Elections on the Atlantic Coast: Where Politics Moves on Slippery Turf
The elections of October 20, 1996, are only the latest in the political and social conflicts experienced by Nicaragua’s costeños. In 1998 there will be regional elections on the Atlantic Coast, and a lot will depend on them.
Before 1979, not much happened politically on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast; "the world was quiet." Rural costeños in particular lived a fairly bucolic existence among the normally lazy rivers, peaceful lagoons, dense tropical rainforest and once pine-covered grasslands.
Ever since the triumph of the revolution, though, the coast's political life has been fast-paced, dynamic and at times reckless. Political and social struggles, conflicts and crises have followed one another in an uninterrupted chain.
Many sociologists and anthropologists see all this as positive. To them, it means growth, maturing, experiences accumulated by a population that was always isolated from and virtually uninvolved with the rest of Nicaragua. Without televisions, without radio relay from Managua, even without electricity in the rural communities, people with battery-operated FMs basically listened to Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio or to Colombian stations broadcasting from San Andrés Island. Few costeños--and most of them Creoles from Bluefields--had the chance to study in Managua or go abroad, to see other realities.
The relations that did exist over the decades between Managua and the Atlantic Coast--as the Caribbean side of Nicaragua is popularly known--left a bad taste in the mouths of costeños. Those relations were seen largely as the cause of the region's current backwardness and underdevelopment.
The Sandinista government did a lot to link the region into the nation in the early 1980s. It created government institutions in the coast, installed telephone and radio relays to the main towns, built schools and health centers in the communities and began providing electricity, taught literacy in the coast's active languages and initiated bilingual-multicultural education up to the fourth grade, sent hundreds of coast youth to national and foreign universities, and opened the roads from Boaco and Matagalpa through the mining regions and all the way to the major northern town of Bilwi (at that time still known as Puerto Cabezas). Most importantly it accepted autonomy for the region, passing an autonomy law in 1987 and making sure the foundations of that legislation were included in the new Constitution the same year.
That progress was not made without crisis, even military conflict. Then in the 1990s, much of what had been accomplished was halted or even undone by the Chamorro government, sparking more controversy and crisis. The 1996 general elections are just the latest of the many conflicts that costeños have lived through in the past two decades.
Elections in Context Against this brief historical backdrop, any attempt to analyze the October 20 elections in this 47% of Nicaragua's territory must also keep in mind a number of elements that affected both the attitude and turnout level of voters. Among them are the low preparation level and easy corruptibility of the autonomous authorities; the multiple interethnic and both inter- and intra-party schisms; the Chamorro government's intentional abandonment of the coast to those who have mercilessly exploited its forests, subsoil and seas in the past six years; the destruction of roads and bridges due to lack of maintenance; high unemployment; and a burgeoning drug traffic and use, particularly of cocaine.
Managua Against Autonomy When Violeta Chamorro took office in 1990, the framework for interpreting the political struggles in the Autonomous Regions of the North and South Atlantic (RAAN and RAAS, respectively) shifted significantly. If those struggles were largely triggered in the 1980s by the Sandinistas' failure to respect the significance of the coast's different cultures and history, they were now provoked by the Chamorro government's consistent denial of the rights and authority of the Regional Councils--the new government structures created by the Autonomy Statute--and by its efforts to further divide and weaken the coast by creating or spurring on conflicts between municipal and regional authorities.
Parallel to that political crisis, economic and social conditions deteriorated in the two autonomous regions to the ever quicker beat of the structural adjustment implemented by the Chamorro government. Average unemployment in the RAAS and RAAN has run between 80% and 90% for the past six years; and while 93% of the population lives in poverty, high transportation costs make the basic market basket the most expensive in all of Nicaragua.
These political and economic factors also provide a breeding ground for corruption. Political leaders on the coast try, with encouraging success, to buy the conscience of each others' minions, and businesses (in lumber, mining and fishing) do the same with government authorities. All this has gone hand in hand with never absent inter-ethnic conflict, squabbles between party groups and passionate infighting among local political headmen.
Coast Infighting Hobbles Autonomy One of the most destructive rivalries is the 17-year-old power struggle between Miskito leaders Stedman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera. Over the years it has strongly affected not only their own political careers, but the course of the war on the coast, the stability of successive Miskito organizations, the poor showing of the autonomous governments so far, and, hence, the fate of the Miskito population. Fresh out of college in 1979, they first jointly ran MISURASATA, a new indigenous organization that split less than two years later into two armed organizations which they also led. Today they head warring factions of YATAMA (Yapti Tasbaya Maraska Nani Asla Takanka - Organization of the Nations of the Mother Earth). YATAMA was created in 1987--with CIA bungling and US State Department fixing--as a military organization to unify and subsume the others under a triumvirate leadership scheme. After making the transition to a social-political organization in 1989, YATAMA mounted a relatively unified election campaign that won a plurality in the new Regional Council in the RAAN in 1990. Neither Rivera nor Fagoth ran for office that year, but they soon pulled the Regional Council apart from outside--Rivera as director of a central government development institute for the coast (INDERA) and Fagoth as the Council coordinator's main adviser. In 1994 their faction fight within YATAMA became electoral when Fagoth and others in his wing ran as Regional Council candidates for Arnoldo Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party, and won.
The complex tapestry of such political struggles in both the RAAS and the RAAN has left Council members little time for or interest in the needs of the multiethnic population they were elected to serve. "The worst of all that's happening to us," says Alta Hooker Blanford, the RAAN Regional Council's executive board president from May 1994 to May 1996, "is that the disputes among coast leaders totally undermine the capacity of our autonomous governments to take any initiative with the central government." Long periods go by in which the Councils do not even hold their monthly meetings. As just the most recent example, regular or stable sessions have not been held in either the RAAN or the RAAS since May 1996.
Pitched political battles also accompany any regularly scheduled election or change of internally elected posts. The 45-member Regional Councils in each region are directly elected every four years and they in turn choose their 7-member executive board and a regional coordinator from among their own members. The board serves two years and the coordinator--popularly called governor by locals--ostensibly serves the full four, though the latter can be deposed at any time by a 60% vote of the respective Council membership.
Four attempts have been made to unseat a coordinator so far, one per term per region. They succeeded both times in the RAAN and failed both times in the RAAS. In all four cases, corruption was the centerpiece of the charges against the incumbent.
Corruption Charges Commonplace The number of local political leaders and government officials who have not been accused of corruption can be counted on one hand. The worst aspect of this is that no evidence is ever produced to substantiate the charges, which range from nickel-and-dime corruption to the equivalent of grand larceny.
A representative example: in May 1996, the RAAN Regional Council elected Stedman Fagoth to replace Marcos Hoppington Scott as coordinator. Leading up to the change, Fagoth had led a campaign to unseat Hoppington, a military and then political leader always loyal to Rivera. At the peak of the campaign, Fagoth, who has made a career of delivering emotional but unsubstantiated charges, publicly accused Hoppington of acquiring thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of córdobas in ill-gotten gains from the regional government. As usual, he offered not a shred of evidence. The fight lasted for months because Hoppington refused to step down. Finally Fagoth proposed dropping his threats of an outside audit if Hoppington would just hand over the keys to the coveted government offices in Bilwi. And so it happened, just like that; no attempt was ever made to prove or disprove the allegations.
Now a representative example of smaller-scale, open corruption. Sol del Caribe SA, a Korean company engaged in a controversial plan to exploit the lumber on tens of thousands of hectares of forest in the RAAN, has financed several Regional Council meetings. (A three-day session can cost some $6,500 in round-trip transportation for the councilors by land, air or water, their lodging and food expenses, the reproduction of documents, etc.) An executive board member told envío that the firm had also financed parties for the Council "with an open bar and free-flowing drinks in the Los Cocos discotheque" in the mining town of Rosita. Other businesses that have financed festivities for the Council include ATLANOR (fishing) and MADENSA (lumber), both on the outskirts of Bilwi, a Canadian company with mining concessions in Rosita and Bonanza, and Greenstone Resources, another Canadian mining company in Bonanza. Such "business collaboration" establishes Council commitments to the companies, in practice buying the conscience and vote of councilors.
Pillage with Permission Numerous extractive companies have been set up with national and foreign capital since 1990 in both autonomous regions. With authorization by the government in Managua, permission by the regional and municipal governments and regulatory oversight by no one, they have been pillaging the coast's lumber, mineral and marine resources. The mining and lumber concessions granted by the central government cover millions of hectares of coastal forest, and the fishing licenses it has provided run into the hundreds. Thousands of ounces of gold, hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of precious wood and millions of pounds of shrimp and lobster were shipped out of the coast over the Chamorro years, leaving no particular benefits for the coastal population, just as happened for over a century prior to 1979.
All this has clouded costeños' hopes. Much of the population feels frustrated, desperate, and generally powerless. The expectations that the different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples had of autonomy in 1990, with new local authorities who would improve their living conditions and take the control over their resources away from Managua, evaporated only months after the new regional governments took office.
Two factors made this predictable. The first was the slate of the winning group in each region in 1990. Neither UNO in the RAAS nor YATAMA in the RAAN selected the most qualified candidates, UNO because it did not think it would win and YATAMA because it opted to favor loyal Miskito ex-combatants instead. The other factor was the prevailing polarization level. Though the winning groups fell short of an absolute majority in both regions, they were loathe to engage in effective bipartisan politics with the FSLN, which in both cases ran a close second. Those two factors combined to paralyze the Councils as a whole, and give free rein to corrupt practices by the Regional Coordinator. And neither factor improved much in 1994.
The 1996 General Elections On October 20, 1996, with the next elections for Regional Council still two years away, costeños got the same six ballots with the same 25-30 candidates that overwhelmed voters in the rest of the country. Also as in the rest of the country, the big winner in both the RAAN and the RAAS was the Liberal Alliance, as the table of the presidential results shows. (All figures used in this article are from the provisional final results the CSE announced on November 8, The CSE has still not made the final November 22 figures public.)
A Shock in the Legislative Race The two National Assembly seats in the RAAS went to Carlos Salomón, a Liberal, and to long-time FSLN leader William Schwartz. In the RAAN, Liberal-YATAMA candidates got two of the three Assembly seats, but the FSLN, with 29% on the legislative ballot, did not get the third, as it would have had seat assignment been based strictly on the vote count in the region itself. Nicaragua's complicated proportional representation system meant that the third seat went to the tiny Unity Alliance, which only got 1.14%.
By law, each slate of National Assembly candidates wins one seat for every "quotient" of votes it gets in a given electoral district (in this case the RAAN). A quotient equals the district's total valid votes divided by its number of seats, so if the RAAN hypothetically had 30,000 valid votes, any slate getting 10,000 votes would get one of its 3 Assembly seats. So far, so good, but the slates rarely get such tidy quotients in real life. They almost always are left with some "residual" votes--that is, votes that did not make up a full quotient. It also often happens that the votes are spread out among too many slates to get as many quotients as there are seats in the district; some seats are left unfilled. The CSE thus re-tallies all residual votes by party at a national level and lists them in descending order of size. It also lists all unfilled seats by electoral district, again in descending order of size. It then matches up the two lists according to a complex system of math and new quotients, the essential goal of which is to see that no party's votes are "wasted." Without detailing this exceedingly democratic system, the fluke in it becomes evident toward the bottom of the two lists. Once there, a situation kicks in as it did in the RAAN, a district with a small proportion of voters and hence only a few seats in the National Assembly, which gets assigned one of the smallest parties entitled to a seat based on its residual votes.
The loser in this system was not the FSLN; as a larger party with more residual votes, it got the seats it was entitled to in a larger district. The losers were the 29% who voted for the FSLN legislative candidates, particularly mestizos, Creoles and Mayangnas (formerly called Sumus) in the mining municipalities and the Creoles and mestizos of Bilwi.
The unexpected Unity Alliance victory was the most painful shock of the trauma the elections as a whole caused in the RAAN. Even if anyone understood the residual vote mechanism and/or its logic, the practical result was incomprehensible. The assignment of Unity candidate Saúl Zamora affected the credibility of the electoral process and of the CSE itself.
Historic Mayoral Races This was the first time in history that Atlantic Coast municipalities elected their mayors and municipal councilors. It could have happened in 1994, but the Autonomy Statute stipulated that the Regional Councils first had to draw up the municipal boundaries, since historically there was no formal demarcation, and they did not do it in time.
By law, the mayors appointed by the Sandinista government should have still been there in 1996, waiting to be voted out or back in. But the Regional Council winners in both the 1990 and 1994 elections saw these posts as plums to pluck, so all six municipalities in the RAAN and several of the seven in the RAAS have changed hands one or more times in the past six years. In the RAAN, the shifts grew out of intricate deals negotiated largely between YATAMA and the FSLN amid strikes, violent fights, takeovers of mayoral offices and political/ethnic accusations of all kinds. The most conflictive fights were over those in Bilwi, Waspám and the three mining municipalities. In the RAAS, in contrast, the FSLN followed a different path, consistent with its overall strategy toward the intransigent majority force in the Regional Council. Rather than negotiate away its indisputable legal right to the mayoral offices, particularly the key one of Bluefields, it took the issue to court and won.
In the RAAN, the Liberal Alliance and its YATAMA allies won the mayor's office in Waspám, Rosita, Prinzapolka and Siuna in 1996 while the FSLN won Bilwi and Bonanza. In the RAAS, the Liberals won Bluefields, La Cruz, Tortuguero, Kukra Hill and Pearl Lagoon, while the FSLN took Corn Island and the Río Grande basin. The Municipal Councils the new mayors will preside over range from a single-party one (Tortuguero for the Liberals) to the four-seat, four-party one in Corn Island that the FSLN won.
Since the only public voting results broken down as far as the municipal level are in the municipal race itself, it is only here that any changes in 1996 voting patterns relative to the 1990 and 1994 elections can be studied.
The RAAN: The FSLN's slow downward slide since 1990 continued, but so did the shift in the ethnic and territorial profile of its votes. For example, it did better on the Río Coco, in the grasslands communities south of the river and in Bilwi, all Miskito areas that YATAMA had sewn up in 1990. In contrast, it lost to the Liberals and Fagoth's wing of YATAMA the hegemony it had enjoyed for years in the rural part of the mining zones, retaining only Bonanza.
Why these shifts? At election time many Miskitos recalled the good things the Sandinista government did, despite the war and all the hardships. Even communities that openly supported the armed Miskito rebels had enough food, clothes and shoes then, distributed at symbolic prices, or even free. They also had free health and education services. That paternalism may have caused a lot of later ills, but the ills now are far worse. The rural mining areas that the FSLN lost are where the rearmed bands have created their base of operations. For example, these bands openly campaigned for the Liberal Alliance among peasants living along the Siuna-Río Blanco road, and did not let the FSLN in to campaign. "Many of the votes for the Liberal Alliance in these areas," said one councilor from Siuna, "were cast in fear of the armed bands. Liberal Alliance activists all over these zones were rearmed. They alternated between highway banditry and campaigning for the Liberals, making their house-to-house visits armed to the teeth. In these circumstances any peasant would vote for the Liberal Alliance."
The RAAS: The FSLN also did progressively worse in the RAAS than in 1990 and 1994, but again won a couple of electoral districts whose populations had voted against it previously: the indigenous communities at the mouth of the Río Grande and the largely Creole inhabitants of Corn Island.
The Liberals, in turn, won districts that had previously leaned toward the Sandinistas by pulling the vote of the thousands of mestizo peasants who have migrated to Bluefields and remote inland areas near Boaco and Chontales. They also pulled some of the Creoles and Garífunas who had previously voted Sandinista and now went for Creole candidates on the Liberal slate. The most notable case was Lawrence (Lala) Omier, Liberal candidate for mayor in Bluefields. A young, energetic businessman and sports star with many valuable qualities and personal skills, he attracted a big sympathy vote among Creoles.
Little Ticket-Splitting Local non-party organizations that meet the requirements can run their own candidates for municipal mayor and councilors, as they can for Regional Council. Several such organizations were formed in the different coast municipalities in 1996, usually based on ethnic rather than political identification. Some campaigned hard, hoping to attract the vote of people tired of the national parties and of party politics in general, but not one of them won a mayor's seat. As the chart shows, only two--one in Bluefields and one in Corn Island--got a council seat.
Rivera's wing of YATAMA, which could have run its own candidates for municipal office, opted to ally with the National Project (PRONAL) of Violeta Chamorro's son-in-law Antonio Lacayo so it could also run National Assembly candidates. Its precipitous downhill slide demonstrated in the 1994 elections continued in 1996, perhaps pulled even further by PRONAL's poor showing. Its only wins were three Municipal Council seats--one in Bilwi, one in Waspám, and one in the Río Grande basin. The National Resistance Party (PRN) made an even worse showing, however, winning a single Municipal Council seat in Siuna, even though a significant number of former National Resistance combatants (contras) live in the mining areas; as in 1994, the Liberals got most of their votes.
Party Loyalty Not a Coast TraitEven more so than in the rest of the country, there were not enough candidates on the coast to fill the slates of all the parties. Only the FSLN and the Liberal Alliance presented complete slates on all six ballots in both regions.
Among the smaller parties and alliances, several candidates switched parties or pulled out completely a few days before the elections. The more notable personalities on the coast had been besieged by party leaders to run on their ticket, and some parties added them without even asking permission first. When the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), for example, listed Roberto Wilson as one of its National Assembly candidates, Wilson went on radio to explain that "I have no conflict with my friends from the MRS but I do not accept this post. The MRS hasn't even consulted me." UNO-96, the alliance led by rightwing Social Democrat Alfredo César, did the same thing to Faran Dometz, the Moravian Church Superintendent and also Regional Council member in the RAAS for a small progressive group called Costeño Authentic Autonomous Movement (MAAC).
Politics moves on slippery turf in the coast, particularly when it has anything to do with loyalties to alliances or other agreements made with national party leaders. For example, in their house-to-house canvassing, several activists of Fagoth's wing of YATAMA encouraged people to vote for Alemán for President, but for the FSLN's candidate for mayor of Bilwi. The flip side of such disloyalty was displayed by activists of the alliance between the MRS and a small local RAAN group called Costeño Autonomous Movement (MAC)--no relation to MAAC. Some of them urged Bilwi residents to vote for the MRS-MAC candidate as mayor of Bilwi, but FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega for President (Sergio Ramírez was the MRS presidential candidate).
Such calls for a split ticket were heard all over the coast and from activists of all groups. The FSLN was possibly the only party that consistently asked people to vote a straight party ticket on all six ballots. Not even the Liberal Alliance can claim that kind of loyalty given its shaky pact with Fagoth. As in the rest of the country, however, very few people did split their vote, even in the RAAN where at least Miskito voters had done it so successfully in 1990.
At What Cost the Liberal-YATAMA Alliance?With 3 of the coast's 5 National Assembly representatives and 9 of its 13 municipal mayors, nominal Liberal Alliance control of the region will be almost total, since both regional coordinators and the RAAS' executive council president are already from the Alliance. In addition, the January 10 inauguration of Arnoldo Alemán as President was the signal around the country, coast included, to begin replacing any government officials and technicians that were not already Liberals.
The Liberal victory was both larger and more solidly its own in the RAAS; in the RAAN it mainly belonged to the Miskitos in Fagoth's wing of YATAMA, and to Fagoth's own power within the regional government he now heads. Officially speaking, the Alliance got two of the RAAN's three National Assembly representatives, but that is only as true as YATAMA-Liberal Alliance loyalties are deep, since the two seats went to Fagoth and Leonel Pantin, another Miskito.
Fagoth has the ego of a peacock, the personality of a chameleon and aspirations to be the all-powerful Miskito King of the 21st century. Pantin's personality and aspirations are far less flamboyant than Fagoth's but, as a Miskito, he has no ideological reason to offer deeper loyalty to any Managua-based party than money can buy. He had been elected to the Regional Council in 1990 as a reluctant YATAMA candidate (he was originally part of an independent slate that Rivera broke up). One of the few Miskito professionals on the Council, he was its first Regional Coordinator but was deposed for corruption two years later. The PLC snapped him up as its regional party chief soon thereafter.
The big question is what Fagoth asked of the Liberals in return for bringing them close to regional power in 1994, and engineering their win in 1996. The limits of both the Liberals' victory and Fagoth's loyalty will be revealed when his demands exceed what Alemán can or will provide. One Regional Council member from Siuna was categorical: "The alliance between Fagoth and Alemán is held together with spit; I don't give it another year before it comes unstuck. What will do it is the fight over who gets the biggest cut of the no-holds-barred exploitation of our forests, mines and seas."
When that alliance does come unstuck, as all believe it will sooner or later, things in the RAAN will get complicated. Fagoth and his backers will be prepared to dismantle anything built on the base of that alliance that favored the Liberals instead of them, and the Managua government will not take that lying down. A radio editorial in Bilwi predicted the danger in these terms: "The break between Fagoth and Alemán, when it happens, will be based on a conflict of political or personal interests between them, but it will affect the whole region.... The RAAN may have been abandoned during the Chamorro government, fit only to extract wood, gold and shellfish, but if Fagoth fights with Alemán, isolation of the RAAN is going to be total, although it will of course always be useful for pillaging our resources."
YATAMA's FutureFagoth's wing of YATAMA came out of the elections strengthened not only by the victory of its PLC candidates in the RAAN but also by the Liberal victory at a national level. Fagoth himself is now not only coordinator of the RAAN's autonomous government and a new National Assembly representative, but is also on the Assembly's Natural Resource Commission. In addition, the central government named Francisco Rener, a Mayangna leader in Bonanza, as vice minister of its mining institute (INMINE), and Jaime Chow, Miskito leader in Bilwi, as vice minister of its fishing institute (INPESCA). Both are from the YATAMA-PLC tendency. Some believe that the Alemán government put these three costeños in charge of the coast's resources so it can increase the pillage, since "a good salesman needs to know his merchandise well." But no one doubts that these "salesmen" will assure themselves substantial "commissions."
Independent of the electoral results, its two tendencies and all the errors their "cacique" leaders have committed or are accused of committing, YATAMA still has a future. The base will continue to identify with its leaders, hoping that they will now finally respond to the Miskito people's demands and historic aspirations.
Whatever the practice of YATAMA's leaders may be, their discourse is an ethnic one; it defends indigenous and particularly Miskito customs, history, traditions, ecological surroundings, languages, mythical world and religion. This discourse, internalized by the Miskito people, is in turn much like the Moravian Church liturgy, which has become the essence of the Miskito social discourse due to a syncretism between Moravian images, parables and concepts and the symbolic elements of Miskito culture.
The Moravian Role In the ElectionsThe Moravian church, like many Protestant denominations, is politically decentralized from top to bottom. On the coast, where the church won its autonomy from the mother church in the United States in 1974, the bishop is strictly a spiritual leader. The superintendent, elected every three years, has more political space, but even his influence on community pastors is relative.
In 1990 these pastors participated openly in the elections, sending out calls from their pulpits to vote for YATAMA. Almost all of them that year referred to the newly returned YATAMA military leaders, particularly Brooklyn Rivera, as "the lamb that has arrived." (The Moravian Church emblem, which appears on the walls of its churches, the banners that preside over its activities and even the doors of its trucks, is a lamb with a cross.)
None of this was repeated in 1996. Pastors in a few communities called on their congregations to vote for one political grouping or another, but such cases were rare. In general the church as an institution remained calm and neutral as well, after having made several fruitless attempts in the past few years to reunite and strengthen YATAMA and more recently to forge a unified coast platform which any national party wanting the coast vote would have to adopt.
The other churches on the coast also remained neutral. The Catholic bishop there, Pablo Schmitz, appeared on the cable TV station that broadcasts in Bluefields, Bilwi and a few other towns to make a simple call that people vote for the option of peace, "so that a government comes out of these elections that will serve everyone, that will work for the common good." No smaller Protestant denominations took sides in their declarations or attitudes either.
Autonomy or Separation?For some time Sandinistas on the Atlantic Coast have been proposing to the FSLN leadership the possibility of becoming an autonomous section of the party that can defend the ethnic-regional demands of all peoples and ethnic groups on the coast with greater belligerency. The FSLN Congress in May 1995 took both conceptual and structural steps in that direction and now, in light of the 1996 elections, the organizational aspects need to be worked on quickly if the FSLN wants to improve its results in the next Regional Council elections, in February 1998. It is foreseeable that the upcoming regular FSLN Congress in mid-1997 will restructure the whole party to bring it in line with the new realities. That will unquestionably include discussing and making substantial changes in the FSLN's local chapters.
The coast is full of political groups with strictly regional positions. They defend their region and the demands of its peoples for their rights, and struggle to establish a truly horizontal relationship between the coast and the rest of the country and to strengthen the autonomy system that has been won. The discourse in favor of autonomy has been heard for years on the coast. Organizations that defend one vision or another of it have continually emerged, developed, merged into or passed the baton to others, or simply disappeared. Some have focused on a single ethnic group, others on a more harmonious vision of interethnic relations. Some adopted or were pushed into a military option at a certain point, while others rejected it strongly. Some have been tight-knit groups, others a broad, loose movement. Still others have diluted their ethnic demands by allying with national political parties. Among these organizations have been ALPROMISU (1973-79), SUKAWALA (1974-95), MISURASATA (1979-81 as a social organization and 1982-87 as a military one), MISURA (1981-87), MISATAN (1984-1987), ASLA (1985), KISAN (1985-87), KISAN pro-Peace (1986-90), YATAMA (1987--), MADA (1992-93), MAAC (1993--), MAC 1995--). In the Regional Council elections of 1994, MAAC won two seats in the RAAS.
Immediately after the 1996 elections, a silent movement, one of whispers, began among Miskitos linked to the Councils of Elders that are close to Rivera's wing of YATAMA. They identify with the "Mosquitia," the autonomous area of the coast run by a Miskito king and court for nearly two hundred years until Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya--a Liberal--sent troops to Bluefields in 1894 to "reincorporate" the region, even renaming it after himself.
Since October 21, 1996, the historic flag of the Mosquitia has been flying from a spot defined as the center of Bilwi, facing the southeast edge of the central park, and has also been raised in other municipal seats of the RAAN. It has sky blue stripes on a white background, and in the upper right corner a blue diagonal cross with a shield in the center sporting a machete and a canoe with oars.
This movement came to public attention when the electoral results were made known as a response of opposition to and rejection of Arnoldo Alemán's Liberal government, heir of the Zelaya government. Almost all costeños identify Zelaya's "reincorporation" as an occupation, the departure point for the accumulation of wealth by the few and underdevelopment for the many into which the coast has sunk over the past century.
This oversimplified but not wholly incorrect interpretation of history is a living part of Miskito identity. The Miskito collective memory sees all the times before Zelaya as their mythical arcadia; everything was better then and the Miskitos were happy. It is this idyllic memory rather than any strategic vision of the future that fuels separatist sentiments any time the coast gets too frustrated with Managua.
The 1988 Elections: What Must Be DoneThe next elections for Regional Council take place in February 1998, and the newly-elected councils will govern between May 4, 1998 and May 4, 2002.
Almost all politicians, church leaders and civic spokespeople on the coast are unanimous on two points that must be taken care of before those elections: the Autonomy Statute must be reformed--at the very least to reflect the pertinent 1995 constitutional reforms--and a detailed regulatory law must be passed to buttress its implementation. The regulatory law has been a costeño demand since the first autonomous governments were elected in 1990.
With financial support from Scandinavian religious nongovernmental organizations, those first Regional Councils made a tremendous joint effort to draft a regulatory bill in 1993. They held several work sessions in Bilwi and Bluefields and a plenary meeting of the two Councils in Managua. Legal, geographical, ecological and other advisers participated. But when they finally submitted the bill to President Chamorro, she simply shelved it without even passing it on to the National Assembly for debate.
One of the most important statements in the Autonomy Statute that must be fleshed out in the regulations is "the use, enjoyment of and benefit from the natural resources of the Atlantic Coast on the part of its inhabitants." Genuine autonomy is based on costeño control over their own mining, forest and marine resources; without that economic base they can do little to be truly and effectively autonomous.
Another key issue is to clarify Regional Council authority, both within the coast and in relation to the central government. The Councils can also do little to make autonomy a reality if they cannot make their authority prevail as the maximum decision-making body in the autonomous regions.
In addition, reforms to the Electoral Law are absolutely indispensable to prevent everything that went wrong in the 1996 general elections from happening again in February 1998. This means putting pressure on the CSE and even more importantly on the National Assembly, which might by more inclined to drag its feet, thinking only about the next general elections, five years away.
Increasing numbers of costeño political leaders,of all stripes are beginning to take the position that they will not go into the 1998 elections unless the autonomy and electoral laws are reformed and the autonomy law regulated. It is not a show of strength, simply a healthy and sensible decision to avoid turning a serious crisis into a huge conflict between the coast and Managua.
If the Alemán government does not hear and duly respond to these demands, the resentment and desperation that feeds separatist sentiments among both leaders and led on the coast will take even greater shape. Alemán's administration has the chance to advance the Atlantic Coast's autonomy model, which is already exemplary in all of Latin America. By supporting the Regional Councils, it could contribute to the coast's political, economic and social development.
The Miskitos of the Coco, Prinzapolka and Grande rivers, grasslands and seaboard; the Creoles of Bilwi, Bluefields, Corn Island and Pearl Lagoon; the Garífunas of the Pearl Lagoon basin; the mestizos of the mining areas, the Escondido river and the regional capitals; the Mayangnas of Bonanza, Bosawás, and the Bocay, Bambana and Waspúk rivers; and the Ramas of Rama Cay and the rivers around Bluefields Bay are all one big family. They have their disputes and their conflicts, but all want to strengthen their autonomy model, even assuming separatist positions if necessary. Hope for the future unites them. And with that unity, the slippery turf on which the coast's political life moves could sooner or later give us all a great surprise.
1990 and 1994 Voting Results: Autonomous Regional Councils
In the pivotal 1990 general elections, only three of the eleven political groupings that ran candidates for the new Regional Councils made a strong showing: the FSLN, YATAMA and the 14-party coalition called Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO).
YATAMA ran the most interesting race, with triple ticket-splitting. First, it backed UNO presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro. Second, unable to run National Assembly candidates under its own name since it is not a party, YATAMA cut a deal with the Social Christian Party (PSC) to run them on its ticket in the coast (never mentioning its alliance with UNO to the PSC presidential candidate). Third, it put up a Regional Council slate in its own name, as the Autonomy Statute permits.
This strategy was audacious, particularly for a region with such high illiteracy among indigenous voters. Educated YATAMA youth held nightly classes in both rural and urban areas, teaching voters how to distinguish the three ballots and find the right column in each. The work paid off with such a landslide vote in Miskito communities that even the high number of annulled ballots did not cost YATAMA any seats.
YATAMA won 22 of the RAAN's 45 Council seats and 1 of its 3 National Assembly seats. (Assembly legislators from the coast are also full Regional Council members in the region from which they are elected.) The FSLN followed with 21 Council seats and 1 Assembly seat. UNO only got 2 Council seats and the third Assembly seat, though Chamorro herself won handily in the region.
In the RAAS, with its much smaller Miskito population, YATAMA won 5 Council seats, while the UNO took 22 and the FSLN the other 18. The FSLN and UNO each won 1 of the 2 National Assembly seats.
1994: Councils Change Hands Four years later, when the next Regional Council elections rolled around, the voting picture changed dramatically. The Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) had pulled out of UNO and begun to organize independently on the coast. YATAMA had openly split into two electoral wings, with Fagoth and others from his wing running on the PLC slate, while candidates from Rivera's tendency ran as YATAMA, without alliances. (Since Rivera was still enjoying his controversial central government position, he again did not run for office.)
The FSLN and PLC tied in the RAAN, with 19 Council seats each, while YATAMA and UNO trailed far behind, with 7 and 1, respectively. In the RAAS, the PLC got 18, the FSLN 14, and UNO and YATAMA 5 each, while two small local associations won the remaining 3. Several notable features of those elections merit underscoring. First, both incumbent groups-- YATAMA in the north and UNO in the south--lost heavily. Second, the FSLN as opposition lost only a few seats in each region, and then largely because party headquarters in Managua provided little financial or other assistance. Third, the PLC had come up from nothing in less than two years, by buying known political leaders like Fagoth and building an impressive political machine on the coast. It was a harbinger of the machine simultaneously being built at a national level that would guarantee the Liberal Alliance victory in 1996.
This new correlation of forces in the Regional Councils did not remain stable for long, however. The ups and downs of the national parties combined with the coast's political dynamics--in which loyalty to a national party is not a very meaningful concept except to most Sandinistas--saw to that. For example, though the FSLN split in late 1994 grew out of issues having little to do with the coast, it eventually undercut the unity of the FSLN benches there. It had a particularly damaging effect in the RAAN, where Alta Hooker--who was the only Sandinista Council member reelected in 1994, and was then voted executive board president--was shunned by her own bench on grounds of being soft on the departed group in Managua.
Another example, this time in the RAAS: little over a year after the elections, the PLC party boss there began a move to oust the Regional Coordinator his own party had put in, a savvy evangelical pastor named Rayfield Hodgson who ran for Regional Council on the PLC slate though he had served briefly as mayor of Bluefields in the mid-1980s under the Sandinistas.
Election Disorder: Atlantic Coast Version
If the winner on the coast was the Liberal Alliance, the loser, as in the Pacific, was the credibility of electoral democracy. The coast was hit with exactly the same irregularities and anomalies that riddled the 1996 elections all over the country.
The port of entry for the general disorder that permitted them was the brand new electoral law (promulgated in late January 1996), and more particularly the overwhelming process to provide all citizens with ID/voter cards.
The electoral law forced on the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) higher costs, legal gaps and largely inexperienced, politicized field personnel in election year itself. The provision in the new law approving use of the ID cards for voting should have been passed five years earlier. The delay forced the CSE to work all the kinks out of the computer system, grapple with the woefully inadequate Civil Registry and prepare and deliver photo ID cards to over two million voter applicants in less than a single year--1996. If all that were not enough, the CSE was also working with four new magistrates out of five.
Since few rural people anywhere in the country had been registered at birth, electoral personnel found themselves making
multiple efforts to notify ID/voter card applicants that they had to file and notarize missing registry data, that the data was not consistent or contained errors, etc. Each problem involved a trip by either regional electoral personnel or applicants themselves.
The coast presents particularly serious obstacles to such communication and travel. The only phones are in the regional
capitals, and once outside of them travel in the RAAS is almost exclusively by river or open sea and in the RAAN either by water or by dirt or gravel roads now deeply rutted after six years of constant rain and little or no maintenance.
Furthermore, communities are often kilometers apart. For example, some 90 Miskito communities are spread along the 220 kms. of the Río Coco, and to even get from Bilwi to the river is 130 kms. by road. With Nicaragua's petrol prices the highest in Central America, transportation costs are staggering; it takes 150-200 gallons of fuel to go the 140 kilometers by sea and river from Bilwi to Alamikamba, a major community well upriver on the Río Prinzapolka.
Yet the Regional Electoral Councils (CERs) in both regions were working without the necessary financial and material resources, such as four-wheel drive vehicles, outboard motor boats, radio communication equipment or even money to cover the personnel's travel expenses.
For all that, the ID card process went fairly smoothly in the RAAS, with little conflict or tumult. By election day, almost
all Bluefields residents had their card or, if it was not yet ready, their substitute voting document. In outlying communities and other municipalities, however, many people ended up unable to vote because they could not get their documents. This helps explain the high abstention level in that region, though voter apathy was also evident, even in Bluefields.
In the RAAN, the process was genuine chaos. First, its civilregistries have more information gaps and contradictory
data than any others in the entire country. Second, the new CER staff lacked organizational skills, which led to even more errorsin the documents and thus repeatedly postponed delivery dates. Third, adding to the difficulties of the long distances and inadequate transportation conditions in the RAAN, people there change address frequently, particularly Miskitos. And fourth, even in the cities and towns, many people refused the sub-stitute voting document after evangelical pastors told them it was worthless and they should hold out for the photo-ID card. Thousands of people thus found themselves with no document by election day and so could not vote.
Many analysts envio's included believe that the official national abstention rate of 22.9% was inflated by the curious way the CSE appears to have accounted for lost ballots in the overall results. In contrast, local political leaders say that even the high abstention rates in the RAAN and the RAAS--about 40% and 47%, respectively--give a deflated picture since, by definition, they only include registered voters who did not show up on election day for one reason or another. They do not pick up all the eligible voters who gave up before finishing the registration process, which was a larger percentage on the coast than elsewhere.
In any case, the notable differences in the way the CERs in the two regions handled the ID process are pretty good reflections of how each administered the elections themselves. Though a number of other factors specific to each region affected the results as well, these organizational differences played the key role.
The RAAS: Problems Minimal or Minimized?The CER president in the south was Johnny Hodgson, a young Creole agronomist with years of leadership experience and consensus-reaching skills. Between 1985 and 1990 he had been regional director in the RAAS for the 80-member Autonomy Commission, which hammered out the political philosophy of autonomy and then drafted and negotiated its legislation after a year of grassroots consultations on the coast. In 1990 he was elected to the first autonomous Regional Council on the Sandinista ticket and tried to play an effective role; frustrated by the experience, he did not seek reelection in 1994.
Under Hodgson's administration, the CER had no major organizational difficulties; the mechanisms depending on it functioned fairly effectively. He chose the electoral personnel carefully and all received training in the months prior to the voting. Almost all sites chosen as voting places (Juntas Receptoras de Votos, or JRVs) were adequately equipped, even in the poorest communities. Materials were efficiently distributed except for a couple of boating accidents in which the materials were damaged or lost so the JRVs could not open. Receipt of the materials after the voting was also fairly orderly and the vote count computation took place with little tension. If the elections in the RAAS ended up tarnished, most agree, it was largely due to the lack of financial and material resources and the low voter turnout on election day.
Some Bluefields politicians, however, say that things did not go all that smoothly. A number of the irregularities and illegalities that were widespread in other parts of the country crept into the process in the RAAS as well: ballot counts that did not coincide with the supposed number of voters in a JRV, telegrams that did not agree with JRV tallies, Liberal JRV table staff who encouraged voters to mark the Liberal Alliance box, telegrams that were turned in and sent without the presence of any party monitors from the JRV, etc.
Different politicians put their own spins on Hodgson's post-election role. One said the elections were very disorderly, but that Hodgson had the ability to clean up some of the deficiencies and anomalies, "and present electoral results
Atlantic Coast Version without all the information gaps that would raise more doubt." Another put the emphasis on his considerable political skills and charm, arguing that, even with the discrepancies, he persuaded the parties to sign off on the electoral results as legitimate. In neither version was he blamed for the anomalies.
The RAAN: Problems of All KindsWhatever problems the elections in the RAAS may have had, they were a model of orderliness compared to those in Matagalpa, Jinotega, Managua, Chontales, Boaco and Carazo--and the RAAN. In the RAAN, the problems ran the gamut: there was serious confusion in almost all identification data for CER personnel, party monitors and observers; virtually no information coincided. In addition, JRVs were not fully staffed, not all training sessions for electoral personnel were held, and electoral materials were not correctly distributed.
Not all problems, however, can be traced to the leadership of the RAAN's controversial CER president, Adri<160>n Conolly, a university professor. For example, the bulk of the ballots and other materials for Bonanza came in by helicopter to that mountainous mining municipality at 11:45 pm on October 19, election eve. Although all of Bonanza was anxiously awaiting the materials, the municipal electoral authorities lacked the organizational ability or foresight to call out the town's vehicles to light up the macadam airstrip, as is done regularly all over the coast for any night landing. The helicopter was forced to lave and return the next morning with the materials, which then had to be sorted and sent on to the JRVs.
This led to delays of hours in opening the JRVs and contributed to the confusion with ballots and other materials. But to give an idea of just how serious the RAAN's problems were, Bonanza had the most orderly electoral process and the fewest irregularities and anomalies of any municipality.
On October 22, two days after the elections, 15 political parties and other groupings in the RAAN sent a letter to CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya advising that they "do not accept as correct the data and figures sent to the CSE by the RAAN Electoral Council." They filed charges against 96 of the 344 JRVs, noting all anomalies and irregularities in each. As it had done nationally, the FSLN at the regional and municipal levels in the RAAN also sent separate communications to the CSE, denouncing the anomalies and asking that they be cleared up. The CSE did not specifically respond to any of this; it just ordered a review of all results around the country. As provided for in the electoral law, the review consisted of checking the math on the JRV ballot tallies, then comparing those figures with the telegrams and the telegram figures with the computer printouts based on them. Only in cases of serious discrepancies would ballots from a given JRV be opened and recounted.
As elsewhere, many of the irregularities tended to benefit the Liberal Alliance and Fagoth's wing of YATAMA. On top of JRVs that did not have a full set of ballots or opened late, or even the next day in a few cases, some had Liberal campaign propaganda inside, or armed groups in the vicinity, or Liberal table staff who indicated to voters that they should mark the Liberal Alliance box. Ballots were counted without party monitors present in the JRV, and party monitors were not allowed to witness the telegrams being turned in. At the CER's orientation, party monitors were also not provided signed copies of the tallies. In several JRVs in the rural areas of Siuna, Liberal Alliance members with no identification document forced JRV officials to let them vote. In Election Disorder: El Guineo, also in Siuna, armed Liberal Alliance supporters shot up the area around five JRVs, causing their staffs to hastily scoop up all materials and flee in the middle of the voting.
In the first days of November, Adrián Conolly brought the official regional post-review tally to Managua As happened in
several other departments, the CSE did not accept his paperwork, in this case mainly because it was not signed by the parties' regional election monitors. Conolly was asked to go back to Bilwi and legalize the document. Six days later he returned to report that the monitors refused to sign; they wanted to count every single ballot again and would only sign a document that contained the recount results. When the bags of ballots were opened, however, there were so many new surprises that the operation was never finished.
As a former National Assembly representative from the RAAN explained, "On November 22, Dr. Zelaya read off the final election results while we were still counting ballots in Bilwi. We monitors, politicians and electoral officials all looked at each other and said, 'So what are we doing this for now?' And we decided not to keep counting like idiots." The Regional Electoral Council never turned in final data for the RAAN.
On top of the feeling of helplessness and disrespect for voters produced by the anomalies plaguing the elections, the CSE's insult to the RAAN sparked indignation among coste<164>os. A councilman from Rivera's wing of YATAMA called the intromission a "slap in the face, with the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua deciding how many votes each party got."
The Upside: Less ViolenceThere was much less violence in 1996 than in either 1990 or 1994. In 1990 the high level of violence was largely because the war was not officially over; contra groups still operated in the mining areas of the north and several inland mestizo areas in the south. Though some YATAMA combatants had put down their rifles and were running for local office and/or trying to politically sabotage FSLN candidates that year, others holding out in remote communities engaged in armed actions against civilian Sandinista activists, just as they had for the previous nine years. Few of them were prepared to behave as members of a civic organization. Yet another part of the violence can be traced to the Fagoth-Rivera rivalry itself.
The 1994 elections were somewhat more peaceful, but mestizo contra groups had rearmed and were making violence a way of life around the rural mining areas of the north and inland areas of the south.
In 1996, says FSLN National Directorate member and RAAN leader Dorotea Wilson, "the situation was entirely different." She described the atmosphere in the RAAN as "quite relaxed, with a lot of respect among parties and groups in the race. It wasn't yet a model of civic participation, but it was a lot better than 1990 and 1994. The only notable violence came from armed bands in Siuna, some u priver parts of the R<161>o Coco and along the Río Prinzapolka." In the RAAS there were still also bands in the municipality of La Cruz. In all these areas, the armed groups made it hard for electoral officials to carry out their work effectively, and some parties, particularly but not only the FSLN, still could not get in to campaign.