Update On The Atlantic Coast Situation In Nicaragua
envío spoke with Rev. Norman Bent, minister of the Moravian Church of Puerto Cabezas, who participated in the U.N. seminar on racism as one of the delegates of the Nicaraguan Institute of the Atlantic Coast.
As a natural complement to the article on the seminar on Racism and Racial Discrimination, we would like to focus on the perspectives of one of the participants at the seminar. Norman Bent is a minister of the Moravian Church from Puerto Cabezas and was one of the delegates of INNICA, the Nicaraguan Institute for the Atlantic Coast. He is a member of the Misquito community who is well respected by his people and by the Government.
The Nicaraguan delegation also included Comandante William Ramírez, Minister of INNICA, Vice-Minister Humberto Campbell, Galio Gurdián, Luis Vanegas, and Marcelo Zúniga as well as other representatives of the indigenous peoples. The decision to use the interview with Norman Bent as an overall update on the Coast situation was based on his experience within the community there and the respect that he holds within Nicaragua and internationally.
In September, in an article on the Atlantic Coast, we presented the problems that exist there and the actions that the government is taking to try to resolve these problems. Some changes have taken place since then and we believe that the following will give you some idea of this changing dynamic.
FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH REV. NORMAN BENT, DECEMBER 17,1981.
Q. How would you describe the situation at the present time on the Atlantic Coast?
Norman Bent: After a period of misunderstandings and mistakes that were made in the past few months, beginning all the way back in February, after some time of struggling and working on those problems, we have been fortunate to establish some dialogue with the Frente Sandinista military people who are working in the area and the Misquito Indian People. Since August, I would say the relationship has improved and on both sides there is some sign of trust; there is some willingness for reconciliation; and there is some understanding and willingness to work together.
Q. Is the relationship between the Misquito and the Sandinista improving at the level of the people as well as at the level of the officials?
Norman Bent: Yes. As far as the Misquito people are concerned, they have no officials any longer. Their leadership, that is Misurasata, the indigenous organization, is all in Honduras. That includes Steadman Fagoth, Brooklyn Rivera and many others. Just about 99% of the leadership is in Honduras. Therefore the organization as such does not exist any longer, and so the dealing with the people is now direct. The Government (this is especially true for the Ministry for East Coast Development, INNICA) has been meeting the people at each village at a village level. They have also used the influence of the Moravian Church which has become very positive and supportive to the revolution at this point and is trying to serve as an advocate of peace and reconciliation among the people. The relationship is more direct. It is from government to people now.
Q. Misurasata was the representative of the indigenous people in the Council of State for a time. Is there now, at this point, no official representation? And do you see a way of another organization emerging to fill that need?
Norman Bent: We’re very disappointed that that happened, and now, at the present time there is no representation of the indigenous people in the Council of State. However, we can see, from the Declaration of Principles that the Frente Sandinista and the Junta del Gobierno issued, that the indigenous people are given all freedom to be organized. We are hoping that there can be some organization again among the people, different from what it used to be, with a different leadership, one that would be able to work together with the present government, a leadership that would work in integrating the Misquito people into the revolutionary process. They would therefore be able to name their representative for the Council of State.
Q. Does Steadman Fagoth still have the influence over the Misquito people that he had at the time that he left and shortly after that?
Norman Bent: There is still some degree of influence over his people. The mistake was in keeping Steadman Fagoth arrested for too long which made him more of a leader. But that influence is dying slowly, and I think that the people are convinced that it is useless to fight for a man who is not with them any longer. If he really wanted to be their leader he would be in the country. The people are looking at that now and are saying, “We need to come back now and work with our government.”
Q. What about the people who have crossed over into Honduras, not the leadership, but the other Misquito people? Are any of them coming back and if so what kind of reception do they get when they get back?
Norman Bent: As far as I know the whole thing is a mess. In the first place, there are entire families, you know, little kids, that are over there, too. It was not that anybody was persecuted by any military forces, but because of fear. Even though the Indian people have a history of great warriors, they are not used to the modern style of weapons and war so they went out of fear because of the advice they were given by Radio 15 de Septiembre which is a clandestine radio station which the Somocistas are operating out of Honduras and which is boomed down the Atlantic Coast and maybe to all of Nicaragua because it’s short-wave. The people listen to that and there’s constant advice given about getting away from the area there because the war is coming. So the people move out of there because of the fear of war. Those people were also misused, and they are living in very bad, very inhuman conditions. There are some coming back now, a slow coming back. At least seventy people have come back. Those were arrested for questioning, they were let go free, and now they’re integrated back into their communities. I would like to see it happen that our government here would give some sort of an amnesty and let those people come back in slowly, with control, of course, because there could be infiltration of counterrevolutionary people. But especially those families should be respected, and I would like to see them come back.
Q. Do you think that the Government is trying to do that, to work on the problem of bringing them back under a program of amnesty?
Norman Bent: I think in the early part of the migration there was a great interest by the Government, and there were efforts made. There were even special delegations sent to Honduras to dialogue with Steadman Fagoth and the leadership over there to have the people come back. I am confident that the Government still has the interest. We, as a Church, have been talking to them, and we are in dialogue about this. It’s not going to take one or two days to decide because it all involves the counter-revolutionary activities on the border. And, on the other side, too, is the smuggling of arms that could be easily coming into the country, and so I can understand the jealousy of the government in a borderline situation like that. However, I am confident that the Government is interested, that they would like to see Nicaraguans come back to be Nicaraguans.
Q. Did the declaration that the ecumenical group of the Atlantic Coast made in October represent substantial progress in the situation there?
Norman Bent: Definitely. That declaration has been a turning point to stronger peace talk and more dialogue between the government people and the indigenous people. Again we need to go back to the culture of the people, and even though I am a minister, a Christian, I do criticize Christianity for some of the damage that has been done on the Atlantic Coast, and it is basically the Roman Catholic Church and Moravian Christianity. However, I would say that Christianity has done some good for the people even in spite of the many damages. We find that the people’s culture is very religious. And the role that the leadership of the Church plays in the community is very outstanding. And that is why we are working very strongly with pastors and Delegates of the Word of the Roman Catholic Church and some of the deacons and catechists and so forth, so that these men who play a leadership role, we can get them to be able to see the revolutionary process as in the benefit of the poorer class, the indigenous people, the people that they serve. Because they themselves are Indians, they can see the revolution on their side. If we can get out of their heads all of this anti-communist preaching for so many, many decades then we think that right leadership will be given to the communities. So we have started that way, conscienticizing the pastors so that they in turn would be able to conscienticize their people and come to understanding. And this is working very effectively. The pastors are using their sermons now to talk about national unity, to talk about peace, to talk about love and understanding and working together and trusting the revolution so that is very effective. This declaration was the first of its kind. Following that there was another meeting in November in Waspam in which it was not only pastors, but also military people who attended the conference. It was called the Fraternity Conference because of its nature, where military people and pastors and Delegates of the Word came together to analyze the border problem and to build a common front for national defense right there on the border.
Q. One of the strongest impressions apparent on the Atlantic Coast was the fear of Communism and the equation by some Church people, both Catholic and Moravian, of the Sandinistas with Communism. I take it you don’t share that perspective, and how do you see the Churches moving to deal with that fear?
Norman Bent: Again this goes back to missionary influence. Most of our missionaries are Americans, who always talk about the East-West problem. I agree that I don’t share that personally. However, I know that there is some fear but again that’s dying off slowly. It will take some time, it’s not going to be overnight, and I trust that the whole Church will be able to understand. In the case of the Moravian Church, the hierarchy of the Church is with the revolution and that is very helpful, I am sure that the Roman Catholic Church is coming on its way too.
Q. Are the people there now cooperating more with Government programs such as the malaria campaign and the literacy programs and so forth?
Norman Bent: Very definitely. At the beginning, anything after March up until about June was very negative. But I would say from about the end of June up until this point there has been a real come-back and the kids go to school now, the malaria program is accepted, the whole health program is accepted, and the adult education program is going fine. Again the people have come back to trust the government. They have come to realize that they are the ones who end up losing.
Q. A few months ago any Misquito person who went to work for the government was immediately unacceptable to his/her own people; they no longer had confidence in him/her. Would you say that this is still true and how can the situation be overcome?
Norman Bent: This used to be ever since the difficulties arose with Misurasata and the Government. The indigenous people looked at anybody who tried to be in dialogue with the Government as being bought off by the government, or an “oreja”, as they say. But that condition has been changing. This was even the case with the Church leadership. Those of us who were understanding and progressive and wanted to bring about peace, we were like a sandwich squeezed together but now they have realized that our role is different, our role is to work together, and so there is more trust now. That idea of the mistrust of those people who work for the government is sort of dying out, and there’s more trust now. They feel like they really should take a more active part in government affairs and so on.
Q. Given the tremendous restrictions that the Government here in Nicaragua has with economic and other problems do you feel that it is doing all that it can at this point to meet the needs of the indigenous people on the Atlantic Coast?
Norman Bent: Yes, I think that there are quite a few needs that are being met already by the revolutionary process. Let’s think in the first place of the alphabetization program that was able to bring about the opportunity to over 12,000 indigenous people to learn to read and write, people who never would have done that before. Also, the health services are almost free and more indigenous people can go to the Health Center and get their medications and the health care that is needed. I think the revolution is struggling, in spite of its limitations, to be able to meet the needs of the indigenous people.
Q. Is there anything being done in the area of cross-cultural training for people who are coming from this coast, military people or anyone else who is going to the Atlantic Coast, in order to make them more aware of the culture of the people there, to somehow avoid some of the problems that have arisen?
Norman Bent: There isn’t anything definite on that yet. I think the Army, within its own structure, is doing something. They have been reading articles and materials and trying to share among themselves, but I don’t think that is very helpful. What probably we need to set up is a center where these people would be given such orientation from local people there, instead of the army people doing it among themselves, which I don’t think is the same. It’s different reading materials written by people from outside giving their own opinion about the situation, as opposed to when you share it among yourselves. I think what really needs to be done is set up some sort of a center where local Black and Indian people could be used to orientate people from Western Nicaragua or anyone who would come to work in the area. I would imagine the Churches, like the Moravian Church, would be the first places, that as a priority would be able to set up a center like this. They have the infrastructure to do it. They have the knowledge about the situation. They have all the information that they would need to really give the orientation that people would need and coordinate probably with INNICA or the government itself. Or the Roman Catholic Church could probably do something like this. I would like to see something happen on that line.
Q. Is there any apparatus set up on the Atlantic Coast whereby people who perhaps feel they have a grievance against the government can make that grievance known, some sort of recourse procedure for them?
Norman Bent: There isn’t anything as such set up yet, and I hope something could be set up by some kind of institution or organization that would really serve as a channel where these grievances could be made know.
Q. Do the churches fulfill this function?
Norman Bent: Yes. This has been happening. We’ve had meeting with Comandante Manuel Calderón, who is the representative of the Minister of the Interior, and Marcos Somarriba, Vice Minister of INNICA in Puerto Cabezas, and we talk about this. We are sort of serving as lawyers sometimes. You know, people will come to us and say, we have our daughter or our son arrested, could you please go and talk for us. So we go with the parents or relatives and the commandants receive us pretty well, and they find out where the person is and help us to see the person and find out what’s the whole story. And if they see that freedom should be given right away, they will go ahead and find that way. I think we are playing a helpful role there in that.
Q. Is there anything else that you feel should be mentioned regarding the situation on the Atlantic Coast?
Norman Bent: I think one thing we need to mention is the understanding between the Churches on the Atlantic Coast and the Government in the last month. I work for a development program of the Church that is called CASIM and we had a meeting with INNICA here just about two weeks ago in Managua – between CEPAD, CASIM and INNICA – and we are having another meeting the 29th of December in Puerto Cabezas. The purpose of these meetings is to keep on making stronger this relationship between the Church and the Government, not for making a Church-State marriage, but rather for unifying efforts to bring about development on the Coast. It’s a very progressive thing, and I think it’s a good step. There’s a tremendous respect for the Church by the government in this whole sense of not just tolerating the Church, but giving it an opportunity of being an integrated part of the revolutionary process which is so healthy. I could see good signs coming out of this. I think we’re going to be able to do a lot of good things together. And this is a sign of really stronger reconciliation and peace. We’re a people who are beginning ever more to trust. The Church is respected. This is their culture. We’re working with the government in many development projects. I’m really excited about what’s going on and what’s happening and what’s expected to happen.
REFLECTIONS ON THE INTERVIEW
Talking during the past few weeks with people from INNICA and with Church people who live and work on the Atlantic Coast, there seems to be a paradoxical combination of factors operating at the present time in the area. As Norman Bent pointed out, the people seem to be much less hostile to the government and to government programs. There is much optimism that the Government will begin to cooperate more and more to help the people to have a better life.
On the other hand, the counter-revolutionary activities have increased dramatically recently, and much of that activity takes place along the Río Coco. This increases the need for military presence and heightens the very real dangers for the people there. The activities on the Honduran side have intensified, and there is undeniable cooperation between some Honduran military and the counter-revolutionaries there. Therefore the optimism over improved relations between the people and the government have to be weighed against the extreme seriousness of the military emergency in the area. The beginning of 1982 will be a difficult time for an area that already has more than its share of serious problems.
It is to be hoped that the problems on the Atlantic Coast, as well as those in the rest of Nicaragua, will little by little be resolved through the cooperation of the people and the continued efforts by the Government to bring the goals of the Revolution to fruition.