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  Number 290 | Septiembre 2005
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“We in the Coast Have Shown that We Know How to Use Autonomy”

This Caribbean Coast academic shares some of his critiques and his optimistic reflections on the evolution of the Caribbean coast region and its peoples in the 15 years since the first autonomous government was elected.

Miguel González

What’s the background to the autonomous regime in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region? How have the autonomous Regional Councils been performing? What problems have accumulated in those Councils in the 15 years since the first elections were held in 1990? On the basis of what firm horizontal agreements hammered out by Caribbean society are we moving ahead today? What can we expect from the potentially conflictive demarcation of the communal lands following the approval of Law 445? I’d like to give you an analytical overview of autonomy in the coast, trying to provide some answers to these fundamental questions, even though it’s quite an ambitious task.

Parallel historic development
explains autonomy’s importance

To understand the importance of the autonomy regime in the Caribbean Coast, we have to bear in mind Nicaragua’s parallel historical development. On the Caribbean side, we have a multiethnic society indirectly but strongly influenced by the British during the colonial period. The society on the Pacific side, meanwhile, was under direct Spanish colonial control. It is also multiethnic, but perceives and conducts itself as a mono-ethnic mestizo society that is hierarchically superior to coast society.

This parallel history and the way it has unfolded has embedded mutual mistrust over the centuries. After independence, the Caribbean saw the state as an ongoing expression of dominion and discrimination, and always rejected it. In fact, there have been numerous expressions of self-determination in the coast over the past two centuries, essentially led or triggered by the Miskitu people, but also by the other ethnic groups, particularly the Creoles in the south and to an important degree the Sumu-Mayangnas, Ramas and Garífunas. Although there is no reference to these expressions of political affirmation in our national history, the collective memory in the coast recalls them as examples of discontent with an oppressive and distant state.

Historic tensions exacerbated
by the Sandinista revolution

The accumulated tensions between Nicaragua’s two societies became much stronger during the Sandinista revolution. At the beginning of the eighties, the FSLN pushed mass organization in the coast and was extremely wary of the churches, particularly the Moravian Church, established in the coast in the mid-19th century, and the Catholic Church, established last century. These churches had a strong cohesive effect on Caribbean society, which they still maintain today, functioning as quasi-states in a society of very heterogeneous communities due to both their ethnic origins and their social composition. The FSLN was suspicious of all forms of organization that disputed its hegemony on the coast, which naturally sparked a great deal of tension.

The FSLN’s approach was to create agricultural collectives on the coast, especially in the north, along the Río Coco. This model of productive organization wasn’t a specific strategy for the coast; it was the same one it was attempting to establish all over rural Nicaragua. But it didn’t function in the coast because land ownership is already largely collective among Miskitus and they work it in their own traditional organizational way, handed down for hundreds of years. The communities didn’t accept those organizational forms.

In 1980, at the request of the Agrarian Reform Institute (INRS), two anthropologists did a study in the northern part of the coast to find out how the Miskitu communities were organized as the basis for an agrarian policy there. After studying the reality, the anthropologists told INRA that the people there felt the land to be community property, that it had to be titled, that cooperatives wouldn’t work and that community-based forms of autonomy would have to be implemented. At the same time, the FSLN had asked the leadership of the coast’s social organizations, the main one at the time being MISURASATA, to present an assessment that would justify their communal land demand. MISURASATA presented a demand that included virtually 45% of the nation’s land mass, everything that had been the old autonomous Mosquito Reserve protected by the British crown in the 19th century. The FSLN interpreted the anthropologists’ research and MISURASATA’s demand, both of which had come hard on the heels of other growing tensions in relations between the coast and the revolution, as having a CIA-inspired counterrevolutionary intention, coinciding with the US interests of subverting the revolutionary process. It was decided to expel the two anthropologists, not publish their research and imprison the MISURASATA leadership.

Political mistrust turns military

By the end of November 1981, armed conflict had already broken out in the coast, and within a few days some 15,000 Miskitus had fled Nicaragua to take refuge in Honduras, while another large group had left for Costa Rica. The leadership of the now armed indigenous movement soon split, with Stedman Fagoth leading the group based in Honduras, which called itself MISURA and developed important ties to the CIA, and Brooklyn Rivera heading up the one based in Costa Rica, which kept the name MISURASATA. Fagoth is now retired in Waspan, while Rivera is the main leader of YATAMA, the organization that expressed the reunification of the armed groups in 1987 and is now a legally recognized regional political party. YATAMA is a Miskitu acronym for the “Organization of Mother Earth’s Peoples.”

We went through four years of very intense military conflict in the coast between 1981 and 1985, when the FSLN and some of the leaders of the armed Miskitu movement made their first attempts at rapprochement to reach a peace accord. By then, the FSLN’s leaders and intellectuals had begun to understand that the ethnic conflict in the coast wasn’t necessarily counterrevolutionary or even ideological. Its roots were historical: the longstanding conflict between the Nicaraguan state and the original peoples of the Caribbean coast. Rivera and the other MISURASATA leaders always stressed that their enemy wasn’t the FSLN per se, but the Nicaragua state, no matter what government was in power at the time.

The mid-eighties saw a series of internal reflections at different levels. The FSLN showed a willingness to reflect and rectify its approach, learning from its initial mistakes. The most important result of those reflections was talk of a peace accord to provide a lasting solution within a framework of rights that would recognize and guarantee autonomy in the Caribbean coast. To get to this point, the FSLN initiated talks with the MISURASATA leadership and with breakaway groups and commanders of MISURA. These efforts resulted in the signing of a series of small peace agreements starting in 1986, paving the way for the consultations that concluded in the drafting of Law 28, the Autonomy Statute, approved in October 1987. Those were the Sandinista government’s very first talks with the armed opposition anywhere in the country and marked the beginning of the coast’s peace process. When the FSLN later initiated talks with the contras in the Esquipulas regional peace framework, we had already made significant progress in negotiations with the leaders of the indigenous armed resistance and with those in exile to get both to deal with the problems in a political rather than military framework.

The essence of the Autonomy Statute

The Autonomy Statute recognizes the civil, political and social rights of universal citizenship for all coast inhabitants, as well as specific comprehensive rights for the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities there. The Nicaraguan state recognizes that the coast peoples have been treated as second-class citizens and must be provided with the same citizenship rights as all other Nicaraguans. There is also recognition of Nicaraguan society’s multiethnic nature and of the need to transform the state to accommodate that diversity. This is extremely important and was the precedent for other processes in Latin America during the nineties. Today, the Constitutions of 12 Latin American countries establish their multiethnic nature. In 1987, Nicaragua was a pioneer in what is now known as the multicultural paradigm.

While the Statute recognizes that Nicaragua is a multiethnic country, both the Statute and the Constitution state that it is also single and indivisible. Nicaragua’s mestizo elites have always harbored the fear that the resource-rich coast could secede, particularly given the energy and conviction with which coast people have demanded autonomy since long before the eighties, which explains why the legislation expresses Nicaragua’s indivisibility so insistently. Recognition of the country’s multiethnic nature was “tacked on” to the constitutional principle that the state is the only entity capable of guaranteeing national unity.

For all that, the Autonomy Statute is contributing to the promotion of new values of societal coexistence in Nicaragua: values of fraternity, equality, liberty and mutual respect among peoples and ethnic communities on the coast, and between them and the rest of society. Sustained by these pillars, the Autonomy Statute is enormously important in helping all Nicaraguans think of the country not as projecting, perceiving and practicing a mono-ethnic policy, but as having diverse origins and embracing its multiethnic nature in the framework of a democratic transformation process.

Following the Statute’s approval in 1987, the first elections for the new Autonomous Regional Councils in both the North and South Autonomous Regions were held in 1990. We are now into our fourth Council term and will be electing new ones next year. Each Council has 45 members, who are necessarily of mixed ethnicities since the electoral districts are designed to represent all the different ethnic communities and indigenous peoples in each region. The Councils also include the respective region’s elected National Assembly representatives. These collegiate bodies have a limited legislative nature and debate issues of interest to the autonomous regions. Each Council elects a Regional Coordinator from among its members, who we colloquially refer to as “governor,” because it recalls the leader of the old autonomous district authorities of the Mosquito Reserve.

The first stage: Starting from zero

How have the Regional Councils functioned during their 15 years? I would divide their performance into five stages. Between 1990 and 1994 they were starting virtually from zero. In the coast, as in the rest of the country, the economy was destroyed and society polarized. The coast was very fragmented, with nearly half the population still living outside of Nicaragua, although many were beginning to return. In those first years, there was such polarization that some Council members came to the sessions armed with a .38, or an AK-47. On one occasion, a councilor’s weapon fell on the floor and all the others, feeling threatened, whipped out their own. It seemed perfectly natural that everybody would carry a firearm at a legislative meeting. “Democracy” wasn’t a word we were familiar with in the coast and the shadow of the armed conflict was still hovering over us. The Council session records show that during those four years the basic accomplishment was beginning to learn to live together and giving up killing each other. This limitation, while logical, represented a relative failure for the Regional Councils. What could be built in such an environment?

The Chamorro government (1990-1997) created a “development institute” for the coast, called INDERA. A group of us doing some research once asked then-Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo what the objective had been in creating it. His answer was this: “We didn’t want any more fires in the coast, so we acted like firefighters. The only coast leader we knew in the whole country was Brooklyn Rivera, so we decided to create INDERA and give it to Brooklyn, because he knows the situation and will know what to do.’” Moreover, YATAMA had signed some political agreements with UNO [the coalition on whose ticket Violeta Chamorro ran] before the 1990 elections, and there were certain commitments to YATAMA and its leadership concerning coast issues. Apart from that, the coast obviously wasn’t a national priority for the government. The Regional Councils immediately opposed INDERA since they perceived that it was undermining the rights granted by autonomy and by 1995 the pressures on the central government had become so strong that they got rid of it. In the end, those first four years were about learning how to get along with each other. Given that the statute was extremely general, establishing only very general principles, concretizing that into effective rights would require both the political volition of the Nicaraguan state to promote those rights and the unity and capacity in the coast to push a shared agenda. This didn’t happen in the first years, since the political will didn’t exist and it was hard to come up with a shared agenda.

To understand that initial situation, we also need to recall that there had been a strong state in the Sandinista period, with a military weight that could exercise its dominion and presence in all parts of the coast. In 1990 and the following years, the state pulled out of the coast, leaving the new Council members to their own free will, or, put another way, abandoned to their fate. It was in that vacuum that we coast people learned to make progress in a few areas. Just to cite one: two coast universities were created: BICU in 1991 and URACCAN in 1993.

The second stage: The right to say no

From 1994 to 1996, during the second Autonomous Regional Councils, we began to make some modest progress in the context of a weak state: the Languages Law and Environmental Law were approved and the regions and the state reached administrative agreements that resulted in more financing for the Regional Councils, particularly after INDERA’s disappearance. The most important change came with the reforms to the national Constitution in 1995, with one reform giving the Regional Councils the power to veto any natural resource concessions the state might grant in the two autonomous regions. Since then the Councils have had the right to say NO to concessions considered detrimental to the rights of the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities, which is enormously significant. No other indigenous peoples anywhere in Latin America have that legal power. It guarantees the people the chance to say NO to corporations, halt them and possibly negotiate the terms of the concession with them. We have that power now thanks to an extraordinary national-level political circumstance that offered us a unique opportunity.

The coast has made progress mainly when the national state goes through its recurring crises and we are able to achieve greater levels of unity to take advantage of it. We saw it with the 1995 constitutional reform and we’ve seen it again since then. In the midst of national political crises, we coast people have been able to get laws pushed through that advance our autonomous rights.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the Councils have not always used their veto power well. It was used well, for example, when the South Atlantic Regional Council opposed the dry canal project that was going to pass through Monkey Point and the Rama territory. The multinational Dry Canal consortium wanted to begin the feasibility studies, and got a concession in perpetuity from the Nicaraguan state to build port installations at Monkey Point and a railroad that would connect the Caribbean with the Pacific. But these works were opposed by the Creole community in Monkey Point and the Rama people, who own the communal lands that were going to be used. They made their case in the courts and took their claim to the Regional Council. Civil organizations all over the coast supported their suit and the Regional Council rejected the concession. It informed the state that any feasibility study and any initiative to build the canal or study its possibility would first have to provide the communities with their communal property titles and then consult with and report their findings back to them.

This veto power has also been used to support other projects. For example, when it was recently decided to install fiber optic cable in the Caribbean coast to facilitate and lower the price of telecommunications and internet access across the country, the project required the endorsement of the two Regional Councils. The Environmental Ministry did the feasibility studies which the Regional Councils then analyzed to be sure they didn’t jeopardize the communities’ rights. In the end they approved it, and are now receiving income through this concession.

It was used poorly, however, in the case of Awas Tingni, a Sumu-Mayangna community whose land was conceded by the Chamorro government to SOLCARSA, a Taiwanese lumber company with no experience in forest management. This concession was approved by the Regional Council’s directive board rather than the Council plenary, which violated the autonomy law. The affected community filed suit in a Nicaraguan court and when that didn’t prosper it went to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. In 2001, the Inter-American Court finally resolved that the state had violated the indigenous community’s property rights and ordered it to make good on the violation through a law and payment of compensation to the community. The compensation was paid and the law approved, but Awas Tingni’s demarcation is still being negotiated and the state needs to assume its responsibility by implementing that part of the sentence. These experiences have shown that the Councils have used their veto power well when coast society has been aware of the case and pressured, with greater levels of unity. When society falls asleep at the helm, however, the powers that be can score any goal past the Councils, ignoring community rights.

The third stage:
The PLC takes over

We moved into another stage from 1996 to 1998, because the panorama began to change. The relative unity that had been achieved to reach modest progress was reversed in the Regional Councils due to the hegemony of Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC, which had won an increased number of seats in both Councils in 1994 but gained a major boost with Alemán’s own presidential victory in 1996. In his term as mayor of Managua and as a presidential candidate, Alemán repeatedly said he would support the coast and regulate the Autonomy Statute. He made all kinds of promises to us, but once he was President he just surrounded himself with loyal political partisans, who elbowed out the region’s indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. Once in the presidential offices, the PLC came to the Caribbean coast with the basic approach of de facto supplanting the regional leaders’ representation of the peoples and communities, which is illegal within the autonomous system. In the 1996 municipal elections and 1998 regional elections, the PLC ended up controlling both Regional Councils and a fair number of municipalities. It repeated this feat in the 2002 elections, although not as impressively. With the Alemán administration, the South Atlantic Autonomous Regional Council began to be mainly mestizo, and its internal bodies, commissions and directive boards have been in the hands of mestizos new to the coast, who have very different attitudes than those whose families have lived there for generations. The PLC’s slate of candidates is always basically mestizo, whereas the FSLN and the regional political organizations have always been more multiethnic.

The fourth stage:
PLC-FSLN pact felt on the coast

As of 1999, the forging of a pact between the FSLN and the PLC began to be expressed on the coast. It must be remembered that we began to feel the first effects of that pact with the electoral law reform, which among other measures eliminated popular petition associations, thus lopping off the head of six local organizations that had been winning increasingly important political space against the national parties that controlled the Regional Councils.

The pact reformed the electoral law in 1999, a decision ratified at the beginning of the following year in the mandatory second round of voting for laws of that level. As a result, YATAMA was excluded from participating in the 2001 municipal elections. It took the Nicaraguan state to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and finally won that suit in an Inter-American Court resolution on June 23, 2005. The court clearly established that the Nicaraguan state violated the right of indigenous peoples to political participation—in this concrete case the Miskitu people—and obliged it to reform the electoral law to avoid such exclusion. This resolution is of great importance in the current circumstances, in which so many other sectors are also demanding a reform of the pact’s electoral law. It is also an important legal precedent for other indigenous political organizations in Latin America that are trying to open up arenas of participation in national contexts in which representation is controlled by a few parties and indigenous peoples are excluded.

The fifth stage:
New opportunities for the coast

Both the FSLN and the PLC increased their influence in the Regional Councils between 1999 and 2003. In 2003, as the national crisis became more acute and other levels of the pact between these two parties were being expressed, more interesting opportunities began to open up for the coast and we again began making progress with our historic demands. We finally got Law 445, which governs communal property and therefore provides for the demarcation and titling of indigenous lands, approved by the National assembly. This law enjoys a lot of consensus in the coast, was discussed at great length and was passed virtually without changes. At that moment the priority was to pull together enough Assembly votes to strip Alemán of his immunity, a specific context that allowed the coast representatives to negotiate their votes, as only one swing vote would have defeated the move against Alemán. In that same political setting, another major achievement was that the Autonomy Statute’s regulatory law was finally passed. That bill had been sitting in a drawer somewhere in the executive branch for over a decade, after three proposals had been submitted by coast people. We have thus experienced yet again the positive aspects of coming together and taking advantage of the national political context to make some progress with pending autonomous rights. When a lack of consensus predominates among the national elites and they can’t articulate a vision of nation, that’s when we achieve unity in the coast.

Cumulative problems
in the Regional Councils

Throughout all these years, we’ve been accumulating problems and thus losing opportunities to make more progress in autonomy. We continue having weak regional governments, with limited accumulation of institutional capacity, although a qualifier is required in the case of the current Autonomous Regional Council in the north, where there’s a governing alliance between the FSLN and YATAMA. In that alliance, which has functioned since 2002, albeit with tensions, the FSLN presides over the Regional Council while YATAMA controls the government coordinator. In the south, in contrast, order only returned a few months ago, following an incredibly difficult stage of political crisis, fragmentation and internal conflict that meant the Regional Council couldn’t even hold regular sessions, much less sit down together and put even minimum points on the agenda. The tensions between the Alemán and Bolaños wings of the PLC and between the orthodox and coast wings of the FSLN have played a large part in aggravating this crisis.

The central government’s financing of the Regional Councils has been stable and growing since 1994, after INDERA was dismantled. To establish some comparison, the North Atlantic Regional Council, with its 45 members, receives 26 million córdobas a year, whereas the Autonomous Regional University of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast (URACCAN) receives 28 million annually to cover four thousand students and four campuses that cover the whole Caribbean region. The North Atlantic Regional Council has many more budget limitations than the South, but its Council members receive high salaries. The population is very critical of how the Council uses the resources, particularly the extraordinary resources that the central government transfers to it through natural resource exploitation. There have many accusations of corruption in the coast and the Comptroller General’s Office has found virtually all regional coordinators guilty of penal and administrative misuse of funds. The national corruption thus has its coast counterpart and although a lot of investigation remains to be done in the coast, the national media haven’t dedicated enough attention to it.

Despite these problems and limitations, the Regional Councils are a symbol of coast power and self-determination. In Bilwi [Puerto Cabezas] and even more so in Bluefields, people say the Councils are useless: “They don’t hold sessions, they don’t represent the people, they’re corrupt…” But if you ask why that is, the opinions divide: some mention corruption while others refer to a lack of support from Managua, a lack of political backing from the state. And at the end of the day, they support them. All problems aside, they are a very valuable expression of the coast people’s autonomous aspirations.

Other cumulative problems on the coast

Electoral participation in the regional elections has been dropping. Abstention began to gain real importance in 1996, as an expression of the coast people’s disenchantment with the national political parties. The regional parties—YATAMA, PAMUC, PIM—still have traditional caudillo-style leaders, but to varying degrees they all have an important community base. It must be remembered that the war of the eighties threw traditional community leadership into disarray. At the end of the war, many of those who took up leadership positions in the communities were former combatants. The natural leadership was annulled and a military-style leadership structure prevailed, which tended to be particularly relevant during the stage in which autonomy was constructed. The growing abstention changed with the municipal elections of 2004, when YATAMA almost equaled its best political performance of the 1990 elections, when it got roughly 14,000 votes. It pulled 12,000 in 2004, winning it control of three municipal governments in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region: Puerto Cabezas, Prinzapolka and Waspan.

Another cumulative problem is the still-fragile articulation between the two Regional Councils as collegial bodies and the real and territorial base of autonomy, which is the communities and municipalities. The Autonomy Statute designed autonomous power with a big head: 45 Regional Council members elected from 15 electoral districts that have no necessary geographic relationship to either municipalities or communities, although they do legally stipulate at least minimal representation to each ethnic group by assigning it the first electoral slot on the ticket for the district in which it has the strongest population concentration. In contrast, its feet are tiny, due to the limited power given to the communities and only tenuous links between them and the Regional Council. Despite the fact that it was the communities that always rebelled and called for autonomy, they were assigned no significant power in the real functioning of the autonomous system. This has begun to change with Law 445, the first juridical instrument created by the state to demarcate and title coast lands. This law creates territorial power entities that are to be linked with the Regional Councils, thus offering the possibility of filling the vacuums that have existed so far in the functioning of the autonomous system.

Issues requiring serious discussion

There are huge issues in the coast that need greater discussion and challenge our way of thinking about our own reality and our relations with the national state. One such theme is the region’s current ethnic composition, in which 76% of the population is now mestizo, including many people who have moved into the coast from municipalities on the agriculture frontier in the past 10 years. This is also going to imply changes in the political representation of the Regional Councils, which is an important issue, requiring a lot of thought. Some coast people suggest an electoral reform that guarantees indigenous peoples fixed quotas in the Regional Councils, while others favor changing the statute completely and organizing other mechanisms of representation. There are a number of different ideas on the table, and each has its proponents. Although this issue is pending, I would say that the underpinnings of the autonomous system are still present and haven’t been questioned, because the essence of autonomy lies in the need for multiethnic coexistence and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, which is still alive as a reality and an aspiration.

Another theme we have to debate and reflect on is the issue of coast unity. I’m more optimistic given what we’ve achieved since 2003—the Land Law, the regulations for the Statute, the alliance with the FSLN in the north, YATAMA’s achievements… But despite this progress, there are still major divisions in coast society. The challenge is how to create a political community in the coast that while assuming all of the different identities, can also guarantee a democratic coexistence that transcends them. It is an issue that still requires a lot of debate and work.

Yet another important issue is the question of land and natural resources. If it is not handled well, Law 445, which establishes the procedures for demarcating communal lands, granting legal status to communities and organizing territorial authorities, could end up creating new conflicts where there were none before. The huge mestizo population that has been flooding into the coast—largely poor people displaced toward the Caribbean region by the country’s large hacienda owners as an escape valve—is demanding a bit of land to work. The dynamics of Nicaragua’s prevailing political economy has turned this population into people who come to conquer the forest, or what’s left of it, and in doing so trespass on the rights of the communities. So when the communities begin to demarcate their lands, conflicts will crop up because that peasant population isn’t included in Law 445, which is specifically for demarcating indigenous lands. It is important to publicize the contents of that law more, among both the mestizo population and the indigenous peoples. It’s also important to stress that while the law is designed to recognize the historic rights of a minority population, it also safeguards the rights of third parties who have occupied these lands in good faith. The demarcation has already begun: the government just turned over five communal property titles to Miskitu and Mayangna peoples along the Río Coco and in the Bosawás reserve.

And what might happen after their lands have been demarcated? There are already a lot of people lined up just waiting for the communities to have their titles so they can make offers to buy up their land and forests and appropriate their natural resources. Demarcation opens up a major challenge. Other Latin American indigenous communities, in Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, have already found that the demarcation of their original lands alone has not meant they could effectively exercise their right to control and sustainably use the resources. This whole issue of the demarcated lands not only augurs conflicts if not managed well, but could also lead to new waves of deforestation in our Caribbean coast.

The issue of projects linked to the Free Trade Agreement or Plan Puebla Panama is the one we’ve discussed least in the coast. Once in a while there’s a workshop offering information on it, but these issues hardly ever make it on to the coast agenda, even though they’re going to be affecting us very soon. A kind of complacence prevails in one sector of the coast population, in the belief that now that we have veto power we can use it to halt any concession we consider prejudicial. Many people feel protected, at least formally, by the legal system. But this isn’t enough, because we’ve already seen that what the law says can be used well or poorly. A number of factors have prevented the major themes sparked by globalization from making it onto the coast’s political agenda. So far that agenda has been an internal, inward-looking one, which is something I think also happens in other processes in Latin America where the indigenous peoples have demands around autonomy. One can see it in the case of the Good Government Committees in Chiapas, or of the petroleum concessions in Ecuador. Resources are usually discussed in the sense of trying to conserve them, but without seeing the full dimension and global connections of these projects and resources.

We also have to mention the question of drugs, an issue that many coast people no longer want to talk about publicly. The impact of drugs is now very evident in the coast, not only in certain constructions, which is the most visible aspect, but also in the functioning of the judicial system. Despite the undeniable presence of drug trafficking, not a single person in the coast has been given a firm sentence for any drug-related crime. The National Police haven’t even cleared up the killing of four of their own officers in Bluefields in May 2004. The police have made a big monument to those killed, unveiled by the mayor, the commissioner and all the authorities, but no investigation or any other serious information has ever been officially released about who was behind those murders. This case—which is just one of many—has created tremendous concern. But nobody talks about the issue in public, not even the radio stations.

There is an increasing abundance of activities linked to drug trafficking, to everything needed to move the drugs that come into the coast on to the Pacific and elsewhere. This has really pumped up the coast’s monetary economy. Department stores or appliance stores like El gallo más gallo and La Curacao have branches in the two autonomous regions and when some drug shipment comes into the communities, their stock disappears in a couple of days. In addition, some people now have cellular phones and even satellite phones to satisfy their communication needs. In Sandy Bay, a coastal village in the northern region, you can communicate with any part of the world by a satellite telephone, which is very expensive. Drugs have introduced some enormous distortions into the community economies. It is evident that drug consumption and trafficking have had a very negative impact on the community social fabric in the coast, further weakening both traditional authorities and conflict resolution mechanisms. This is a major problem that is now being added to the long list of accumulated problems in the Caribbean coast.

How great is the poverty in the coast today? Measured by access to education, health care and an adequate diet, there’s a lot of poverty, but there are still many arenas in which natural resources can be exploited due to the incomplete setting of norms. If, for example, a mestizo who came to Bluefields yesterday with his family wants to go fishing in the lagoon, he doesn’t have to pay any municipal taxes or buy a license to take advantage of all the fish that are still in the coast’s thirty-odd lagoons. The communities along the seaboard can most easily exploit the region’s natural resources, whereas the isolated, inland mestizo communities along the agricultural frontier area are a lot more vulnerable due to their lack of access to land and other goods and services. The municipalities of El Ayote, Paiwas and Waslala have seen some of the highest population growth in the past five years. They are already overpopulated and still growing, and their populations live in extremely precarious conditions.

The remittances sent home to their families by coast emigrants also represent an important palliative to poverty and lack of jobs on the coast. There are some areas of Pearl Lagoon basin, Corn Island, Bilwi and particularly Bluefields where these remittances are particularly important because migration to the United States or other, more prosperous parts of the Caribbean, or even signing up on merchant or tour ships, has represented an economic alternative for generations.

The United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report, which is dedicated this year to the Caribbean coast, highlights the fact that it is much more costly to live in the coast than the Pacific. Basic services, food and fuel are 15-20% more expensive in the coast than in the rest of Nicaragua. It costs the same to fly from Managua to Bilwi or Bluefields as it does to Honduras. It’s actually cheaper to go from Miami to San José, Guatemala or Panama than to go to the coast. And getting from Bluefields, in the southern coastal part of the Caribbean region, to El Tortuguero, about halfway to Bilwi and further inland, is more expensive than from Managua to Paris round trip. How can people live in the coast? On top of the remittances and what drug trafficking leaves behind, the key lies in the fact that there are still many natural resources at hand and that the reciprocity networks still function in the communities.

We’re facing huge challenges, but there are new arenas in which we can start thinking about and attaining a better Caribbean coast, and thus a better Nicaragua. The universities are incredibly important spaces and there is now a lot of access to them, although that access must be expanded more. In the case of URACCAN, where I work, we have a community program in the sub-regions: Nueva Guinea, Bluefields, the Mines, Río Coco and Bilwi. We have two main programs: community extension—with institutes on national resources, autonomy and traditional medicine—and undergraduate studies. We’ve also begun two masters programs: one in social anthropology, which has now had its fifth gathering, mainly with coast professionals who are already working in social sciences and other fields; and another more recent one in HIV/AIDS, a highly relevant problem in the coast.

A seedbed of human hope

Are we on the coast ready to assume autonomy better and in larger measure? I’d say that we’re already demonstrating it. We now have a juridical system that gives us possibilities and opportunities. Sometimes we haven’t used well what the autonomous regime provided us and have let corrupt Council members get away with murder, in connivance with the national parties. But we’ve also known how to use it well, and there are examples that demonstrate it. At the end of the day, autonomy isn’t just a law; we must think of it as that set of practices by which people have always governed themselves. The state has never had much of a presence in the coast, and when it has, it has only caused problems. But there has always been a real, live coexistence with its own forms of authority, and this has an enormous value that we need to recognize.

We’ve always been autonomous in the coast; it’s not something that the laws invented. That history is the most authentic basis for our autonomy. We still need much more internal dialogue and more mutual knowledge based on that value. We need to build more trust among ourselves and feel prouder of what we are doing. We’re still afraid of and discriminate against each other. We also very much need bridges of dialogue with the national society. Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast isn’t just folklore about the maypole or the rites of the Garífunas. It’s also a great seedbed of human hope for our whole country.

Political scientist Miguel González teaches at the Autonomous Regional University of the Caribbean Coast (URACCAN). He is currently doing his doctoral research on the performance of the Autonomous Regional Councils.

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