What it Means to Be an American Abroad

A look at my own uncertainty brought on by the ghosts of US foreign policy in Nicaragua

One thing many people have asked me since I’ve returned from my 8-month stint in Latin America has to do with my views on the United States in context of what I experienced.

Now that I’ve taken off my star-spangled shoes and walked a few miles barefoot through the heart of poverty, people are curious to hear my perspective. Their eagerness takes the forms of many questions, like “So how much more do you appreciate what you have here in the United States?” or “What’s it like over there?”, “How poor is it?”, or grinning conjectures like “Boy, I bet you’re sure glad to be back in the States!”

All these questions tap into a deeper curiosity of what it means to be an American abroad possessed by United States natives who haven’t lived in impoverished countries. Not surprisingly, a large portion of America has not traveled to the rougher parts of poor countries, or to poor countries at all. So they all want to know: How does the United States stack up? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What do Nicaraguans think of us? How might a Paraguayan size us up as we walk down the street?

Comparing both Paraguay and Nicaragua, I’ve gotten anywhere from ambivalence to approval in the former, and the most palpable sentiments of anti-Americanism in the latter. But why the hard feelings, Nicaragua?

The roots of my uncertainty

I believe the lingering mistrust is due to the Reagan-era political interventions and funding of the Contra War in the revolutionary years beginning before and spanning the 1980s that resulted not in a quick Contra victory, but in a drawn out, disastrous conflict that saw a popularly supported Sandinista government emerge and maintain lasting control that persists to this day.

Contra soldiers training in Honduras. Photo by Jason Bleibtrew/Sygma.

Several sources describe the effects of U.S. foreign policy on the Nicaraguan people. From Nicaragua’s former Foreign Minister Fr. Miguel D’Escoto’s condemnation of President Reagan as the “butcher of my people“, to the historical detective work by Greg Grandin that exposed Reagan’s foreign policy as one that supported political terrorism, to a New York Times editorial from 1988 that presents a chronology of the “deceit and incompetence in pursuit of an unwinnable war”, Nicaraguans retain a dark cellar full of reasons to be wary of Americans on their soil. Perhaps this bleak history was one of the reasons for the many disapproving eyes that I felt looking over my shoulder as I walked home from work in the streets of Managua.

In contrast, Paraguayans, with their many Western European influences, gave me a stronger sense of approval and acceptance. Perhaps this was simply because the U.S. has not had such a significant role in Paraguayan affairs in recent history. Or perhaps the collective memory of modern day Paraguayans is too busy dealing with other disastrous armed conflicts like the Triple Alliance War, the many violent political upheavals, or the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner to bother too much with external affairs.

But this is an aside, as Paraguayans’ views of The United States did not play much of a role in my reconsideration of American patriotism, and will not be discussed further. Nicaragua takes center stage.

How does U.S. foreign policy in Nicaragua make me feel about being an American?

I’d love to say that I am a proud American citizen and support my government’s history of foreign relations. I’d love to bring foreign nationals into my country and show them my nation’s closet and say, “Look, no ghosts”, but after having lived in a country maimed by my own government, I can say no such thing. After having lived with and befriended a particularly candid man in the dirt-poor neighborhood of Bello Amanecer, and having been advised “to be strong and ready for any blow that may come, because life is about survival”, I can’t help but wonder how much of that statement has been molded by a culture and society so damaged by my own government.

Growing up, I said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning before classes began, with my little hand placed fervently over my heart. I was always taught to love my country. To be proud of what it is to be an American. But over the course of the months spent in Latin America, a disconnect developed between what I was taught and how I felt. The divide grew wider as I learned how many times in the past our democratic leaders and their purse strings made uninformed decisions that took the lives of the poor and destitute.

And going beyond just myself, I wondered how relevant the past is to the present in what it means to be an American today. Should a lingering weight remain on the American conscience due to the widespread impacts of failed foreign policy in Nicaragua, or should it be shed in favor of highlighting the good that is being done today by many NGOs and government-sponsored aid agencies all throughout the Central American nation? Would shedding such a burden obscure the suffering that is still important to the Nicaraguan people?

And broadening the question further still: how far have actions such as the Reagan-era Contra War pushed our country from the original meaning of “with liberty and justice for all”? How far have we veered from the goals our forefathers envisioned us achieving? To what magnitude have we or can we redeem ourselves? To these questions, I have few answers.

Yet amidst this uncertainty loomed another question that begged for my attention. Am I living in the past? Should I just move on? Most of these events happened before I was even born. Furthermore, the problems of yesterday are not recurring today — it would be difficult to justify any argument against the assertion that Obama’s administration has made any new enemies through invasive foreign policy tactics such as Reagan’s. So perhaps it’s time to look for the good in place of the bad.

Changing gears

Let me tell you what I am proud of. I’m proud that I have a lot to give, and the willingness to give it. I love the fact that I have had the opportunities to attend good schools and never have had to give even the slightest thought as to what I will eat or where I will sleep, or how I will get safe drinking water, how I will get from point A to point B, or a nearly infinite number of other questions that have to be asked every day by peoples living in impoverished countries.

I am proud that I live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and that many people, including my ancestors, achieved a stable and prosperous existence through honest labor, not back-room dealings to steal money and property from what Paul Theroux calls “the rural unfortunates” that are exploited in many underdeveloped nations. I appreciate the value of a dollar, and take solace in the fact that many Americans do too. I firmly support Francisco D’Anconia’s speech about what money is in Atlas Shrugged. I am proud of the fact that within the United States, you can be anybody you want to be.

But the nagging images of the poor, exploited Nicaraguans stand firmly planted in the back of my mind and will not let me completely accept a positive view of what it is to be American. I suppose that what continues to baffle me is the disjuncture between past U.S.-sanctioned violence and the present day good that I see in everyday Americans. The separation draws a difficult margin, and navigating it has left me uncertain of whether to be proud of my country as it is or to work for a better tomorrow.


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