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  Number 426 | Marzo 2017
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Nicaragua

Criminal indifference to the violence on the Caribbean Coast

These Nicaraguan Human Rights Center experts describe some of the roots of the violence currently agitating Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, reflecting on historical events and more recent ones with which their organization has had direct dealings

Mauro Ampié

The law defining the communal property regime for the Caribbean Coast’s indigenous peoples and ethnic communities and for the Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maiz rivers (Law 445), passed by the National Assembly in 2002, during the administration of President Enrique Bolaños, provided the blueprint for legally demarcating and titling the ancestral territories of those peoples, which indeed was implemented in the ensuing years. The final stage in that process, defined as title clearance, establishes among other things that any “third parties”—essentially referring to mestizo settlers—who have invaded these territories since 1987 must abandon them without compensation. As defined, the title clearance process ensures Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples that they will finally have tenure, possession and control over their lands.

Why title clearance is a life and death issue to indigenous people


The legal security that no one can arbitrarily take possession of a peasant’s farm or the land in some Managua neighborhood on which a family’s house stands is obviously crucial to anyone. But those of us who aren’t indigenous can’t easily grasp the even greater importance their ancestral lands have for indigenous peoples. It’s not just property, but an essential part of their very identity, their millennial history. As the Miskitu people in the northern Caribbean Coast so poetically put it, it’s where their ancestors’ “Umbilical cord is buried.”

While the title clearance stage is thus essential, neither starting nor completing it is easy. The demarcation and titling of the last of the 23 indigenous territories in the North and South Autonomous Caribbean Regions was completed in 2014, but the review of individual title claims of non-indigenous people hasn’t even begun and we see that the government is shying away from getting it underway. It wants us to believe that it’s an impossible task and is thus trying to make indigenous people simply “co-exist” with the mestizo invaders from other parts of the country who have other values and other visions; who clear-cut the forests to use the land for cattle and who, in order to take over these lands, have recently been coming in armed, threatening, kidnapping and murdering indigenous people to force them to flee their lands.

The unfortunate response last month by Fortunatus Nwachukwa, the Vatican nuncio in Nicaragua, to Catholic Miskitus in the community of Francia Sirpi who held up placards saying “No to peaceful coexistence,” triggered such strong rejection that both he and the nation were finally alerted to the acts of violence that have been increasingly agitating the Caribbean Coast, particularly the northern part, where most of the country’s Miskitus live, a region that seems distant and alien to the rest of us.

The land issue has been one of the main roots of contention between the Coast’s original peoples and the central government virtually since the country’s independence. Law 445, forced on the Managua government in 2002 with a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on a suit filed by the Sumu-Mayangna community of Awas Tingni, was thus a historic victory by the coast’s native peoples. How, then, are they to be expected to simply live together in harmony with the waves of mestizo settlers who are continuing to invade their lands, killing those who rebel against them and destroying the forests and natural resources? How are they to coexist in peace when the authorities don’t respond to the invaders’ violence? It is Law 445 that lays out with whom the indigenous peoples must negotiate a peaceful coexistence, based on when they came and the legal basis of their claim to be there—hence the term title clearance.

The government’s indifference to this fraught situation is why some indigenous leaders have announced that since the authorities aren’t proceeding with the title clearance, they’ll take matters into their own hands, organizing their base, armed with sticks and shotguns, to confront the settlers who invade with assault rifles left over from the war. This is the climate of violence in the Caribbean today, and it is largely the result of the state authorities’ failure to respect a law that is so deeply important to those who have sacrificed so much for this historical aspiration, only to see it trampled by the government’s criminal indolence.

Some milestones in the long history of unresolved conflicts


This problematic situation didn’t start yesterday, but instead of being resolved, it’s worsening every year. The age-old lack of political will by all governments, including the revolutionary one of the 1980s and the present one, to recognize the right of indigenous peoples to own and govern their ancestral lands and to guarantee equitable development of the Caribbean is at the heart of the violence we see today.

Red Christmas: In late 1981 and early 1982, after relations had broken down between the FSLN government and the indigenous organization Misurasata, leading to the arrest of its leaders and the decision of many young Miskitus to flee to Honduras and take up arms against the government, the latter executed an extremely violent operation against them called Red Christmas and displaced dozens of Miskitu communities situated along the banks of the Wangki or Coco River to prevent them from providing a social base to the fighters. Those acts of violence triggered a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to the government of Nicaragua in November 1983. The report documented the forced relocation of thousands of indigenous people to the settlement of Tasba Pri and the mass flight of thousands more seeking refuge in Miskitu lands in Honduras. The revolutionary government’s unwillingness to reach an “amicable solution” with the Commission led the latter to publicize that report along with its conclusions, which were very critical of the FSLN. We mustn’t forget that the wounds of Red Christmas and the forced exodus to Tasba Pri, a town that still exists, have not healed. These very serious human rights violations continue to smolder in the memory of the Miskitu people and fuel the conflicts.

The Contra War: The counterrevolutionary (contra) war had its beginnings in the Caribbean. The revolution tried to govern the indigenous peoples with ideas and methods from the Pacific, considering them to be like any other peasant population, disregarding their traditions and culture, and imposing cooperatives on them, a model that’s totally alien to their ways of living and producing. This caused the armed uprising of significant sectors of the indigenous population, which received resources and support from the US government.

The Autonomy Statute: The revolutionary government passed Law 28, which declared the North and South Atlantic Regions autonomous territories, in 1987, not so much because its top leaders were convinced that autonomous rights for indigenous peoples were just as to stop the war and demobilize armed indigenous peoples with the promise of autonomy. This law was finally regulated in 2003 during the Enrique Bolaños administration, but its contents have been subverted by every central government, both Sandinista and Liberal, since its passage 30 years ago, and its important weaknesses reveal the obligations the nation-State still owe the Caribbean people.

If we compare an article by Coast anthropologist Miguel González published in envío in September 2005, in which he critically assessed the development of the autonomy process up to that time, with one titled “Comandante Campbell’s Coast” he wrote for Confidencial in August 2015, we can understand some of why the autonomy process inaugurated by Law 28 has deteriorated. In the more recent article, González says that Lumberto Campbell, a Creole leader from Bluefields, has imposed “a pragmatic and entrepreneurial vision” on the Coast and that “his accumulation of power is in direct proportion to the loss of power of the Autonomous Regions to make their own decisions.”

INDERA’s role: When the National Opposition Union (UNO) won the 1990 elections, President Violeta Chamorro authorized the creation of the Development Institute for the Autonomous Regions (INDERA). This institution, directed by Brooklyn Rivera, who had headed one of the armed anti-Sandinista organizations in the 1980s and was and still is the head of the now regional Miskitu political party Yatama, ran counter to the autonomy Law 28 had recognized for the Caribbean regions. INDERA received abundant government resources, equivalent to the joint budgets given to the Caribbean’s two new autonomous regional governments, also elected in 1990. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that genuine Caribbean Coast development wasn’t amongst the Chamorro government’s priorities. The Regional Councils opposed INDERA, perceiving that it interfered with the rights granted by the Autonomy Statute. The institute disappeared in 1995.

The Awas Tingni case: In March 1996, the Chamorro administration granted a forest exploitation concession to a Taiwanese company, SOLCARSA, which had no forest management experience. The concession allowed it to exploit 62,000 hectares of forests in the North Caribbean on ancestral lands of Awas Tingni, but the government considered them national lands and did not consult the community on the concession. It wasn’t even approved by the autonomous regional government, but only by its directive board, on both counts violating the spirit and letter of the autonomy law. Awas Tingni exhausted all domestic legal channels in its attempt to halt the concession, but as it got nowhere, its top leader, Jaime Castillo Felipe, reported this abuse of territorial rights to the IACHR on the community’s behalf. The case was turned over to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which issued an historic ruling in 2001 ordering SOLCARSA to leave the territory and ordering the State of Nicaragua to demarcate and title indigenous lands throughout the Caribbean. It also ordered the government to abstain from acts that “affect the existence, value, use and enjoyment of the resources located in the geographical area where indigenous people live.”

Law 445: The Court’s ruling directly led to the creation of the communal properties demarcation and titling law, which was passed in 2002 and went into effect the following year. The creation of the National Demarcation and Titling Commission (CONADETI) was also approved in 2003, but its internal regulations were only passed in 2006. With that it began the long and complicated demarcation of territories and determination of the communities that belong within each of them, a process that finally concluded in 2014, during Daniel Ortega’s second consecutive term in office. Three years later, however, the title clearance stage, the last one established by the law, isn’t even being initiated and is thus causing the climate of extreme violence experienced on the northern Caribbean region today.

“Voraciousness for the Coast’s riches”


In January 2006, Daniel Ortega, already campaigning for his return to government, referred to the actions undertaken by the three Liberal governments that had succeeded his revolutionary government after 1990, and mentioned the Coast problem: “There’s a voraciousness for the riches of the Caribbean Coast by power groups linked to the [Bolaños] government, who oppose strengthening the autonomy process because it doesn’t suit them since they want to seize the lumber, gold and resources from the sea.” That day Ortega asked for Coast people to vote for the FSLN in the regional and national elections, promising that with him heading the government Caribbean autonomy would no longer be just “on paper” because “we will give power back to the people.”

But governing “from below,” as Daniel Ortega had done since his 1990 electoral defeat, isn’t the same as governing from above and, once back in power for the past 10 years, Daniel Ortega has shown that the words he applied to the governments preceding him could equally be applied to him because they accurately describe the motivation he and his close circle have shared over the past decade to weaken the Coast’s autonomy: voraciousness for its riches. The results of his administration clearly show that Daniel Ortega’s promise to the Coast is also just a “paper” one.

Caribbean Coast autonomy doesn’t exist


There’s abundant evidence of the further deterioration of the Coast’s autonomy during the current administration. To mention just two of the most recent examples: the South Caribbean Regional Council’s resolution approving the interoceanic canal concession, which the Supreme Court called for to avoid having to accept the dozens of unconstitutionality suits filed with it against the canal law passed in June 2013 under pressure and without consultation. It also served as a way to get around its legal obligation to hold prior, free and informed consultation concerning a project of the canal’s dimensions.

The other, more recent example is the report the North and South Caribbean regional governments presented to the legislative branch of government in Managua about their management up to the end of 2016. The report appears printed on central government stationery and is unsigned, although its authorship is attributed to the “autonomous” Coast governments… The document lists the central government’s alleged achievements in these regions, without mentioning so much as a word about the current violent conflict over indigenous lands. The document concludes by affirming the regional authorities’ commitment to continuing the process of “institutional learning,” strengthening “institutional coordination” mechanisms and the “exercise of dialogue, consensus, alliances and complementarity of joint execution” with the central government.

In the context of today’s extreme concentration of power throughout the country, including the Coast (where 58 of the two regional governments’ 90 members are from the FSLN), this terminology, so typical of the central government’s discourse, confirms the FSLN’s current control of power within the Caribbean Coast’s “autonomous” governments, just as the PLC previously did when it dominated the Coast’s agenda. If any doubt remained, the report to the National Assembly had the usual party tone when it closed the document saying: “We want to congratulate our beloved Comandante President Daniel and our beloved compañera Rosario for the victory achieved in the national elections.”

This piece of state propaganda and the South Caribbean regional government’s resolution on the interoceanic canal confirm that today more than ever Caribbean Coast autonomy exists only on paper. The government’s indolence toward the Coast’s legitimate concerns is why the conflict over indigenous lands, with all the tragic violence it is causing, has hit bottom.

Coast realities as seen by CENIDH


In CENIDH’s work trips in the Caribbean Coast we have confirmed numerous realities not mentioned by the autonomous governments’ 2016 report. What we’ve seen are widespread unemployment and forms of employment that are dangerous to the life and health of small-scale fishermen and divers who harvest lobsters and sea cucumbers from the Caribbean Sea; widespread poverty (more than 70% of the population); poor or nonexistent implementation of the bilingual education system and the abandonment and closure of schools due to a lack of security in the most remote areas; health services that are greatly inferior to those in the rest of the country; a palpable increase in drug consumption and trafficking; and interminable violence against women and girls.

The enormous gap between the autonomy law and Coast reality isn’t only about political party decisions, however. The basic motivation is economic interests. The greatest riches coexist with the greatest poverty in what is known as the Caribbean Coast. All studies show that this half of the country is where Nicaragua’s most impoverished municipalities are found.

Economic interests prevail over ecological ones


The resolve to deny self-government to the peoples of the North and South Caribbean is explained by the economic interests in play there. This administration’s oft-repeated official discourse of love for Mother Earth only masks lucrative businesses that, among other damages, are destroying the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve and the other Caribbean forests trucks loaded down with logs of precious wood leave from daily.

The unrelenting deforestation of both Bosawás and the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is the clearest evidence that the Nicaraguan Army’s Ecological Battalion has failed. The “whatever will be, will be” ethos lets trucks loaded with huge logs file out from these two reserves every day, inflating the businesses of both those who have always been wealthy and those with new money, enriching themselves under the umbrella of the current authorities. Such a massive flow of timber can’t be explained except by massive corruption. It’s obvious that the lumber mafias bribe authorities at all levels to circumvent controls and let each truck pass through. Strong institutions, a strong judiciary and an auditing office that does its job would prevent this environmental disaster and effectively control corruption. However, the weakness of all our institutions allows widespread corruption and accounts for our country’s accelerated deforestation.

Other businesses also show the voracity of the current government and its allies. Those representing old capital and those with new money created in the ardor of power are committing thousands of hectares to the cultivation of African palm. If you travel towards Pearl Lagoon past the Río Kama, you won’t see a single tree any more. Where once there were mountains and forests, today there’s only a massive monocrop of African palm. In conjunction with the Humboldt Center (which focuses on ecological aspects while we focus on the human rights of those affected), we in CENIDH are warning that this damaging monocrop, which leaves the soil sterile and has already polluted the area’s rivers, represents an unpredictable environmental and human disaster.

Megaprojects are a new twist on an old development model


The “development” model imposed by central governments on the Caribbean Coast has always been based on the merciless exploitation of natural resources, and the current government’s model is no different. While it has expanded this concept and added some megaprojects to the design, the basic model has been showing signs of wear and tear lately, as the most publicized initiatives to “take Nicaragua out of poverty” have become unfeasible or less credible.

The dream of establishing oilfields in the Caribbean evaporated in December 2016 when Nobel Energy, the US oil company that came to Nicaragua in 2013, reported that it was withdrawing on finding that there are no profitable quantities of hydrocarbons there. The deep water port at Monkey Point was another initiative that faded away when Andrade Gutiérrez, the Brazilian consortium that came to Nicaragua in 2011, announced that its feasibility study showed that an investment of this size and cost wouldn’t yield them financial advantage. The Tumarín hydroelectric dam megaproject, which would have been implemented by another Brazilian consortium, Queiroz Galvao, also disappeared when the latter left the country as a result of the corruption crisis in Brazil.

And what can we say about the interoceanic canal megaproject? Its implementation would count among its many victims the Rama and Kriol ethnic communities living in the area where the canal would pass, with thousands losing their ancestral lands and possibly even seeing their cultures disappear. To date, the canal remains a gray area the government no longer wants to talk about, avoiding the day when it will have no option but to tell us there won’t be any canal, although mega-corruption would continue with the lands along the canal route…

Police are quick to protect business interests


Most of the deaths that have occurred in recent years on the Caribbean side of the country have remained totally exempt from punishment, with authorities using a double standard to apply the law on the Coast. Let’s look at two separate and recent cases CENIDH has accompanied, which show the discretion the authorities use when applying the law depending on whose interests they are defending.

The first case concerns violent conflicts that occurred on the Coast in an attempt to prevent the plunder of natural resources. Paterio Leman, a Miskitu wihta (local leader), was arrested in Bilwi by the National Police in January of this year, accused of injuring the interests of Vida Group, a Chinese company. On January 2, a group of community members from Suky in the municipality of Waspam, led by Leman, had entered the company’s warehouse where resin it collects from the area’s forests is kept. While Vida Group had a concession to extract resin from the forests in the community of Kum, it wanted more so began to extract it in 11 other communities not covered in the concession. Leman rebelled against this abuse and is now in prison, accused of setting fire to the warehouse. In this case, the Police was quick to defend the illegitimate interests of a foreign investor above the autonomy of a community not covered in the concession.

When national justice fails to respond…


Conflicts in the Caribbean region are often based on political rivalries and frequently have even more tragic consequences than in the case just described, yet the Police often act less diligently… In another case, which occurred on September 14, 2015, also in the municipality of Waspam, Mario Leman, a well-loved community and Yatama leader, was murdered. The testimonies CENIDH received revealed that a group of FSLN activists encircled the Yatama Green House in the municipal capital where indigenous people were holding a meeting that night. An altercation occurred in the political context of the break-up of the Yatama-FSLN alliance a few months earlier.

The governing party activists used guns, mortally wounding Mario Leman and injuring eight others, all from Yatama. Because of the gravity of his wound and Waspam’s lack of conditions to save him, Leman was evacuated to Managua as an emergency, but he died in transit. In a communiqué, the National Police claimed that Yatama had provoked the incident, even though the dead man and all the wounded were from that party. While it was public knowledge who had fired, nobody was arrested for these criminal acts. Moreover, the Police provided protection for those identified as responsible, returning them to Waspam two months after the event. They now represent the ruling party in posts they hold in the community.

Some 500 days after these events, without a single person being detained, no results from the investigations the Police was supposed to conduct, and no effort by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to demand such an investigation by the Police, CENIDH accompanied one of Mario Leman’s four daughters and his mother, Ayusin Ignacio, to present their case to the IACHR, thus initiating a process that will take several years. We are demanding a thorough, objective and impartial investigation to clarify the facts and determine individual responsibilities; and a declaration of the Nicaraguan State’s responsibility for violating Mario Leman’s right to life and his family’s right to access justice after having been doubly victimized by going through all the legal channels for well over a year and a half with no response, even though they said from the outset that they would resort only to law and never to violence.

Mario Leman’s death occurred within the context of the political conflict between Yatama and the ruling party, which have opposing views on how the Caribbean Coast should be developed. These conflicts are heightened by the ruling party’s resolve to stay in power at any cost, using violence and rigged electoral processes. Such unscrupulousness creates a breeding ground for ongoing conflict that often results in acts of violence. The violation of political and autonomous rights, the illegal removal of indigenous authorities from regional government posts, replacing them with people from the ruling party, also promotes corruption as well as continuously fueling the many expressions of Coast conflict.

The climate of violence…


Even in this difficult and arguably bleak context, the most pressing problem today on the Caribbean Coast is still the violence caused by settlers invading indigenous lands. The Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN), which works in the North Caribbean, has documented 42 people, mostly indigenous and some settlers, who have lost their lives in this conflict, with countless more wounded, threatened, kidnapped and frightened.

The climate of violence caused by an increase in settler invasions once again led to the intervention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which, in October 2015, granted precautionary measures in favor of the following North Caribbean communities: Santa Fe, Esperanza Río Coco, San Jerónimo, Polo Paiwas (also known as Paiwas Ta) and Klisnak in the Wanki Li Aubra Miskitu territory and Wiwinak in the Li Lamni Tasbaika Kum Miskitu territory, all in the municipality of Waspam. In January 2016 the Commission extended the provisional measures to a further six communities in the Wanki Li Aubra and Li Lamni Tasbaika Kum territories.

All these communities currently face death threats, kidnappings, murders and forced displacements as a result of Mestizo settlers invading their territories, while the civilian and military authorities are doing nothing to stop the violence that has caused a genuine humanitarian crisis. CEJUDHCAN’s efforts to use peaceful means to advance the title clearance process have only come up against governmental indifference. On several occasions we have raised the issue of the crisis arising from this recent violence in hearings and work sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. At one of the latter, requested by CEJUDHCAN and held in one of the most critical moments of the violence, the government didn’t even send a representative.

…and the government’s consent


It’s extremely serious that the authorities haven’t resolved even one case of the over 40 violent deaths caused by the land conflicts. Not only have they not investigated any of them, but in a report sent to the IACHR the government acknowledges no more than 5 to 7 deaths and blames human rights organizations for “inventing” larger numbers… When questioned about this climate of violence, Nicaragua’s Army Chief, General Julio César Avilés, declared that the deaths are due to “problems between individuals.” Even if this were so, if a man were found dead in Managua, would the police justify their indolence in not investigating it by saying that the death was due to “a problem between individuals”? On the Coast the invaders are armed with assault rifles, so why doesn’t the Army, so diligent when acting against or even annihilating today’s rearmed groups it labels “common criminals,” take any measures to disarm these people?

We want to emphasize the criminal indifference with which the authorities view what’s happening on the Coast, and to insist that it isn’t a problem between individuals. The mestizos who have been invading lands belonging to indigenous peoples in recent years, especially in the North Caribbean, are doing so with the authorities’ consent. It’s being promoted or at least allowed to happen to avoid complying with title clearance, because these lands and the riches they contain are of immense interest to the economic power bloc ruling our country today. It’s this power that doesn’t let us hear the clamor coming to us from the Caribbean Coast.

Title clearance is admittedly a difficult and complex task


A separate article in Law 445 assigns responsibilities for the title clearance procedure to both the indigenous peoples who live on those lands and to central and regional authorities. On the one hand, the government authorities haven’t wanted to do their part in title clearance, even though it has caused many of the acts of violence taking place today in the northern Caribbean Coast. They are understandably not eager to tackle such a thorny and complex task as moving thousands of invaders who have illegally occupied indigenous lands.

On the other hand, with title clearance the most complex and costly stage of the territorial demarcation process, most territories and communities could only assume their responsibility to participate in this task by seeking alliances with other key players that could help with economic resources, technical capacities and management skills. In fact, civil society organizations such as CEJUDHCAN as well as community leaders themselves can do a lot to resolve the land problem peacefully. There is strong leadership among the community leaders we’ve met in the educational processes we’ve been involved in and civil society initiatives are supporting the development of many capacities and skills.

The trouble is that the violence in the region and the institutional indolence do not allow for these efforts to flourish. While local human rights defenders have raised their voices to defend the communities and the pastoral leaderships of the Moravian, Catholic and Evangelical churches have formed peace commissions calling for an end to the violence, there are also corrupt political leaders in the traditional parties and, by monopolizing all the spaces, the ruling party prevents any alternative and honest opposition party having a chance to prosper.

As human rights deteriorate, armed violence will mount


There are feelings and resentments on the Caribbean Coast similar to those of the politically motivated rearmed groups that are mobilizing in northern Nicaragua. During the 1980s war, the so-called “Contra corridor” reached the Caribbean. Some Caribbean community members have issued an ultimatum this year, demanding title clearance and warning that if the authorities don’t assume their role in that task, they’ll do it themselves on their own lands, which could lead to an all-out war in the coming months. We should take this as a warning. In Nicaragua nobody wants war ever again, but we must realize that the possibility of armed violence comes closer as human rights deteriorate even further. The challenge is to be aware and instigate a citizen movement of peaceful rebellion and resistance that doesn’t just end in statements on the social networks. Each and every one of us today must help prevent violence from continuing to plague the Caribbean Coast, threatening its peoples’ lands, traditions and culture.
Without title clearance, without moving to resolve the problem of the continual invasion of mestizo settlers onto indigenous lands, the Caribbean population has no guarantee that it will ever be able to enjoy its territories in peace and security.


Sidelining Yatama


Another moment in the history of abuses of the Autonomy Statute was the exclusion of the regional political party Yapti Tasba Nanih Asla Takanka (Yatama), which translates from Miskito as Organization of the Children of Mother Earth, from participating in the 2000 general elections.

One of Yatama’s precursors, Alliance for Progress of the Miskitu and Sumu Peoples (ALPROMISU), was created in the Wangki River capital of Waspam during the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s and spread throughout the North Caribbean region. One of its main goals was “to defend its territories and natural resources.” It was morphed into the newly-named Miskitus, Sumus, Ramas and Sandinistas Working Together (Misurasata) only months after the revolutionary victory in July 1979. Power disputes, problems that FSLN founder Tomás Borge put down to “cultural errors,” and differences over the land issue were among a long list of growing tensions that led to the brief arrest of a number of top and mid-level Misurasata leaders in early 1981, and ultimately to Misurasata’s split into two armed organizations, one keeping that name and the other calling itself Misura. Yatama was the name chosen for the reunification of these two essentially Miskitu organizations and a third one. Most of its members followed their leaders in their 1989 return to civilian life, a decision promoted by the passage of the Autonomy Statute on September 7, 1987, the urging by civilian community members that they end the fighting and the possibility of participating in the 1990 elections. On their return, Yatama leaders included the fight for the demarcation and legalization of indigenous lands among their demands.

After the Electoral Law was amended by the Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán pact during Alemán’s administration, the Supreme Electoral Council excluded Yatama from participating in the 2000 municipal elections alleging that it hadn’t complied with the new requirement for national parties of presenting signatures equivalent to 3% of the national electorate and didn’t have representatives in at least 80% of the municipalities of Nicaragua. These extremely severe requirements were put into the law by Ortega and Alemán for national in order to perpetuate the two-party PLC-FSLN system in Nicaragua and make it impossible for an indigenous organization of limited territorial range such as Yatama to comply.


Yatama goes to the IACHR


Once domestic legal recourses were exhausted, CENIDH took the Yatama case to the Inter-American Commission on Human rights, which approved its submission to the Inter-American Court. The latter ruled in 2005 that the Nicaraguan State had violated the political rights of the indigenous organization’s candidates by imposing on them a form of political organization alien to their customs. The Nicaraguan government has refused to comply with this ruling, has not attended hearings called by the Court and has not provided sufficient information on the case. In 2015, after more than five years without reporting, the Court decided to keep open the procedure for monitoring compliance with reparation measures.
Meanwhile the excluded indigenous organization had no other recourse than to adopt the rules governing national political parties and make an alliance with the FSLN in order to participate in the 2006 general elections. That alliance broke down in 2014 when Yatama not only denounced serious irregularities in elections for the Caribbean’s regional governments, but also the long-standing neglect of Coast problems, especially those related to land tenure with the constant invasion of settlers, deforestation by both them and the lumber companies, and the violence all this was causing in the Caribbean.


Is Nicaragua really safer than Honduras? A telling contradiction


The violent situation in the North Caribbean has caused a continual exodus of families and communities crossing from the Nicaraguan to the Honduran side of the Wangki River. The borders between the two countries are irrelevant to Coast people not only because they are fleeing the violence caused by the invaders but also because they are the same people on both sides of the border. In fact, before 1960, a rriver further north formed the border between the two countries.

The practice of sleeping on the Honduran side of the river and returning to Nicaragua in the morning has become increasingly frequent because they feel more protected in Honduras, despite its insecure conditions. It’s a telling contradiction that indigenous people in Honduras don’t have the legal recognition they have in Nicaragua, but feel safer there than in Nicaragua where there’s no political will to respect the rights that have been fought for and recognized on paper.


UN officials obstructed


A very significant incident ensued in November 2015, when the Nicaraguan government refused to allow Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, to enter our country. In order to tell her about their experience of violence from invading settlers in what the Ortega government boasts is “the safest country in Central America,” a delegation of Miskitus had to cross the Wangki River into Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world not at war, which did allow her to enter.

Any international authority coming to Nicaragua to investigate human rights will encounter difficulties. In August 2016, Michel Forst, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, was also unable to get into Nicaragua at a time of great governmental hostility towards foreigners. When the Ortega government indicated to the UN that it couldn’t guarantee Forst’s safety, he gave up on his visit to Nicaragua and went to neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica instead, where he was able to listen to Nicaraguan human rights defenders.




Mauro Ampié is the executive director and Gonzalo Carrión is the juridical director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH)

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