Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 95 | Junio 1989



Jinotega's Miskitos and Sumus: Little Noted Victims of the Contra War

Envío team

Cándida Cardenales, who guesses she is about 80 years old, is a Sumu Indian from Nicaragua. She grew up along the Río Coco in the northern province of Jinotega, west of the Atlantic Coast where most of the country's 80,000 Miskitos and 8,000 Sumus live. In her younger years, Cardenales recalls, she left home to work as a maid for General Augusto Sandino, who led the fight against the US Marine occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s.

Many Sumus and Miskitos from her region joined Sandino's army when he traveled down the Río Coco in 1926. After Sandino was assassinated in 1934 at General Anastasio Somoza's orders, Somoza's National Guard hunted down everyone closely associated with Sandino. Cardenales recounts her brush with death: "We fled along the Río Bocay. Somoza's army caught up to us and killed some of the others in the group. The rest of us escaped by climbing a mountain."

Until 1961, most of Jinotega's Miskitos lived on the north bank of the Río Coco, then still part of Nicaragua. That year a World Court decision gave a strip of Nicaraguan land north of the river to Honduras. The National Guard forced the Miskitos to abandon their old houses and farms and move over to the Nicaraguan side of the river where they established eight new villages.

Then in 1982, the lives of Jinotega's 4,300 Miskitos and 800 Sumus were disrupted yet again. The remains of the National Guard, newly organized by the Reagan Administration into a counterrevolutionary force, began attacking the region from Honduras; all civilians living in the area were evacuated.

Today, with fighting on the Atlantic Coast practically ended, the displaced Miskitos and Sumus there are back in their former homes. But for Cardenales and the others in Jinotega, that option was just dashed by the US Congress' approval of aid to maintain the contras; the Indians' lands and rivers are one of the contras' main infiltration routes into Nicaragua.

Jinotega's Indians: A different story

There are important differences between the Miskitos and Sumus of Jinotega and their counterparts on the coast. Isolated in the mountainous interior, those in Jinotega were not influenced by the British and US interests that dominated the Atlantic Coast so much as by the Spanish-speaking mestizo population with whom they traded. A few mestizos settled among them, usually after intermarriage. The Jinotega Miskitos are also not as mixed with other cultures as are the coastal Miskitos.

A third important distinction is that most Indians of Jinotega are Catholic, whereas the majority on the coast belongs to the Moravian Church. Finally, those in Jinotega had more direct contact with Somoza's National Guard, as well as with Sandino and the latter-day Sandinistas than those on the coast, and thus a clearer idea of what each stood for.

Miskito elder Sándoval Fajardo, a Catholic lay leader, remembers a visit to his community, Walakitán, by a group of Sandinista guerrillas in 1963, shortly after the FSLN was founded. Tomás Borge, now Minister of the Interior, led the group. Fajardo says relations between the Sandinistas and Miskitos were good. The Miskitos gave them food and helped guide them through the area, but this time they did not leave the river to join in the armed struggle as many had done with Sandino.

Nonetheless, after that visit, Somoza’s National Guard again repressed the Miskitos. Fajardo recalls that "about 80 Guardsmen arrived looking for the Sandinistas, who had already left. They stole food and animals from us and I was held prisoner for three days, accused of helping the Sandinistas."

In August 1979, a month after the overthrow of Somoza, FSLN representatives traveled down the Río Coco to introduce themselves as Nicaragua's new leaders. A few months later, the government sent Carlos Paladino, a 25-year-old agronomist, to direct its work with the Miskitos and Sumus in Jinotega. Paladino lived with them for six months to learn about their cultures and gain their trust before initiating any development projects. Then, with the guidance of their traditional leaders, the government organized agricultural cooperatives and built schools and health centers. The establishment of health centers brought regular health care to the isolated river for the first time. Since the Indians were used to working communally, they easily adapted to working in agricultural cooperatives, and many took on the responsibility of organizing the various government projects in their communities.

War comes to Jinotega

While the new government's work with the Miskitos and Sumus in Jinotega proceeded smoothly, its relations with the indigenous peoples on the Atlantic Coast quickly deteriorated. (See article in last month's envío.) By January 1982, attacks by armed Miskitos along the eastern stretch of the Río Coco resulted in the militarization of that part of the river. Some 8,500 people, mainly Miskitos, were relocated to Tasba Pri, a resettlement further inland; another 10,000 fled to Honduras.

At first, the indigenous communities in Jinotega felt the war only indirectly. An exception was the Miskito community of Raití, on the border with the coastal province, where heavy fighting took place between government troops and contra forces (FDN) mixed with Miskito fighters in January 1982. The violence resulted in the flight of all Raití's nearly 2,000 residents to Honduras, where most still remain.

By mid-1982 the war had crept into Jinotega, as the contras regularly attacked boats traveling the upper Río Coco. With the villages' only supply route cut off, the government decided to move them further inland too. Paladino and the FSLN spent months discussing the move with the communities, to avoid the problems that occurred during the earlier relocation. The FSLN explained that the people would be given housing, land and animals to replace what would have to be left behind, and promised that they could return to the river once the war ended.

The relocation got underway in November 1982. Most of the remaining 3,000 made the grueling 12-day trek through the jungle to get to the nearest road. Those who could not, mainly children and pregnant women, were evacuated by transport helicopter. "We were very depressed and afraid," recalled Cándida Cardenales. "I was taken out by helicopter to Wiwilí. I had to leave behind all my possessions, and went with only the clothes I was wearing."

As the relocation was winding down in mid-December, tragedy struck. A helicopter filled with 75 Miskito children and 10 pregnant women crashed, killing all the children and 9 of the women. "My daughter died in the crash along with her five children," says Sandoval Fajardo, who witnessed the accident. "I've never gotten over it. The helicopter lifted off and then the rear propeller came loose, causing the helicopter to flip over on its side. The door was blocked, so everyone was trapped inside. Then the helicopter exploded and burned."

Drastic change of lifestyle

The traditional village lifestyle of Jinotega's Miskitos and Sumus is similar to that of the Indians further east along the Río Coco. It consisted primarily of fishing, hunting and growing small subsistence crops. The Miskitos also raised cacao as a cash crop, which they traded for supplies in Wiwilí, four to six days' travel by canoe up the Río Coco. The Sumus did their trading at San José de Bocay, several days up the Río Bocay, along which their own four villages were located.

With the relocation, the Indians were divided up among 44 Government-owned and operated coffee farms in Jinotega and Matagalpa provinces, which resulted in the splitting up of their traditional communities. Since they were not accustomed to working as salaried farm hands, their participation was sporadic, leading to discrimination by the permanent workers, who considered them lazy. Communication was also a major obstacle, since most of the women and children only spoke their native languages. Crowded into barrack-style housing with poor sanitary conditions, they developed many health problems. To make matters even worse, the FDN attacked two of the farms, killing several Miskitos and kidnapping others.

Carlos Paladino summed up their plight in a report written in 1984: "In no way can it be justified, almost two years after the relocation of these groups, that the promises made to them still have not been kept." To provide an answer, the government began construction that same year of two settlement communities in Jinotega, one for Miskitos and the other for Sumus. Completed in 1985, Abisinia housed more than 1,600 Miskitos and La Paz del Tuma became home to all 800 Sumus.

Living and working conditions there were considerably better than on the state farms. Each family had its own house, and agricultural cooperatives were organized in both communities. The Miskitos were given over 3,000 acres of land and some 300 head of cattle, and Abisinia was divided into sections, which reunited their traditional communities.

"In Abisinia we lived very well, we can't deny that," says 38-year-old Miskito leader Camilo Dixon. "We were taken care of by the government, which provided food and clothing until we started producing our own food."

Beacon from the Coast

The war in the Pacific moved to a different rhythm and logic than that in the Atlantic. In 1985 the Miskito communities on the Atlantic Coast persuaded a number of their armed relatives formerly allied with the contras to sign cease-fire agreements with the government; Tasba Pri's residents were allowed to return to the Río Coco; and those who had sought refuge in Honduras began returning to Nicaragua. Key to this turnaround was the autonomy process, through which the Nicaraguan government agreed to greater self-government by the coastal peoples and gave them more control over land and resources.

The Miskitos and Sumus of Jinotega, on the other hand, were caught in a war which, led by the ex-National Guard, was not susceptible to such resolution. They were informed of the autonomy process by MISATAN, a Miskito organization formed in 1984 among the younger residents of Tasba Pri. MISATAN representatives encouraged their dream of going home by suggesting that they move to the Atlantic Coast, where they could more easily return upriver once it became safe to do so.

Several Miskito religious leaders from Jinotega, known to be at odds with the government, strongly backed MISATAN's position. They claimed the government was trying to permanently locate them in the resettlement communities, and promised that they could arrange for supplies to be provided on the coast. Many of their followers quickly accepted the idea, since it was being promoted as the first step towards returning home. Others thought the move was foolish, and accused the leaders of lying to the government by saying that all wanted to leave.

Nonetheless, by 1986 the plan was firmly implanted in people's minds. In Abisinia many neglected the coffee fields and cattle herds and only waited to leave, leading the government to assume administration of the cooperative. The leaders pushing the move used this to claim that the government had confiscated the resettlement and that any who wanted to stay behind would have to work as salaried hands. It was a convincing ploy; most who had planned to remain changed their minds.

Carlos Paladino, aware of the inadequate conditions on the coast, tried unsuccessfully to discourage the exodus. Since the Indians did not back down, and in fact became more vocal, the government finally took an active role in planning and financing the move. It made clear to the leaders promoting the move, however, that on the coast they could not expect the government to again provide services it had provided in the resettlement communities, and that they would lose their rights to the cooperative lands. Those leaders apparently did not communicate this to their people.

From March to May 1987, the indigenous families were taken by truck to unoccupied land along the Río Kukalaya, near Tasba Pri. "The government did not want the indigenous population to feel cheated, since they had supported the revolution," says Paladino. "The fact that the government moved them to the coast demonstrated our desire that they eventually return to their native lands in Jinotega."

Only seventeen Miskito and seven Sumu families stayed behind. Camilo Dixon, one of those, says of the move's promoters: "They didn't trust the FSLN and said that by going to the coast the people would be able to govern themselves instead of being governed by the FSLN."

In June, less than a month after the move was completed, the contras attacked Abisinia. Dixon's brother was one of 14 people killed and his wife was wounded. The contras ransacked the community and burned 17 houses to the ground. Fearful of another attack, the remaining Miskitos left Abisinia in search of a safer place to live.

A Bad Mo

Five months after leaving for the coast, the first group of families returned to Jinotega, and by January 1988 about half the families had returned. Accustomed to Jinotega's relatively cool climate, they had found the heat on the coast unbearable. Over 60 people, mostly children, had died from malaria. While there, they lived in huts made of plastic and local materials; the assistance their leaders had promised never appeared.

Compounding matters, a flood washed away the crops they had planted. The food shortage became so severe they had to forage for wild fruit in the forest. Only emergency supplies from the government and CEPAD, a Nicaraguan protestant aid agency, prevented widespread starvation.

They also ran into problems with the coastal Miskitos. Rafael Centeno, a Miskito from Jinotega, says, "We didn't get along well with the Miskitos on the Atlantic Coast because they say we are all Sandinistas, while many of them supported the armed indigenous groups on the coast."

During their absence, however, the government had turned Abisinia over to others displaced by the war and had dismantled the houses at La Paz del Tuma, moving them to other areas in need. With these resettlement communities no longer available, the government decided to place those returning on state coffee farms again.

Most who remained on the coast moved to other areas where conditions are better, but still difficult. Some stayed because they hope to get back to their former homes from there, and others because they do not want to return to the state farms. Nonetheless, families continue trickling back, and say many more would return if they could pay the transport costs.

"Our leaders lied to us," says Cándida Cardenales. "They said everything was good on the coast, but it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and extremely hot. Many people were dying so we had to return to Jinotega." Now hard of hearing and barely able to walk, she reflects on their current situation: "We were raised along the Río Coco where we ate plenty of bananas, fish and meat. Now we have to be here in a resettlement community or on a state farm. But what are we going to do? We just try to endure however possible."

Where do they go from here?

Those back on the state farms find life just as disagreeable as when they first lived on them, and have asked the government to give them land for another resettlement community. In an April 1989 counterproposal, the regional government suggested three alternatives: that they a) purchase land for another settlement in Jinotega; b) seek funding to improve conditions on the state farms; c) return to their former homes on the river when conditions permit.

The regional government says that, given current budget cutbacks, it has no resources to finance another resettlement. Furthermore, recent government guarantees to private growers that the agrarian reform is frozen means that Jinotega's expensive coffee lands would have to be purchased by the Indians from owners willing to sell. Separate housing or other improvements on the state farms, too, would have to be paid for through private foreign donations. The third alternative—returning home—would be open for reconsideration, according to the government, as soon as the Bush Administration demonstrates a more definitive willingness to dismantle the contras. Given the alternatives, the government officials recommended that the people stay on the state farms for now, and seek funds to improve conditions on them. They did express willingness to discuss the request for private plots with managers of the state farms, but emphasized that universal work norms on the major crops would still have to be respected.

Norman Bent, a Moravian pastor who now directs the church's social action program, is helping the people negotiate with the central government, which he feels will take a "more humanistic approach." Hoping the government will reconsider giving them land to build on, his alternative is that those who have come back be regrouped onto one or two state farms from the seven where they are now, and that the government provide them land for private housing and subsistence farming. He says that the Moravians are prepared to help fund such a solution.

Carlos Paladino, now working as a historian, has not lost the concern for these people he had during his nine years in government: "They need to be in a place where they can retain their culture and identity. I know they've lost a lot. If we don't come up with a plan of cultural rescue we're probably going to lose them as an ethnic group."

Most Miskitos and Sumus express strong nostalgia for home, a desire shackled by reality. "We've thought a lot about going back," says Sumu leader Ebaristo Cardenal, "but we also realize that the contras could kidnap us there and take us to Honduras. For now we won't go back, but if the war ends we want to go home."

On February 14, 1989, that desire temporarily became hope again when the Central American presidents signed an agreement calling for the contra bases in Honduras to be dismantled and the contra army demobilized. But it was dashed just as quickly after the US Congress approved funding for the contras for another year, thus keeping their bases in Honduras open.

As the war drags on, the Sumus and Miskitos of Jinotega, like all of Nicaragua, become more impoverished. Yet visiting one of the state farms where they currently live, one realizes that the past seven years of hardship have not defeated their spirit. Almost every night songs can be heard coming from the barracks where they sleep—children and adults singing in Miskito or Sumu like they used to do on the banks of their rivers.

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