Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 99 | Octubre 1989



Ushering in Autonomy

Envío team

As the rest of Nicaragua blinks in the glare of the international spotlights so shamelessly searching for flaws in its electoral process, the Atlantic Coast is preparing, almost unnoticed, for an event of unprecedented proportions. On February 25, 1990, the two regions of the Atlantic Cost will elect their first autonomous government in history.

Here at last

The moment has been a long time coming, and many on the coast—inclined always toward skepticism about anything promised from Managua—experienced the delays as proof that autonomy was just one more trick by the "Spanish." That defense mechanism dropped perceptibly when the Autonomy Statute, which provides the legal framework for the functioning of the new regional government, was actually passed into law by Nicaragua's National Assembly in September 1987. But as the months slid by, and little more was said publicly about elections, the defenses went back up.

What few could appreciate was that a lot of hard work was going on behind the scenes. The new, post-Constitution Electoral Law, passed in August 1988, sets out the electoral districts for the coast and the concrete mechanisms to guarantee the election of at least one representative of every ethnic community to the Regional Council—as the governing structure is called—in their respective region. It also defines the requirements for public petition candidates, particularly important on the coast, where national parties other than the FSLN seldom venture and were coast people are just as happy that they don’t.

With those last details in place, Comandante Tomás Borge, president of the Autonomy Commission, announced in Puerto Cabezas a month after the electoral law was passed that the elections for autonomous governments were planned for April 1989. But it was not to be. Just one month later Hurricane Joan flattened the port city of Bluefields and destroyed the crops and homes of peasants in a wide swath from there to Rama, in the interior. The last thing on anyone's mind, at least in the south, was elections.

Now, with Bluefields on the mend, and national elections brought up to February 25 of next year as a result of the Esquipulas accords, the autonomy elections are becoming a reality at last.

What will government look like?

The Atlantic Coast has been divided into two autonomous regions, each of which will be governed by a directly elected Regional Council. The Council will elect a regional coordinator from among its 45 members. Although roughly divided between regulatory and executive functions, this structure does not parallel the distinctions between legislative and executive bodies at the national level. Rather, as Johnny Hodgson, regional coordinator of the Autonomy Commission in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) explains, it more resembles a traditional indigenous system, in which a council of popularly chosen leaders decides and oversees policy then delegates responsibility to carry it out. (See the upcoming November issue of envío for a more detailed analysis of the Autonomy Statute.)

To help the Regional Coordinator in the day-to-day implementation of responsibilities and to liaison between council and coordinator, the Regional Council will also elect an Executive Board from among its members. It is here that the principle of equality of the different ethnic communities takes on its full weight. The Autonomy Statute specifies that the seven-member Executive Board must also include at least one member of every ethnic community (Creoles, mestizos, Miskitos and Sumus in the north, and those four plus Ramas and Garífunas in the south.)

Defining the 15 electoral districts (each of which will elect 3 representatives to the Regional Council) in each region so they are relatively balanced by population yet do not divide the smaller ethnic communities was not easy. In the RAAS, the final product assigns five electoral districts to Bluefields and the remaining ten to the widely dispersed communities. Of these, there are six in which any slate must be headed by a candidate from a designated ethnic community (voters choose slates, not individual candidates). District 12, for example, comprises all the territory in which the Ramas have traditionally lived, so there a Rama candidate must head all slates, even though, with their population of just over 800 people, the Ramas are not the majority even in their own district. Asked if there were negative reactions to this constraint by the remaining population of that zone, Johnny Hodgson said he had heard of none. Since the requirement is only for the top candidate, the two others are unassigned. He said that no flaws had shown up in the new electoral map so far.

Not so in the north. René Henríquez, a member of the Regional Electoral Council (CRE) in the RAAN, noted a serious problem that had just been discovered. The electoral district in the mining area of Rosita, designated to be headed by a Sumu candidate, is not, in fact, the one in which the majority of the Sumus live. Asked what could be done, he said that the CRE's responsibility is to register such problems with the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua, which has the final authority for finding a solution.

Official observers set up camp

While the coast has not yet been besieged by journalists, observer delegations of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States have already made brief visits to the two regions, and will set up offices in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas in time for the first day of voter registration. From their base in the regional capitals, the two teams will visit outlying communities and pass complaints of any irregularities they receive to the Electoral Council. As official observers, the UN and OAS teams will have political immunity, meaning that they can ask to see or do anything they feel necessary.

René Henríquez does not foresee major political complaints, given that the Pacific parties do not traditionally contest the coast seriously. By the beginning of September, no opposition parties had yet registered with the CRE in Puerto Cabezas, and Henríquez was unaware of any having set up offices, although he said UNO representatives had been in to make inquiries. Of the three CRE members in the north, Henríquez is an independent and the other two are from the FSLN and the Central American Unionist Party (PUCA). PUCA's vice presidential candidate, Daniel Urcuyo, is originally from Bluefields and says his party intends to open an office and name candidates, at least for the National Assembly.

Henríquez, however, does envision several logistical problems, particularly during voter registration. An issue of dissension in the coast in recent years was a government requirement that civilians carry ID cards, to distinguish them from the contras who often entered their communities. Although the measure was aimed at preventing harassment of innocent civilians by the army, it was viewed, particularly by Miskitos, as an infringement of their freedom, and was finally rescinded as the war on the coast wound down. But now, to register, an individual must show an ID card or be accompanied by two reliable witnesses who will verify that the person does live in the area where registering. "Since the four registration days are the four Sundays of October," Henríquez quipped, "I don't imagine the pastors in the communities will get much preaching done, they'll be so busy verifying registrants." On the more serious side, there are indications that several thousand Miskito refugees still in Honduras may return in time to register, complicating the process of verifying identity and residency.

In the south, with a smaller proportion of the population out of the country as refugees, the problems are more of infrastructure than of logistics. Once one leaves Bluefields proper, the only means of transportation in this jungle region is by panga, a small river skiff powered by an outboard motor. Yet the Regional Electoral Commission in Bluefields suffers the same lack of transport that the Regional Autonomy Commission there has had for three years. "Every time we wanted to visit the communities," recalls Johnny Hodgson, "we had to go around to the ministries and ask who was going out so we could catch a ride."

The chronic transportation difficulties in both regions have hampered efforts to carry out the initial training workshops for volunteer workers at the polling places. The first workshop in the RAAN planned to train 65 people from the different districts, but only netted 38 due to transport problems. The CRE has decided to hold a make-up session for the other 27 in the mining region, which has the most serious transportation limitations. The first workshop lasted two days, and was attended mainly by teachers, selected by the CRE from a list the parties supplied of those with sufficient academic level. These "multipliers" will then each train up to 24 volunteers at a district level, to total the 1,644 who will actually make up the Voter Boards in the 137 polling places in the region. Each Voter Board in the country must have a president, 2 at-large members and 3 secretaries (one for each copy of the registration list).

Flipping through the training manual supplied by the Supreme Electoral Council for these workshops, René Henríquez said this was the easiest job he’s ever had. "It's all in here—the function of a party poll watcher; how to register a voter, the function of the electoral police; what to do if the voter is drunk, doesn't have an ID, or has no hands [registering voters are supposed to put a fingerprint alongside their name]."

The CRE will supervise the electoral police, according to Henríquez, although they will be trained by the Sandinista Police. There will be two per polling station, and their duties include keeping order and guarding materials. Although they will be armed, they may not enter the polling booth except by permission of the Voter Board, and have no decision-making authority. Henríquez said that an average of 400 voters will be registered at each polling place, so volunteers must be able to register a person in 3 minutes, about the same time it will later take to actually vote.

In addition to topics such as these, covered in workshops nationally (see election article in Update section), participants in the Atlantic Coast workshops also study the autonomy law, article by article.

Electoral strategies coast-style

With the final registration date for candidates to the National Assembly and the Regional Council still a few weeks off, the political movement in the two autonomous regions is inclusive. Only two groups are visibly in motion in the north, the FSLN and a number of public petition candidates who have just formed a coalition called Candidates for Costeño Unity (CUC).

Armando Rojas, a Puerto Cabezas lawyer, regional coordinator of the Autonomy Commission in the RAAN, and now one of the CUC candidates, explained with a hint of surprise still in his voice how the group came about. "Last October we tried to form an organization called Indigenous Movement, but it never came together—not because of political differences but because of power struggles. Then we tried to broaden out from only Miskitos to other indigenous, and it still didn't work. So aspiring candidates independently started getting the necessary signatures as public petition candidates. Then one day last week we all met and suddenly came together!"

There are 27 candidates in the CUC so far (3 each in 9 electoral districts), but the coalition's political complexion is not yet clear. "We don't have a common program," says Rojas. "Some are pro-Brooklyn Rivera and some are not. It's a multiethnic movement, even including some mestizos, but we are least strong in the mines [a zone inhabited mainly by mestizos and Sumus]." Although Rojas says the group is "united only by its independence from the FSLN," he added that it was going to meet with the FSLN and at least some of its members were open to hearing what they might say.

Brooklyn Rivera's own immediate future on the coast has been cloaked in a rumor-inspiring combination of mystery and confusion. Twice in recent months it was rumored that he was about to return but he has yet to do so. Increasingly one hears people on the coast admit that Rivera has closed every door that opened for his return, and has lost his best opportunity. He twice abandoned serious negotiations with the Nicaraguan government, and more recently refused the government's offer that he return by accepting amnesty.

Dorotea Wilson, FSLN representative to the National Assembly from the RAAN, told envío in early September that at a recent meeting between Rivera and the CEPAD-Moravian Church Conciliation Commission in Guatemala, he finally agreed to the amnesty offer. If he wants to participate in the elections, his only option now would be as a candidate for the National Assembly, since there is a one-year residency requirement for candidates to the Regional Council. If he were to win a seat on the National Assembly he would automatically be a full voting member of the Regional Council, and thus theoretically be eligible for the Regional Coordinator position. But to do that he would have to return by the deadline for filing candidates, currently set for September 29.

Following a visit to Puerto Cabezas with Comandante Tomás Borge, president of the Autonomy Commission in mid-September, ex-President Jimmy Carter spoke with Brooklyn Rivera by phone and got his agreement to the government's conditions for his return. "They will have to disarm their troops, renounce armed struggle, participate in the political process and fulfill the conditions that I believe are compatible with those of the contras," Carter told journalists in Managua after his trip to the coast. Carter said he saw no reason why Rivera and the other Miskito leaders could not return before September 29. Borge added that "they have the complete right to create organizations of a political and ethnic character to defend the coast population's specific interests," but not at the same time as they reserve the right to have their troops, as Rivera had previously insisted. "On this point," Borge said, "former President Carter is in agreement with us."

Dr. Myrna Cunningham, presidential delegate to the RAAN for the past five years and herself a Miskito, calls Rivera's project "very weak, because it's a racist project; it's against coast unity. People now understand, because of the war, that we're only going to survive if we're all united." She sees Rivera as a solution only for the more radical Miskitos, who believe that autonomy should recognize Miskito hegemony. "We're trying to work with an autonomy not just for Miskitos, but rather a model that gives equal rights to all ethnic groups. This means that sentiments of Miskito hegemony are going to be wounded."

Several Miskitos in Puerto Cabezas said Rivera has sent a letter urging his supporters to vote for UNO candidates, and that Violeta Barrios de Chamorro should be the Miskitos' choice for President. Most people envío spoke with felt that this was self-defeating for Rivera since the dominant wing of the UNO coalition is closely allied with the contras, and most Miskito ex-fighters had very negative experiences in their unequal alliance with the contras over the years. Furthermore, as published in La Prensa on August 26, the only reference to the Atlantic Coast in UNO's platform is as follows: "The Government of National Salvation will dedicate special attention to the Atlantic Coast. With earnestness it will respond to the unpostponable historic necessity of freeing it from the underdevelopment and misery in which it has lived. [The Government's] effort will be directed to putting an end to the region's traditional abandonment and discrimination, propelling its integral development, completing its integration into the life of the Nicaraguan nation and its struggle for economic and social progress. The Government of National Salvation will rebuild and improve the urban and rural structures and the natural resources of the Atlantic Coast destroyed by the recent hurricane. It will also improve its communication infrastructure." Quite apart from the unfortunate use of the buzzword "integration," any reference to autonomy is glaring by its omission.

Asked in late August if the FSLN was concentrating its efforts in the coast on the national or the regional elections, Myrna Cunningham—who had not yet seen the UNO program—responded that "the most important elections for the people are the ones for their own government. But some people have heard what's going on in the rest of the country, and they say, 'If the FSLN doesn't win, what's going to happen to our autonomy? Who else would give it continuity and follow-up? We have to vote for the FSLN so it won't go backward.'"

In the Río Coco area, the FSLN asked the Peace and Autonomy Commission members in their July assembly to choose people they felt would be the best party candidates to the Regional Council. "We don't intend to impose candidates on them," explains Cunningham, adding that the FSLN is also going to the communities themselves, to be sure that interests not fully represented by the commissions are heard, such as those of women, the recently repatriated and some of the ex-fighters. "The new autonomous government is going to be accepted by the population only to the degree that all sectors are represented," she says. The FSLN's strategy is similar in the south, although with fewer Miskitos and less disruption of traditional community structures due to the war, the nuances are different. There, the FSLN is approaching long-accepted community leaders about running on its ticket in most cases.

The FSLN has already established a successful precedent on the coast for this strategy. In 1984, two of the three winning National Assembly candidates—Hazel Law in the north and Ray Hooker in the south—agreed to run on the FSLN slate, even though neither were FSLN members. The population knows they were chosen because they were strong, constructive and articulate leaders, not because they toed the party line; in fact, both had been critical of the FSLN's early policies on the coast.

Asked if the moment has passed in which being a Sandinista is a deadly stain on the coast, Myrna Cunningham replied, "The situation has changed and it's still changing. Five years ago people said that the key to unity and peace was for the FSLN to get out; now it's that it stay and that we join in with it."

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Navigating the Electoral Map

Setting Up to Vote

Ushering in Autonomy

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El Salvador: Transition to ARENA


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