The Caribbean Coast’s voice in the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy
This sociologist and anthropologist,
a member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy
and Caribbean Coast representative in the National Dialogue
reports on the Caribbean region’s different realities
and shares her reflections about her participation
in the currently negotiations with the Ortega regime.
Daisy George West
I still remember when Monsignor David Zywiec, the Catholic bishop of Siuna, up until a few months ago Auxiliary Bishop of Bluefields, called me on May 14, 2018, to ask me to help him with a “hot potato” he had in his hands. I have a very good relationship with the bishops on the Coast, with him and Monsignor Pablo Schmitz. I’m part of their team. I’ve worked a lot with them here and at the international level. Whenever they’re invited to speak about the indigenous peoples, I go with them. Since they aren’t from the Coast, they introduce me then I do the speaking. They value and respect the empathy I express when sharing experiences.
The “hot potato” was to represent
the Coast in the National Dialogue
The “hot potato” Monsignor David offered me that day was to represent the Caribbean Coast on the Civic Alliance in the Dialogue about to get underway with the government. Monsignor David is so responsible that, instead of being present in the Dialogue himself with the other bishops as mediators and witnesses, he preferred to give his place to the superintendent of the Moravian Church, which is the main traditional church of the Coast peoples.
Monsignor told me it was important to have a costeño in the Alliance, and said I should talk it over with my husband, but I only had me one day to do so because the Dialogue was to begin on May 16. We decided I should participate, though we both our doubts about whether the government would take the Dialogue seriously.
Since I wasn’t able to catch the first flight out of Bilwi, I was still waiting at the airport for the second one when I heard Lesther Alemán say to Daniel Ortega: “You know we are here to negotiate your departure!” It so impressed me that I wanted to go back home, but an innerr strength told me I should be there, that my mission was to speak for our people in that space, to speak for the Caribbean Coast.
I didn’t say anything the first day I was in that room, but the second day I did speak. Ever since then I’ve tried to be very responsible and objective because the Coast’s problems aren’t the responsibility only of this government or of any single government. Our exclusion began way back in 1894 when we were “incorporated” into the national State.
We on the Cost view
diversity as wealth
Even though the Caribbean Coast is an extensive area of the Nicaraguan nation, it doesn’t even exist for many. For others it exists, but they look at it with a lot of prejudice. Still others know it exists and view it without prejudice. The negative perceptions about the Coast have historical roots. Some have to do with the encounter with the British buccaneers who came there and met up with the Miskitu people. Instead of battling them, they formed an alliance and this area of our country remained in British hands. This historical milestone from the past marked the relationship between the nation-State and the Coast: they’ve always considered us traitors. They still see us with prejudice today because we’re different: we eat different and speak different.
We peoples who live in the Coast speak different languages so we’ve grown accustomed to living in diversity and consider it as a wealth. And that clashes with the majority’s conception of a State that has imposed a single cosmovision. We on the Coast are familiar with the indigenous peoples’ cosmovision, based on reciprocity, respect for the elders and harmonious coexistence with Nature, which guarantees the continuity of life.
Positive Laws vs. Common Law
The National State has given the Caribbean Coast three positive laws that establish how we should regulate social relations. Law 28 recognizes the autonomy of the Coast, Law 162 recognizes our languages as official on the Coast, and Law 445 provides for the demarcation of the Coast peoples’ lands and territories. These positive laws enter into contradiction with what we have and know as “Common Law.”
What is the difference? Positive laws are conceived by the State based on human relations that derive from private property while Common Law has been conceived by the people based on collective property. Between these two conceptions is a virtually antagonistic contradiction.
Positive laws, which have their origin in Roman Law, have prevailed in all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. But I kept wondering why Common Law dwas replaced by Roman Law in our countries if Latin America’s original peoples based their societies on it and were able to organize their social relations and communal justicenperfectly well. The answer is discrimination and domination. The colonizers sowed the idea that what is theirs has value and what is ours is no good.
In our self-identity there’s no record of caring for and respecting our own contribution. We’ve been taught to expect others to come and build for us. Our minds register that anything else is no good. So, for example, those of us with black skin have less value.
All those prejudices are expressed in many ways, including in language. I remember a meeting in Managua during the 1990s … I had been participating in the construction of a judicial instrument on the Rights of Minorities in Geneva and in meetings about the advances of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and was invited by a dear friend of mine, Guadalupe Salinas, to do a presentation about the Convention. That day I spoke about the advances of women’s rights in Nicaragua and someone commented: “Who’d have thought a woman from the Coast was going to teach us so much in this conference….”
If we take a look at the positive laws that govern the Coast, we have to admit that they haven’t worked. there have been no great advances in what is established in the Autonomy Law since 1990, when it first went into effect. In 2006, when Daniel Ortega was again trying to return to government, he came to Puerto Cabezas to speak with the indigenous people, but they had not forgotten the tragedy of Red Christmas in 1981 and wanted nothing to do with him. So he met with politicians of Yatama, the indigenous organization,. He asked them for forgiveness and signed three agreements promising them their participation in the Caribbean Coast government. They signed. As a result of that alliance between politicians there was a certain degree of governance until 2014. But, that year there were totally fraudulent regional elections on the Coast and since then the whole autonomous process has been thwarted; it functions deficiently. And proof that it’s not working is that poverty continues to increase.
Trafficking in the Coast’s lands
Law 445, approved in 2002, grows out of the autonomy process. It establishes how to regulate the communal property of the indigenous people and ethnic communities of the Caribbean. Only the first stages of the law were accomplished: demarcation, titling… but the last step, cleansing, which would determine who could continue living in the communal lands and who should be relocated to other places for having invaded them, was not accomplished.
Today, our lands continue to be invaded by “colonos.” That’s what we call poor mestizos, mestizos with money or mestizos sent to settle in the Coast’s territories. They come and claim ownership over communal land by force or through legal tricks and employ practices that aren’t at all harmonious with Nature. They deforest, dedicate the land to cattle-raising, dry up the rivers… all of which totally changes the dynamic of our peoples’ lives. They see the people from the Coast as lazy because we use very few resources, only what we need to live. Because life is worth more than resources for indigenous peoples.
Trafficking in the Coast’s lands started with the agrarian reform process that the Somoza government promoted with the Nicaraguan Agrarian Institute (IAN), which gave out 35 hectares per person. In the 1980s, within the FSLN’s agrarian reform, the same amount was also given per person. And then in the pacification process during Violeta Barrios’ government, both bands that had fought in the civil war were given land: 35 hectares to each ex-combatant. All that also happened on the Caribbean region even though the legal framework for communal property prohibits this. Article 36, subsection 1, of Law 28 related to autonomy for the Atlantic Coast, as the region was called when that Autonomy Statute was approved, states that “communal lands are non-transferable, cannot be donated, sold, seized or encumbered, and are imprescriptible.” Nevertheless, each government did with our lands what suited its own interests. Land trafficking is a legal figure unknown to communal justice, which has created a conflict that cannot be solved with positive laws.
Violence on the Coast
began well before last April
While we’ve been invaded by colonos for years, the invasions increased starting in 2007. Before the April uprising, 60 people had already been killed had the Coast, because indigenous people would confront those settlers with hunting rifles, while they came with weapons from the war. Some say they are paramilitaries protected by the government. The communal leaders have gone to all the appropriate agencies seeking protection but to no avail.
In addition to the deaths, we’ve had hundreds of people displaced, abducted, women raped, communities forced to abandon their lands and seek refuge in Honduras or cities of Nicaragua, which brings dynamics and demands they’re not prepared to deal with, increasing their vulnerability and the precariousness of their survival. We have denounced in both national and international courts the massive human rights violations our communities are suffering. Finally, in 2016 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decreed precautionary measures for the indigenous peoples, but the government paid no heed. The “colonos” continue invading and the communities continue suffering….
Laws respond only to the
interests of those with power
The difficult realities of the Caribbean Coast people have taught us that the national laws, which I identify as positive laws, were created and are used to respond to the pressing interests of the groups in power at the moment. In the Dictionary of Philosophy of 1973, authors M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin explain that in society, implementing the law presupposes the activity of persons capable—consciously or unconsciously—of creating or destroying the conditions of the law’s action. Men don’t create laws by themselves, but only limit or broaden the laws’ sphere of action in accord with their needs and interests.
Nicaragua’s laws and especially its Political Constitution have experience many legislative reforms, always adjusted to the interests of the government in power, which uses them at its convenience. Today, we Nicaraguans demanding early elections are told it would violate the Constitution. Yet, the Constitution was reformed just to justify Daniel Ortega’s reelections, and no citizen can argue against that constitutional violation. This is how laws are manipulated in Nicaragua.
Solidarity between the coasts
was always a one-way street
We Coast peoples were immediately in solidarity with the April uprising and the serious human rights crisis that for communities in the Pacific began in April 2018. Coast youth mobilized and participated in protest marches. In fact the first reporter was killed in Bluefields on April 21, while reporting these protests. In June 2018, seven indigenous people were killed in another protest…
But we had been experiencing something similar on the Coast since the 1980s, but when it happens to indigenous people, nobody says anything andthe media seldom reports it. I think that’s a pretty clear expression of the exclusion and discrimination the Caribbean Coast has always experienced.
However, we must look at at the positive side: April helped all of us, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, measure the misgovernment we are experiencing. One of the characteristics of this misgovernment is precisely that diversity of thought shouldn’t exist, that whoever thinks differently has no rights and could be fired from their job, persecuted or even killed… The crisis that began in April is also conceiving a new vision of the nation. This is my hope.
Poverty is taking
control of the Coast
I remember that when the discussion about the roadblocks began during the first National Dialogue I mentioned that we have natural roadblocks on the Coast. For example, the road in Wawa, through which food arrives from the Pacific to the Coast, is impassable during the rainy season. We still don’t have an all-season road, so products have to be carried by canoes, seriously increasing the price of any product, no matter how simple it may be. A pound of onions, which costs 12 córdobas in the Pacific, costs 28 córdobas there. But nobody cares, nobody regulates prices.
The Human Development Report written by the United Nations Development Programme in 2005 had as its theme the reality of the Caribbean Coast. It showed the large amount of resources that go into the State’s public funds from the Coast’s mining, fishing and forestry businesses. However, this income isn’t later reinvested for the Coast’s development, as it should be. The Coast contributes to the national funds, but its contribution isn’t repaid. There’s no development on the Coast.
It’s true that during recent years many human resources have been formed, such as for medical assistance, but there’s no equipment, and no matter how good doctors may be, they need equipment to do their work. There are no health units in faraway communities. Early deaths on the Coast are very frequent. But nobody cares.
In 2007 when Hurricane Felix passed through the Coast, I participated in a study done in the Northern Caribbean Coast, specifically in Sandy Bay. Many children were left orphans back then. In that case I changed my practice of speaking first with adults and I spoke first with the children, asking how they experienced it. All of them repeatedly said the same: we closed our eyes and when we opened them we were orphans…and everything had changed.
I wept a lot while doing that study. I was able to see how the Coast peoples’ resilience capacity was weakening. And it is continuing to weaken today, because poverty is taking control of the Coast, and poverty weakens any resilience.
Sexual violence, for example, has a lot to do with this. We recently did a study in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas and the findings were horrifying. In the communities along the upper Rio Coco I was very saddened to see that grandmothers, who have traditionally been the protectors of the families, are now the ones who send their granddaughters out as prostitutes. It’s a dramatic situation. This is beyond doing workshops to change consciences. It has to do with having food on your plate everyday…
Youth are abandoning
their collective identities
Moreover, we’re also seeing the destructuring of traditional families in the changes the youth are experiencing. When I wrote my Masters dissertation in Anthropology in 2002, I did my research in Haulover, in the southern coast of the Northern Caribbean and I saw many changes among the youth. One of my informants, a 94-year-old man, explained to me that a change began among the young men with the war of the 1980s. The fact they participated in a war, were given arms and were made commanders, made them feel they were moving up, had power and didn’t need to obey their elders anymore.
Added to this, when the war ended and the military forces were reduced, the drug cartels found fertile soil on the Coast. Many young people would find the drugs and money that drug traffickers threw overboard when being chased by the DEA. With this economic rise, solidarity ties between communities began to weaken and the youth began to abandon their collective identity for individualist identities.
Keeping the Coast on the agenda
I came to the first National Dialogue with the mission of always keeping the Coast on the agenda of both the Dialogue and the Civic Alliance itself. When I first got there, I could see that some just wanted to win me over… But they soon realized that I’m not one to stay quiet and am not interested in flattery. I quickly saw that any issue being addressed was seen from a national level and usually a view from one that covers up the Coast’s reality. So, whatever issue was being discussed, I would jump in with what that reality’s like on the Coast. If we talked about justice, I would talk about justice on the Coast. My strategy as part of the Alliance, back then in the National Dialogue and now at the negotiation table, has always been to be critical but creative, and to provide information about what goes on in the Coast, because sometimes those realities are not known.
I believe I’ve positioned the issue. We’ve met with a delegation of Miskitus and Afro-descendants and with an expert on struggles of indigenous movements. In addition, within the celebrations of the ILO’s centennial anniversary and 30 years of its Convention 169, we’ve introduced a document through the participation of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) that presents evidence of the government’s non-compliance with several articles of the Convention regarding the rights of the Caribbean indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples. We’ve invited the ILO to Nicaragua to do in situ assessment because Nicaragua is a signatory of this Convention.
My more specific aim is to make progress with our concrete proposal that a different type of election be held on the Coast. We’ve continued reflecting about it and are now working on a proposal for inclusion in the early and transparent elections we’re demanding from the regime at the negotiation table, which is the only legitimate, civic and peaceful way we’ve found to move towards the authentic and lasting change Nicaraguan society hopes for.
The “Use and Customs”
model for the Coast
I came to the National Dialogue knowing all our problems and totally convinced that positive laws aren’t going to solve them. So when they started forming commissions in the Dialogue and placed me in the electoral commission, it was the perfect opportunity. I ventured to promote an electoral model for the Coast that’s different from the Pacific, a model we call “Uses and Customs.” I told the rest of the Alliance I would continue with them if they were in agreement with this issue, and I feel I’ve opened them up to a new way of seeing its advantages.
This model has international support based on rights recognized in international legislation on indigenous peoples and in Nicaragua. It is supported by two emblematic cases ruled by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights: Awas Tigni in 2000 and Yatama vs. the State of Nicaragua in 2005. Both verdicts from the Court request the State of Nicaragua to organize elections on the Caribbean Coast according to the Uses and Customs of the Coast peoples.
We know this as communal democracy: a community assembly in which the chosen leader is told he or she is being ratified or removed for doing did this or that or not doing what was expected of him or her. Everything is said right up front. Leaders are warned that if they don’t want to be changed they must behave and achieve what the community needs and expects from them. It’s a direct and very formative model for new generations.
We want to promote this model, which is known to the Coast people. We know we’ll run into a lot of resistance among those who aren’t from the Coast. When I first presented it to the Civic Alliance they were surprised. However, they’ve come around. Promoting this model for the Coast, we also want to reduce costs. A lot is currently spent for one day of regional elections and all that money could be better spent on the Coast’s development. In “Use and Customs” elections, there’s no need to spend much because an assembly is called in which people raise their hands and ratify whomever they want to govern.
This same autonomous model has been used by the people of Oaxaca for the last 27 years. Even though they don’t have an Autonomy Law, like we do, there are agreements for their model of governance. We’re going to ally with them so they can come and share their mistakes so we don’t repeat them ourselves.
No discrimination in the new model:
Construction without exclusions
There are four levels of government in the Coast: community, territorial, municipal and regional. The Use and Customs model is easier to apply in communal and territorial governments. The municipal level is a colonial legacy, so we believe that level should be abolished. At the regional level we want to find a balance of ethnic representation in participation, which will be different according to each location. In Pearl Lagoon, for example, there will be more presence of Creoles, and in Siuna, more presence of mestizos. What’s important is that there be no discrimination, construction without exclusions based on our diversity. We’re thinking of going to the communities to consult with them so we can decrease the fear most mestizos feel about this model.
We believe that to have the Coast’s presence in the national legislative assembly it’s very important to reestablish candidates by popular petition in the Electoral Law so our representation isn’t tied to membership in national political parties, which has always led to the election of Coast professionals who serve national interests. They virtually forget the objective of struggling for the development of the Caribbean Coast and the identity of the indigenous and afro-descendent peoples, who are always excluded from public policies of the nation-State.
Development is unequal in Nicaragua
What we want with this model is to bring together synergies between all of us who live on the Coast so there’s development in the Caribbean. We believe the national government should have promoted affirmative action programs for development, but it never did. What we see is that whatever development there has been on the Coast has been based on the economic interests of a few. For example, someone from The New York Times visited Corn Island, was fascinated and described it as one of the best beaches in the world. So now, Corn Island, even in the middle of the current crisis, is always full of tourists. It’s a source of resources and that’s why they invest there.
Development is unequal in Nicaragua. It doesn’t respond to the peoples’ needs, but to the economic interest of those in power. If we compare the Coast situation, for example, with that of the department of Estelí, far from the capital, we also see great inequality. This must change. If Nicaragua wants to develop, it should invest where there is no development to decrease the asymmetry between some departments and others. But that approach is nonexistent. It’s the one I’m trying to bring into the Civic Alliance.
Terror has moved into the Coast:
Attempts to control our churches…
Since April 2018, the critical situation of poverty has increased on the Coast. And terror has also moved in. Communal leaders exercise their rights and denounce, but are persecuted. Organizations that monitor human rights violations and take this information to the Inter-American Commission are under siege.
The Moravian Church, which has always been closest to the indigenous people, accompanied them, and denounced with the greatest force, is today in an enormous conflict because the governing party has sought to divide and control it since the April uprising. To achieve this, they added one of their own onto its board of directors. The Evangelicals either don’t say anything or are in favor of the government. The Catholic Church remains in resistance. It’s not complying to what they want, although, as in all human institutions everywhere, there are pro-government priests and there are those who disagree with what’s happening, as. There are also religious communities on the Caribbean Coast. The Sisters of St. Agnes have given their lives to education for the sons and daughters of the Coast families. The Carmelite Sisters work to decrease the emptiness and pain of orphans, abandoned children. We have a lot to thank them for.
…and our universities
I am pained by the current reality of the two Coast universities, the Bluefields Indian & Caribbean University (BICU) and the University of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast Regions (URACCAN), which were born to contribute to the development of autonomy. I’m a founder of URACCAN and have taught both there and in BICU. I’ve seen with alarm the government’s political control of both universities.
I believe these two universities, like all the country’s universities, should be supporting the efforts in favor of change that Nicaraguans are demanding today. However, justified by the fear of losing their access to the 6% of the national budget for universities, as has happened to some universities in the Pacific, both our universities are absenting themselves from what has been happening in Nicaragua since the April uprising. They are silent or are responding to the regime’s interests. Even dissertation topics now have to be in favor of the regime. That’s the level of control they have now! Some students who don’t accept this have written to us. They present their proposals, but very cautiously, because they fear they could be expelled for being “golpistas” [coup-mongers].
inside the Alliance
The National Dialogue of May-June 2018 was very different from the negotiations that began this February. But while many things have happened since then, our issues are the same: Justice and Democracy, and now liberty for all the political prisoners. The Alliance kept working during those six or seven months between the National Dialogue and the negotiation table when there was no dialogue. We prepared ourselves and went through training to improve our participation in the negotiation. There were experts from Holland, from Harvard… The training was intense and today the Alliance has gained acceptance and credibility within the international community.
I think there’s a difference in the way of reacting between those of us who were colonized by the British and those who were colonized by the Spaniards. The latter are more “güegüense.” and say things indirectly or behind others’ backs, whereas the British taught us to be open and direct. Sometimes I get impatient and speak strongly within the Alliance. I clearly say what I don’t like because I have that responsibility as one of the few women in the Alliance, and as the only person from the Coast. I also have the authority to speak because I’m putting my life at risk just like the rest.
On the other hand, despite all the criticism one hears about the Alliance, particularly distrust about all the businessmen on the negotiating team, I just want to say that it has been an important experience to see how those same businessmen who up until April only cared about their own businesses are now working on behalf of people’s human rights, freeing the political prisoners and solving Nicaragua’s problems, even though they are under siege just like the rest of us. Those businessmen are now convinced that the economic agreements they made with the government weren’t enough and political agreements are needed to achieve long-lasting solutions. I truly believe they’ve experienced a transition and I think they deserve recognition.
Differences between us and
some in the Blue and White Unity
The main difference between the Civic Alliance members and those of the Blue and White Unity is that we aren’t self-convened. We were called upon by the Episcopal Conference for a mission: to negotiate a way out of the crisis with the regime.
There are many points of view within the broader Blue and White Unity, which is a movement and some of them are critical of us. Some of them say that by negotiating with an illegitimate government that is in power through fraudulent means we are legitimating it when we ask it for elections. Some say we need to create a parallel government junta instead. We believe that could unleash a civil war because it’s what the regime wants by calling the uprising “golpista” and is what it has been preparing for. But like most of the Blue and White Unity, we don’t want any more bloodshed; there has already been more than enough mourning in Nicaragua.
We believe the only way out of this is through early elections with an electoral system directed and conducted by honest people who can’t change the results. It’s the only civil and peaceful way we’ve found, and it’s echoed nationally and internationally. We’re gambling on achieving at least the minimal expression of political will needed to hold such early elections. And if the government were to accept, we have proposals we’ve worked on to start acting upon this transparent and observed electoral process. If early elections are finally accepted, believe me that you’ll see within a matter of seconds what we hope to achieve for what comes afterwards for the common good.
Some critics also say we’re too cautious in our statements. But in thenm we have never strayed from our goals, which are the same as the Blue and White goals and those of the majority of Nicaraguans in general: liberty, justice and democracy. We aren’t backing down on any of those challenges. We have constructed a roadmap to reach those goals. But the only way for the Alliance to position itself as representing people seeking truth, justice and democracy is by expressing ourselves through respectful statements. We have to avoid confrontation. If we were to take a confrontational attitude, what else would they do to us since we’re already under siege? And who would take our place at the table? Standing firm in our decisions, without confrontation, is what got the Civic Alliance to where it is now. Our perseverance and respectful way of working has won over the international community.
What we’ve accomplished
Sitting down to dialogue about what we all want awakens hope. If we hadn’t sat at that negotiation table, those political prisoners who’ve been released from prison would still be there. If we weren’t sitting there denouncing the government’s failure to comply, the sanctions that are coming wouldn’t come. The international community has many distractions, among them Venezuela, so by staying there we are a permanent source of information to which those interested in what is happening in Nicaragua can turn. We need to stay there. And we need people to believe in the objective of our intentions, which is always the common good.
People become impatient, us included. But we feel the regime is collapsing. We have a social audit of everything that’s happening. Not long ago a judge said to me: “This is difficult, but change is coming.” And this person wasn’t someone who’s blue and white, or self-convened; he was a public official who knows what’s happening inside. We all want to know “when” that change is coming… We don’t know when yet, but it’s coming. Because lies never triumph over truth.