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  Number 93 | Abril 1989
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Nicaragua

From Separatism to Autonomy—Ten Years on the Atlantic Coast

Envío team

"It has come to our attention that a gross misrepresentation has been made to you by the Spanish authorities, showing that we Indians have already agreed to annex our country ["Mosquito"] to Nicaragua.... We do not wish the Spaniards among us any more, and would be more than thankful if they, every one, could be sent out of our country. We say every one, thus meaning those who have Mosquito women as their wives, as well as the residents, men, women, and children. We do not wish to see them among us at all...."
—From a letter written on March 17, 1894, by 20 Miskito headmen to the captain of a British warship, in Bluefields since shortly after the arrival there of President Zelaya's troops on February 12 to expel the British.

"In Honduras we weren't allowed to cut a tree down so we could plant; we weren't even allowed to leave the camp. We came back because we're Nicaraguans. Here we are free."
—Explanation by a Miskito woman from the Río Coco in December 1988 of why so many Miskitos have repatriated to Nicaragua in the past two years.

The forging of a nation out of a territory divided for over 300 years between two warring colonial powers has made significant strides, as evidenced above. What these two sentiments, themselves spanning nearly a century, do not reveal is that most of the advances have occurred in the past four years.

The vast forestlands popularly known as the Atlantic Coast cover over half of Nicaraguan territory. Between the mid-17th century and 1894 the region was indirectly ruled by the British, through their local allies, the Miskito Indians, while the Pacific side was directly settled by the Spanish, who assimilated, exterminated or exported to work in their Peruvian gold mines the Indian peoples originally living there.

The period bracketed by the "reincorporation"* of the coast in 1894 and the overthrow of Somoza in 1979 saw the British-backed Miskito monarchy displaced from power by an ascendant Creole elite, themselves almost immediately subordinated by racist administrators from Managua; the ravaging of the coast's resources by North American companies; the consolidation of the Moravian church—first by US missionaries and much later by native pastors and administrators—as the social, and often political, backbone of community and urban life; and the Somoza government's awakening economic interest in the coast in the 1960s, carrying with it patronizing integrationist schemes for the sectors of the coastal population deemed useful.


*"Reincorporation" because Britain first recognized Spanish sovereignty over the "territory of the Mosquitos" in 1786, which it agreed in a treaty to abandon. Again in 1860, in the Treaty of Managua, signed with the newly independent government of Nicaragua, Britain recognized "as an integral part and under the sovereignty of the Republic of Nicaragua, the country heretofore occupied or claimed by the Mosquito Indians...."


The latter half of 1979 brought to the coast, full-blown, a wide-reaching revolution in which the coast population had taken little or no part. Within a year there was an explosion of Indian activism in response to the revolutionary opening, which ultimately turned in on itself as a military expression; community life was massively disrupted as war engulfed the region and shattered the already depressed economy. That war was both separate from and subsumed within the larger contra war directed by the United States with the goal of displacing the Sandinistas from power. At first, reacting to the common attempt of both to divide the country and threaten national sovereignty, the new revolutionary government reacted to the Indian war as it did to the contra war. But by 1984 it had made an audacious about-face, recognizing that the fundamental contradictions between revolution and counterrevolution did not apply to the legitimate demands of the coastal peoples. Now, there is near peace again on the coast, perhaps even a cleansing a long nourished but never updated aspiration of the coast people, and the opportunity to realize it in a new framework. That aspiration, previously unimaginable to the 90% of the population living in the Pacific, is autonomy for the peoples of the coast. The framework, similarly unimaginable to coast people themselves, is the guarantee of first-class citizenship in the revolutionary nation-state of Nicaragua.

This seemingly contradictory set of ideas—autonomy and genuine national unity—is at the core of a process being closely watched by indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and the governments under which both live the world over.

Although it is too early to speak definitively about what is sure to be a long, slow and complicated process, it is not too early to examine the antecedents to this process, the form it is taking, the effects it has had on the actors involved, and what may lie ahead. In this article we will look at the rise of the indigenous mass organization Misurasata and the precipitous shift in its demands; the nature of the war on the coast and the role of the US; the methodology of the negotiations with the armed groups and their results; and, finally, the autonomy process itself, with the changes in government thinking that underlie it. (See also "Just the Facts" in this issue for a chronology of key events.)

Two Worldviews Meet

The revolution arrived on the coast as a fait accompli. Its causes, its principal protagonists, and thus its field of battle, were on the other side of the country. Given the coast's almost complete isolation from the Pacific, the FSLN knew little more than that it had been a recreational playground for the Somoza clique and an economic playground for the US and Canadian companies, which had clear-cut the pine and mahogany, fished the waters nearly clean of shrimp and lobster, and taken the gold out of the hills, leaving behind rivers polluted with cyanide waste. None of their handsome profits had been reinvested in local development.

If the new government had a limited understanding of the people themselves, it was not immune to the fear the country's conflictive history had bred in those from the Pacific: that separatist sentiments, fed by centuries of hatred toward and mistrust of the "Spaniards" in the Pacific, still ran deep among coast people, particularly Miskitos. This fear compounded the revolution's necessary preoccupation with consolidating itself rapidly in the face of a hostile outside world. President Zelaya's controversial military move in 1894 to oust the British may have created at least a fragile territorial unification, but neither his nor any government since had made a genuine effort to promote unity among the peoples of the two sides of the country.

The program and the level of understanding that the Sandinistas brought with them to the coast were defined by five articles in their Historic Program, written in clandestinity in 1969:

“The Sandinista Popular Revolution will put into practice a special plan favoring the Atlantic Coast, submerged in the worst abandonment, in order to bring it into the life of the nation.
“A. It will end the vicious exploitation that the Atlantic Coast has suffered throughout its history by the foreign monopolies, particularly by Yankee imperialism.
“B. It will prepare lands of the zone deemed apt for the development of agriculture and cattle.
“C. It will take advantage of favorable conditions for the development of fishing and forestry.
“D. It will stimulate the flowering of the local cultural values of the region, growing out of the original aspects of its historical tradition.
“E. It will do away with the hateful discrimination to which the Miskitos, Sumus, Sambos and Negroes of the region have been subjected.”

To realize its social and economic goals, and to bring the coast "into the life of the nation," the revolutionary government began by nationalizing the mines; building roads, schools and health centers; creating the first radio, TV and telephone links to the Pacific; providing potable water and electricity service to the larger rural villages; and providing low-cost credit assistance to agricultural producers in the region.

Class vs. Ethnicity.

Although committed to eradicating racism and ethnocentrism, the Sandinistas had a narrow view of how that was to be accomplished. They saw the origins of social conflict in class terms, and their resolutions, therefore, primarily in economic terms. The implications of this are evident in a paper presented by Comandante William Ramírez, then minister of the new Nicaraguan Institute of the Atlantic Coast (INNICA), to a United Nations regional seminar on racism and racial discrimination held in Managua in December 1981. Acknowledging that "racist ideology has an independent existence as well, which must be attacked on the ideological level," his basic assumption was that "by eliminating social classes, the Revolutionary Government will also eliminate the fundamental cause of racism and ethnocentrism.... One of the principal means to combat racial discrimination, therefore, is economic development. If every Nicaraguan has access to a decent living standard, the material basis for racism will be destroyed."

No one on the coast opposed economic development per se, but such development did not address their most heartfelt demands, and their dismissal of a class analysis as an irrelevant abstraction was virtually unanimous. To the degree that there was class differentiation, it tended to break down along ethnic lines. The salaried laborers were Indians in the main, but there were relatively few since US activity had been declining since the 1960s. Even fewer coast people were employers of salaried workers. Professionals, both Miskito and Creole, had assimilated elements of the dominant culture through their schooling, but still identified with and fought on behalf of their own ethnic group, which accepted them more readily than the dominant one. Most of the coast population, however, still lived in small villages and engaged in essentially subsistence agriculture and/or fishing. The only ones recognizably driven by capitalist avarice were the small retail merchants in the towns and villages, but they were almost all Chinese. Most coast people, then, saw the world through an ethnic prism; and the fundamental problem was "the Spaniards—every one of them"—from the Pacific.

A particularly stark example of this clash of worldviews was expressed during the International Symposium on Autonomy held in Managua in June 1986. In an impassioned speech a Creole lawyer—who, ironically, had a very successful practice in Managua—accused the Pacific of having robbed the Atlantic of its culture by imposing the Spanish language, a political party system alien to the coast, etc. Following rousing applause by the coast people in attendance, he was asked by an anthropologist from Managua if he really believed a mestizo cane cutter working on a Somoza sugar plantation in the Atlantic had the power to impose anything on a Miskito working alongside him. In the same vein, a Subtiava Indian from the Pacific argued that both his people and the mestizo peasants down the road had been oppressed by an elite group of capitalists headed by Somoza, and that the two had fought together to defeat that regime and bring a revolution into being. The lawyer dismissed the content of the challenges by turning to the Subtiavan and pronouncing, "If you think that way, you are a revolutionary, not an Indian."

Anti-imperialism vs. Pro-US

Another issue around which little common ground could be gained was that of the role of the US government. The historic basis for the Sandinistas' anti-imperialism was well founded and the depth of their convictions no secret. The coast people, on the other hand, easily equated the self-abnegating US Moravian missionaries who had lived among them since 1916, disseminating abundant charity, with the US company managers, whom they generally saw as benevolent benefactors of jobs and US-made products such as Spam and Velveeta cheese. These managers had helped perpetuate coast people’s resentment toward the Pacific by complaining loudly and often that they were paying exorbitant export taxes to Somoza and were thus subsidizing Managua. Although the companies were in truth notorious tax dodgers, their litany to the contrary had kept coast people’s minds off the wealth being shipped to the States. At another level, many had substituted the United States for Britain in their minds as the great protector to whom they could turn when particularly aggrieved by the Managua government. They typically did not see the multiple US Marine occupations of Nicaragua as violations of national sovereignty.

Moravian church: Friend or foe?

Finally there was the issue of the Moravian Church itself, autonomous in Nicaragua since 1974 but still with close links to Moravian headquarters in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Sandinistas knew that many US missionaries had branded Sandino's army in the late 1920s a gang of bandits and, given their marked anti-communism, had supported Somoza's lending of Puerto Cabezas as a launching pad for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Liberation theology, which rocked the Catholic Church in the 1960s and some of the mainline Protestant churches later and less violently, seems not to have affected this fundamentally conservative religion.

The Moravians had remained submissive to Somoza's paternalistic rule on the coast to the end. But they had inculcated the idea that "the kingdom of God is pure, and the kingdom of politics
profane," thus both clergy and parishioners looked on the eminently political Sandinistas with certain distaste. On an official level, relations between the Moravian church and the new state were cordial enough at the outset, but the mutual mistrust was evident and influenced the more radical postures on both sides.

Cultural insensitivity and political caution

The Sandinistas' self-acknowledged "cultural insensitivity" to the coastal inhabitants in the first years had many expressions. The examples that seemed to most offend Miskitos at the time took place on a personal level: young Sandinistas sent to the coast referring to the Miskito language as a "dialect," or expressing surprise that Indians wore clothes.

At an organizational level, the insensitivity took shape for Creoles as the sending, once again, of "outsiders" from the Pacific to occupy top decision-making positions, passing over Creole civic leaders who felt themselves more qualified. The entire coast population resented the imposition of popular organizations, such as the neighborhood organizations known as CDS (Sandinista Defense Committees) that had grown out of the struggle in the Pacific and not out of the experiences or cultures of the coast.

Indigenous organization created

Indeed, given the tenuous acceptance of the revolution on the coast, the Sandinistas were initially little inclined to turn over much authority to organizational structures or individual leaders that were, for them, unknown quantities at best. But they were not inflexible. The most dynamic and ultimately conflictive case in point was Misurasata.

Misurasata (Miskitos, Sumus, Ramas and Sandinistas Working Together) was born out of an assembly of some 400 people called by Alpromisu* in November 1979, to which Daniel Ortega had been invited. Ortega's initial reservations about the continued need for an indigenous-based organization, given that the revolution was committed to what he saw as the same concerns were resolved by a compromise: Alpromisu, tainted by ties to Somoza, would be disbanded in favor of a new organization, representing all three indigenous groups on the coast and working within the framework of the Sandinista revolution.


*Alpromisu (Alliance for Progress of Miskitos and Sumus), a Miskito-dominated group, had been organized along explicit ethnic lines in 1974 to push for social, cultural and political issues. By 1979 it was virtually moribund because its demands were timid, its social base limited mainly to Miskito elites, and many of its leading members ultimately intimidated or co-opted by Somoza.

The young leaders elected by the assembly augured well for this agreement: Stedman Fagoth, Brooklyn Rivera and Hazel Law, all Miskitos, had been students in the Pacific during the 1970s, had witnessed Somoza's brutal repression first-hand and had been in contact with the FSLN.

This experience made itself felt in Misurasata's early documents. In its General Program, written at the beginning of 1980, Misurasata aligned itself ideologically within the framework of the revolution: “The Sandinista Revolution is founded on the basic principles of Nationalism, Anti-Imperialism, Internationalism, Classism and popular democracy. We the national indigenous peoples declare that these are the most significant and applicable principles for our national reality in general and our indigenous reality in particular.”

In turn, the revolution opened its doors to Misurasata wider than it might otherwise have done. After a heated but brief debate, the government agreed to Misurasata's demands for a literacy crusade in Miskito and Sumu, and in fact expanded it to include English for the Creoles; Misurasata was named co-coordinator of the indigenous crusade and given ample infrastructure to organize teachers in the communities and prepare the primers. The mass organization was given a seat on the first national legislature, the Council of State, where in December 1980 the Sandinista majority backed its bill to provide bilingual education on the coast up to the fourth grade. Misurasata was also charged with finding any still-living miners with lung diseases who had been dismissed by the American companies without pensions; nearly 1,000, most of whom were Miskitos, were given indemnifications. And in August 1980, the government agreed to negotiate what it understood to be Misurasata's demand for the ratification of communal land titles as put forward in the organization's 1980 program; Misurasata was assigned to investigate historic community claims and present a proposal.

From ethnic demands to a political project

Despite these positive beginnings, the mounting pressures of the coastal populations' long-frustrated demands, the hegemonic aspirations of the Miskitos themselves, and the immature and in some cases dangerously self-serving Misurasata leadership clashed with the Sandinistas' ethnocentric limitations. Stedman Fagoth, in particular, found fertile terrain in these conditions to gain support for ever more exaggerated demands and to exert his own messianic leadership over the mushrooming indigenous organization. Parroted occasionally by Brooklyn Rivera, Fagoth uncorked a tremendous force among the Miskito population by asserting that the gains made on the coast were due only to his having fought tooth and nail for his people against a hostile Managua government. By using the Voice of America's assertions that the Sandinistas were communists and atheists, he warned that they would forbid the Moravian religion and take away the Indians' lands. He even mistranslated Sandinistas who accompanied him to the Miskito communities. Misurasata, which had made substantial cultural changes in the literacy primer, began, once the crusade was well underway, to berate its "communist" content.

A charismatic and fiery leader, Fagoth soon either won over or intimidated into silence the other leaders and most of the base. Miskito farmers on the Río Coco who had organized into "agricultural clubs" in the 1960s, were now militantly in the grip of their Miskito and Moravian identity. Fagoth and his followers astutely played on both the prestige and fears of the Miskito lay pastors in the villages to further this end. In sum, the ethnic content of Misurasata's demands escalated with each government concession, becoming by the beginning of 1981 a confrontational challenge for power with the revolution itself.

In turn, what had begun as a cautious but positive dynamic in which the Sandinistas acceded to positions outside of their experience, and perhaps against their better judgment, switched quickly to its opposite. Their uneasiness was heightened by their discovery that Fagoth had been a paid informer for Somoza's security apparatus during the 1970s, reporting on suspicious activities by coast people.

In January and February 1981 a rapid-fire series of Misurasata provocations and government overreactions confirmed mutual suspicions that political struggle was not viable. The doors would slam definitively shut on dialogue for several years.

In January, Misurasata drew up its "Plan 81," which Fagoth later described as a declaration of "open political war against Sandinismo." The document admittedly contains elements that the government, given its own new thinking, would later adopt (such as women's and youth organizations separate from AMNLAE and the Sandinista Youth). But the overall tone and content of Plan 81 were unacceptable, particularly in the context of a new Republican administration in the United States bent on "rolling back" the Nicaraguan revolution. For example, having won its legitimate demand for a seat on the Council of State, which included other mass organizations as well, Misurasata now insisted on a seat on the 5-person national government junta. This demand not only confused the proper national forum to press for their demands, but ignored the fact that the entire indigenous population of the coast represents no more than 4% of the national total (see Table 1 for an approximate demographic breakdown of the coast).



In February it was learned that Fagoth had changed the rules of the game regarding the land issue. Charging that the concept of separate communities was a divisive scheme of the Sandinistas, he had reportedly drawn up a map with the help of rightwing politicians from the Pacific demonstrating that the community titles represented contiguous territory comprising some 30% of the country as a whole, which should be ruled by Misurasata. And instead of presenting his arguments to be negotiated with the government, he planned to present his map at the closing ceremony of the literacy crusade in Puerto Cabezas, to which government leaders had been invited. His idea appears to have been to present a situation from which no retreat would be possible, given the presence of several thousand militant Miskito youth. The potential danger of the situation was capped for the government by a report that substantial quantities of dynamite had been stolen from the mines on the coast. State security claimed that the theft was part of a plan by Fagoth to engage in military activities aimed at a separatist uprising in case the government balked at signing the land agreement.

The government acted swiftly and definitively: all the top and middle-level leadership of Misurasata was rounded up before the ceremony could take place. In a particularly regrettable incident, the attempt to arrest one of the literacy crusade leaders during a church ceremony in the town of Prinzapolka unleashed a melee that left four Miskitos and four Sandinista soldiers dead.

Although all but Fagoth were released in two weeks, and Fagoth himself in two months, the die was cast. Almost the entire Miskito population rallied to Fagoth's cause, several thousand Misurasata activists fled to Honduras, and Fagoth himself joined them upon his release, thus violating the conditions of his parole. Promptly hooking up with the Honduran army and the September 15 Legion, a contra band particularly top-heavy with ex-National Guard, he broadcast vicious lies about the Sandinistas into the coast in Miskito, encouraging even more young men to join him. Within months his group, which took the name Misura, was receiving military training from Honduran and Argentine officers contracted by the CIA to train the just-forming Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN), which grouped together contra bands such as the Legion.

Misurasata initially denounced Fagoth's decision to take up arms, and urged international groups to ignore him. Government representatives and remaining Misurasata leadership attempted to maintain dialogue for several more months, but when Rivera presented the same territorial claim in July, the already extremely tense relations broke down entirely. Two months later Rivera himself abandoned Nicaragua.

The now simmering controversy around the land issue prompted Daniel Ortega to announce on the second anniversary of the revolution that the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA) would study the problem in the Atlantic Coast. A commission was set up to discuss land titles directly with the communities affected.

The land issue: Indian nation vs. nation-state

There is no clearer indication than the land and resources issues of the shift in emphasis in Misurasata's politics, and of its increasing links to international indigenous organizations espousing what is known as a "fourth world" concept. According to this concept, all native peoples, by virtue of their original occupation of lands later conquered, have rights that transcend those of nation-states and other peoples (including, apparently, others who have historically suffered invasions and conquest).

In its 1980 General Program, Misurasata had put forward the position that "our revolutionary government should recognize and guarantee to each one of our indigenous communities, the ownership of its territory, duly registered and in the form of collective property, which should be continuous, inalienable, and of sufficient extent to assure population growth."

The subordinate clause "which should be continuous" apparently did not catch the government's notice as much as the reference to "each one of our indigenous communities." In any case, the proposal did not carry with it any demand that this collective property be politically controlled by Misurasata.

The stated concerns of Indian community leaders envío spoke with in that period reflected the emphasis in Misurasata's initial position. Many communities had received titles to their lands either before 1894 by the Miskito king or in later agrarian reform schemes. It was these titles, particularly the "royal" ones, that the communities wanted clarified. Some communities had long since migrated and their titles were for lands they no longer occupied, or two communities both claimed the same planting lands. In other cases, earlier governments had conceded to North American companies lands the Indians claimed. The new government, too, had disputes with communities over some lands it considered to belong to the state. And this is not even to mention titles Miskito kings had lavishly conceded to British subjects and others in the 19th century.

With regard to natural resources, Misurasata in 1980 demanded the communities’ right to exploit them in order to satisfy their own needs. In the case of deposits subject to special legislation, the organization underscored, the communities should receive a direct share of what is extracted.

Both these demands received favorable responses from the government. In addition to agreeing to negotiate the land titles with Misurasata, INNICA, Misurasata and IRENA (the Nicaraguan Environmental Resources Institute) signed an accord on August 5, 1980, in which IRENA agreed to pay for any wood cut on community property; on lands in which there was a dispute between state and community ownership, IRENA would pay 80% of the value of the wood cut.

The shift in 1981 to a territorial and political claim overtly denied the primacy of general national interests, accepted in the 1980 document. In a similar vein, the 1980 recognition that subsoil resources might be subject to special legislation was ignored in the 1981 claim, which included the gold mines.

Appended to the document presented by Brooklyn Rivera in July 1981 is a map of Nicaragua marking a territory of over 45,000 square kilometers, beginning well west of the Atlantic Coast department of Zelaya, and slashing southeast at an angle that excluded much of the land the Creoles later fought to have included in the autonomy project. Rivera nonetheless requested legal recognition of this "territory of the indigenous and Creole communities of the Atlantic Coast." While Rivera did not explain how he had arrived at this demarcation, it appears more an attempt to exclude the bulk of the mestizos than to include lands the Miskitos, Sumus and Ramas had historically occupied.

The document categorically states that "the right of the indigenous nations to the territory of their communities takes preference over the right of states to the territory." Without citing his source, he adds that "the indigenous population is defined internationally as 'those peoples who, residing in countries whose population is made up of different ethnic or racial groups, descend from the original inhabitants of the area and who as a collectivity or group the national government of the country they inhabit does not control.'"

These are issues that have deadlocked international organizations since the creation of the League of Nations; the United Nations as a body has yet to even accept a definition of "peoples." To assume that Nicaragua's revolutionary government would graciously cede its authority to an independent and increasingly hostile political power on the Atlantic Coast was either naive or intentionally provocative.

In August 1981, the FSLN and the government issued their joint 8-point "Declaration of Principles Regarding the Indigenous Communities on the Atlantic Coast." Their bottom-line position on the territorial issue was unequivocally stated in point 1: “Nicaragua is a single nation, territorially and politically, and cannot be dismembered, divided or damaged in its sovereignty and independence.”

Expanding on a reference to the communal lands of the coast in the Agrarian Reform Law published the same month, Point 5 reaffirmed that: “The Popular Sandinista Revolution will guarantee, and legalize through property titles, the land on which the communities on the Atlantic Coast have historically lived, be it in communal or collective form.”

The Indian war and the contra war

In November 1981 Misura, with help from the US-backed FDN, carried out the largest attacks the country had yet experienced. In two months of battles along the Río Coco, 60 people were killed, including the particularly gruesome deaths of targeted Miskitos who had worked with the revolution. A Miskito Moravian pastor, captured during the fighting, reportedly confessed that the attacks were part of a plan called "Red Christmas," aimed ultimately at taking Puerto Cabezas and declaring a liberated zone for which Misura hoped to gain international recognition. That in turn could be used as a beachhead for attacks against the revolution's base in the Pacific. Other Miskito fighters have since denounced similar US-inspired plans.

Both in the hope of militarily sealing the border area and protecting the Río Coco communities (it had become impossible to provide food and medicines by river given contra harassment), the Sandinistas abruptly evacuated the villages to a resettlement called Tasba Pri in January 1982. The army then destroyed some of the village installations to prevent their use by the contras. The hue and cry by Reagan Administration officials made the hitherto unknown Miskitos a household word overnight.

Brooklyn Rivera, already in Honduras, tried to work with Misura. But Fagoth, never very good at collective leadership, had Rivera arrested by the Honduran army three times in the ensuing year.
On the third occasion, Rivera was expelled from Honduras. He opted to go to Costa Rica, where he put together his own military organization under the name Misurasata. By early 1983, the new organization—made up mainly of combatants from Misura disillusioned by Fagoth's authoritarianism, brutality and submission to the FDN—had allied with Edén Pastora's contra group, ARDE.

Misura and Misurasata worked their way from Honduras and Costa Rica into the center of the coast. One of Misura's main recruiting methods was to coerce or overtly kidnap whole villages to Honduras, where family members served as hostages for the forced recruitment of the young men. Economic activity in the region came to a halt with the destruction of sawmills and reforestation projects and the threats to fishing boats off the coast. Villagers could not venture out to plant their distant fields for fear of being caught in crossfire or mistaken as the enemy. Government vehicles bringing food were burned; the Miskito fighters robbed health centers of medicines and radios; and the government closed schools in the heaviest war zones. Dozens of communities were abandoned, displaced to resettlements or taken to Honduras. By May 1985, when Bluefields was itself attacked for the first time, virtually no community had been left immune.

CIA controls strings

Both groups relied heavily on support from the US government, but the cost of that support was high. Many ex-fighters say they saw CIA representatives often in the camps in Honduras, and assume they were behind the majority of the attack plans. The CIA also tried to control unification attempts when it suited it to do so. In September 1985, it derailed an attempt by Rivera to lead a unification effort around his position on the autonomy project by then underway in Nicaragua. The CIA promoted a "joint" assembly in Rus Rus, Honduras, which only hardliners from Misurasata were allowed to attend. The preponderance of Misura fighters and refugee allies voted through a decision to unite the two groups into a new one called Kisan. (Fagoth had just been expelled from Misura and in fact from Honduras because he had become an unruly embarrassment to all concerned, including the CIA.) Contrary to CIA desires, the net effect was that instead of only one group where there had once been two, there were now three. Rivera kept Misurasata independent, and Fagoth maintained the support of his stalwart backers, so that both Misurasata and Misura lived on. Wycliffe Diego, a rabidly anti-Sandinista Moravian lay pastor, headed up the new Kisan.

Another unity attempt two years later, this one with the more sensitive State Department stepping in, had better luck. An umbrella organization called Yatama was formed, with Diego, Rivera and Fagoth as the triumvirate leadership. It held together at least seven months, until, in February 1988, Rivera earned Diego's wrath by reentering negotiations with the Sandinista government.

The CIA also kept tight control of the purse strings. In 1986, Congress allotted $5 million directly to Misurasata for the first time, but Rivera claimed the CIA impeded the delivery of weapons to him. Almost all weaponry and money was provided to the Misura fighters via the FDN, and Fagoth frequently complained that he was shortchanged.

The armed groups had ample support from the Miskito communities, based as much on direct kinship ties as on shared hostility toward the government. Given that support, the groups' tactics, suspiciously similar to those of the contras in the Pacific, had greater initial political success. By targeting economic activities, social benefits the revolution had brought to the coast and even individual Miskitos who worked with the revolution, the goals were to block the rural populations from experiencing the benefits of the revolutionary programs, counteract any ideological transformations, terrorize people into not cooperating with the government, sabotage an already beleaguered economy and create a situation of chaos that would undermine the moral and political authority of the revolution.

But already by 1984, support for the war had begun to wane among the civilian population, and even among some fighters. What had been promised as an easy victory, given US backing, had gone on nearly three years, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. When Miskito civilians got together, all they could discuss was their suffering. And in addition, the government had already begun to make some positive new policy initiatives. The Miskitos in Tasba Pri, in particular, who had lived side by side with the Sandinistas all this time, had come to realize they were not the anti-Christ after all. The war was making less and less sense.

Negotiations—corollary to autonomy

In October 1984, the government reopened the doors that had shut in 1981: autonomy for the Atlantic Coast was put firmly on the agenda. While the public announcement came as a surprise to many, it was not precipitous. It resulted from years of first-hand experience on the coast that, ironically, would not have been so intensive had there not been a war. It also grew out of a study of the demands that had been heard over that time, to determine which were legitimate and which manipulations of the population's sentiments for other political goals. The government was able to break through its own ethnocentric biases and recognize as legitimate all demands for the full expression of ethnic identity.

Many of the intellectuals on the coast, particularly the more cynical Creoles, viewed the announcement as little more than a pacification tactic, which would be conveniently shelved once that goal was achieved. That it has, indeed, had a profound pacifying affect is neither proof of that view nor an accident; it is rather a demonstration of the essential correctness of the analysis that led to it. The autonomy process, as we will see below, is rooted in some of the deepest principles of the popular revolution, and is going carefully forward according to those same principles.

Meanwhile, the analysis of the people's aspirations for autonomy carried with it a corollary: if those demands are just, it followed that those genuinely struggling for them were fighting a just war, and were not mere tools of US designs to bring down the revolution. The government offered to dialogue with any indigenous fighters who agreed.

Search for peace follows two paths

The ensuing negotiations have been of two very different types. Those that have seen the greatest success have been with breakaway groups from the larger organizations. Referred to as "dialogues," they have taken place more or less secretly inside the coast itself. They typically include on the government side regional civil and military leaders and on the Indian side one or more commanders representing anywhere from 10 to 400 fighters. Certain general points of agreement are established as the basis for an accord, among which are:

* that there is space for political struggle and that it is more viable than military struggle;
* that the autonomy process can only take place within the context of a popular revolution;
* that the common enemy to this process is the US government and the counterrevolution;
* that the nation-state is indivisible;
* and that there can only be one army.

Agreement on these essential points opens the way for a cease-fire accord, which has evolved into something of a standard model since the first one was signed with Comandante Eduardo Pantin of Misura in May 1985. The main feature is that the fighters are not forced to surrender and disarm. At least a third are permitted to retain their weapons if they are interested in forming an indigenous militia to protect strategic points or their own villages from outside attack; they are supplied by the army, and function under its coordination. The remaining fighters either return to agricultural or commercial activities, or are given scholarships to pursue their interrupted studies.

The accords thus have a certain geographical specificity, which permits agreement on other pressing concerns of the fighters and the communities that make up their base: agreement by the government to begin providing social services again, to permit displaced communities to return, etc. Dialogue continues between the group and the government, both about specific issues that
come up and require resolution, and about the autonomy process itself, although the dialogue is not a forum for deciding legal reforms to the statute.

The other type of negotiation has taken place between national government representatives and the head of an armed organization. To date this has occurred twice, and both times with Brooklyn Rivera. On the first occasion (December 1984-May 1985) the negotiations took place in Colombia and Mexico, with ample international media coverage and observers from governments and Indian organizations; on the second in Managua itself (February-May 1988), with much less evidence of international interest.

In the 1984-85 negotiations, one of several sticking points was a major issue of principle: the government saw a definitive cease-fire as a necessary prerequisite to the advance of the incipient autonomy process, while Rivera refused to sacrifice what he saw as his only card for achieving his version of autonomy. He turned down the government's offer to include him in the five-person National Autonomy Commission, named just as the talks began, in exchange for a definitive cease-fire. Rivera's position, while very possibly growing out of genuine mistrust of the government, was not dissimilar to the US government's posture: the contras cannot be disarmed because their military pressure is necessary to force the Sandinistas to concede every more power.

The question of trust and of appropriate methods for assuring compliance with agreements is complicated in any negotiation between adversaries. In the case of the Atlantic Coast, three hundred years of deeply rooted mistrust between the two sides of the coast prevents a simple dismissal of Rivera's reticence as adherence to the US strategy. (Unfortunately the tendency to do so is fostered by Robert Owen's revelation in the 1987 Contragate hearings, the language of which fell just short of openly admitting that Rivera had been bribed in April 1985 to abandon the talks.)

The far more interesting issue is how that same mistrust was overcome in the on-the-ground talks (the first of which began in secret ten days before the start of the last round of talks with Rivera, and resulted in a signed cease-fire accord within three days). The factors are multiple, and all moved in the same direction.

First, the civilian population was making it clear to fighters actually inside the coast that they wanted peace. Second, the government had already shown signs that its changes of attitude were not tactical or cosmetic:

* Amnesty for Miskitos was decreed in December 1983, leading to the immediate release of 307 in prison for counterrevolutionary activities.
* A new civilian Miskito organization, Misatan, had been permitted to form in mid-1984 and the Sumu organization, Sukawala, formed in 1975 when the Sumus realized they had no voice in Alpromisu, was being reinstituted.
* Coast people were increasingly being named to top positions of regional authority (the two presidential delegates named to the coast in mid-1984 were a Miskito and a Creole; the highest political authorities in the Tasba Pri resettlement communities were Miskitos; and two Creoles and a Miskito had been elected to the National Assembly on the Sandinista ticket in November 1984, among many others).
* Two pluralistic groups formed spontaneously in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas to discuss the new autonomy project had been ratified by the government as regional autonomy commissions to work with the national one.
* Some resettled communities had already been permitted to return home, including Bismona, the first to go back to the Río Coco area itself.
* The army had punished numerous officers and enlisted men for abuses of villagers and had modified both its policy and behavior toward the communities.
* Last, but far from least, the government had openly admitted its earlier errors.

It is hard to spend time on the coast and not conclude that specific economic or political nuances of autonomy are of less burning importance for the bulk of those who took up arms than the issue of dignity and respect for their person and their ethnic identity. Many ex-fighters, and even commanders, speak of anger and wounded pride more often than of a specific view on autonomy as reasons for taking up arms. All the factors listed above generated trust and permitted the fighters to take risks for peace without sacrificing their dignity, thus significantly reducing the adversarial stance which still plagues Rivera's approach to negotiations.

Although there have been some setbacks, the talks with the breakaway groups have continued to produce results. The accord with Pantin in May 1985, in particular, encouraged the government to permit the 9,000 inhabitants of the Río Coco to return home from Tasba Pri. Over a dozen such accords have now been signed, and only a few hundred of the most dogmatic or pro-US fighters remain in Honduras or in the villages at the far extremes of the Río Coco.

One such setback took place in June 1985, when the apparently accidental death of Pantin briefly scattered the 40 commanders who had adhered to the accord. But a new accord was signed with a by-then expanded group in September of the same year, just following the creation of Kisan.

Another seeming setback occurred that same October, when Kisan blew up a strategic steel suspension bridge on the road between Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco town of Waspam. Its destruction meant that food and housing materials accumulating in Puerto Cabezas for those who had returned to the river in the previous months could not be delivered. But Kisan's plans backfired. The affected population on the river began to question not just the war, but the real goals of some of those fighting it. Additionally, trust in the government rose another peg since it did not use this as an excuse to pull back from the conditions of the accords; the protection of the bridge had been turned over to armed ex-fighters before the attack.

It will never be known if the conditions for war would have existed even without Fagoth, or whether it would have reached such proportions or lasted so long had the US not provided both weaponry and the assurances that the Sandinistas could be defeated. What is evident is that there was a confluence of exhaustion by both the fighters and the civilian population, disillusionment with the US government and the contras, and profound changes in thinking by the Nicaraguan government that touched both personally and politically the right chords at the right moment.

Autonomy: Unity with diversity

"If it succeeds," a member of Nicaragua's Autonomy Commission said several years ago, as the autonomy process was just beginning, "it will set indigenous and other ethnic struggles ahead by 25 years. If it fails, or is made to fail, it will set those struggles back just as far."

Studies by the Autonomy Commission of other countries in the hemisphere demonstrated that Nicaragua was not alone in its initial reactions to ethnic demands. Typically, governments react to what they see as a threat to national unity in one of two ways: either marginalization of the group, in which the compensation for lack of participation in the country's economic and political life is that cultural identity is usually unchallenged; or, if either the state or the group itself insists on its insertion, the tendency is to try to assimilate the group into the dominant culture. The United States, to cite just one case, has employed both methods over time. The forced ghettoizing of certain groups through discriminatory housing laws is an example of the former, while the current move to assure that English is the only official language is a typical tactic of the latter.

The fundamental premise of Nicaragua's autonomy law challenges the basis for both. It posits that if historically oppressed groups are guaranteed first-class citizenship in the nation-state through the full expression of their ethnic identity, they will have a stake in the nation that legitimizes and protects those rights, thus enhancing rather than threatening national unity.

The concept thus transcends the traditional guarantees for individuals embodied in such international covenants as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, it disavows the concept of "original" rights that is the cornerstone of indigenous fourth-worldism. It is worth mentioning as an aside that the latter concept would be very ticklish on the Atlantic Coast, since wide-flung Sumu place names indicate that the Sumu Indians, displaced by the Miskitos themselves thanks to superior weaponry provided by the British, once occupied a much larger territory than they do now. The resurgence of Sukawala in 1985 was an outgrowth of the Sumus' reluctance to be swept again into an alliance controlled by the Miskitos, this time against the Sandinistas.

An in-depth examination of the autonomy process on the coast and the details of the resulting law merit a separate article in the future.* Here we will mention several basic and interrelated principles of the autonomy project which grow out of the premise mentioned above:

*For a partial examination, see envío, Vol. 4, No. 45, March 1985 and Vol. 6, No. 77, November 1987; and the Latin American Studies Association report, "Peace and Autonomy on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua: A Report of the LASA Task Force on Human Rights and Academic Freedom" (1986).


* The right to the full expression of their ethnic identity must be guaranteed to all groups, independent of their size and level of development; those rights are guaranteed in equal measure to Indians who first occupied the lands and to those who came later as ethnically identifiable groups and developed culturally within a shared historical experience different from the other side of the country;
* These are rights for people, and not for a territory, although, for historical reasons, they have a territorial specificity and will be guaranteed within that territory;
* The rights guaranteed are not inherently "special," but are those historically taken for granted by the dominant culture and denied to all others; if they are given special attention now, it is in compensation for that long denial;
* Ethnic identity is not limited to cultural expressions such as language, traditional religion and customs, but encompasses the political, economic and social spheres as well. In particular, it is acknowledged that a culture cannot preserve itself and grow without an economic base.
* Ethnic identity is not static, but is affected by its interaction with the rest of the world. (This is an implicit recognition of the limits in the FSLN Historic Program, which emphasized the flowering of cultural values "growing out of the original aspects of [the coast's] historical tradition." The Moravian Church, for example, which arrived only 140 years ago, has obliterated or driven underground most earlier indigenous religious practices, and is now an acknowledged pillar of indigenous identity.)

The sum of all these principles is embodied in a key article in Nicaragua's new Constitution, one which might escape the notice of inattentive readers: "The people of Nicaragua are multiethnic..." (Art. 8).

Autonomy vs. centralism in a revolutionary context

Many elements of Nicaragua's autonomy statute are similar to those in other countries. But the context, by virtue of Nicaragua's historically unitary rather than federated system of government and of having a revolutionary government rather than a traditional capitalist one, is very different and must be taken into account.

The effects of having a unitary system of centralized government means that Nicaragua has no cultural or institutional experience of provincial or state's rights, and is starting from scratch to construct such attitudes and institutions within the revolutionary context rather than adapting old ones to it. This obviously has its advantages and disadvantages. One effect, seen in the discussions that took place during the consultation process on the coast, is that, given the vacuum of historic experience with any type of regional government structures, community members tended to have fewer developed ideas about and enthusiasm for regional self-government than did the Creole and Miskito elites, whose educational advantages allowed them to make more imaginative projections.

To the frustration of these elites, the national government has tended to move more in tune with the pace and interests of the communities, perhaps mindful of the disastrous effects of the British and Portuguese departure from their former colonies without preparing the way for an ordered transition.

Autonomy is by definition short of full independence precisely by virtue of the limits to its exercise. The key to appreciating any autonomy project, then, lies in understanding the nature and extent of those limits—in other words, of the prerogatives retained by the central government.

In this respect, Nicaragua's autonomy project retains under central government control several of the same elements that most other autonomous systems do; in particular, international relations and national defense. Two other elements, juridical norms and national economic planning, whether or not shared by anther autonomous projects, have a unique justification in Nicaragua's case. In the past ten years, the revolution has passed significant progressive legislation—the abolishment of the death penalty and very progressive laws for women, to name just two examples; the government and those sectors of the population that fought for them are unwilling to permit the possibility that these might be overturned by autonomous legislation on the coast. This is not to say, however, that the government is opposed in principle to appropriate cultural interpretation of such national norms.

Regarding the question of overall economic planning, two important and interrelated factors must be kept in mind. One is that the revolution was fought primarily to overturn an extremely unequal distribution of wealth. This applies to regions as much as to social classes. Thus, the national government is unwilling to countenance in the long term a situation such as in the United States, where an impoverished Mississippi can coexist alongside a prosperous California. To the extent that this has required special national attention to the economic development of the coast, the government has assumed that responsibility within the limitations imposed by the war and other factors. Conversely, should, for example, the price of gold rise significantly again, at least part of the profits from the mines on the coast must be guaranteed for the national good and not just that of the coast.

The other distinguishing factor is that, traditionally, struggles over strategic resources on indigenous lands take place in the context of states backing powerful transnational corporations interested in the private appropriation of those resources. In Nicaragua, such resources have been nationalized; their exploitation is controlled by a state committed to the development of its poorest sectors, not to the capital accumulation of its richest.

Where from here?

Many of the points mentioned above were debated at varying levels of sophistication in the course of two and a half years of popular consultation on the coast. The result, the autonomy statute passed into law by the National Assembly in September 1987 and backed by a series of guarantees in the Constitution itself, does not satisfy all the desires of all the different groups on the coast, nor could it. But it does represent a new beginning, and the best common denominators of thinking on both sides of the country. For the remainder, it will be a process of political struggle between the central and autonomous governments, and between the different sectors, social and ethnic, on the coast itself. It will also be a process tempered in experience, in which, as with the rest of this revolution, new ideas will be tested, some found to be wanting and others to be incorporated into the institutionalization of this process.

There are many proofs that this new beginning is well-founded:

* The thousands of fighters who have returned—through the amnesty program, the cease-fire accords or simply returning to their communities with no fanfare—are still here; most have
returned to civilian life and some are even working with the government.
* Over 30,000 indigenous refugees have returned to Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast since they first began, family by family and full of fear, to return in late 1985; only a few thousand remain in Honduras and Costa Rica.
* There is a new willingness by coast people to fulfill their military obligations, which means that the bulk of the personnel and officer corps of both the army and the Ministry of the Interior on the coast are now from the coast. While this can cut several ways, it indicates an acceptance of the responsibilities of citizenship and means that there is no longer a sense of an "occupation army" from the Pacific.
* Where only two years ago it was necessary to travel in militarily-guarded convoys, it is now possible to go unarmed to most areas of the coast; prior permission for foreigners to visit the coast has been lifted.

There are also significant signs of ideological shifts; the refugee cited at the beginning who expressed a clear and appreciative sense of nationalism is only one example and is heard with increasing frequency, particularly along the Río Coco where the idea of national borders once had the least meaning. Others include expressions of confidence in the word of the Sandinista government; reference to those Miskitos still fighting as "contras" and rejection of their bellicose activities; and an unprecedented negativity toward the US government by Miskitos, perhaps reflecting the experience of those who fought and came to realize they were seen as little more than cannon fodder by those directing the contra war.

Reconstruction of their war-ravaged villages and economic sustenance are the major concerns of the indigenous villages in the north today; in the south it is the reconstruction of Bluefields and the communities and economic infrastructure flattened by Hurricane Joan. But the election of autonomous regional governments is now scheduled for February 25, 1990. That will begin the real test of whether the historic tensions between Managua and the Atlantic, and the interethnic tensions on the coast itself, can be successfully and peacefully dealt with in a political forum. It will also test the degree to which representatives of the marginalized rural communities, whose experiences in the last ten years have been more brutally wrenching than those of the elites in the towns, can hold their own.

There are still some indications that Rivera and Fagoth, and their closest followers, have not lost sight of their 1981 project, which essentially sought to recreate the 17th century Mosquito monarchy in new conditions; Rivera's proposals in the 1988 negotiations with Comandante Tomás Borge differed little from those of 1981, even down to his redrawing of the Atlantic Coast. But the ground rules are now much more clearly drawn. An attempt to revive Miskito hegemonism in the name of indigenous millenarianism will likely be met with opposition from the other groups on the coast who want their own voice and even from many Miskitos who want peace and tranquility with their neighbors. It will also be met with the institutional protections of the autonomy statute, which guarantees the limits within which such a project could be pursued.

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