Based in Nicaragua, Paul Baker Hernandez is a singer/songwriter and political activist perhaps best known for his interpretations of the work of Victor Jara, the Chilean musician famously murdered by General Pinochet's terror regime. The coup against President Allende and especially Victor Jara's murder inspired Paul, now in his 70s, to pursue a life dedicated to solidarity with Latin America via music, community work and organizing. Since the 1980s, his life has been devoted to solidarity work with revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In conversation with Jorge Capelán recently, Paul spoke about how his various experiences of solidarity with Latin America have shaped his activism ever since the CIA's 1973 coup in Chile.
Paul's first experience with Nicaragua resulted from a peace march “with 300 people from around the world that started in Panama and was supposedly going to end up in Washington DC … ‘good luck,’ you might say. Well … we came to Nicaragua in December 1985 and spent six weeks here, leaving in January 1986. Overall the march was two to three months, but we had to spend most of the time in Nicaragua because we were prevented from going up into Honduras because the gringos were holding their Pine Top 2 maneuvers with the Honduran military. But, although the visit was very brief, it was extraordinarily intense because at that time the war was really biting and the economy was really hurting.”
As for untold numbers of other people opposed to U.S. policy towards Latin America, the experience of solidarity with Nicaragua during the 1980s was decisive in confirming Paul's commitment to the region. He explains how he also came to work closely with the popular movement n El Salvador. “I was singing in Los Angeles and met a group of Salvadorans who were being attacked by their country's death squads, but there in Los Angeles. The solidarity community there was organizing accompaniment to the people at risk and I took part in that. It was at a meeting in honor of Ben Linder, who was murdered by the Nicaraguan Contras in 1987 and it just happened that someone explained that Salvadorans were being attacked there in LA and I signed up to help.”
Since that time Paul has built very close, supportive relationships both with his adopted family in El Salvador and with his family and friends in Nicaragua. Now preparing for a three month long tour of the U.S. and Europe, he feels privileged to have witnessed the changes in Nicaragua and the region over the years. “That's the greatest privilege that I'll be able to express in this tour ... coming to live here in the early 90s through to now. It's been like moving from night to day, because I came when Violeta Chamorro and her circle were running the country and, with my wife, we were involved in the barrio where we still live. She was part of the community association there and they were trying to hang on to vestiges of the revolution and one of the major things they had to do was legalize ownership of property because the Sandinista Front had redistributed a lot of land but hadn't finalized the legal process.”
During that long period of resistance until the Sandinista Front, led by Daniel Ortega, took office again in January 2007, Paul and his wife Fatima, herself a former guerrilla fighter, lived through all the ups and downs of the neoliberal era. So the election win in November 2006 was at once an enormous boost and a great release. Paul notes, “What was so brilliant was that the Sandinista Front took on our system and beat us at our own game. Our democracy is not designed for genuine participation of the people. It's designed to maintain in power the elite strata of professional political people and those they represent, the corporations.” Paul has his own experience of what that watershed political victory has meant for people in Nicaragua.
“Now people have seen and experienced that the Sandinista Front means what it says and it has done amazing things. Free education, free health care. And I've been a beneficiary of that. They removed a cancerous tumor, even though I'm a foreigner. It cost me nothing. It was just astonishing the level of acceptance. I said to the doctor treating me that I felt embarrassed to be receiving this treatment and he told me not to. 'This is solidarity,' he said, 'You give us solidarity and now we're giving you solidarity.' And the great thing was the same hospital was full of ordinary Nicaraguans who were also receiving the same level of care.
“The development of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, ALBA, has also happened along with health care, education, infrastructure, investment in women particularly, especially rural women. When you go home to our countries where people say, 'We are the home of democracy' and you ask, “ok, how many women in the Senate, how many women in Parliament?” It's roughly 20 percent. But in Nicaragua, over 50 percent of the government ministers are women, including Defense ... the political role of women has been institutionalized in Nicaragua and mostly in our countries we have never done that and have no intention of doing it because, fundamentally we don't regard women as equals.”
Paul has a passionate commitment to defending the planet's natural environment and is convinced that only a new global culture of solidarity will enable humanity to survive. For him, ALBA is “a very good example of what we all need to do if we're going to survive on this planet because it's an alliance based on cooperation, not competition, based on community and solidarity, not individualism, based on respect for individual countries, not hegemony, and based on care for the environment, not its destruction. So at this crucial moment when we're faced with the results of the Paris Climate Change Conference, where world leaders are supposed to commit to a 2 degrees Celsius average increase in global temperatures, which will actually be more in countries like Nicaragua. We are at this critical moment and now more than ever we need Allende's Popular Unity on a global level. We have to work together otherwise we will not survive as a species ... The me-first world only sustains itself by ongoing ravishing of the majority world and without that we would not be able to sustain our living standards”
In that context, Jorge Capelán asked Paul his opinion of Nicaragua's planned interoceanic canal. “It's been intriguing with regard to the canal. Because I think almost everyone is now in some sense an environmentalist, we have to be really. So when they announced the canal going right through Lake Cocibolca you immediately thought, 'What on earth are they thinking of?' And that's been the reaction of most of the solidarity community. But if you listen to the government's positions—and I was lucky to be part of a couple of delegations that had meetings with Dr. Paul Oquist, the government Minister for National Policies—they have a very good presentation. Paul Oquist made the point that the long-term effects of ongoing depredation caused by impoverishment is that deforestation is accelerating and the long-term effect of that is much more damaging than the short-term damage that may be provoked by the canal. The canal project requires massive tree planting programs in order to maintain the water the canal needs to operate.
“Obviously, there remain major environmental concerns. But I've been really disheartened to see that the foreign solidarity community can't seem to get over their fixation that the canal will destroy Lake Cocibolca, even with the many measures announced explaining that it won't. But the major thing is that the government has the responsibility to lift people out of impoverishment. And that in itself is profoundly ecological because for people in impoverishment are forced to burn wood, there are health and other implications of that, ...for example, not long ago I was in a workshop promoting the use of simple biogas systems for rural families and one guy stood up and said that one benefit was that he no longer had to damage local woodland cutting down trees for fuel. Another benefit was that there was no longer any smoke in the house affecting his family's health. But the most important thing was that he saved one whole month a year by not having to go out and cut timber for fuel and he could devote that month to other things in his life. And those kinds of dimensions of lifting people out of impoverishment are seldom considered.”
Paul believes as passionately in the political role of his cultural work as he does about the environment. “There is a corporate media bias against anything good coming out of Latin America, and particularly ALBA, and so in my own tiny way I try and do something about that. Victor Jara was a theater director to begin with and gradually his music evolved. His mother was a musician. He used to say that rather than poets or singers we are cultural workers. And he gradually discovered that through the theater we can reach a few hundred people, maybe a few thousand, but through music we can reach millions. And so really I am hoping to develop working through radio or video because that's possible now with the tools we have thanks to the Internet, social media, independent media. We do have the possibility of challenging these major outlets of the corporate media. That's where I think we need to go and is very much part of what I am trying to do. So anyone sharing my concerns and with those kinds of media contacts please get in touch. Victor Jara has already shown us the way.
“Something I'm surprised about is that I can truly say I feel very happy. That's an amazing thing to be able to say. Most people will say, but you come from a comfortable background, you could have had your own house, your own car, your own iPhone and so on. But none of that is important. The important thing is social community, the ties of community and also within that, for me, being accepted as a singer, especially because of Victor. In 1990 I met Victor's widow, Joan, and she invited me to play his guitar. And when I said I felt I couldn't possibly, she said, 'Don't be ridiculous. That's the trouble with you liberals. It was his hammer, his work tool, so play it...' and later that experience inspired a song, 'I thought I heard sweet Victor singing in the night'.
“About two years ago I went back to Chile with the Spanish version of that song and we recorded it in the Fundación Victor Jara with Chilean musicians and survivors of Pinochet's torture regime and we made a video of it that we called 'Bringing Victor Home'. One of the things I like very much about what I do is that, because it has many facets, it can be appropriate for concerts, for discussion groups, Latin American studies, media studies, solidarity groups—and because it's just me and my guitar we can quickly adapt the presentations to suit the group we will be working with.”
Paul is currently visiting the U.S. including New Hampshire, Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington DC and Miami. From the U.S. he goes to Britain and will also be singing in other European countries too. Paul also has a web site at Echoes of Silence. One Planet. One People His autobiographical book, "Song in High Summer," is widely available on the Internet.