30th Anniversary of the Hotel Fire in Nicaragua that killed Margaret Roff Part 2

Introduction

On 18th October 2017 [1] it will be 30th anniversary of the death, in a hotel fire in Nicaragua, of Margaret Roff, a Manchester City Councillor from 1982 to 1987. This is the second blog post on this subject. The first post gives more information about Margaret’s life, what happened about her withdrawal from being the candidate for Lord Mayor in 1985 and a little context about the trip to Puerto Cabezas in 1987. Since posting that, I have been able to contact Maggie Walker – who was on the same trip with Margaret Roff – via the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC), and also make contact with Margaret Ledwith – whose book I quoted from – via her publisher. Below is more detail from those two sources and a Guardian article detailed in the reference section at the end. This gives more context about why the Left was so interested in Nicaragua and about Margaret Roff and Maggie Walker’s trip to Puerto Cabezas.

Background

“It was the 1980s and Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution was captivating hearts and minds around the world. The olive-uniformed guerrillas had overthrown the hated Somoza dictatorship and were trying to build a more equal society by empowering women, giving peasants land and teaching the illiterate to read. But it was the cold war and where others saw hope, the Reagan administration saw a communist beachhead in central America. It imposed sanctions and sponsored insurgents, the contras, to strangle the revolution.

For the left in Europe, North America and elsewhere Nicaragua became a cause. A popular, progressive and legitimate government in an impoverished country in the developing world was under imperialist attack. It deserved and needed help. Thousands of westerners took planes, boats, buses and motorcycles to this previously unknown backwater between Honduras and Costa Rica. Some were hippies, some were adventurers, some were socialists, many wore Birkenstocks. The Sandalistas were born.

It was a heady time. Central America was a military and ideological battlefield for the US and the Soviet Union. To those who were there it felt like the centre of the world, especially Nicaragua. The revolution was young and fresh and exciting. There was so much to do – schools to be built, coffee to be picked, classes to be taught, the truth to be told. And by God it was fun. If you had dollars, the beer was cheap and you could go dancing every night.” [2]

Posters were used to rally support for the revolution inside and outside Nicaragua. Thousands of foreign left-wing sympathisers – known as Sandalistas – came to work in solidarity. [3]

Mancunian Solidarity with Nicaragua

From Margaret Ledwith (via email October 2017):

In the mid-late 1980s, we had a very active Nicaragua Solidarity Group in Manchester. Often, we held meetings and events in the town hall with a number of the more radical politicians of the time in attendance, sometimes hosting Nicaraguan people. Mary, whose surname I forget, was a women from Puerto Cabezas who spent a lot of time in Manchester, and I am wondering if this is where the idea for links with Puerto Cabezas began.

With the full support of Manchester City Council, Frank Ledwith and I went to Nicaragua to represent Manchester holding out the hand of friendship in what we called a twinning agreement. We joined a larger group of people who were guided round Nicaragua by Dave Thompson(?), who lived permanently in Managua working with those who had been disabled by the war with the Contra.

There are many vivid memories I have of Nicaragua. Once we were there, we were out of contact with home. Sonic booms echoed over Managua at the same time every evening by the Americans, warning this little country so committed to participatory democracy that it could be annihilated at whim! It was terrifying for everyone. The country was struggling to survive in the face of all the land mines that were planted by the Contra on roads around schools and health centres destroying the benefits of the aid that was getting through. More than that, there were frequent attacks on communities from groups of Contra who would come down from the hills, abducting women and children, murdering and torturing people along the way.

I was swept up in one such attack on our way to Bluefields, the bus driver was scared stiff, did a U-turn and bumped over all the potholes on the dirt road back to Managua. We caught a small plane, hardly capable of flight, from Managua to Puerto Cabezas. The town was hardly functioning: all who could get out had got out; there were frequent attacks by sea, the electricity was off more than on, life was tough.

Women’s Study Tour of Nicaragua September/October 1987

Maggie Walker was travelling with Margaret Roff and was injured in the same hotel fire in Puerto Cabezas that killed Margaret, plus 6 Nicaraguans and 2 people from visiting aid organisations from Chile and Cuba, and injured eleven other people. This is Maggie’s account (via emails October 2017):

As part of the Manchester – Puerto Cabezas Direct Links we had a number of groups. One was ‘Twin Sisters’ linking Manchester women and women’s groups with women’s groups in Puerto Cabezas. As part of Direct Links we had a number of guests who came from Puerto Cabezas to Manchester, for example to do a health course, and a number of people went out to Puerto Cabezas to share skills, etc. I think it was mainly women who came here from Puerto Cabezas.

As Twin Sisters, a number of us decided to join a Nicaragua Solidarity Group women’s study tour to Nicaragua (you had to fundraise to cover your own flight and the tour price) and add on to it a visit to Puerto Cabezas – which wasn’t part of the normal itinerary. We wanted there to be links between local women’s groups and Puerto Cabezas groups, so we also recruited women from local groups, such as Abasindi Black Women’s Co-op and Salford Women’s Centre to join us and helped fundraise for their places. So there were quite a few of us from Manchester who went on the women’s study tour with women from across the country.

Seven of the Manchester women extended their trip by a few days to Puerto Cabezas, but Margaret Roff and I had decided to stay an additional week to do more work building links (I can’t remember whose idea that was). I guess you’d say that Margaret and I were colleagues in a political group – we had friends in common, but didn’t know each other well prior to the trip.

It wasn’t comfortable, we undertook journeys in rickety trucks, food disagreed with us. People or things we wanted to see were not always where we had been told to expect them. But, it was inspiring, we met fascinating people who were over-coming enormous odds to redevelop their war-torn, colonised communities. It was very satisfying to develop with them the ideas for the way that links between Manchester and our new friends in Puerto Cabezas could be developed, to understand their thinking and their needs.

I have a copy of a letter that I wrote before the fire (9th October 1987). It says:

“The $9000 was safely handed over to Myrna Cunningham (Doctora) last night in a little meeting with the Director of the Hospital, the sub-commandante, a representative of the mayor, Myrna Taylor, Mary Daniels from the commission for Peace and Autonomy and the local radio present.”

“I also presented $450 towards the Awastara school project and Juan Salgardo and other members of Kisan for Peace were there. What’s more we’ve got the whole thing on video!”

“…. we’re being looked after by Elvira Hodgson (who knew Frank and Margaret [Ledwith]) and are guests of the Town for hotel and meals and they arranged a full programme altho’ they say that they only knew that we were coming two days before we got here.”

“Also exciting is the trip planned for this weekend. Margaret Roff and I are going along with visiting aid organisations to visit projects all over Zelaya Norte including the mines …”

“Please tell Twin Sisters that we handed over the banner and sewing things to four women from the sewing co-op and Senora Garuche(?). There are 5 co-ops in the region and our sewing machines are at Yuba.”

I think that shows some of the dynamism of the community links at that time.

It was at the end of this inspiring time – filled with a sense of purpose and achievement – that we were woken by shouts in our hotel. Margaret translated the shouts as “Fire”. Margaret died along with others attempting to escape from that disastrous fire.

The hotel fire was not the result of a Contra attack, it was just an unfortunate accident, but the fact that we were still there at that point was because of the isolation of Puerto Cabezas. And that was partly caused by the combination of geography, Contra activity and US sanctions.

Margaret and I had been due to fly out before the fire, but the only plane that flew that route wasn’t available so our flight had been cancelled. The road link was torturous as the road was poor and it crossed many rivers and the bridges were often down due to Contra attack and inadequate resources for repair. After the accident I, and others injured, were flown to Managua on a military aircraft.

What happened after 1987?

“The war with the contras dragged on, the economy collapsed, the Berlin wall fell and in 1990, during a ceasefire, an election was held. Almost everyone expected the Sandinistas to win. They lost. Nicaraguans were tired of conscription, of shortages, of sacrifice. It was a staggering result. The revolution was over. Washington’s glee was boundless. The Sandinistas went into opposition and their foreign guests, the Sandalistas, went home.” [2]

In 1997 there was a Civic Reception held to mark the 10th Anniversary of Margaret Roff’s death. This PDF is the wording in the programme for that reception and it was displayed on the wall in the Town Hall for many years (some details from that quoted in the previous blog post). This PDF is the speech given that day by Maggie Walker (some details from that included in the account from Maggie above).

Formal linking activity between Manchester and Puerto Cabezas ended many years ago. A group who had been involved in the Direct Links and Twin Sisters got together to do some one-off fund-raising after a hurricane devastated the area in 2007[1].

As I write this Nicaragua is again in the news having been hit by another devastating tropical storm Nate. Nate wrought a path of destruction across Central America with the highest death toll reported in Nicaragua, where at least 16 people lost their lives. Almost 6,000 homes have been damaged, and 30,000 people have been affected by landslides and flooding in Central America. Before the storm hit, Nicaragua had already suffered two weeks of heavy rainfall which left the ground saturated.[4]

My thoughts are with those poor people facing such a struggle to rebuild. And on this anniversary of the death of 9 people in the Puertos Cabezas hotel fire, my thoughts are for the families who lost loved ones and for the 12 who were injured.

References

[1] Notice of Benefit Events for Nicaragua Hurricane Appeal https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/manchester/2007/10/383394.html

[2] ‘The Sandalistas who never left’, Rory Carroll, Guardian, 12 February 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/feb/12/11 (Viewed 15 October 2017)

“Thousands of foreigners were so inspired by Nicaragua’s communist revolution that they flocked to help the country in the 1980s. When the Sandinistas lost power in 1990, most left, but not all. Now, nearly 30 years later, Rory Carroll tracks down six of them to hear their stories.”

[3] In pictures: Sandinista revolution remembered, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10689502

[4] Nicaragua Death Toll Rises and Costa Rica in Crisis After Tropical Storm Nate, www.telesurtv.net, 7 October 2017, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Nicaragua-Death-Toll-Rises-and-Costa-Rica-in-Crisis-After-Tropical-Storm-Nate-20171007-0020.html

More information

  1. Nicaragua timeline – A chronology of key events http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/country_profiles/1225283.stm
  2. Nicaragua profile – Timeline (Same info in timeline above, but other links at edgeshttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-19909695

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