A few weeks ago, I found out that this June I will present at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations’ annual conference in San Diego as part of a panel discussing cities and municipalities as transnational actors. In preparation for my paper, which will discuss the international sister city or twinning movement with Nicaragua in the 1980s, I have been skimming through some digitized newspaper collections and, in the process, come across a number of articles discussing the former mayor of Burlington Vermont, Bernard “Bernie” Sanders.
It turns out that Sanders was not only a vocal opponent of the Reagan administration’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras, which he described as “a local issue” that robbed the Vermonters of the “funding we need for our children, our elderly people, our poor people,” but he also worked to promote peaceful relations with the Sandinistas.
In 1984, Sanders encouraged the creation of a sister city partnership between Burlington and the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, which allowed for North American aid to reach the impoverished Central American community and facilitated a grassroots “people to people” diplomacy. In 1985, he visited Puerto Cabeza and later traveled to Managua in order to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship.
Today, the Puerto Cabezas/Burlington sister city relationship, unlike many similar partnerships begun during this era, is still in effect, with the citizens of Burlington having helped create a tree nursery and other sustainability programs in Puerto Cabezas. For his part, Sanders, who the people of Vermont would later elect as one of their Senators and is currently competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, was deeply moved by his experiences in Nicaragua, which he described as “deeply emotional.” It is, however, unlikely that Sanders still holds Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is criticized by many for the apparent corruption of his administration, in as high of esteem as he did in 1985.