-- Political Issues: Central & Latin America --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on political issues in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

  • May 1984 - The Mark of the Beast: A Notebook on Central America by Bruce Cockburn

    Mexico City

    The Kinks are on the radio as we drive along the avenue of the insurgents- "You really got me going now." Climb up two flights of stairs in a bare Art Deco building. Knock, looking for X. X is a baptist pastor who used to share an office in San Salvador with Jesuit priest on an ecumenical education project. X was sent to Puerto Rico for a World Council of Churches meeting. On arrival, he called home to tell his wife he was okay. She told him not to come back. Soldiers had taken the priest away. No they were not in uniform but as they left one said to the other, "ok major". So the pastor came to Mexico, eventually to be joined by his family. Three years later they have a life here. But he wants to go back to El Salvador and I ask him how he can think of going back, meaning where does the courage come from? He misunderstands and talks about planes false papers and the underground. I lamely wish him good luck and ask, "By the way what happened to the preist?" "After some days his body appeared in the dump, burn marks on his eyelids, the mark of the beast."


    You can buy anything over the counter in mexico city. We carry medical supplies to the Guatemalen refugee camps. Remote. Sad, tired faces. Pathetic smiles of welcome. The airplane the only contact with civilization and its casual gifts of aid on which they almost survive. All the little boys along the dirt runway hold toy planes made of scraps of wood. Our medicine is all that they have - six full suitcases for 8,000 people. They feel that we, and those like us, are their only hope. Someone to tell their story to the outside world.


    The day we go up to the Honduran border is the day they commemorate Sandino's death. Racing through managua streets in Sandino Day dawn. Fireworks at 5 a.m. Hope and hard work. Reconstruction. New houses mushroon slowly out of blasted ground. Fonsecas tomb is guarded by a kid in sneakers with a Cheka machine-gun. Fields of fresh rice. Girl driving donkey cart. Small boy on horseback driving a cow across the highway. Siren river, onion fields, tobacco coops. Flowering leafless fruit tress. We're following the army to the Honduran border. Crowded ancient buses. A car with Salvadoran plates. Tobacco fields are raided, therfore constantly guarded. Ironically, Nicaragua reminds me of Israel in a certain sense - being surrounded by enemies. Everything is militarized and everyone is aware of the need for self defense.

    We pass an army barracks that looks like a farm. A shot down Somoza aircraft is planted on a hilltop flying the FSLN banner on its tail. Banner in a rural village says, "as Nicaragua has children who love her she will always be free." Women carry firewood on shoulders up the hill. Palms and pines on denuded hills. Battered buses with fantastic paint jobs, jammed with people. People cling to the roof racks, hang from the doors and the windows hoping they won't have to get off and push. Hot roads, diesel clouds - the whole third world perfumed with diesel. A fat man sleeps in the back of a pick-up, feet dangling over the bumper. Rugged budhy hills full of the smell of coffee. Occaisional pause for the crossing of beautiful milky white half-Brahma cattle. Around the bend and there it is - a chain across the road, a custom house and a garrison of half a dozen militia. Thirty metres away a few Hondurans watch with suspicion and strut around like John Wayne. Their look outs hiding on the hill top watch us through field glasses while I watch them with mine.

    The main spokesman for the Nicaraguan garrison at the border is a short plump pleasant guy with a bad leg. I ask him, "what happens when you have to fight?"

    For he walked with a severe limp and had trouble getting around. He says, "Sandinistas don't run anyway."

    Women of the town laundry, Nicaragua, 1983.

    Warm night blanket floats down. Dim silhouette of trees in friendly dark. Headlights pick smashed sack of corn strewn over asphalt. A single tarantula stands guard. Rodrigo, the driver, keeps chickens, so we jump out and spend ten minutes filling the trunk with dusty kernels.

    Later we have car trouble - limp into military truck depot. Barbed wire gates glint in the moonlight. A hundred tired soldiers stretched out on the grass. Tired from a month on the cotton fields. We sing. They sing. Men and women, all young. Guitars and guns. Ballistic music blows open every heart. Passion bursts like rockets. Cotton bales bursting at the seams. Dignity and poems bursting out of parched poverty trance - broken forever.

    Brilliant green birds over the lava hole. Volcanoes stand around like the gods of old, pumping incense of the earth into the tropical sky. Down on the beach, horses canter through the surf as warm as bath water. Emerald birds against flaming hills. Dry thunder and hot sky. Dust hangs in the air behind the feet of a passer by. Scent of lilac in the dense night. Laughter from a passing jeep. I lean back against the cool wall. Too much heat. This northen body can't sleep. Returning to Toronto from Nicaragua is like coming from colour to black and white.
    -- from The Mark of the Beast: A Notebook on Central America" by Bruce Cockburn, May 1984, Gaumut Six.

  • 19 October 1984 - Commenting on the reasons for the trips in the early 80's to Central America

    The idea was to reach a different audience than the politicians by having us go and observe, using the relative visibility that we have to educate the Canadian public to what we had seen and to raise money for projects that OXFAM has in the region.
    -- from "The Long March of Bruce Cockburn: From Folkie to Rocker, Singing About Injustice" by Richard Harrington, Washington Post,October 19, 1984.

  • 23 May 1985 - Commenting on the refugee camps

    Observing the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, "I understand now why people want to kill." Then he wrote "If I Had a Rocket Launcher."

    "The universe will continue to unfold regardless of what happens to the Sandinistas, or me and you, or Russia and the States," he says. "I also think that death isn't such a horrifying experience. It's like the ecstatic experiences - I think life is like that underneath it all. It's just too bad the rest of it keeps getting in the way."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn Launches a Hit - Fired by Christian pacifism, the Canadian singer targets new, worldwide success" by Steve Pond, Rolling Stone, May 23, 1985.

  • March 1987 - Commenting on the "Rocket Launcher" influence

    "Maybe it takes those conditions to bring it out in people. But there was a real willingness to share problems and to share whatever they had with whoever was there, in spite of everyone knowing that someone like me had his ticket home in his pocket.

    It's not as though they're saints, either. They're still capable of killing each other and doing terrible things just like the rest of us. But there's something very beautiful in their struggle. They may be committed to making serious mistakes, or they may size up their surroundings all wrong and blame the wrong people. It's important to me to try to communicate the humanity of that." -- from "Bruce Cockburn - A Voice Singing in the Wilderness" By Steve Perry, Musician Magazine, March 1987.

  • 3 April 1992 - Commenting on travelling in Central America

    Asked if such trips necessarily give the observer the clearest possible view of what's really going on, Cockburn replied, "I wouldn't say so, but it gives you a vivid view." Then he went on to explain.

    "The moving part of it for me," he said, "was, well, first of all, to see what suffering people can really experience, and then to see how people respond to that suffering or to the threats that they're under and so on. Especially in the refugee camps, people were so together, given the circumstances, and had such an ability not to fall into hopelessness. That was the most moving thing at all, and that, combined with the threat of violence against those people particularly, was a terrible feeling and a terrible set of feelings to have and a terrible sort of juxtaposition to see.

    "These people had absolutely nothing and no prospects whatever. Still, they were trying to get something going, they were still building schools in their refugee camps even though they had nothing to put in them, no books and no teachers. They built a little infirmary even though they didn't have any medicine, just so they'd be ready when it did come, and it never did, of course. The Mexican army went in and burned it all down after a while.

    "But those people still had this ability to go, 'Well, okay, we're just gonna build something here.' That just made the kind of cynicism, that we who live in the developed world can so easily feel about the usefulness or not of political action, seem so pathetic. It seemed like complete self-indulgence for us to sit around going, 'Oh, well, there's nothing we can do.'"

    Naturally, Cockburn tried to express such impressions in song.

    When I wrote 'Rocket Launcher' , I was in San Cristobal de los Casas in Mexico," Cockburn said. "I was in a hotel drinking a bottle of Scotch the day after I came out the refugee camps, and I was in tears thinking about it and writing this song. It doesn't get much more direct than that. And the songs from Nicaragua were written after the fact, but with notes; they were almost complete in the notebook in Nicaragua. Dust & Diesel is one of those, so is the song Nicaragua, although it's got a bit more editorial content. Dust and Diesel is straight reportage, really. All I did was make a list of things that happened and put it to music."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn- A Burning Light and All the Rest", Goldmine, by William Ruhlmann, April 3, 1992, 1992 Krause Publications.

  • 20 May 1996 - Commenting on politics in Guatemala

    You may try to be apolitical in Guatemala, but the politics is liable to come around in the night with a machete and take pieces off your body.

    Some of those (politically aware) people are a little disappointed, perhaps, with the current album," Cockburn admits. "But the things people call political'... were very personal statements.
    -- from "Cockburn's Quiet Passion", Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1996.

  • January 2000 -

    Joseph Roberts: What is going on in Central America, specifically Nicaragua?

    BC: I just read a CAA magazine article about tourism in Nicaragua, how you can stay in this nice resort where everybody looks after you. The first indication I've seen that somebody is actually looking to try to work on things from that end - and I'm not sure how valuable that is for the majority of the people - but at least somebody is trying to focus some attention there in terms of getting money into the country.

    What that story would translate into when you actually went there I don't know, but I suppose somebody somewhere in the business world is thinking that Nicaragua could be another Costa Rica. That's somewhat better than it was under Samoza, but I don't know. At the moment things are just about as bad as they can be.

    One friend of mine who's active in politics, church and social work there, although I haven't seen him for about a year,[says] it was pretty rough back then. Between the hurricane [editor's note: Hurricane Mitch] and volcanic eruptions and the total dismemberment of any society that the Sandinistas had tried to build, most of the gains have been rolled back."
    -- from "Conversations with Bruce Cockburn", Common Ground, January, 2000, interviewed by Joseph Roberts. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • 27 July 2000 - Commenting about his trip to Guatemala with Oxfam

    "It was my first encounter with the real Third World other than as a tourist. When you go with--I hesitate to call it 'official' status, but --with a reason to be there beyond tourism, then you find that you have access to people in their homes talking about the way that they think and it's a whole other experience-- a much richer one. The experiences on that trip produced If I Had A Rocket Launcher. I was trying to describe the sensation that was very easy to feel and make people understand how easy it was to get into that mind set, coming from the relatively secure and sheltered environment most of us have in North America."

    "It changed the course of things for me because the song got on the radio--even MTV. It's the only thing of mine that they've ever shown that I can think of. In any case, the song got exposed and that changed my history."
    -- from The North Coast Journal, Taking a Stand, by Bob Duran, July 27, 2000. Submitted by Bobbi Wisby.

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    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.