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  Number 266 | Septiembre 2003
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Caribbean Coast: Multiethnic, Multilingual ...and Finally Autonomous?

After 16 years, the National Assembly finally approved a regulatory law to implement the Autonomy Statute for Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. After such a long wait, what shape is the Coast in to receive it? Four Caribbean voices from Bilwi and Bluefields, the two autonomous regions’ capitals, offer their views.

William Grigsby

Nicaragua’s Caribbean populations are not so different from other Latin American indigenous peoples. But they are exceptional in that after eleven wars and three bloody colonization processes they now have an Autonomy Statute, an instrument that, despite its many defects, grants them the possibility of achieving autochthonous development over time—and, some believe, perhaps even independence.

That law, passed by the National Assembly in 1987, offers Nicaraguans the chance to construct a society that harmonizes very diverse racial, political and cultural interests. If we can be humble enough to learn from those whose human and natural resources have been brutally exploited up to now, we could build a nation that is effectively “multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual, based on democracy, pluralism, anti-imperialism and the elimination of social exploitation and oppression in all its forms,” as described in Law 28, the Autonomy Statute.

The unique situation of Nicaragua’s Caribbean region provides unquestionable hope for the rest of the country, according to Creole sociologist Henningston Hodgson Mairena: “If our starting point is multiethnicity, the diversity we have as Nicaraguans, we would form a multiethnic nation-state in which you’d strengthen not only an autonomous system, but a nation. You’d reforge a nicer kind of Nicaragua that everyone wants to see. Not the country we’re headed toward now, where everything will be destruction and chaos. You’d refound a Nicaragua that’s really worth thinking about.”

Spectacular population growth and spectacular poverty

The autonomous Caribbean region—the area historically referred to as the Atlantic Coast—is quite extensive and rich, covering approximately 46% of the nation’s territory (59,673.60 km2) and containing 53% of its natural resources. The year the autonomy law was passed, it had close to 300,000 inhabitants (9.5% of the national population), distributed as follows: 182,000 Spanish-speaking mestizos; 75,000 Miskitos with their own language; 26,000 English-speaking Creoles; 9,000 Sumu/Mayangnas with their own language; 1,750 Garífunas, most of whom have lost their native tongue and now speak either Spanish or Creole English; and 850 English-speaking Ramas, only 35 of whom still speak their own language.

In political-administrative terms, the region is divided into two parts: the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), which in 1997, ten years after the law was passed, had 243,416 inhabitants in seven municipalities distributed over 32,127.28 km2; and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), whose 343,877 inhabitants live in eleven municipalities covering 27,546.32 km2. Waslala, nominally a municipality of the RAAN, is indefinitely assigned to the department of Matagal-pa; and the RAAS municipalities of El Rama, Nueva Guinea and Muelle de los Bueyes are similarly assigned to the department of Chontales. The exclusion of these municipalities of almost exclusively Spanish-speaking mestizos means that the Autonomy Statute governs only six municipalities in the RAAN and eight in the RAAS.

Three indigenous peoples—Ramas, May-angnas (Sumus) and Miskitos—native to the coast live alongside three ethnic communities that arrived at later periods—Creoles, Garífunas and mestizos (the latter of mixed Spanish and indigenous descendence from the Pacific side of Nicaragua). In addition to the excluded municipalities mentioned above, mestizos predominate in the mining municipalities of Rosita, Siuna and Bonanza; Miskitos in Bilwi, the RAAN’s capital, and along the Río Coco, the savannah south of it and its seaboard; Creoles in Pearl Lagoon and Corn Island; and Ramas in Rama Key and a few communities south of Bluefields Bay. Bluefields, the capital of the RAAS, is multiethnic, although its cultural foundations are Creole.

Researcher Alfonso Navarrete, of the Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (FADCANIC), explains that “new communities are born every year, generally off-shoots from a mother community, located on land it claims.” According to Navarrete, since the 1894 occupation of Bluefields by troops sent by Liberal President José Santos Zelaya, a process officially dubbed the “Reincorporation of the Mosquitia,” “the communities have still not received legal recognition by the state, nor is there a national registry of indigenous communities.” Residents of Bilwi and Waspán did, however, receive “communal” or “multi-communal” titles in the 1920s, which the Sandinista government recognized in the 80s.

According to 1998 figures, the country’s unusually high population growth rate of 3.5% has hit 5.1% in the Caribbean region, and a spectacular 17% in the RAAN in recent years. The population grew by 30% in Bilwi, 14.8% in Siuna, 12.5% in Rosita, 11.9% in Bonanza, 8.5% in Prinzapolka and 7.3% in Waspán. A FADCANIC projection suggests that as of this year, the coast will have a population of 587,293 (11% of the national population of a little over 5.3 million inhabitants), an estimated 26% growth since the 1996-97 INEC -INETER figures used in the accompanying table.

This growth is not because Caribbean families have more children, but because of a massive colonization of the areas bordering the Pacific side, pushing the agricultural frontier ever closer to the Caribbean Sea. This advance is partly by poor peasants forced to carve out new places to try to survive, but also by foreign and national lumber dealers who deliberately and often illegally occupy virgin territories to ravage their valuable natural resources. Their seemingly limitless voracity attracts in its wake hundreds of impoverished families from rural zones all over the country.

Navarrete argues that “the Atlantic Coast accounts for Nicaragua’s greatest population growth index due to migration, because of a net increase in mestizo families systematically settling in the agricultural frontier areas.” And he offers other data: only a third of the Coast’s total population is settled in urban zones, with the other two thirds in largely remote rural areas. While 43% of the population over 10 years old is illiterate (the national mean is 24.5%), that rate hits 55% in rural areas, and is even higher among girls and women. A full 73-75% of the population lives in poverty or extreme poverty, while the employed receive wages that barely cover 50% of their family’s basic needs, with 80% going to the purchase of food.

Are the ethnic groups in danger of extinction?

Various powers combine and compete judicially and socially: communal leadership (according to the ancestral way of community organization), the municipal government (ruled by a national law), the autonomous regional governments and the central government. The framework in which they supposedly all function is provided by the Constitution and the Autonomy Statute. It is admirable and exemplary how the Caribbean peoples have managed to harmonize such complex relations without lessening their own identity and in the process acquiring an increasingly lucid idea of the kind of society they want, whether within or outside of what is today known as Nicaragua.

Ethically, their reality has been changing, with mestizos now the overwhelming majority. Noel Campbell Hooker, a chemical engineer who studied in Nicaragua, Poland and the United States and is currently production engineer of a Managua pharmaceutical laboratory, cites as an example the changes in the black population of Bluefields, where he was born 53 years ago: “In the sixties, 70% of the Bluefields population was black. Today we blacks—some call us Creoles, but I say black—represent barely 30%. Everything changed in just forty years.”
Are the ethnic groups in danger of extinction? Campbell thinks they are. “There’s a danger if people don’t deal with the situation. I think that the universities—BICU in the southern Caribbean and URACCAN in the north—can play a very important role in avoiding it by molding professionals with a pro-autonomy mentality. But in twenty year’s time we will be a tiny minority ethnically.”
Henningston Hodgson, 41, like Campbell a native of Bluefields, sees the glass more half full than half empty. Coordinator of a Swedish cooperation program for the Caribbean since 1994, he thinks that the mestizos’ continuing occupation of Caribbean territories will lead to “very interesting transculturating, but everything will depend on how the coast people capitalize on this.” Nonetheless, he admits that “the peasants who keep pushing across the agricultural frontier have a pro-state scheme and when they get to the autonomous regions they only recognize the presence of the state.” In that regard, Hodgson believes that the Autonomy Statute and the Electoral Law are two vital instruments “because they defend the region’s multiethnic and multicultural characteristics, so that here, for example, one speaks of ethnically-defined electrical districts.”

Multiethnic spaces defended by law

Article 19 of the Autonomy Statute defines the establishment of 45-member “administrative bodies,” or Regional Councils, in which “all ethnic communities of the respective Autonomous Region must be represented, in accord with the system determined by the Electoral Law.” Article 142 establishes that three council members will be elected in each of the 15 electoral districts into which each region is divided. In the case of the RAAS, it specifies six districts in which the first candidate on any party’s slate of three must respectively be a Miskito, Creole, Sumu, Garífuna, Rama or mestizo. For the RAAN, which has no Garífuna or Rama population, it specifies four districts in which the first candidate on any slate must respectively be a Miskito, Creole, Sumu-Mayangna or mestizo. This provision assures that at least one person who identifies as a member of any ethnic group with a presence in one of the two regions will be elected to the Regional Council of that region, and the same holds true for the internal election of each Council’s seven-member board.

Hodgson says that those electoral districts are still defined by ethnic groups, although the designated group may no longer be dominant. “I can cite two typical cases for you,” he says, “Corn Island [in the RAAS) and ‘the Mines’ [as everyone generically refers to the mining towns of Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza, in the RAAN]. The law establishes that the first candidate on each slate for the Corn Island electoral district must be a Creole, although the Miskito population is currently the majority on the island. How does this get dealt with, how is it defended, how do you even explain it? It is understood within the culture. The explanation has to do with belonging. The Miskitos on Corn Island are clear in their mind that this isn’t their community, that they are recent immigrants to Corn Island. And the Creoles similarly are clear that Corn Island is their community, that it’s their territory.”
The law states that in the Mines, a Mayangna must head any slate of candidates for the electoral district made up of Rosita’s urban center and a mestizo must head any slate in the rural sector of the same municipality, which is a separate electoral district. With respect to this case Hodgson says: “Although it is true that the peasant invasion of the agricultural frontier means there are now more mestizos than members of the indigenous groups, it also needs to be appreciated that the Rosita territory ‘belongs to’ the Mayangna and Miskito communities while the mestizo peasant is an immigrant. I feel that all this could start changing once the whole process is enriched and new values are incorporated—where Miskitos, Mayangnas and mestizos all feel that everybody’s main value or mission is to develop and move ahead. But for now, I think the ethnic distribution of the Councils will be maintained, as will the pressure caused by the sense of ownership of that territory.”

The influential Miskito culture

Matilde Lindo Crisanto, a feminist leader, lawyer and sociologist who got her degree in Cuba, believes that the influence of the dominant race in each territory will end up culturally absorbing all the other ethnic groups. Born in Bilwi and proudly representative of the black population there, Lindo says that “there are people who say they are Miskito but are black with all the Negroid characteristics, or white with all the physical characteristics of a chele [the Nicaraguan term for a light-skinned person, usually referring to a foreigner], or Chinese with all the characteristics of an Asian. They assume Miskito identity with full ownership. The Miskito culture is very, very influential now, unlike the seventies.”
She adds that “it is different in the case of the Mayangnas: they nearly always stick together, although there is no quantitative growth among them because they only reproduce among themselves. Although they have gone out and related to others, they always maintain their Mayangna identity.”

A hodge-podge of cultures

Campbell agrees with Lindo about the determinant influence of the autochthonous cultures on the mestizo groups, on which he bases his hopes that autonomy will endure beyond the ethnic groups themselves. “A person from Masaya,” he explains, “moves to Bluefields. He doesn’t eat coast food or have any interest in coast music, but just watch how his children and grandchildren become coast people. In the end, there’s no cultural difference between a person like me who has lived his whole life in Bluefields and the grandchild of a mestizo from Masaya. That Masayan’s children or grandchildren will have the same need to be heard and to participate, and that’s why they embrace autonomy with almost the same force as a native costeño. There comes a point when, for some reason, the second and third generations are absorbed into the Bluefields way of being.”
“The way Bluefields residents see the world,” continues Campbell, “is the result of the dynamic participation of Dutch and French pirates, the implanted descendants of unenslaved Africans, the taciturn Ramas and the subdued German Moravians from the center of what was once Czechoslovakia—and I say subdued because their iron German discipline had to come to terms with the tropics. This mix is why I believe that all those living in the Caribbean will continue feeling different from the rest of the country and will therefore feel that autonomy is a real need for them. And this mix is also why I say that, despite being an ethnic minority, our way of looking at the world will continue being molded by the original forms that all these peoples brought us.”

Miskitos, Creoles, Mayangnas:
“There’s racism among us, too”

Matilde Lindo Crisanto recognizes that as an ethnic group the Creoles have not conserved all their traditions, at least with respect to organization. Based on her experience in Bilwi, where the black population is a tiny fraction of the total, she believes that “we don’t have a clear and specific representation of how to exercise our kind of authority. We can talk about the issue in meetings of black people, which has been happening more and more recently. And we can talk in some churches where we come together as Creoles for the service. But we don’t exercise our practices, our authority. We fall into what is established in the state or any other framework.”
According to her, the Miskito people “are the ones who really hang on to their ancestral traditions. They constantly invoke their customs in their lives. Wherever they go, Miskitos continue preaching their customs and traditions. The Mayangnas no; they live them out in their community. They are the most closed group in terms of not mixing with outsiders. But when they do leave their community, they react the same as the Creoles.”
Lindo identifies even more tensions among the Creoles and admits, “There is racism among us.” Do Miskitos feel superior? “At times,” she answers. “You know, we black people are really the ones who feel ourselves superior. And that’s why there are many black people in the formal exercise of power in the RAAN, a number way out of proportion to the small size of our population. There’s always a kind of hostility between the Miskitos and blacks. The Mayangnas have another way of being. I see them as more intellectual. They’re very good at that. They don’t make a lot of ruckus, like Miskitos or black people can do. They go around much more quietly, but they’re involved everywhere. It’s like they were clearer about what they want as a group, not as individuals.”

Limited autonomous government with still unknown regulations

The Caribbean leaders don’t seem satisfied with the current status quo. As an FSLN leader, Dorotea Wilson participated in the peace negotiations with the leaders of the indigenous movement that took up arms against the revolution in the eighties. She was born in Bilwi 55 years ago, became a nun then left the convent to fight in the mountains under the command of “Modesto,” as Comandante Henry Ruiz was known during the struggle against Somoza. She later became a teacher and sociologist and is currently a black feminist leader. She believes that the autonomous governments cannot exercise their authority simply because they don’t have enough resources.

“The autonomous regional government,” she says, “is limited because one hundred percent of the budget comes from the central government. So it functions only if there’s enough money to call the 45 members of each Autonomous Regional Council to a session. If the budget doesn’t arrive for two or three months, there’s no session during that time. There’s no capacity to hold meetings with their own agenda, to define their priorities and to get down to work without that outside money. The central government has often boycotted them. During Arnoldo Alemán’s administration, for example, the regional governments didn’t meet for an entire year, because the budget was never sent to them. And without money, you can’t bring in the 16 council members who live in the mining sector or the 4 who live upriver or downriver on the Río Coco, in the RAAN. And the same thing happened in the south, even though Alemán’s PLC held the majority in both regional governments.”
Another problem is the regulatory law. “Nothing’s functioning right now,” complains Noel Campbell. “What’s worse, the National Assembly has already approved the regulatory law for the Autonomy Statute and nobody in the Coast knows what was approved, much less what the bill said originally. They are waiting for the National Assembly to print the document so they can find out what it says. It’s a good example of how things function. How is it possible that we, the ones from the region, the ones who are going to have to execute this decision, don’t even know what the rules of the game are?” His complaint is laced with a mix of bitterness, frustration and rage.

1992: The deathblow to autonomy

Noel Campbell thinks that the origin of the current problems lies in the 13 years with a toothless autonomy law, one he feels isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. “I think we lost our historic opportunity in 1990. The FSLN, which was the party that embraced our desire for autonomy and promoted it, lost both the regional and national elections that year. The best thing for us would have been for it to win the elections for the first regional government here on the coast, even losing the presidential race, because it would have obliged the regional delegates to be much better. But it didn’t turn out that way. Violeta Chamorro won the presidency and she wanted nothing to do with autonomy. And that’s where the distortion began. So much so that in 1992, the delegates in the RAAS, following the rules of the game for the autonomous authorities, decided to kick out the governor and all his people, all of whom were from parties that had been on Chamorro’s UNO coalition ticket, accusing them of rampant corruption. And what did Governor Alvin Guthrie do about it? He sought protection in the Pacific, from Antonio Lacayo [then the all-powerful minister of the presidency] and Sergio Ramírez [who headed the FSLN’s parliamentary bench]. They dragged their feet so long that nothing was ever done and he ended up serving out his term. If a change had been permitted at that moment, in 1992, I think we would have seen a different outcome. Because that would have been a signal to the Regional Councils saying, yes, you have the power and we’re going to respect it. I think that was the great deathblow dealt to autonomy. From then on the autonomous officials lost authority in the region. Everyone realized that you have to stay on the right side of the central government and, if you do, everything will go well for your own particular interests.”
Dorotea Wilson agrees, adding: “We’ve been waiting 16 years for the autonomy law regulations to be passed! The autonomy law was approved in 1987 and we blew 16 years trying to get it regulated. There’s discontent among the coast people and the ethnic communities about the way it was regulated, because it wasn’t approved the way the people wanted. A lot of things had to be ceded and others eliminated to get it approved.”
So what was ceded and what was eliminated? Wilson explains that the autonomous governments will have no jurisdiction over the coast’s natural resources because the central government refused to cede that space. It is vital to Managua to control the coast’s timber, its lobster and shrimp industry and any potential petroleum deposits, as well as the Puerto Cabezas wharf, privatized three years ago and today about to collapse into the sea. Wilson is convinced that “those things will never be decentralized, they will never end up in the hands of local authorities.”

“The Autonomy Statute is already passé”

These four Caribbean leaders disagree about one aspect of the Autonomy Statute: is the law good enough as is, should it be reformed or should it be tossed out in favor of an entire new law? Henningston Hodgson thinks the statute no longer corresponds to coast reality. “I think it not only has to be reformed but perhaps a new law should be drafted that incorporates all of the limited experience we’ve had with the existing one.” In his opinion, there is ill will about the ethnic distribution each time elections are held. “People say, ‘Well, if we mestizos are the majority now, why do we have to elect a Mayangna; why do I have to be governed by a Mayangna?’ I think the ideal thing would be to draw up a new statute. Reforming it only goes part way. But it’s also true that given the country’s current political situation, which hasn’t matured at all and in fact is getting worse, you could end up with nothing if you present a new statute for debate.”
Dorotea Wilson shares this view. “I think that Law 28 is out of sync in many ways. I think that the statute that was regulated doesn’t meet the standards of the communities or the people of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. I would favor a new autonomy statute regulated in keeping with the times. I was on the commission that drafted the original statute and participated in the consultations held in the communities and I think the coast people are now more mature. We are clearer now, after seeing all these unregulated foreign companies coming into the region. There isn’t even any regulation concerning what percentage of the natural resources will remain for the use and enjoyment of the Atlantic Coast community. It’s the same with the land tenure problem, the property ownership problem; none of this is at all clear. The statute says that communal lands can’t be transferred, embargoed or given away but it doesn’t mention the ancestral lands we’re living on now.”
In her opinion, now that the political parties are beginning to discuss reforms to the Electoral Law—which was deformed by the Alemán-Ortega pact—“we coast people have to get our viewpoint in.” Without discarding the option of reforming the Autonomy Statute, she proposes that, rather than the National Assembly, the Regional Councils themselves be the ones to approve a new statute, with the vote of three-fourths of their members. “Why not give us the faculty to approve the laws that have to do with the coast’s welfare and development? I say that rather than being purely administrative, an Autonomous Regional Council, must be political, must really be a parliament, with all that implies for the preparation of our own laws.”

“It’s enough to reform the statute”

Campbell doesn’t think it’s a good idea to discuss a new statute given that all the national parties are immersed in peddling interests. “I think a new autonomy law would be a serious error, although I know a lot of people who would like to open up that discussion. I think we have to implement what we already have and at the same time start making some reforms to the law, but without changing it in general. Better to have the autonomous regional authorities look into possible amendments to improve it because things have been changing since the law was originally drawn up. Make a new one? In this case, I would agree with the saying, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ If we try to make a new law, it’ll start a scramble that will never cool down. I think that the existing law is good. Does it have limitations? Of course it does! Does it need to be improved? Absolutely, and I think it can be, but with amendments and not necessarily by changing the whole thing.”

“We don’t know who we are or what’s expected of us”

“If the autonomy law and the regulations were actually put into practice,” says Noel Campbell, “if the game were really played according to the rules of that autonomy, then culturally, politically and economically I can envision a very prosperous area in twenty years time. There is so much that we could contribute to the rest of the country! For racial and ethnic reasons, black people have always stood out in both sports and art, but how much are we contributing now? It’s minimal! And that’s because we don’t know who we are or what’s expected of us. But as soon as each Caribbean person comes to understand who we are, what is expected of us, I’m convinced that we’ll be better citizens, better athletes, better professionals. The problem is that we don’t know what the hell we are right now. Why aren’t we making a huge contribution to Nicaragua, why is our contribution so minimal? It’s because we don’t know ourselves yet. We haven’t been able to present ourselves as we are because we’re always trying to get along well with whatever government happens to be in office at the time.”
Another factor Campbell mentioned is the emigration of the best Caribbean talents. “The best black men and women go to the United States, where they spend the greater part of their productive life. I know many doctors from Bluefields who are working in the United States. They’ll come back to Bluefields to retire when they’re sixty. And what will they do? They’ll live off their earnings, they’ll build beautiful houses, both in Bluefields and in the rest of the area but their productive life won’t have made any contribution to their homeland. If we had the right conditions in Bluefields and in the whole region, I’m sure these people would stay here and our cultural wealth would increase. With a clear autonomy law, I can see a very prosperous area in twenty years, for our own good and for the good of all Nicaraguans.”

An independent Caribbean “speaking from the heart”

Hodgson believes that the construction of a genuine nation-state in Nicaragua will grow out of the Caribbean experience. “We had an historic moment with the revolution, in which everybody participated to form a nation-state with a broader vision. That opportunity was lost, but I feel there’s a new opportunity now. Our Constitution says that Nicaragua is a multiethnic nation. If we start with that fact, with our diversity as Nicaraguans, I think a multiethnic nation-state can emerge, a nation-state in which we strengthen not only the autonomous system, but the nation as a whole.”
Matilde Lindo is more radical. She wants her region to be independent. From her perspective, the current political situation in the Nicaraguan state means that the Caribbean will see little development over the medium run. “I imagine the Caribbean region outside of Nicaragua, with its own power and its own relations with the other Caribbean nations. I can imagine it taking care of its own natural resources, exploiting them, benefiting from them.” But Lindo admits that this is an aspiration more than a prognosis and that she is only “speaking from the heart.”
Speaking from the head, she calculates that there will be substantial changes in the Caribbean regions, but not precisely as the fruit of the autonomy system. “Globalization will see to it. The need of this world and this country to control resources such as water, forests and land, and the evidence that all of this is concentrated in 53% of Nicaragua’s territory, mainly in its Caribbean coast, indicates that there have to be changes and concessions. How are we going to exercise our leadership within that negotiation? It would depend on how leadership grows in the coast, because development will come as the product of forces and needs beyond our control, such as the reactivation of the ports. All this will gain momentum not because Nicaragua needs it, but because the rest of the world needs it too. Right now, within the context of our autonomy, all of this is quite precarious, but it will come.”

“Colonized by a colonized state”

The idea of independence is evidently tempting. Campbell even speculates about the possibility of a federation. “Genuine autonomy is the only thing that could strengthen the national state. That’s why I’ve always said that I don’t have a negative view of genuine autonomy or a federation with the rest of Nicaragua. We have a dual problem: we want to stay on the good side of the central government, which in turn wants to stay on the International Monetary Fund’s good side, on the gringos’ good side. Nicaragua is a colonized state that wants to colonize us. There’s a line, a structure, in which we’re all colonized. And until we break through that line, we’ll always have problems.”

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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