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Last Updated: 07/14/2003Bill Brown 2
talks to Simon Stander
When the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) began, Bill Brown and Joe Eldridge, and, later, others divided the tasks on a geographical basis. Bill took Central America, and for the next few years dedicated himself to bringing spokesmen for the oppressed and for change to Washington as well as highlighting the state terrorism that existed throughout most of Central America.
When the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) began, Bill Brown and Joe Eldridge, and, later, others divided the tasks on a geographical basis. Bill took Central America, and for the next few years dedicated himself to bringing spokesmen for the oppressed and for change to Washington as well as highlighting the state terrorism that existed throughout Central America (apart from Costa Rica). While Honduras proved too much for Bill’s dogged bravery, he became a frequent visitor to Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. He proved to be such a thorn in the side of dictators there that he appeared as number three on a ten-man death list when a professional assassin was picked up in Tallahassee headed his way. One of the many US law enforcement agencies sent a counter-terrorist expert round to advise on how to avoid being killed by a car bomb. Among the advice was “don’t wash your car: that way you can spot finger and hand marks made as the bomber puts a bomb underneath your car.” Another piece of advice was less palatable. Always lean into your vehicle to switch on the ignition without sitting down. That way you’ll only lose an arm.
Bill had become targeted because of the part he was playing in the struggle to remove the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle from power in Nicaragua. Bill was a friend and associate of the owner of the leader of the opposition and owner of the newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Chamorro allayed Bill’s fears by saying that Somoza would not have him killed while in Nicaragua because the repercussions on his regime would be too serious. Bill was, strangely safer in Nicaragua than Washington!
However, Chamorro was himself killed when three men pumped eighteen bullets into him while driving in Managua in 1978. This proved to be the spark that began the Sandanista uprising against Somoza. Miguel Descoto, then a priest and later the Nicaraguan foreign minister, called Bill and said: “We are going in. Pray for us.”
“I am not much of a man with prayers,” Bill said candidly.
“Your whole life has been a prayer, William Brown,” Descoto the priest replied.
This remains one of the many compliments that Bill received over the years by those he has worked with: presidents, academics, trade unionists, people from all walks of life.
However, in the muddle of Nicaraguan politics, Pedro Chamorro’s wife, educated in the USA and from a wealthy Nicaraguan ranching family, broke with the Sandanistas soon after when she led a coalition of centre right parties in 1990 to defeat Daniel Ortega. She thus opened the way for the current President Aleman whose record in power leaves much to be desired.
Though Bill left the WOLA Office to nurse his terminally ill wife, he remained a respected voice for many years. At one point when the situation in Paraguay appeared to be opening up, Bill was asked to accompany Jo-Marie, WOLA’s first secretary and former nun, to address a leftist conference in Asuncion. While in the bathroom of his hotle room, the hotel manager called to him saying he was about to be arrested. His staff had got Jo-Marie out of her room and away through a back door but that was now being covered by the authorities. Bill’s first concern was that he was naked: gathering his wits as quickly as his clothes, he dressed, walked purposefully through the hotel lobby noting on the way the piles of telephone handsets that had been disconnected, without a clue as to what to do. He spotted a German couple he had spoken to the night before arriving in a taxi. He called to them from way across the lobby in German and rushed to them, greeting them like old friends, kissed the wife and leapt into the taxi which got him safely to the US Embassy. Lucky for him he had studied German as part of his Yale entrance and for having a German-speaking wife.
In these long struggles, Bill counts the words of one of his foremost enemies as one of the most telling. When Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the deposed dictator of Nicaragua, was in exile in Paraguay protected by President Stroessner, he wrote his book Nicaragua Betrayed: in it William B Brown is mentioned as the biggest traitor of all. Yes, that was one of the best compliments of all.
Joe Eldrige, now Chairman of the Board of the Washington Office of Latin America, writes of its founding: “we were the very first lobby/advocacy group operating in Washington focusing on the Congress and the White House. There was no Amnesty [International] office or Human Rights office. We were blazing a trail that others would follow…Bill was absolutely the first voice to warn about the violence and wars to come…Had official Washington listened to Bill, there would have been no civil war in El Salvador.”
Even in the peaceful landscape of Costa Rica, Bill has made an impression, too. He went there to help Javier Solis, another priest (who has since left the priesthood), to set up the printing presses for the outspoken newspaper El Pueblo. This led to the formation of the now established English speaking newspaper Tico Times.
Many activists experience bitter disappointments, but Bill has achieved more than most. He had the courage to stick his neck out and the generosity to open his pockets to help create a better world. He has left a permanent mark. Please, let there be more men and women like him.
For more on WOLA www.wola.org
For more on the death of Somoza: Claribel Alegria & Darwin J Flakoll, Death of Somoza, Curbstone Press, 2001.