent some four months doing nothing, not studying, because they didn’t know what to do with us. Even worse, they wanted to stick us in first-year college courses, but I immediately said no, I’d prefer to return to Nicaragua. I was 35, with a wife and three children. Starting over was absurd for me. Then they found a course for us to take and we studied whatever just to occupy our time. They offered me a scholarship to study at the Conservatory of Music, but I refused. I was desperate.
“They took care of us like kings”
Finally I entered the Astrakhan Institute in the town of that name. It was about 60 kilometers from the Caspian Sea, 32 hours by train from Moscow. The town was part of the Port of Tallinn, used for military defense by the naval fleet. It was considered a fourth-rate town.
I studied with other revolutionaries from Vietnam, Cuba, Mozambique, Barbados... There I formed a musical quartet with other Nicaraguans. We sang songs of the revolution—those by Carlos Mejia Godoy and Grupo Pancasan. I was the lead voice and my companions were the chorus. We were very much in demand. Since they value art and culture a lot, we were treated like kings; they fed us caviar, salmon and trout. Our Nicaraguan revolution was in vogue and everyone wanted to hear our songs. During the anniversary celebration of each country’s revolution, we put on cultural events with people from Morocco, Libya, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Angola and some from Madagascar. Those with dark skin weren‘t very well liked due to racism, even though they were humble, warm and quiet. The racism was handled “extra-officially.”
I forgot my children’s facesIn spite of everything the experience was good. Sometimes I cried for my wife and children, but after several months I no longer remembered my children’s faces so I asked them to send me photos. My Chilean friends tried to console me. They had been trapped in the USSR since the fall of Allende in 1973 and couldn’t return to Chile. They told me I shouldn’t worry, that within about six months I would begin to forget my wife, marry a Russian woman and live in Russia. This possibility upset me.
I returned to Nicaragua with a specialty in fish farming, really happy to have graduated in the USSR. I took my documents to the Institute of Fishing (INPESCA) hoping to get work, where I was met by a fellow revolutionary wearing an olive green military uniform. When I showed her my papers she just looked at me, then told me to leave my documents and come back some other day. I felt discounted. I asked to talk with the minister or someone in charge of human resources who might look at my case. She refused and didn’t deal with me until a week later and then only to refuse to offer me any chance to work. This was in 1982, when the revolution was young. What could I hope for in the coming years?
Bertha, 47 years old: “The USSR was I was born in Managua. I was 19 years old when I left to go to the Soviet Union. I studied in the Agricultural Academy of the Ukraine in the capital city of Kiev. I was able to go because of a scholarship. The scholarships for those of us studying Veterinary Medicine were financed by UNICEF, which gave the funds to the USSR and it then chose third world countries and offered them scholarships. We college graduates who tried out for these scholarships had to take psychometric, physical and IQ tests...
like a flower that wanted to open”
Those of us who got the scholarships lived through historic moments in the USSR. It was amazing that during the first meetings and political talks we attended, the professors spoke to us about perestroika, glasnost and the restructuring of the Soviet’s socialist system. We were the generation of students who lived through the opening and changing of Soviet society. I felt that with the changes Gorbachev was trying to make, the USSR was like a flower trying to open up but was covered by one of those mesh sleeves so it couldn’t free itself and show all its splendor.
The years between 1985 and 1988 were dramatic for the USSR. It was the breaking of the old paradigms, the opening of frontiers, access to certain technologies, economic policy changes… There was a point when, due to the drastic currency changes, they gave us coupons printed on cards that looked like fake bills instead of our normal stipend.
Being a woman in the Ukraine had a lot of advantages. There were many opportunities, few limits and a lot of respect. I experienced this very strongly, yet I was also a foreign woman and that was something else.
There was a great deal of undeniable segmented discrimination. When working in the fields as part of our academic work, for example, we had to deal with more conservative people. It was difficult for them to accept us with our dark skin and curly hair.
Yet, when we got to know each other better, the Ukrainian country folks learned that we were practically the same as they were – we wanted to work, get ahead and learn and we had feelings and hopes just like them. We married and had children, just like them. I married a Nicaraguan there and my oldest boy was born there.
When Ukrainians opened their door they did it whole-heartedly. I’d say that 98% of my experience there was positive in spite of the crisis. During the six months I was there I learned a great deal and I met really good people—angels everywhere who offered their hand, professors who liked me and were concerned about me.
Returning to Nicaragua was a hard blow in every sense. It had been hard to adapt to Soviet culture but it was also hard to readapt to Nicaraguan culture. The weather was another thing. The average temperature in the Ukraine was 45 degrees F. and from that we returned to 96 degrees of sweltering heat.
But the most difficult thing was the political and social situation. When we left Nicaragua there was a revolution and when we returned it didn’t exist anymore.
It was a drastic change. Like my companions, I returned with a degree. We were college graduates with masters and even doctorates, or engineering degrees. But when we looked for work they asked us where we had studied: “In the USSR? Are you a communist?” All doors to work were closed to us.
But despite all of that, I was really glad to learn that there was no longer a war going on in Nicaragua. That was the most important thing. Whatever else it meant, young people were no longer dying for a lost cause. That’s what pushed me to move on.
Cipriano, 45 years old: I’m from Leon. In 1984 The National Higher Education Center (CENES) offered several scholarships to study in the USSR. They chose and placed their candidates through the Sandinista Youth organization, which had the task of endorsing one’s leaving the country because it was war time and by then there was already the mobilization for patriotic military service [the draft] so I needed a political reference. I was 19 years old and was lucky they didn’t send me to the war.
“I grabbed the crisis by the tail”
The first days in the USSR were difficult because of the food and the language problems. The people tried to understand us but it was a struggle between them (the seller) and us (the buyer) to get the “product” they wanted us to buy: more communism. Going to Russia was like following up on a political transaction in which we had to know how to sell our own revolution. It was harder for some than for others. I knew students who left children in Nicaragua and had to go home in tears because they missed them so much. Others missed their wives and hung up their gloves and returned, not completing their career studies. But they could never just pick up and leave; the process was slow. They had to wait at least a year in order to return to their home country. Then going back was a punishment because they had to answer for giving up a highly coveted scholarship that had cost a great deal of money.
I had the chance to study Chemistry at the University of Kishinev in Moldova. We could feel the crumbling of the USSR’s in the last year of our studies, in 1990. Thank God I grabbed the crisis by the tail and it only grazed me. Others, however, had worse luck and even lost the stipends that allowed them to study, so they had to come back early.
“I was able to see the reality of pure socialism”They gave us 90 rubles to survive on for the whole month. The ruble was worth more than the dollar; according to them it was like $110. That was very little and had to last for everything we needed. You could eat for one and a half rubles—not well, but eat. With two or three rubles you ate decently. A type of milk called Kopi cost 20 or 30 cents. They gave us shoes, gloves and coats once only and they had to last for six years. If your shoes fell apart you had to find a way to fix them or figure out how to get a new pair on your own. We spent the six years with the same scarf, pants, hat and shoes. You didn’t have the option of asking for anything extra and you had to adapt whatever they gave you.
We expected to find guaranteed work when we returned to Nicaragua. That was what the Sandinista government told us when they sent us there. But all this vanished with the 1990 elections. In the following months there were revolts against the newly elected president, Violeta Chamorro, with barricades erected all over Managua. My plane from Russia had to stay one night in Ireland because the national airport had been taken over that day. The first thing I felt was an environment of uncertainty.
It was very hard for me to get UNAN León and Managua to recognize my degree from the USSR. I spent three years teaching in a high school and making the salary of someone with only a high school diploma. They also closed the doors on us both out of jealousy and stigma. Even though I had a Masters in Chemistry, they said that if we’d only been studying for six years in Russia it wasn’t possible to come back with a Masters. This was only professional jealousy but it made it harder for us to find decent work.
Despite all the hardships, going to the USSR was a wonderful experience. I got to see the reality of pure socialism. I had lived under the last years of the Somoza government and then the first five years of the Sandinista government. Somoza’s followers badmouthed communism and the Sandinistas badmouthed Somocismo. That political discrepancy awakened my young curiosity to find out who was right. The truth is that neither system is perfect. But in Russia I saw that they treated everyone equally. Children, women and old people had a decent life. And I didn’t see this under Somoza’s shadow.
Johanna, 41 years old: “You could I was born in Managua. In Russia I studied what was called Technology of Seafood Products. I went in 1987, when I was 16. It was funny because I learned about the scholarships from a love-struck girlfriend who pretended to be applying for the scholarship she read about in the paper. She convinced me to participate. I didn’t think twice. I applied and was accepted.
already begin to see social inequality”
I come from the Baptist Church, in which leftists participated. I had already taken part in a health brigade, coffee picking and social projects organized by the revolution. It sounded great to go to Russia so young and my academic excellence gave me a leg up. It was like a kid’s dream come true.
When I went to pick up the scholarship they didn’t want to give it to me even though it had already been approved. They said that because I was a Protestant and would be going to a country where they were atheists, it could be difficult for me. My mother went to talk to the education minister, Father Fernando Cardenal, and told him that I had given a lot to my country and deserved to go to show my abilities. Finally they stopped putting up obstacles and let me go.
I studied at the Technical School of Fishery in Astrakhan, two hours by plane from Moscow. Since I was from a country run by a system similar to the Russian one, we Nicaraguans weren’t so surprised by the situation in Russia. We were there during the crisis and also afterward, the time of the capitalist boom when they celebrated the first Russian millionaire. I was surprised to see how the Russians, after living in ignorance of the capitalist world, were able to become millionaires overnight, though not always cleanly. The social inequalities already had begun to be evident in the second half of the eighties.
Mother, wife and student all at the same timeWe Nicaraguans were helped by our parents since the stipend the Russian government gave us wasn’t enough. My greatest good fortune and at the same time my biggest problem was that I got married right after arriving in the USSR. I was the first Nicaraguan woman to marry a Nicaraguan who already was there and I soon got pregnant. That’s where my first child was born.
Despite everything, I stood out for my good grades. Even though I was pregnant, I won the Physics Olympiads in my city and the Russians couldn’t believe it. They thought Nicaraguans studied physics beginning in the first year in high school and I only had completed third year. But actually I took physics for the first time in my life when I got to Russia and soon I was beating Arabs, Africans and even Russians themselves. They say a pregnant woman becomes smarter. I proved that when I was there.
My greatest problem was being mother, wife and student all at the same time. They gave me 90 rubles a month and my husband 120. A chicken cost 30 rubles. Most of us Nicaraguans had a great deal of trouble. We had to sell glass bottles survive. People threw them in the streets and we’d gather them up, wash them and then sell them. We only bought rye bread, which was the cheapest. Nobody liked it so it cost 10 cents.
I came back to Nicaragua in 1990 to leave my son here on the pediatrician’s recommendation because he had been affected by the spreading radiation in the atmosphere from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. He was hemorrhaging from the nose so the doctor recommended that we bring him back. When I got here, I saw that that the Revolution had fallen apart. I was really frightened because I thought they would take my son away from me at the airport. I was afraid we were returning to the Somoza days.
I was still worried about Nicaragua when I returned to my studies in Russia, but there I found myself in another crisis: the USSR was collapsing and there were armored tanks everywhere. There was a curfew and you could hear bullets hitting the buildings and houses. I was used to this since I came from a country at war, but I also felt I had to be very careful. Moscow was under siege. There was a coup against Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin took power under a new system of government.
I couldn’t find work in When I finally returned to Nicaragua with my husband, it was 1992. The Russians didn’t pay for our return trip so we had to pay for it from our own pockets. Thank God, the new Nicaraguan government assumed the responsibility and finally sent for the last contingent of Nicaraguans still in Russia.
anything I had learned
Upon returning, I couldn’t work in my field or use what I had learned. INPESCA, the company that had given me the scholarship, had disappeared. Even though we already had a work contract when we left the country and had signed a paper that said we would immediately be put on the INPESCA payroll upon our return, nothing like this happened. I began to work in a clothing store to survive. Later I was promoted to assistant manager and got interested in administration so I decided to get another degree.
There were lots of bad problems, but even so, I think the experience was definitely worth it. I’ve been married for 23 years, I’m fulfilled as a mother and I wouldn’t change anything in my life.
Carlos, 49 years old: I was born in the municipality of Malpaisillo, Leon. I had the chance to go to East Germany in 1984 to get a masters degree in Chemistry. I was in the prep school in Leon and belonged to the Sandinista Youth organization at the time. Each year East Germany offered 50 spaces to Nicaraguans to study in their universities. I applied and was accepted. I was 19.
“I’m sure there was xenophobia”
Before I went, we were given a preparatory course in German at the UNAN in Managua to acquaint us with the language. When we first arrived it was hard to adapt. The language was a real pain. It was so difficult that once a Nicaraguan bought liquid soap rather than cooking oil. Another time, instead of toothpaste, someone bought shaving cream. Funny things happened to us Nicaraguans there in Germany. The politics were in our favor. We were well received because they knew we came from a youthful revolution that had overthrown a dictator. I’m sure, however, that despite the welcome there was officially repressed xenophobia.
While I was studying there I had a chance to return to Nicaragua during the second half of the revolutionary decade. The experience was shocking. I remember that when I went to visit my town, soldiers from the Popular Sandinista Army pulled me off the bus and wanted to stick me in military service. I had to show them a student card saying I was studying outside the country. Even then, they almost took me, but in the end I was able to return to Germany.
Nicaraguans can party anywhereI studied in an upper-level technical school called Loina Mercel in Halle, 200 kilometers from Berlin. After German unification this school disappeared. The Wall fell in 1989 but I stayed because I hadn’t finished my schooling.
Luckily the Federal German Republic took on all Nicaraguans with scholarships who had been in East Germany and continued giving us stipends. With the change in the system the Cuban students left, as did the Koreans and those from other countries. We Nicaraguans stayed thanks to the German Academic Exchange Service, which assumed the stipends and paid for our return trips even though the Sandinista government was no longer in power.
East Germany’s standard of living was the best in all the socialist countries. Germany was the symbol of socialism on the world level and had to give the appearance of development and progress. Its strength was light industry, while heavy industry was always the USSR’s strength. Each country had its strength and they complemented each other. At that time there was COMECON [the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) and the socialist countries supported each other economically with no major problems.
They gave us 320 marks for our food each month. It was equivalent to about $30 but on the black market of that time $30 was a great deal. A pair of blue jeans cost the equivalent of 15 marks. The women particularly bought them, but they were very expensive and hard to find. We bought books and even a beer from time to time. The problem was that many Nicaraguans drank away their stipend with cheap booze, and would go from room to room looking for other drunks to keep them company. Nicaraguans have always been partiers and tend to get into trouble. It was no different in Germany. Many pretended they were going off to eat but went drinking instead. The German government couldn’t control it. If it had been able to, many Nicaraguans would have been sent back before the end of their time.
In Germany you change clothes with the four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. Sometimes you had to bury yourself in a lot of clothes under your overcoat to fight the cold. That climate was harsh. The rooms needed a heater and the heating system throughout the country was controlled by the State, which turned it on according to the climate. We had to adapt.
It was hard going back to Nicaragua. I spent a year unemployed. Being in Germany for so long getting an education then coming back to nothing was pretty frustrating, but what can you do? I finally got work as a substitute professor at UNAN Managua, then finally came to work at the UCA.
When we returned, the worst part of all was the stigma of being considered a communist. Many jobs were closed to us because of it. Despite everything, it was worth learning a second language. I still speak German when I have the chance to see my German friends.
Violeta, 45 years old: “At first the snow fascinated us then it was distressing”I’m from Managua and when I was 18, I went to the Ukraine, one of the 15 republics of the former USSR. It was 1985 and in Nicaragua the terrible civil war that stained our mountains with blood was still in its early stages. I was able to go there on a scholarship to study Veterinary Medicine, a career path that didn’t exist in Nicaragua.
It was a big opportunity for me. My father was a bus driver and my mother a domestic worker. I had no economic opportunities. I heard the call on the news and found all my papers: high school degree, certificate from the National Literacy Campaign, and all the other documents and bits of paper I had. And of course permission from my parents.
I was so enthusiastic but the truth is that the first thing I did when I arrived at the Kiev airport was cry. I hadn’t even cried saying goodbye to my parents but I felt completely in another world; I couldn’t control myself and cried like a lost child. I wondered what I was doing there, so far from my family, friends and home. I poured my heart out all alone, then took a deep breath and faced reality. I had to pull through this, grow up and return to my country after six years. No matter what, I was already there and I couldn’t afford a return ticket or to behave badly.
The first big problem was the cultural shock. It was a 360-degree change: other idiosyncrasies, culture and food. The climate was atrocious. I wasn’t too affected by it at the beginning because those of us who received scholarships arrived in August in the height of summer and it was hot. But soon winter arrived. The first weeks were nice. We were all fascinated to see snow. But after two months and no let-up in the snowfall, it became distressing. There were temperatures of less than 20-25 degrees below freezing.
The Ukrainians were very closed and nationalistic. On principle they didn’t like foreigners much and it was hard for them to let us in. We spoke to them and asked questions and greeted them in Russian but they only responded in Ukrainian, which made us feel bad. The Europeans were shouters and liked to shout rather than talk and play practical jokes. They always seemed to be arguing, which also made us feel bad. We were the opposite: very friendly, cordial, and smiling. It was an important clash and we had to adapt ourselves to the phlegmatic northern temperament.
They blamed us for the crisisWe also felt the crisis of the system change in 1987. But since we came from Nicaragua, also a country in crisis, where there was an economic blockade, we already knew all about that. In Nicaragua we had to stand in line to buy whatever we wanted and made lists of when products were arriving to see if we could get something. The same started to happen in the Ukraine in 1987. You went to the supermarket and found almost nothing on the shelves. You had to stand in line to buy a carton of eggs. It was just like home.
The Soviets didn’t take well to us because they said foreigners were to blame for the crisis. The country had given shelter to so many students from all over the world that people started to feel the pressure of that great migration of brains. They felt we were a kind of invasion, the product of a massive exodus from the Third World. We had to fight against that mentality.
We were so busy grappling with the academic burden that we didn’t feel the impact of the political crisis. We were immersed in our studies, especially those of us studying medicine. In other institutes and humanities careers they studied Monday through Friday. We studied Monday through Saturday. Everyone had a vacation in July and August except us; we only got August. Sometimes we had nothing to eat but we had to keep on studying. We also had to keep in touch with the Nicaraguan Embassy so we had no time to complain.
We had a guaranteed monthly stipend of 75 rubles. It didn’t cover our costs but it was all we got. My parents couldn’t afford to send me more money so I had to survive on what they gave me. The second year stipend was 90 rubles or a little more. This went on until 1991 when I returned to Nicaragua.
“What we wanted most I married a young man from Esteli and we had a son while in the Ukraine. That made it hard to study. We took turns going to class and taking care of him. When we realized the FSLN had lost the election in 1990 we knew we’d be returning to a different country, although, thank God, there would no longer be war.
was to serve our country”
My husband and I thought that as professionals we would find a place in this new Nicaragua and work for our country. It’s what we most wanted—to serve our country. But we were wrong. We returned and became unemployed.
I couldn’t get a job in my field. They closed their doors to us simply because we had studied in the USSR. In Nicaragua the thinking is that nothing from Russia works, including professionals.
I worked as a teacher in a little grade school for six months. Then for another six months I worked as a secretary in the customs office. I finally was able to get my application into the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and was accepted. Thank God, I’ve been working there 20 years. I’ve been able to survive four government changes thanks to the good backing from my studies. So in the end, all this sacrifice was worth the trouble.
Carlos Alberto, 42 years old: I was born in Managua in 1970. In 1985 they started a public call in Barricada, the FSLN newspaper, for scholarships in various socialist bloc countries and in several fields of study. I was precocious, having graduated high school at 13, and at 14 was studying physics at UNAN Managua. My strong suit was mathematics. Despite my young age, my father encouraged me, so I applied and was accepted among the best of them.
“I learned to think in the USSR”
Upon my arrival in the USSR we took a placement exam. They put me in the best university in the Soviet Union—Lomonosov in Moscow. I arrived just at the point they were starting to talk about perestroika and reforming the Russian socialist system. It was 1986. There was a certain amount of social upheaval but nothing serious. There were also discussions in the higher levels of government. But, as usual, the information wasn’t completely available in the lower levels, nor was there any suspicion that the system would collapse soon. Classes continued as normal.
I was studying mathematics. I was to be there five years but I only got to the third year of the program. I also had problems staying on the main campus but, thanks to Luis Gámez, who later became president of the Mathematics Society of Nicaragua, I was able to stay longer.
There was a mental block in certain professors who discriminated against us. Because we were from an underdeveloped country, they didn’t consider us suitable to study subjects at high intellectual levels. Luis Gámez was a genius, an exceptional person. He was a model student for us Nicaraguans. He got his doctorate and made methodological corrections to a math textbook written by a Russian. At the time, he was invited to be a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, but turned down the invitation because he was very humble and wasn’t interested in important positions. Thanks to him I was able to study longer at the University.
During the summers, Russians went to work on different brigades to earn some extra money. We Nicaraguans organized support and solidarity brigades to send funds back to our own country through the Sandinista Youth organi¬zation. As the crisis progressed, pressure started to be put on us foreign students. They transferred me to a branch of the university in a city that was eight hours away from Moscow by train.
I had to learn two years’ worth of high school Russian in two weekends. It was the only way I was able to pass the admission exam. Luis Gámez, who died in July last year, helped me a lot. They sent me to this branch campus but told me I could return to the main campus if I kept up my grades. I started having problems with the people in that little city because they talked too much about politics and not enough about religion for my taste. Nonetheless, I learned how to think while in the USSR.
I returned only to become unemployedAfter only three months in the USSR I was already speaking Russian, a complicated language because it’s not similar to the Romance languages we’re used to. But when you get into the learning scheme, Russian isn’t so difficult. I pushed myself to join groups where they didn’t speak my language. This caused me problems because the Sandinista Youth was always on top of us, watching what we did. They stigmatized me. That was the first time I realized that all the boys who had gotten scholarships were card-carrying members and the FSLN was watching over them.
The official line was that they had sent us to Russia to learn how the socialist system worked. It was assumed that Nicaragua was going in the same direction. However, I saw that the practice of those in the upper levels was divorced from this line. You could see the big parties they threw at the Nicaraguan Embassy and the huge black market in dollars going on in the Embassy’s delegation. I was just a kid but I took it to heart and felt very betrayed.
When the economic problems started they raised the idea of charging the foreign students fees. In our case, it was a kind of ethnic cleansing. They pressured the students who couldn’t pay. There were two Nicaraguans in that group and I was one of them. It was impossible for our families to pay our way through school there, so we lost interest in keeping up with our studies. We decided to abandon our courses and return. I came back in 1989 and joined the ranks of the unemployed.
María Dolores, 52 years old: I was born in Toluca, Mexico, in 1959. I first came to Nicaragua when I was six or seven years old. I’m a Nicaraguan citizen under the law that covers Nicaraguans born outside the country. I went to Germany in 1985 when I was 23 and married with two children—a girl who was five and a boy less than a year old.
“Being a foreign woman was tough”
I left Nicaragua with a scholarship thanks to an agreement between the governments of Nicaragua and the German Democratic Republic. I went to study economics and social sciences in Berlin at the Karl Marx Institute, the PSUV Superior School under the direction of Erich Honecker.
My first problem was the change of climate. Germany’s winters are very tough. The second problem was the language, since I had no previous instruction. We knew how to say “yes, no, water” and two or three words more, and had to learn as we went. The third problem was communication from Germany. At that time they gave us three calls a month of barely ten minutes. I made a dozen calls during the year and considered those minutes infinite because I wanted to talk with my daughter about the doll I had given her or the puppy my son loved. It was impossible in ten minutes. It was a hard year, although I received a stipend of 600 German marks supplied by the German government, which was more than enough for me to live on during the month. From the 600 marks I had 400 or more left over and used it to buy things for my family in Nicaragua.
Being a foreigner and a woman in Germany was hard. In Nicaragua we have very little notion of gender. The revolution never made a big effort in gender work. We were Nicaraguans through and through and only then women. The Germans thought Nicaraguan women came to Europe only to look for husbands, or for temporary or casual sexual relations. There was a certain kind of sexual harassment, but I came with a strong sense of myself and didn’t let anything happen to me. Other women in our group who came from weaker or broken family backgrounds were definitely hurt. There were others who in fact did use their scholarships as a springboard to stay and establish themselves in Germany. This reality was never dealt with in the upper echelons of power but we had to deal with it ourselves, in the streets, supermarkets, parks...
The main thing I retained from this The main thing I retained from this experience was the academic discipline, organization and way of thinking that they instilled in you to manage your time. It was very worthwhile. It was a structure to organize your life and your actions around. They taught us the merits of being punctual and methodical in everything we do. On my return to Nicaragua I worked as an official in the Ministry of the Interior and felt I was well prepared for the job. After the FSLN’s downfall in 1990, I lost my job but I didn’t feel abandoned. UNAN Managua recognized my studies and accepted two of my years in Social Sciences so I could continue my studies.
experience was my academic education
I graduated in 1991. Not all of us who studied in the GDR ended up unemployed. I started being an instructor and today I’m a full professor in the UNAN Anthropology Department. Not everyone wanted to continue their relationship with the new unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I continued studying and even got another scholarship during the nineties. Now I have a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service so for me the experience was definitely worth the trouble.
Praise from a generation of scholarship studentsSome never were able to work in their areas of specialty, others were disappointed after studying abroad then coming back home only to be jobless and many women suffered mistreatment, discrimination and harassment. But for all that, the truth is that Nicaragua’s revolution offered a great opportunity to that generation of youths who dreamed of improving themselves and succeeding.
Not everything was fair. The Sandinista government was indebted to this important group of enthusiastic young people who hoped to use their scholarships to come back and be of service to their country. Nor have the subsequent governments been fair with these compatriots. Nevertheless, they not only survived but prevailed through the years due to their tenacity.
The majority were prevented from using what they had learned. But all agree that the time they spent in a European socialist country, far from the tropics, their families and the security of their homes, opened their minds and offered them a unique experience. It also allowed them to compare Nicaragua’s incipient socialist system with the systems of the other great socialist world powers of the time—in the cases above, the USSR and East Germany.
With the collapse of the USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unexpected electoral defeat of the FSLN in 1990, the dreams of many of these brilliant students fell apart. But despite the hardships they encountered when they returned to a country bankrupt by war, they were willing to move forward. They were called communists, they were discriminated against, they had doors and windows shut against them, but nevertheless they shone for who they are. They are the scholarship generation. These eight testimonies represent a generation of students who succeeded in rising up in the midst of political changes, the split between communism and capitalism, the hostility of a world without hope and the decline of a divided society.
William Grigsby Vergara is a journalist.