Aid to Nicaragua: people to people while governments look on

A small but determined band of Americans is trying to even out the balance of US humanitarian aid to Nicaragua. In Austin, Barry George collects and repairs bicycles for Nicaraguan health workers and educators. Architect Bob Bland from Little Rock, Ark., gives of his time and expertise to help Nicaraguan villages upgrade their water systems.

At a time when the United States is officially sending humanitarian aid to the ``contras'' (rebels fighting against Nicaragua's Sandinista government), these two men are examples of the growing grass-roots assistance making its way from the American public to the people of Nicaragua. Organizers involved in unofficial relief work for Nicaragua say their efforts represent ``true'' humanitarian assistance. They maintain that belligerent statements toward Nicaragua by administration officials, including pub lic discussion of the need for military aid for the rebels, make their work easier.

``The Reagan people are keeping this a high-profile issue, and that's a big help to us,'' says the Rev. William Callahan, coordinator of a national campaign hoping to match the $27 million in humanitarian aid Congress approved last June for the contras. Called ``Quest for Peace,'' the campaign tallies all material and monetary aid going to Nicaragua from participating organizations around the country.

According to Fr. Callahan, a Jesuit priest and codirector of the Quixote Center in Mount Rainier, Md., the campaign tallied enough aid as of October -- mostly in medical and educational supplies and clothing -- to surpass the initial $9 million Congress released for the contras. The Quixote Center is an independent Roman Catholic relief organization.

Much of the humanitarian aid to Nicaragua is coming from religious organizations with long-established missionary ties to Central America. Also active are a large number of ``peace and justice'' groups often involved in the nuclear-freeze movement.

In the Southwest, most attention on this issue has been focused on wealthy Texans and other politically conservative individuals who see helping the contras as a means of fighting world communism. But organizers of informal aid to Nicaragua say their backers are often apolitical, strongly religious individuals responding to genuine calls for humanitarian aid. Others note that the proximity of Central America and the growing number of refugees from the embattled region settling in the southern US make so me sort of action seem more urgent.

``The people interested in this are middle class, often professionals, and very often religious,'' says Barbara Stanford, an official with the Arkansas Peace Center in Little Rock.

For Bill Bryant, an Oklahoma City resident active in his state's peace movement, ``it's the neighborliness of people in this part of the country that incites them to do something concrete. It's humanitarian, not political,'' he adds, noting that his own plan to defy the US embargo against Nicaragua, announced at a public rally in Oklahoma City last summer, never got off the ground.

This does not mean there is general political indifference among those organizing the aid. ``I am supporting the Sandinista government because they have started providing . . . [essential services] we take for granted, that the Central American countries have never had,'' says Mr. George, a school bus driver and coordinator of Austin's chapter of Bikes not Bombs.

``I think we're doing the same thing to Nicaragua that we did in Chile,'' George continues, referring to the US role in the downfall of democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1970. He adds that he finally ``decided to do something concrete about it,'' despite his mother's accusations that his involvement would ``only help the commies down there.'' In October the Austin chapter sent 20 bikes to Nicaragua; the goal for March is to send 30 more.

Like many who are active in encouraging assistance to Nicaragua, architect Bob Bland got involved only after visiting that country. During a July 1984 trip with Witness for Peace -- an organization that battles what it considers the Reagan administration's ``misinformation'' campaign by taking Americans to Nicaragua -- Mr. Bland decided his engineering skills could be put to use there. He now oversees Puente de Paz, a program that builds ``bridges of peace'' with Nicaraguan villages by helping them impr ove their water-delivery and sanitary systems.

Noting that more than $10,000 was raised for one chlorination system in a few months' time, Bland says he was ``very encouraged that here in conservative Arkansas we have not been undercut in any way for promoting humanitarian aid to Nicaragua.'' He said support for the projects was primarily from ``religiously motivated people'' from various Protestant denominations who are concerned about an escalation of US military involvement in Central America.

Some groups have seen their efforts hampered by the administration's embargo on trade with Nicaragua. Pueblo to People, a Houston nonprofit organization that fosters economic activity in Central America by selling the region's crafts and other products, has had to cut a number of Nicaraguan items from its catalog.

But Pueblo president Dan Salcedo says Nicargauan coffee remains a strong seller to Americans who want to support Nicaragua. He says his coffee can be sold legally because it is ground and packaged in Holland.

Mr. Salcedo adds, ``We're abiding by the letter of the law, but not the spirit.''

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