What happened to the thousands who came to Nicaragua from North America and Europe in the 1980s, inspired by the Sandinista revolution? A very few stayed, of course, and a number went back to their home countries and began serious solidarity work. Others, soon branded Sandalistas, enjoyed their exotic experience but swiftly moved on to other things. Of the more famous visitors, some like Salman Rushdie, who wrote The Jaguar’s Smile after a three-week journey in 1987, became critics from afar of the post-2006 Sandinista government. Others, like Julie Christie, still refer back to their experience when campaigning on other issues. In the odd case, like that of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, their past later came back to bite them.
But some of us who came in the 1980s were determined to contribute to a country whose people were struggling but whose determination was inspiring. None of those who continued to support Nicaragua from their home countries were more serious or dedicated than Klaus Meyer, who died last month in Germany aged 79, after a long illness.
He began his work of building and running projects in Masaya immediately after the triunfo of July 1979. At that time, the Masaya mayor was simply a government appointee who had few staff and even fewer resources. Assembling materials for project work and liaising with the still-chaotic local administration was a nightmare, soon complicated by the country being at war for a second time, the trade embargo imposed by the United States and then the value of the córdoba falling through the floor. The projects initiated by Klaus and the organisation he led, Verein Monimbó, would have been impressive in any circumstances. In the Nicaragua of 30 years ago, they were near miracles.
One of the earliest projects and the one of which he was most proud was the Tonio Pflaum furniture co-op which trained young carpenters, and was named after a young German doctor killed by the Contra in Wiwilí. Later came similar workshops for car mechanics and electrical work. The furniture project is still running, although sadly no longer as a co-op. Then, in 1985, Verein Monimbó persuaded the small town of Dietzenbach in which they were based to twin with Masaya, and later convinced the state of Hessen to provide funds too. They were in the vanguard of European towns who established twinning links, quickly followed in Masaya’s case by Nijmegen in Holland, Leicester in the UK and an informal link with Alken in Belgium. This wider network was able to tap into resources from the European Union, and Klaus was again the expert not only in steering applications through the complex EU bureaucracy but, above all, being the calm, commanding presence that achieved consensus in meetings, always held in at least two different languages and requiring much travel across northern Europe.
Out of this collaboration came two huge projects: a water supply project for the rural areas to the north and east of Masaya which involved drilling several new boreholes, and a housing scheme that delivered more than 200 new homes. Back in Europe, a wide development education project, ‘Mundos Unidos’, brought a Madrid group into the partnership and in 1992 put across an alternative perspective to mark the 500th anniversary of the conquest then being celebrated in Spain and elsewhere.
About that time, Klaus became disillusioned with the turn of events in Nicaragua as the MRS split from the FSLN and many of those involved appeared to benefit personally from continuing aid projects. He turned his attention and his skills to Cuba, where he organised many more successful projects.
His legacy in Masaya is permanent, however, in the workshops, schools, health centres, water projects and housing schemes built over 20 years ago but in most cases still operational. Many people in Masaya and those, like me, still doing solidarity work here owe a debt to Klaus Meyer. Amid the hype of the revolution, he simply got down to work, made the contacts, gained the trust and harnessed the technical resources to make a real difference. It’s an enduring consequence of the revolution that it brought people like to Klaus to work in Nicaragua. He gained a tremendous amount from the people he met here, but he gave back much in return.