Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 19, 1987
On the 'Gringo Trail' in Nicaragua
Foglietta among those opening U.S. fact-finding season

MANAGUA, Nicaragua - A family had just finished telling a dramatic story about how they fought in the streets to help overthrow Nicaragua's dictatorship in 1979, and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta was touched. He wanted to give them a gift.

"I was really impressed by the sincerity of these people and the cohesiveness of their family and their neighborhood," the Philadelphia Democrat said after the Friday night gathering at a poor Managua home.

But he had no gifts. He had already given away all the dozens of $7.99 bronze Liberty Bell souvenirs he had brought from Philadelphia.

So he gave them the shirt off his back.

"I got so emotional at the end and I wanted to do something for them," he said. "I thought, what was my most prized possession? And I had just bought this shirt, so I gave it to them."

Count that as one firm vote against continued U.S. aid to the contras.

Not that the congressman's mind needed changing about the U.S. government's sponsorship of the anti-Sandinista rebels. Nor, for that matter, were the opinions of any of the 13 other members of the Philadelphia delegation who traveled with Foglietta changed by what they saw after spending the past week in Nicaragua.

"I've always opposed contra aid and I will oppose it even more strongly," said Foglietta, referring to the congressional vote this year on President Reagan's request for $105 million in aid to the contras. Foglietta is scheduled to return today from his 10-day Central American tour.

"Supporting the contras will not help," he said. "They're not able to win any military victory. As far as negotiations are concerned . . . they're creating more animosity and creating a barrier to a negotiated solution."

Foglietta was one of eight congressmen to visit Nicaragua last week, signaling the opening of the annual legislative junket season. U.S. Embassy officials said about 40 congressmen visited Nicaragua last year, all but two of them before Congress approved $100 million in contra aid in June.

In addition to Foglietta, Democrats Jim Slattery of Kansas, Jim Moody of Wisconsin and Joseph E. Brennan of Maine visited the country on privately organized tours. Republicans Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Dan Coats of Indiana, Guy V. Molinari of New York and J. Alex McMillan of North Carolina went on a tour sponsored by the American Embassy here.

Like Foglietta, some of the congressmen also visited Honduras, touring U.S. military facilities there and getting a briefing at the contras' bases near Nicaragua's northern border.

Nicaraguans jokingly refer to this annual campaign as "the gringo trail." Nicaraguan officials sag from delivering the same presentation and hearing the same questions day after day.

As usual, this year's batch of congressmen delivered countless speeches - Slattery even brought a video crew. One congressman, after stopping at a forlorn Nicaraguan refugee camp in Honduras, told those assembled: "Thanks for coming out today!"

Foglietta was not immune. Upon running into a clutch of laborers at a union hall who could speak English, he stopped to tell them about his favorable rating by the AFL-CIO. Bemused, they silently shook his hand as he worked the crowd.

As Foglietta's mind was not changed by what he saw, neither were the opinions of the four Republican representatives, all of whom support U.S. aid to the contras.

Wolf, the Virginia Republican, said at a news conference that Nicaragua had grown more repressive since his last trip here two years ago. He said that "the conditions in Nicaragua . . . today are perhaps somewhat parallel to the early days of the Nazis in Germany in 1937, 1938 and 1939."

Foglietta's delegation had different observations. They found the party capital of Central America.

At a festive dinner Saturday night at the home of a Nicaraguan family, Philadelphia Councilman Angel L. Ortiz, who was on the Foglietta tour, demonstrated the Latin dance steps he had learned in Puerto Rico.

Folk singer Pete Seeger, whose daughter lives on a small banana farm outside Managua, played the mandolin along with a local band at the party.

"Meeting Pete Seeger in a barrio in Managua is mind-blowing," said Ortiz, who, like the rest of the delegation, approvingly took in the samples of Managua life, including Nicaragua's fine rums.

Ortiz achieved instant fame with the local reporters in Central America, since he was one of the few visiting American politicians who could speak Spanish. "I've been surprised by the reaction," he said. "Their conception of a North American is something else. It's not Angel Ortiz, Puerto Rican, councilman from Philadelphia."

Also accompanying Foglietta were H. Craig Lewis, a Bucks County state senator, and Bennie J. Swans Jr., director of the Crisis Intervention Network in Philadelphia.

The tour was organized by the Rev. David Funkhauser, an Episcopal priest and the director of the Central American Organizing Project in Philadelphia. Members of the delegation paid their own way, said a Foglietta aide.

By week's end, Foglietta had contracted a mild cold, probably brought on by the hectic pace of his schedule, meeting non-contra opposition leaders and Sandinista officials, including Vice President Sergio Ramirez. "We got the whole gamut of the political spectrum," he said.

His impressions after his first glimpse of Nicaragua were mixed.

In general, he said, he was less impressed with the opposition leaders. Pro-government presentations, he said, were more thoughtful and frank.

"The government has the strong support of the people," said Foglietta. "I believe they've done good things for the people. The agrarian reform seems to be working very well. The people in the countryside seem to be happy to have their own acre of land. I see no discontent, although there's extreme poverty out there.

"However, I'm extremely concerned over the many incidents of violations of human rights, suppression of free speech - I've seen incidents of that - denial of due process, allegations of beatings and tortures, intimidation of political opposition.

"And I'm concerned about the harassment of people who desire to join labor unions," he said.

Asked whether those observations were contradictory - that people could be happy and yet be repressed, that there could be no discontent and yet be a war - Foglietta paused.

"There's a distinction there between the general welfare and specific incidents of repression," he said. "I'm still forming my opinions."

Foglietta was appointed ambassador to Italy by President Clinton. home page   
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