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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 267 | Octubre 2003



The Caribbean Coast’s Traditional Leaders: An Endangered Species?

What arenas and decision-making powers do the coast’s traditional leaders still have vis-à-vis all the central government delegates, party delegates, mayors and autonomous government council members? Are pastors, teachers, councils of elders, ethnic group and community leaders in danger of extinction?

William Grigsby

In contemporary times, with the market replacing society and its laws supplanting values, the traditional populations of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast have reason to feel proud: despite so many armed or disguised invasions, the basis of their communal organization is still intact, and as a result they have managed to defend their racial identities. But they are now facing a new threat: the national political parties have absorbed a large part of their authochthonous leadership figures, perverting the nature of their traditions.

Within the Nicaraguan state, the Caribbean region has by law a singular political-administrative organizational structure that allows it to integrate different kinds of institutions from which to exercise power at various levels: state, autonomous region, municipal and community. These different powers are in turn exercised by socially differentiated and at times politically and ethnically counterpoised spheres. The central government delegates are mainly mestizos from the Pacific—or Spanish or Ispail as the Creoles and Miskitos respectively call them—but even when they are native to the coast they are representatives of a colonizing mentality. Both the municipal mayors and Municipal Council members and the coordinator and Regional Council members of the two autonomous regional governments are locally elected posts and thus held by native politicians, but they are increasingly members of the overpowering national parties rather than regional ones. The local indigenous and community leaders, in contrast, are members of their own community’s racial or ethnic group and the community’s institutions are based on traditions jealously passed down by their ancestors.

The municipal government, autonomous regional government and central government representatives are all ruled by legal frameworks—the Municipalities Law, the Autonomy Statute, the Constitution and all the laws derived from them—that with the exception of the Autonomy Statute coast people had little or no participation in defining. Although all these authorities are legally constituted, their legitimacy is questioned by their practice or their origin. In contrast, the legitimacy of local entities and their heads, who are authentic native leaders, is based on tradition—usually passed down orally.

The ancestral, the traditional is
what unites, what inspires respect

Dorotea Wilson—a Bilwi-born Creole sociologist, Sandinista and women’s leader—defines local leadership as “traditional authority, the organization of the communities themselves.” She itemizes basic examples of this leadership in the Miskito case: the Council of Elders, which includes the community judge, responsible for punishing infractions by community members; the síndico, whose mission is to regulate community land tenure and by extension environmental management issues; the community church pastor, traditionally Moravian, although communities often have more than one denomination now; and teachers. According to Wilson, “The síndico and the judge are the major figures and are named by their community. They send a delegation to the municipal government, which certifies their appointment. The Mayangnas [formerly known as Sumus], in contrast, are a very spiritual people, so the Moravian Church pastor is the fundamental leader of the community.”

Noel Campbell, a Creole engineer born in Bluefields, offers a good approximation to the differences among the Caribbean groups. “The form of organization in the Miskito community of Sandy Bay, for example, is very different from that of Bluefields or the Garífuna communities. Miskitos coexist with their environment and have more or less practiced ecological respect. People from Bluefields don’t; if they need wood, they’ll just cut down a tree. Miskitos tend to respect the religious and elder authorities, while those in Bluefields tend to be more wayward if not downright disrespectful. The authority of a pastor, a governor or a police officer doesn’t hold much sway over Bluefields people, many of whom look at everything we consider illegal, such as contraband or drug trafficking, as a good thing. Miskitos actually think similarly on that last point; they see nothing wrong with having a little cocaine or selling it for their own benefit. Garífunas tend to be more united, to have a stronger sense of who they are, of their historic roots, due to the experience they’ve been through. They are more identified with Africa and African things. For them, everything revolves around a spirit they call Gúbida, for whom they have enormous respect. They may be revolutionaries or counterrevolutionaries, Anglicans or Catholics, but in times of peril or sickness, they all turn to Gúbida, who unites them. What unites the Miskitos is the ancestral issue and respect for the pastors and the elders, while the blacks from Bluefields can unite around laws.”

Black lawyer and feminist leader Matilde Lindo, born in Bilwi, questions the real authority of the Council of Elders. “Miskitos say that the Elders are the maximum authority in their communities, but in practice they’re often nothing more than an ancestral figure,” she challenges. “I don’t see them having so much authority. They’ve lost it by not weaving together today’s reality with ancestral traditions, because there’s a contradiction between their traditions and the problematic we’re living through today.”

YÁTAMA: Synthesis of ethnic leadership

Almost all of the traditional leaders from virtually all the Caribbean communities were directly involved in the war of the eighties. Independent of their intentions, the Sandinistas caused profound damage to all the Caribbean peoples and ethnic groups. And at the same time, equally independent of their intentions, the indigenous communities ended up becoming political and military instruments of the United States in its war against the Sandinistas—ultimately a war against the Nicaraguan people. Paradoxically, it was the Sandinista government that granted the Caribbean peoples’ demand for autonomy, and that same party, particularly through its coast members, has shown the only real interest in seeing that autonomy put into practice.

The ostensibly pan-indigenous but in practice Miskito organization YÁTAMA (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nani Aslatakanka, which translates as Organization of the Peoples of Mother Earth) was the culmination of a long organizational process that began in 1969 with the emergence of a Miskito peasant union called the Association of Río Coco [or Wanki] Agricultural Clubs (ACARIC). ACARIC’s aim was “to promote improvements in the social and economic life of the indigenous population on the Río Coco, improving the production system.” Five years later, the Alliance for Progress of the Miskito and Sumu Peoples (ALPROMISU) was formed with no little influence from President Kennedy’s project. Its defined objective was “to defend their territories and natural resources, their holistic life from the central government, which is ceding [their territories and resources] to the transnationals for irrational exploitation.” It was close to the end of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his strongman in the northern Caribbean region, then-Senator Pablo Rener. At the time, Stedman Fagoth, a young Miskito who liked to refer to himself as the heir of the Miskito King, was studying in Managua, in the National University, with a scholarship granted by the dictatorship.

On November 11, 1979, just months after the Sandinista triumph, the indigenous people who identified with ALPROMISU held a huge general assembly and the organization changed its name to MISURASATA (Miskitu Sumu Rama Sandinista Asla Takanka, or Organization of Miskitos, Sumus, Ramas and Sandinistas). The three top leaders elected were all Miskito: Fagoth, Brooklyn Rivera and Hazel Lau. The inclusion of the name Sandinista suggested the depth of the hope that the incipient revolution inspired among indigenous peoples at that time. The initial objectives outlined by MISURASATA were the demarcation of indigenous territories, defense of natural resources and the integral development of the coast, which the Sandinistas fully endorsed and began acting on. A year later it added the establishment of an autonomous government, but by then serious overreactions by the government and skillful management of those errors by the Reagan government had dashed these hopes. Thousands of young indigenous people fled to Honduras in mid-1981, where they organized to fight against the Sandinistas under Fagoth’s leadership, with training, financing and strategic planning by the CIA, just as was happening in the Pacific with the former National Guardsmen. Fagoth’s group called itself MISURA while the following year, Rivera organized his own armed group based in Costa Rica, maintaining the name MISURASATA.

In 1987, the CIA and the US State Department organized another assembly of Nicaragua’s Sumu and Miskito representatives—at that time essentially refugees and fighters in that country—in Rus Rus, Honduras, mainly aimed at uniting the two military organizations, which were divided largely by the power struggles between their respective leaders. The organization changed its name to YÁTAMA and accepted a triumvirate leadership structure that included both Fagoth and Rivera. According to one of its documents, it was “not limited to one racial group but to identity with the Cosmos,” and defined itself as “the genuine representative expression of the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast, born and forged out of the resistance for dignity and claims of identity and historic rights, leading the different stages of struggle in which our peoples and communities have been involved over the last 27 years.” Like the US-backed armed resistance on the Pacific coast, YATAMA leaders continued the war against the Sandinista government despite the regional peace negotiations that were taking place and despite the growing clamor for peace from the coast’s besieged indigenous communities. More paradoxically yet, it continued despite the fact that its chief proclaimed cause—the Autonomy Statute—had been approved by the National Assembly that same year following extensive consultations with most coast communities and social sectors and detailed discussions with coast representatives in a huge assembly held in Bilwi months before YATAMA’s founding.

In war and in peace:
Women’s new leadership role

From the viewpoint of Henningston Hodgson, a Bluefields Creole, “It is difficult to speak of community authorities at this point. The war destroyed nearly all the original communal structures, the natural leaders and all their community cosmovision. And I say this because the leadership acquired a very military character in the war. When the war ended in 1990, most leaders who assumed official functions were fighters or former fighters. Even the Councils of Elders in a number of communities were made up of former combatants, some of them very young to be “elders,” but they were included because they were former military chiefs. This somewhat distorted the vision that had existed of the original community structures. Now there’s a mixture; both models, both forms of authorities—the formal one and the traditional one— coexist, but one has more weight over the other, based on concepts and criteria that really have nothing to do with democracy or decentralization.”

Dorotea Wilson has a different take. She recalls that “it was the Moravian Church and its pastors that represented the community leadership in the eighties, and many of those pastors are no longer in the community since they stayed in Honduras, or abandoned their mission because they joined the “contra” and left the country. Now there’s another, new community leadership: the women. The men and male youth went off to war and the women stayed behind in the communities, assuming all the responsibilities for the family, the crops. And those women promoted the repatriation of their men, who had gone with MISURA or MISURASATA and remained in Honduras. The women organized into Peace and Autonomy Commissions and got their sons and husbands to return home. By having left, the men lost authority, lost their leadership. They returned, but the family was now divided. As the war wound down, the women remained at the head of their community’s Peace and Autonomy Commission to promote autonomy on the coast. The women are a new leadership: they were at the head of the autonomy and repatriation processes.

“Now, 13 years after the war ended, many women who headed those commissions in their community are pastors. It’s a new phenomenon: the Moravian Church, which was so conservative it didn’t allow women pastors, has changed and now ordains women, who are in the community providing services. We also have women heading up productive projects promoted by the local mayor’s office, or protecting the environment and the natural resources—helping prevent the extermination of turtles, for example. These women are recognized leaders in their communities. There’s a great movement being led by women like Elizabeth Enríques, a highly recognized woman from YÁTAMA. With their own customs and traditions, women are pushing everything forward. And for me, that’s local development too.”

Young and old: The crisis of the eighties

Noel Campbell shares Hodgson’s view. “The traditional leadership,” he says, “has been destroyed since the eighties and the revolution. It would have been hard for it to turn out any other way. Perhaps the revolution didn’t understand our organization. It’s hard for me to know if it was good or bad, but the truth is it happened. The traditional form largely contradicted what the revolution wanted. The youth, for example, had very little participation in traditional organization. How did elders get their authority? Because they supposedly knew community issues better. When the revolution came, many young people were sent abroad to study—some as far as the German Democratic Republic and Russia—and when they returned to their community and realized that the traditional coast authority was wielded by an illiterate, it began to create problems.

“A person who’s lived abroad and gotten a university education will be young in years, but mature. Logically, these young people felt they should occupy the places of authority and this sparked rejection from much of the population. I know many cases. The first doctors, dentists, high school directors and university graduates who taught classes were forced to leave when the government changed in 1990, even though they were from the coast, because the Council of Elders didn’t look favorably on them: how can some 28-year-old kid have as much authority as me just by being a doctor or a lawyer! So what happened? All these professionals left for Managua or the United States, or at least for Bluefields. They didn’t stay in their communities. So that idea, that impression that the leadership will be refreshed, renewed, that a prepared person can move up, didn’t work here.”

Party interests prevail

These four Caribbean figures—Lindo, Wilson, Campbell and Hodgson—agree that the activities of the political parties have been one of the determining factors in weakening traditional leadership. Some parties have recruited many leaders to serve their own interests rather than those of the community, while others have imposed their own members as leaders, sidelining the traditional ones.

Matilde Lindo sees it as “a problem common to the rest of the country as well. Those in municipal government posts got there through their political parties, just as happens with posts in the autonomous Regional Councils. The 45 council members in each of the two autonomous regions were elected, but their parties chose them as candidates, not the voters. And party interests are what prevail both here and in Managua. We are beginning to see various subordinations in the Councils and the municipal governments, among them obedience to the party. We need to keep working to have autochthonous powers. We tried going around the parties several times with popular petition candidates [eliminated by the Sandinistas and Liberals in the 1999 pact to keep dissidents from competing with their members]. Although we formally have autonomy, we have no autonomy from the laws issued by the National Assembly.”

Of the people and for the people?

According to Matilde Lindo, although the national parties’ local leaders aren’t necessarily divorced from the coast people, “what the parties do is grab the community leaders and convert them into followers. They recruit them. For example, in 1990, when the National Opposition Union defeated the FSLN in the first election for the new Regional Autonomous Council, YÁTAMA made a huge showing in the RAAN [winning just one seat short of an absolute majority against ten other parties and did fairly well in the South Atlantic even though there’s only a small Miskito population there]. But when the PLC moved into the coast [for the 1994 elections] under Arnoldo Alemán’s command, some of those same leaders were re-elected to the Regional Council, but now wearing the red shirt of the PLC. Those leaders, who we once believed to be of the people and for the people—that slogan we want to continue believing—are now at the service of a party…” and one from the Pacific, no less.

Now that they’re wearing the PLC shirt, have they forgotten their roots and the community they represent? “I wouldn’t say they’ve forgotten, but they’ve turned the demands of their people and their roots into tools for the benefit of their party. And that’s where the whole thing falls apart, because the PLC—and the FSLN, too, since the same thing has happened with the Sandinistas—has other interests. If it agrees with the people about something, fine, but if not, the people are shoved aside, left in the dust.”

As an example, Lindo cites the territorial demarcation law and the regulatory law for the Autonomy Statute. “For how many years were those laws shelved? From the time Violeta Chamorro was in the presidency! The issues that are so important to the Caribbean always depend on something or someone beyond our control, and also, I think, beyond the control of our leaders…”

Clientelism, paternalism, centralism

Henningston Hodgson believes that “the natural leadership hasn’t disappeared, but it has ceded a lot of space to that party leadership, to the benefit of the political elite. Nonetheless, the natural leaders are slowly looking to recover the space they lost during the war, after which the parties imposed another form of organization. That party leadership is going to have to grant space because natural leadership comes from below, from the grass roots, whereas the party leadership was imposed.” According to him, “this process is being permitted by concertation arenas that are being opened in the formal institutional spaces.”

He shares the concern about the muscling-in of the parties: “There is a predominance of criteria based on political patronage, which has to do with paternalism, buying favors. This has had a strong influence on all the community structures. A party that wins a municipal government works more and organizes better in the communities that voted for it and where its party has a representative. This kind of party clientelism is being imposed in the communities and is very advanced in many of them.”

Dorotea Wilson thinks that “the parties buy off the natural Caribbean leaders. What happened with Brooklyn Rivera and Stedman Fagoth? They stopped being authentic leaders of their communities. In the nineties, the Chamorro government named Brooklyn director of the state apparatus it created for the coast, INDERA, imposing him over the municipal governments and the regional government and he happily answered to the central government, to the detriment of the attributions corresponding to the regional and municipal governments.”

Do I have to choose between
being a party activist and a costeña?

“I recall,” says Wilson, “that during the revolution I was one of a group of coast leaders who started asking why people from the Pacific always had to be named or sent over to assume the different political responsibilities in the coast, why they didn’t listen to us and why we weren’t heading up those tasks? There came a moment in which you asked yourself: ‘What do I do now: do I behave like an FSLN activist or do I head up the indigenous communities’ own demands?’ It was a truly confusing feeling. We talked about it and came to this conclusion: ‘If I’m here, I have to respond for the claims of the black communities, the indigenous communities.’ Miskito leader Hazel Lau [third top leader of MISURASATA before it became a military organization, who then became an FSLN activist] broke with the Sandinista Front to take up truly important community demands that went against many of the FSLN’s political positions. I think that for the most part the Sandinista Front has gotten over that kind of thing. But that’s no true for other political parties, and there are costeños who continue to assume party responsibilities, completing forgetting their own communities’ demands.”

The exclusion of YÁTAMA

The most resounding evidence of how the interests of the major parties from the Pacific have perverted the Caribbean way of life was the deliberate exclusion of YÁTAMA from the 2002 municipal elections, when it was a clear favorite to win the majority of the North Atlantic mayoral seats. On that occasion, the four Liberal Supreme Electoral Council magistrates refused to authorize YÁTAMA’S participation because they knew it would pull a significant number of votes away from the PLC.

That violation of the Caribbean communities’ political rights was so serious that the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ended up condemning the Nicaraguan state in an unprecedented decision. “It’s outrageous that a community-based organization couldn’t stand in the municipal and regional elections. YÁTAMA always said it was more interested in regional and municipal elections than the national ones, and they prevented it from running,” said Wilson.

A classic confict that reflects
leadership problems

For Matilde Lindo, the parties’ absorption of natural leaders has weakened community organization. “The traditional leaders don’t have a firm position either. You can see them vacillating; you never know what to expect from them. At this point, YÁTAMA is a formal regional political party and the Councils of Elders don’t agree with many of its ideas. They don’t have much to do with each other. There are huge problems around leadership at the community level. The political parties have even gotten involved in elections for síndicos, causing problems in that process as well. And in my opinion, the way they organize through the municipal mayor’s offices has meant the loss of many of the ancestral traditions regarding elections, forms of election and terms of office. We have a whole bunch of little islands: a síndico, a Council of Elders, a community judge, the judge’s alternate…; then there are the central government delegates and the party’s delegate. We are really atomized with respect to leadership.”

There are sometimes clashes between the competencies of the natural leaders and those of local authorities. A typical case is that of Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), in the RAAN, where there have been problems with territorial demarcation. As Dorotea Wilson explains it, “A large part of the lands on which the city is built, including the airstrip, belong to the community of Karatá, so every year the community leaders collect rent from Bilwi residents and the businesses located there.

“My grandmother, my family, has property titles issued back during the British protectorate and later by the Standard Fruit Company, when that banana company was giving out property titles in Puerto Cabezas. Now Karatá, which has its own organization, is raising the rent. This year, everybody has to pay a thousand and some córdobas [nearly $70] and a lot of people who live in Bilwi don’t have that kind of money. The mayor’s office says it’s going to declare that land public utility to favor those who have been living there for years. It has to be negotiated. The autonomous regional government, the municipal government and the communities are trying to resolve a property conflict that has existed for a very long time.

“Supposedly, the rent money is for community development, but that’s another conflict, because there isn’t much transparency in the administration of those resources, which remain in the hands of the managing group. That money should be used to provide scholarships to boys and girls from the communities, to improve community streets and to create health posts where there are no medicines. In some cases, when the community exerts pressure, the board does use the money appropriately.”

The whole leadership problem is neatly reflected in this conflict. According to Wilson, “the communal authorities have been changing, the old ones are dying off and those who are taking their place are young people who don’t want to negotiate with the people in the urban center the way the elders did.”

What are the municipal governments for?

In practice, there are two parallel powers: the mayor’s office and the community leadership. So the logical question is: if the communities have an organization in accord with ancestral customs, what are the municipal governments for?

“Ah!” exclaims Dorotea Wilson, “that very issue is being debated. For some years now a masters program in Autonomy Law in the Caribbean universities has been debating the thesis that it would be better to have effective indigenous territories than a municipal government covering over 160 communities, as happens in the RAAN. It is not a finalized thesis, but an essential proposal is being hammered out. We’ve always said that the mayor’s offices and the Municipalities Law substitute or supplant the autonomous regional governments in many areas and that an attempt has been made to set the Municipalities Law up as equal to the Autonomy Statute.”

For Matilde Lindo the municipal governments are being exercised “very deficiently and we can’t deny it. They haven’t even been able to come up with a development proposal understood and designed in line with our own characteristics, our needs and the most basic human requirements. For example, it was thought that the Puerto Cabezas mayor’s office would tackle the issue of electricity and water, but it didn’t. It said it didn’t have the administrative and political capacity. That was that, end of discussion, even on something so obvious. Another deficiency: it’s influence doesn’t cover the whole municipal territory. Those who live outside the municipal seat only realize that the mayor exists during the electoral campaign. After that, it’s ‘every man for himself!’ There have also been tremendous deficiencies in municipal planning, in that the actors in the municipal system have no way to have input into solving problems. The municipal government should be the guide and facilitator, but in practice the mayor and council members are nearly always campaigning, with much of their energy and time going into being seen, not into doing.”

We have lived in harmony,
or at least without killing each other

Noel Campbell, in contrast, believes that municipal governments do make sense and that the natural leaders should act as advisers to the mayors. “It seems to me that the elected municipal authority should meet every so often with those who have natural leadership in the local sphere, sit down with them like in a Parliament and say: ‘These are our plans, this is what we want to do. You aren’t elected, but you’re respected in this community. Take this proposal and find out if the people agree; if it seems like a good idea to them. And we’ll listen to their opinion.’ It would be ideal if the authorities understood that each area has its particularities that have to be respected, even if they clash with some national laws. For their part, the Councils of Elders and other local leaders must understand that they have to modernize and that the municipal authorities have been elected precisely to carry out their tasks.”

Henningston Hodgson recalls that the Nicaraguan state’s presence in the Caribbean is a very recent phenomenon and coast people consider both autonomy and the municipal governments as new arenas. “Coast particularities, above all our community structures, have to be brought into those arenas. We have six ethnic groups in the region that have been able to coexist without killing each other. In the Pacific, there’s only one hegemonic group and it makes all the decisions, while in the Caribbean we have historically achieved a harmony-building process among the different groups. We do things in a different way.”

Thus, making use of the spaces created after decades of struggle and trying to sidestep the voracity of the parties, the coast people are creating a different way to resolve their contradictions, both internal and with the state. As Matilde Lindo reminds us: “The struggle for autonomy unites us today. But despite the racism and interethnic differences that may exist among us, it’s also true now and forever that if you touch one costeño, you touch the Coast, you touch us all.”

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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