Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 104 | Marzo 1990



Atlantic Coast: What Fate Autonomy?

Envío team

While the whole world briefly turned its attention to Nicaragua’s presidential elections, an unprecedented electoral race in this country’s Caribbean Coast went virtually unnoticed. In the two autonomous regions of the coast, multiethnic population also elected the first regional governments in their history.

Given the age-old tensions between the two sides of the country and the conflicts that wracked the coast in the first years of the revolution, the voting results could be expected to provide fewer surprises than they did nationally. But surprises there were. In the north, with its large Miskito population, UNO’s presidential margin of victory over the FSLN was actually narrower than in three other regions of the country. In the south, voters gave UNO, hardly distinguished for promoting ethnic rights, a 5-seat majority on their new 45-member autonomous government, even though the vast majority of the FSLN candidates were local leaders elected by their own communities.

In the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (the RAAS, as it is called for short), voters gave 60.7% to UNO and 33.8% to the FSLN in the presidential race. In the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (the RAAN), the vote was 48.2% and 37.7%, respectively; there an unparalleled 14.1% of the vote went to the 8 other candidates in the race, compared to 5.5% in the south and 4.4% nationally.

A similar voting pattern for National Assembly candidates split the two seats in the RAAS between the FSLN and UNO, and divided the three in the RAAN among the FSLN, UNO and the Social Christian Party (actually a Yatama candidate).

Another striking difference between the two regions was the vote for their respective Regional Councils, as the new autonomous government is called. In the south, voters closely followed their pattern on the national ballots, giving UNO 23 seats and the FSLN 18; Yatama, the Miskito armed organization whose leaders returned last September, took the remaining 4. In the north, the Miskito-dominated electoral districts switched their vote from UNO to Yatama, giving it 22 seats; UNO picked up only 2 seats, both from the mestizo mining town of Siuna. Of the FSLN’s 21 seats, 15 were in the mining areas and the remaining 6 from a cross-class, cross-ethnic mix of electoral districts.

What Does It Mean?

There were hints in Bluefields the morning after the election that many people there had not fully considered the implications of their vote. A Creole woman stopped by her neighbor’s house to report that none of the Cuban doctors were at work in the hospital. Her perplexed tone suggested that she had not yet linked that phenomenon to UNO’s electoral victory. Nor did she seem to appreciate the generalized scorn and even personal risk to which Cuban doctors and teachers have been subjected over the past ten years. Volunteering to work in remote, high-risk areas where most Nicaraguan medics are reluctant to go, the Cubans have not only been specifically targeted by the contras but have patiently suffered the anti-communist contempt of much of the coast’s civilian population.

Slowly the woman began to put it together. “Do you think they’ll leave?” she said anxiously, followed by, “Aaay, and what about the Cuban houses?” Cuban construction brigades have been fighting Bluefields’ permanent rainy season to construct 1,000 attractive concrete houses for those left homeless by the 1988 hurricane.

Two days later, community leaders were sent to reassure the Cubans that they were desperately needed and would be safe. “The experience converted all but the most fervent anti-communists in Bluefields,” Associated Press writer Candice Hughes quoted the hospital’s Nicaraguan director as saying.

In Puerto Cabezas, a Miskito politician had openly menaced that when UNO won the presidency the “Cubans and Bulgarians” would have to leave. “We've warned them,” he shouted through his megaphone a few days before the elections, “and they've already got their bags packed.” Some who had come to value the excellent Cuban pediatrician were as distressed as those in Bluefields when he and the other medics stayed away from work the following week, waiting for orders from home. But others said defiantly, “We’ve got our herb doctors; what do we need Cubans for?” The Cuban medical team left for Managua at the end of the week.

These first reactions to the Cuban volunteers serve as a metaphor for grasping a key difference between the two regions of the Atlantic Coast. In Bluefields, many Creoles seem not to have anticipated—or to be pleased about—the cumulative effect of their individual swing to UNO. In the north, on the other hand, Miskitos as a group did just what they intended to do. An overwhelming number of them followed the complicated ballot-splitting directions of their leaders, voting for an organization and a project, not just against their fear of continued war and economic crisis.

Two Regions, Two Realities

The shape of the campaign was as different as the outcome in the two autonomous regions. The differences lie in the ethnic composition, recent history, relative peace, candidates and issues in each region.

In the north, where all but a small minority of Miskitos live, the return of Brooklyn Rivera and Stedman Fagoth to the political fray changed the course of the campaign. The two had led separate wings of the Miskito armed struggle until late 1987, when they and the head of a third armed Miskito organization joined forces again in a new coalition called Yatama. Ex-US President Jimmy Carter put the finishing touches on negotiations between Rivera and the Nicaraguan government for the return of Yatama leaders in early September 1989. He persuaded Interior Minister and Autonomy Commission president Tomás Borge, the government's negotiator, to lift his requirement that Yatama fighters disarm within 30 days. Borge reportedly agreed to leave the period open.

Arriving in Nicaragua just a day before the deadline for submitting National Assembly candidates, Rivera negotiated a quick electoral alliance with the Social Christian Party. The PSC, according to Rivera, gave Yatama its two seats in the south and three in the north with “no commitments” since it had no plans to run other candidates anyway.

Before the Yatama leaders’ return, a multiethnic coalition of independent candidates to the Regional Council had formed in the north, calling itself Candidates for Costeño Unity (CUC). Yatama quickly took over the coalition, forcing CUC candidates to run under the Yatama banner or seek endorsement by other parties. Some went with Yatama, but several joined the FSLN or UNO slates, and a number withdrew completely.

Further complicating its electoral strategy, Yatama soon began to promote UNO presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro. In exchange for its active campaign on her behalf, Chamorro endorsed Yatama's autonomy plan—UNO had earlier refused to even mention the word autonomy in its platform—and named Rivera her adviser on the coast. She is reported to have cut the deal without consulting the UNO political council, some of whose members had opposed the autonomy law in the National Assembly in 1987.

Apart from the dubious political ethics of Yatama’s dual electoral alliance, it posed a practical dilemma: Yatama supporters, many of them illiterate, would have to split their vote three ways. Yatama activists held classes in the Miskito communities to teach people to recognize the numbers 1, 7 and 11, the respective boxes for UNO, PSC and Yatama (which was legally allowed to run candidates for Regional Council under its own name) and remember which number went with the color-coded ballots for President, National Assembly and the Regional Council.

Fagoth headed Yatama's campaign in the north and Rivera directed it in the south. At least in the north, the campaign promoted Miskito hegemony, revived visceral memories of Sandinista military abuses in the early years and promised sweeping but vaguely-worded conceptual reforms in the autonomy statute.

The FSLN campaign, on the other hand, stressed peace, unity and reconciliation, and defended the existing autonomy law. The FSLN invited 12 independent candidates to join its Regional Council slate in the north and focused its efforts on the regional rather than presidential race. In the south, the FSLN slate had more than 30 independent candidates, elected by each of the different ethnic communities from among their own leaders. Five of the 15 electoral districts there had no FSLN party members among its 3 candidates, and two others were led by an independent. Apparently trusting that people in the communities would vote for the autonomy candidates they themselves had nominated, the FSLN focused more on the presidential and National Assembly races in the RAAS. It would turn out to be a serious miscalculation.

One of the two indicators that led analysts to assume an FSLN victory nationally—rally size and polling results—prevailed in the coast as well. Poll samples there were too small to be indicative and in any case showed a high percentage of undecided voters, but rally turnouts for the FSLN were much more impressive than those for UNO. In Puerto Cabezas, for example, a visit by Daniel Ortega a month before election day drew 10,000 people whereas Violeta Chamorro’s brief stopover a week after signing the agreement with Brooklyn Rivera drew only 3,000.

Election Day

A concentration of contras in the isolated northwest section of the RAAS prevented two polling places from opening in the mestizo areas of La Cruz and Tortuguero. In the RAAN, all polling stations opened, even though Yatama fighters had increased their presence in the Miskito communities. In the final days before the election the government responded by mobilizing army forces in these villages, and on voting day electoral police there were given special permission by the Supreme Electoral Council to carry weapons. There was no sign of the army in any of the villages envío visited.

As in the rest of the country, the electoral police courteously escorted elderly people and pregnant women to the front of the line. Given eyesight and literacy problems common among the elderly, this resulted in swollen, slow-moving lines, particularly in the rural communities.

In one small Miskito village deep in the savannah south of the Río Coco, people waited stoically in line to vote, even hesitating to run for cover when a bone-soaking downpour broke over their heads. One man who said he thought the process was going well acknowledged that he and the rest of his community had been in Honduras during the 1984 elections; he said he couldn't remember what elections were like under Somoza.

The suspiciously large proportion of male youth in line appeared nervous, lending credence to rumors that Yatama had been buying up villagers’ voter registration cards and giving them to fighters coming across from Honduras. The control these armed fighters exercised over a number of outlying communities along the Río Coco prevented FSLN candidates from campaigning there. It is impossible to gauge what other effects their presence had on the population’s decision to vote so overwhelmingly for Yatama.

By nightfall, the lines had finally dwindled. When the last polling place closed, 79% of those registered in the RAAN had cast their vote, almost identical to the RAAS and 7% fewer than the national average. The big difference was in the percentage of invalid ballots. For president it was over 15% in the RAAN, compared to just under 6% nationally; for Regional Council it was over 20%, and as high as 45% in one Miskito electoral district.

While the errors were many, the underlying cause, at least in the north, was Yatama’s 1-7-11 vote-splitting strategy. It even appears to have cost Yatama a seat on the Regional Council in one electoral district where it missed winning the third seat by less than 1% of the votes and over 22% of the ballots were invalid). A less effectual, and more humorous, result was to give the new and unknown Revolutionary Unity Movement (MUR) 3.2% of the RAAN’s votes for president—eight times more than any of the six other tiny opposition parties received there. Illiterate voters had been told to vote for the last box (Yatama) on the Regional Council ballot; some mistakenly did so on the shorter ballot for president instead, thus casting their vote for MUR.

In the south, Yatama's strategy only affected the few Miskito communities, and even there did not result in such a preponderance of invalid ballots. In general, the population voted straight party tickets. The null votes for Regional Council in the south still averaged 15%, however, precisely for that reason. Two mestizo electoral districts in a conflictive area registered 53.3% and 75.6% null ballots respectively; they voted a straight UNO ticket without noticing that UNO had no Regional Council candidates in their districts. Whither Autonomy?

In the RAAN, Yatama captured 22 of the 45 Regional Council seats, the FSLN 21 and UNO 2. Each also gained an additional member by winning a National Assembly seat (Yatama's candidate won on the PSC ticket). Yatama is thus two votes short of the simple majority required to pass regulations, making its control of the Regional Council even less solid than UNO’s of the National Assembly.

Stedman Fagoth stressed in an interview just before election day that Yatama’s agreement with Violeta Chamorro carried no commitment to UNO afterward, so it is unclear whether the Miskito organization can count on UNO's three votes. Fagoth may have been trying to deflect rumors that the UNO-Yatama alliance was “made in the USA” even before his and Rivera's return. In any case, Yatama has other problems with the UNO Council members, who are mestizos and unlikely to support Yatama’s more ethnocentric proposals. To make matters worse, Yatama fought viciously with UNO regional campaign manager and National Assembly candidate Julian Holmes during the campaign. Also a Yatama leader, Holmes infuriated the others by joining UNO well before Yatama signed its electoral alliance with UNO.

Thus, unless willing to risk chaos by pushing partisan bills through only when it dominates the quorum count because of the absence of an opposition member, Yatama will have to tone down its militant “Miskitos first” line. It will also have to pursue reconciliation with the FSLN, with whom it has near parity in the Regional Council, to get on with the difficult business of creating a viable new regional government.

In this context, Yatama’s immediate problem is who among its Council members to elect as Regional Coordinator. (Neither Fagoth nor Rivera ran for any office—according to them, because they wanted to show the Miskito people that they were not self-interested.) The selection of the coordinator will be an early indication of whether Yatama intends to pursue confrontation or reconciliation. An obvious choice, if the latter, would be Leonel Pantin, brother of the first Miskito commander to sign a peace accord with the Sandinista government and director of IDSIM, the Moravian Church's social action agency. Originally a CUC candidate, Pantin's sophisticated understanding of the region's problems does not have the razor edges of most Yatama leaders, which would make him a skilled conciliator. He is also better educated than the majority of Yatama Council members, who tend to be relatively illiterate ex-combatants and community lay pastors. But for these very reasons, there are already rumors of tensions between him and the organization on whose ticket he chose to run.

Yatama also lacks the two-thirds vote required in both Regional Councils to reform the autonomy law as promised in its campaign. In the south, the party breakdown, including the two National Assembly representatives, is UNO 24, FSLN 19 and Yatama 4. (Rivera secured only two seats for Yatama out of the three seats in the two Miskito-dominant electoral districts.)

FSLN representatives in the RAAS are waiting to see what the new government's policy will be. They say that, with few exceptions, UNO did not name quality candidates to the Regional Council—an appraisal Bluefields residents interviewed by envío share. The head of UNO there is an ex-National Guardsman, reputed to have been a torturer.

In the RAAN, one casualty already counted is the FSLN's painstaking effort in recent years to lower the tone of the region's historic inter-ethnic tensions. After the elections, a Miskito youth walking by a Creole man on the beach threatened that he and others of his race would soon be shipped to Bluefields. Creoles and mestizos that envío spoke with even before the elections feared the worst if Yatama won.

Among the key tasks facing the two autonomous governments in their first four-year period will be to reactivate the social services put in place in the first years of the revolution, recover the basic economic activity destroyed by years of war, and advance ethnic rights such as bilingual education guaranteed by the autonomy law and initiated by the Sandinista government. If Yatama and UNO share any basic precepts, it is probable that all would be solved by inviting US investors back, which the Sandinistas will strongly oppose. As for social services and ethnic rights, the FSLN and Yatama could well find themselves fighting the UNO government side by side.

Running the two regions will be hard enough given the brand new government conception and the population’s unfamiliarity with the limits and possibilities of self-government in any form. It will be made harder yet if the dominant forces in the two new governments are not in fact committed to the reconciliation they now espouse. And it will be virtually impossible if there is no agreement by the contras and Yatama fighters to lay down their arms and join the political arena.

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A Vote for Peace—Will It Come?

Election Data

Atlantic Coast: What Fate Autonomy?

Grassroots Power: Defending the Revolution


After the Poll Wars—Explaining the Upset

“Strengthening the Revolutionary Process”

National Reconciliation of the Nicaraguan Family

Governing From Below

The University is Shaped by the Revolution
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