The Atlantic Coast—Two Leaders’ Paths Join
This article by Douglas Carcache, a Nicaraguan journalist who covered the Atlantic Coast for various national radio and print media for several years, won First Prize in envío’s first annual Writer's Competition.
The conflict between the peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast and the new revolutionary state is one of the issues most hotly debated by both detractors and supporters of the FSLN. Many theories have been put forward about the "ethnic question" in Nicaragua and how it can be resolved.
The dialogue between the Sandinista government and increasing numbers of Indian fighters, begun in 1985, is considered a milestone in modern Latin American history—albeit grudgingly by some.
One non-theoretical way of looking at the conflict and the process that led to this dialogue is through the testimonies of participants in these complex and often contradictory events. We offer detailed interviews with two such participants, both of them Miskito, and both activists in Misurasata, the indigenous organization founded in 1979. In 1981, they chose very different paths, which are now beginning to reconverge.
Uriel Vanegas opted that year to take up arms, and six years later negotiated a cease-fire on behalf of the largest single detachment of Miskito fighters to seek a peaceful solution to date. Vanegas is now an active member of Kisan Pro-Peace, an organization of armed Miskito ex-fighters who have accepted the revolution and are continuing the political dialogue as indigenous people within it.
Hazel Law chose to stay in the country and struggle politically, becoming a major proponent of the dialogue. In November 1984, she was elected to the National Assembly, Nicaragua's legislative body, on the Sandinista ticket, and the following month was named to the newly formed National Autonomy Commission.
Sacks of military boots and uniforms surround the young man sitting behind the dusty desk. At first sight, I wouldn't have imagined this small, slight fellow with sad eyes and a malicious smile as a commander of 400 men. In a different setting, I might have thought I was with a street kid daydreaming his next mischief. But hovering always behind him is another uniformed young man who, one can tell by his behavior, is his bodyguard. Soldiers coming in to consult him on various matters frequently interrupt our conversation; it's clear he is the one in charge.
He is Uriel Vanegas, chief of the "Bruno Gabriel" regional command of the armed indigenous organization Yatama.* When Vanegas, an outstanding member of the Misurasata youth group, first became involved in the war in 1981, he was just 16 years old. It was no coincidence that his nom de guerre was Playni (Miskito for last-born son).
*Yatama is the current name of the remnants of the armed indigenous groups that began as Misura (1981) and Misurasata (1982). In 1985, the CIA maneuvered a temporary unity of these groups, headed respectively by Stedman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera, under the name Kisan. In 1987, Kisan, headed by Wycliffe Diego, joined with the other two into an umbrella group called Yatama, a tenuous unification also engineered by the US.
Vanegas explains that he entered the war for vengeance. He wanted revenge against the Sandinistas because they "took away my right to be a student." Afterwards, as he himself admits, he became a war fanatic.
On October 3, 1987, he stunned those promoting the indigenous war by coming out of the mountains with his 400 men and entering Puerto Cabezas to negotiate with the revolution's leadership. They marched in single file, carrying new weapons recently delivered to them from abroad. It was the largest single group to agree to a cease-fire to date.
Comandante Tomás Borge, Minister of the Interior, flew to Puerto Cabezas to meet with Vanegas and sign the accord. The agreement stated that "because there is no contradiction between the Sandinista Popular Revolution and the indigenous struggle, respect for the autonomy law is considered the highest expression of the achievement of national unity." Under the agreement, those of his men who would keep their weapons and create an indigenous militia would be subordinated to the internal structures of the Sandinista armed forces.
In the following interview, Vanegas describes the last eight years through the eyes of those fighting the Sandinistas.
"They wanted us to stop being Indian and become just one more Nicaraguan"DC: Why did you take up arms against the revolutionary government?
UV I had been part of the Indian Youth Movement since 1978, even before the creation of Misurasata. When Misurasata was founded, in November 1979, I was already a youth leader in the North Atlantic region, and we showed the Sandinista Youth that we were a force to be reckoned with. I was just 15 years old, and was responsible for the mining areas of Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita; all of the Río Prinzapolka; and Musawás, the capital of the Sumu Indians. When the Literacy Crusade in Native Languages began, I was one of the first to participate in the workshops, representing the Misurasata Youth. Later I became a chief of staff in the Popular Literacy Army. They told us very clearly that we couldn't participate in the literacy campaign in Spanish, because later on there would be one in Miskito, Sumu and Creole, which would be our responsibility. What we did was divide the territory among the leaders and initiate pilot literacy projects. Mostly we helped correct the Indian language primers.
DC Was it then that you began to disagree with the revolution?
UV You have to understand that in the beginning the Sandinista government wanted to impose everything. They came with a strategic and tactical plan that covered the military, economic and political spheres. They wanted us to stop being what we were, stop being Indian and become just one more Nicaraguan. Many members of the Sandinista Front made fun of the way we talked, which insulted our dignity.
They also wanted to take away our land, to nationalize the whole Atlantic Coast, which was unacceptable. There's an expression that says, "an Indian without land is not an Indian." The land is our father and mother, the source of our survival.
We understand the revolution, but we believe we shouldn't all have to be Sandinistas; there should be freedom here. Whoever wants to be a Sandinista can be, and those who don't want to shouldn't have to be, without it having to affect the revolution. I think the government misinterpreted this here at the beginning, and the problem grew when they put Stedman Fagoth in prison.
When Stedman was jailed, I had known him for two years; we had worked together since 1979, along with Hazel Law and Brooklyn Rivera, but we really didn't know about his past. When he was thrown in prison, we couldn't believe that all our leaders were part of Somoza's security apparatus. Of course, now they've all become anti-Sandinista and lead fighting groups, but I don't think they had previously been Somocista security. But everybody was jailed, which indicated to us that our project had no place within the revolution. The Sandinistas had decided to destroy our organization and convert us into Sandinistas by force. That's what we wouldn't accept.
They also accused us then of promoting separatism. I don't know if the accusation was based on false information from state security or was part of a prepared plan.
All of the youth from the Atlantic Coast had met in Tuapí on January 16, 1981. We invited representatives and leaders from other sectors—I remember that Comandante Manuel Calderón (Rufo), the Sandinista chief at that time, was there. We were well intentioned and called our project "Plan 81." Many people have misinterpreted that plan, accusing us of trying to thwart the government, but it was really just the opposite. What we wanted was development and our integration with the rest of the country. We were asking that the Miskito language be recognized as an official language at the national level; that Miskito be taught in the universities; that pre-school through the fifth grade teach Miskito too; and that all the teachers in the area be Miskitos because it's their language. The tragedy of our young people is that you can spend 100 years teaching them things in Spanish and they won't know anything when they graduate; our backwardness is partly due to this. It's as if I tried to teach you, a Spanish speaker, in Miskito; you'd never understand me.
"Plan 81" was based on this analysis. We said to the government, this is our plan, this is what we propose: that 80% of what is generated economically on the Atlantic Coast should be invested in developing the region, and the remaining 20% used by the central government. We proposed that they bring foreign corporations, including those from socialist countries, to exploit the fishing, mineral and forestry resources, which would provide us with sources of employment and economic development.
I don't think that was bad, but the security officials misunderstood. For this, then, they tried to destroy us, to eliminate us.
DC: Why do you say that they wanted to destroy you?
UV: Because they immediately started a propaganda campaign saying that on January 16 we had made plans to bring in arms from abroad, through the Bilwaskarma area; that we had hundreds of rifles ready to open fire against the government. The truth was that we were civilians and didn't have anything to do with arms.
DC: The government says you were all using separatist slogans, threatening to kick the mestizos and Creoles out of the Atlantic coast.
UV: We can't be accused of being separatists, even though there are some very radical people among the indigenous community. But that's another issue, just as there are some very radical people in the Sandinista Front, people who don't know what they are or what they want to be. Likewise, among the Miskitos, there are people who will have nothing to do with those who speak Spanish, but they aren’t the majority, just as the radicals in the Sandinista Front aren’t in the majority. Over the last few days, for instance, I've heard some slogans on the streets that we, the armed Indians in dialogue, don't agree with. We don't like them because they're offensive, and we said so to Subcomandante Páiz [head of the Ministry of Interior in the region]. We could shout slogans that would make the Sandinistas' hair stand on end, but we don't because we're in a peace process. We want to defend the country, not offend it. In the political arena, we're on the offensive, but we're on the defensive in military matters.
DC: What are the offensive slogans you referred to?
UV: I'd prefer not to mention them.
DC: Are you tolerant of the radical faction?
UV: Somewhat. Some radicals won't budge from a very fixed point of view. We have to understand that the political movement here hasn't had much space to develop a very deep analysis; it was more style than substance. The Sandinista Front has been involved in the struggle for so many years, yet you come across compañeros who don't know what they fought for, or they misunderstand the principles of the revolution. Why do you think a lot of errors were made at the beginning of the revolution? Because they didn't know how to translate the principles of the revolution into policy. They finally understand it today, but they had to launch an intense political campaign first.
Even today I can't go to public places freely, because there are still compañeros who seek revenge, according to my intelligence forces. They have brothers or cousins who died in the war so they want to get rid of us. So you see, there are many people, radicals, who don't understand anything about politics.
DC: You didn't answer my question about the separatist slogans you chanted in 1981.
UV: When the Sandinista Front accused us of being separatists, they were thinking of one of the slogans we used a lot which said, "Only Indians will save the Indians." But I assure you we didn't say this maliciously. Peasants best understand the situation of fellow peasants, just as a professional understands another professional, or a black will understand another black because they speak the same language and have the same culture. That's why we shouted the slogan, "Only Indians will save the Indians." We have to understand that there are millions of Indians in America who have never been understood by the governments in power; Indians are still persecuted, assassinated, jailed; they suffer hunger, marginalization and are exploited. We were thinking about those Indians, too. The slogan was shouted in that context. We also used the slogan, "A Free Country or Death." I don't think this has offended the FSLN since they use it themselves. We’re Nicaraguans, too, so we can also use the slogan. I don't see any reason to go on about this any more.
"My objective was to get revenge; it turned me into a war fanatic"DC: When you decided to join the war, what ideas guided you?
UV: At the beginning I felt offended because [the Sandinistas] took away my right to be a student. They persecuted me, and some people worked together to get me out of the country. I didn't rest at all during that time; all the Misurasata leaders were in jail and between February and March of 1981, I took advantage of the situation to stir people up. We had demonstrations in the mining areas, in Puerto Cabezas, in Waspám.
We headed a powerful political movement after we went underground on February 19. We had to hide ourselves, and raise the masses to demand that the leadership be freed. Basically, we got them all freed except for Fagoth. But we achieved our objective of mobilizing the people, in massive demonstrations the likes of which had never been seen before on the Atlantic coast.
There were demonstrations of up to 30,000 people, with people coming in from all over the various communities. I don't know what they ate, only that they stayed in the Moravian church. All we did was send clandestine letters to the communities, so they would send us rice and beans. The people demonstrating here in Puerto Cabezas went three days without eating, but that didn't stop them, and each day more trucks full of people arrived. The situation was uncontrollable. Everyone poured into the streets, and we were in the middle of it, although we didn't show our faces. I remember that at the end of it all we had six clandestine meetings. The last was on April 4, 1981, in the cemetery at nine in the morning; we managed to get 19 leaders together.
I left my house at five in the morning on April 5, heading for the border. At Waspám, some buddies picked me up and we went by car to Bilwas. Two days later two Honduran Miskitos came to guide me.
At the beginning, I felt I had to get back at the Sandinistas. I had only been able to get to the fourth year of secondary school; I felt I had to take revenge on the Sandinista Front. We clearly had no arms or anything. The only thing we could think of was to capture weapons from the Sandinistas themselves.
It was almost two years before we got support from the US government. Since the US has always been against Indian rights, they were reluctant to give us arms. It was September 1982 before I saw the first arms starting to come in.
At that point, I was named head of the mining region, where I began to operate with more than 250 Sumus. It was my first experience in commanding men in the middle of a war, because before, for almost a year, I was a military intelligence officer. I think I was the first to work in military intelligence, while the others were in training.
Since my objective was to get revenge, it turned me into a fanatic in the war. Perhaps I still am because I haven't become demoralized, but now we’re in political movements so I need to behave in accordance with my position as leader, to maintain a constant political struggle, not a military one, since the people don't want it and the political moment isn't right for it.
DC: Did you use the literacy campaign in local languages to conspire against the government?
UV: In part I think we did, because we took advantage of the fact that the readers were in Miskito and they contain the ideology of my people. Like the Spanish readers, the Miskito version included Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, and the history of the Sandinista Front. We took all of this a bit further, but from an indigenous perspective, not that of the FSLN. We were also the first to go out with the pilot projects, and we made revisions in the text. In fact, we completely discarded the first two versions. We prepared our brigadistas as militant political cadres. We put literacy within the framework of the indigenous struggle, and our main objective was to deepen the sense of indigenous autonomy.
DC: What did you say to the people?
UV: That the lands of the Atlantic Coast belonged to the indigenous people. We used the word indigenous because there's a long history of the indigenous people that has to be taken into account. I can't call those Nicaraguans who speak Spanish "Spaniards" because I believe they are also indigenous people, of Indian blood. "Spaniards," from what I understand, is what you call people from Spain. Just about all Nicaraguans are indigenous, in the way we refer to the term.
Who are the ones who have the problem of separatism? The old people, because they fought militarily against foreign forces trying to take their land away from them. If they themselves didn't fight, their grandfathers or great-grandfathers did; it's their heritage. They believe that the colonialists, those who arrived with Gil González [a Spanish conquistador], trying to take away their lands, created the problems, but they—the Spanish colonizers, that is—were repelled many times. Here on the Atlantic Coast they weren't able to colonize, since there was a constant battle of resistance against them.
So the Miskitos have maintained this idea of fighting against Spanish speakers, whom they view as the bad guys. But these conceptions have changed among the Miskito youth. Sometimes we get into debates with the elders. They say we're selling out our country to the Spanish. I explain to them that it's not so, that they're not Spanish, but Nicaraguans.
"The pastors have been the shapers of this struggle"DC: What role did the Moravian Church play in the ideological formation of those Indians who took up arms?
UV: I believe that the Indians are extremely united. You on the Pacific talk about one indigenous organization here and another over there, but in terms of ideology there's no difference between them. The differences that exist between the different organizations are based mostly on economic interests or the jockeying for power that's going on among the leadership, but the ideology is identical, almost 90% the same. There are some differences in how the politics are applied, but they're mostly of style and not of substance.
Within this context, the Moravian Church has played an important role in development and education on the Atlantic Coast. That's also true in the ideological sphere since it was one of the first religions brought here; we can say they are leaders of the Indian community. A pastor is
very respected by the indigenous people; there was a time when the reverends were considered gods. They are greatly loved and what they say is believed. People have complete confidence in them.
Almost all the pastors sympathize with the indigenous struggle; they were the shapers of it from before there were political leaders. That's why, before going to war, we allowed the pastors to become leaders. What we did was clarify the political situation and deepen the ideological situation for them.
We all left for Honduras, but the pastors stayed here and managed the political-ideological situation. We weren't worried while we were preparing ourselves militarily, because we knew that there were still leaders in the communities to keep people riled up. The pastors unquestionably won a lot of people over to our cause since the indigenous people believe everything their pastor tells them. So through them we got our message across and kept it constantly alive.
That's why, for instance, when we need to have an urgent meeting, we find the pastor, explain to him what's going on, then he rings the church bells, calling in the people of the community; it's the easiest way to summon Indians. Without a doubt, that was one of our best weapons, or, rather, still is. The pastors play an important role in this process. There was a time when the FSLN captured, harassed and censured many of the pastors, so they felt very repressed. Since they couldn't do anything with the Sandinista Front, they had to go to the other side.
"If the people hadn’t evolved and developed, I wouldn’t be here now"DC: How has Uriel Vanegas changed after being in the war for six years?
UV: With time and experience one begins to see things in a broader perspective. Depending on the time and place, situations appear differently. Right now, the people don't want war, whereas in 1981 they did and for almost two years we maintained ourselves without US help. The US helped us towards the end of 1982 and for all of 1983, then they abandoned us again at the end of 1984 and throughout 1985. But we kept going with the help of the people. Then in 1986, the United States started helping us again. But the people have always been at our side, although they had a change of opinion in 1985.
Many people misunderstand and think we're tired of fighting, but they're wrong; it's rather that the people want peace. Before getting into the peace negotiations, we had meetings with all the indigenous communities to decide, so we wouldn't end up appearing before a council of indigenous elders the next day and have them accuse us of being responsible for taking people this route. This way I could say that we had all met on such and such a date at such and such a place and you all decided that I should get involved in this, and I'd be covered.
Indians always walk according to the laws, and Indian laws are very strict. I'm sure that one way or another, sooner or later, I'll have to appear before a council of elders who will judge if I've followed the truth or told a lie. That's why, before I do anything, I consult with the people.
If things have changed, it's due to the situation itself and the skills I've acquired over time. I know many people with university educations who know nothing about politics; they're involved in their careers, they're perfectly content and don't care anything about politics. The thing is that to talk at this level means sacrifice; you don't get this kind of experience sitting behind a desk. I'm speaking not only of my personal evolution, but that of my people. Maybe at the beginning people thought the war would be easy, maybe that's why they wanted it. Later many compañeros said to us, "You brought us here and there are no arms; we want weapons." I would tell them; we depended on US government support.
Many gained experience over time—some had never seen a brother with a broken leg, they’d never seen a compañero die beside them in a trench, they’d never been aerial bombed by planes and helicopters. They had never before suffered hunger or the tropical diseases of the mountains.
But if the people hadn't evolved and developed, I wouldn't be here now. The fact is they did evolve, and that's why there are now fighters seeking peace.
DC: Are the 1981 Misurasata land demands dealt with now in the new autonomy law?
UV: I don't want to talk about this subject much, because for the Indian it's very serious. We haven't studied the land issue as presented in the autonomy law in detail, but we have it pending and will be asking for reforms to the law.
DC: What are some of the concepts underlying your views on this?
UV: We're not asking for independence. Let there be no mistake, we don't want to be the owners of all the land of the Atlantic Coast. That's simply not true. There are lands that should belong to the Indians, and other lands that should stay in state hands, the way it is now. But we don't want to see maneuvering, to see the government taking economic advantage of the best lands. The Indian communities need good land for their development.
DC: I understand that suggestions were made about this issue of land and resource control in the Multiethnic Assembly [of elected community representatives who debated and approved the draft autonomy law]. Why haven't you people reached a position yet?
UV: We know a lot of people participated, but not all the indigenous communities. I was in many communities and I didn't see anyone from the autonomy commission asking these questions. And the only thing I heard on the radio that day was interviews with people from Puerto Cabezas. We're the ones most affected and we can't neglect our interests, or forget the interests of our allies on this issue, in this case the Sandinista Front. The issue is flexible, negotiable, we can
come to an understanding and that's why there's a dialogue process.
"I've tainted my future, so I don’t have the same freedoms others have"DC: Uriel, at the age of 25 with a high school education, what type of future do you look forward to?
UV: There are times when I can decide my own future and times when I can't. I'd like to study, I want to become a professional, but I'm a persecuted young man, I've tainted my future, so I don't have the same freedoms others may have. I have to be very careful because we know the CIA has ordered me eliminated. I'm not free to walk around in the streets, to go to public places; my future is unclear. Perhaps the leaders of the revolution can help me. The thing is, though, how could they protect me? I know what kind of protection there is, and it would be very difficult.
I began a military career and I'd like to end it, to benefit the revolution, but I still haven't decided. I consider myself a good military person, because of my training and experience, because I know a bit about all military specialties, except parachuting.
DC: A lot is said about infighting among the leaders of the armed Miskitos. What are the differences between Brooklyn Rivera, Fagoth and Wycliffe Diego?
UV: In a nutshell, those differences aren't ideological, but political, particularly about strategy. Some say there should be negotiations with the government because the indigenous struggle is essentially political. Then there are those who claim that we can't negotiate with the government because they've killed indigenous people. So, the problem is one of strategy, not ideology.
DC: How would you characterize the three in ideological terms?
UV: Ideologically speaking, Brooklyn is the man who's gone the deepest into the indigenous question. After him comes Wycliffe Diego who, as a pastor, knows the Indian situation very well. Fagoth is a CIA agent, although ideologically he’s Indian.
DC: How would you define their ideology then?
DC: As I've already presented it to you. If they were to come and talk to you, they'd speak the same way. I identify with them in political terms. We differ as far as strategy is concerned, that's all.
DC: How did Eduardo Pantin* die?
*A Misura commander, Pantin signed the first cease-fire agreement with the Nicaraguan government, on May 20, 1985 in the community of Yulu, near Puerto Cabezas. He was representing 40 zonal commanders and 200 troops.
UV: I remember that on June 21 , we didn't go to bed till about three in the morning. We had been at a meeting with some men who were working clandestinely with us, who were our front for supplies. I went to sleep and I remember Pantin got up at about six in the morning and called to me. 'Get up,' he said, 'the people are coming; it's already seven, the people are coming.' 'Hey man, let me sleep,' I answered, and stayed in bed. He went and bathed, and at about eight he came and told me the people had arrived. I got up and put on a pair of shorts and told him I'd go talk to the people while he had breakfast. I looked and there were twelve of them coming in for the meeting. I was nearby, in Igal Ignacio's house.
I had just sat down and grabbed a cup of coffee. As I was bringing it up to my mouth I heard the shot. I turned to look and said to myself, 'It's Pantin.' He wore a pistol that Tomás Borge had given him, and I always used to tease him that he was going to die from that pistol. They had also given him a small tape recorder and a watch. 'It's Pantin,' I said to myself as I saw the radio operator through the door, standing there looking worried.
I went to the house and saw Pantin, wounded and very pale. 'It was an accident,' the paramedic told me. 'Nobody move from here!' I ordered. I noticed that the Miskito civilians were horrified. The majority were civilians. 'What happened?' I asked. I could see that the bullet had entered his chest, exited through his back, then pierced the zinc roofing of the house. It was 8:35 in the morning, June 22, in Elizabeth Down's house in Yulu. Everything indicated that it was an accident.
DC: Why, when you came to dialogue with the government in Puerto Cabezas, did you say you were doing it outside of the Esquipulas accords, that they had nothing to do with the situation of the indigenous people?
UV: To begin with, the Esquipulas II accords don't say anything at all about indigenous peoples. So if we want to base our talks with the government on what was agreed to in Esquipulas, we find it doesn't refer to our armed negotiations, only to amnesty. That would mean handing over these blessed arms and settling down, getting married, studying, working, and that would be the end of it. We would be denying our just and necessary rights. So we aren't within the scope of Esquipulas II. But we are motivated by Esquipulas II; we're also trying to achieve peace, but in a different setting.
In the debate over the indigenous conflict in Nicaragua, one critical and controversial person has particularly stood out: Hazel Law, one of the top three leaders of Misurasata when it was a civilian indigenous organization.
Hazel Law was born on July 26, 1958, in Sují, a small Miskito community on the north (now Honduran) shore of the Río Coco. She was the only Misurasata director to stay in Nicaragua when the others left to take up arms against the Sandinistas in mid-1981.
Law was imprisoned in February 1981, along with Brooklyn Rivera and Stedman Fagoth, and some 20 second-tier Misurasata leaders. Fagoth, whose ties to the security forces of the deposed Somoza regime had been revealed, fled to Honduras in May, just after he was released. There he joined up with the contras and formed his own armed group, Misura. Rivera followed a few months later. He soon parted ways with Fagoth and headed his own armed group, which kept the name Misurasata and was headquartered in Costa Rica.
Hazel remained and for more than a year was virtually exiled in Managua. In July 1982, she was called back to work on the new bilingual education project.
It was largely through her insistence that the Sandinista Front agreed to dialogue with Brooklyn Rivera in late 1984. But Rivera's equivocation in two separate negotiation attempts has left him essentially out of the process on the Coast.
On the other hand, the successful negotiating format developed by Misura commander Eduardo Pantin and the Sandinistas has resulted in nearly two dozen separate peace agreements on the coast since 1985—the largest of which was the one signed with Uriel Vanegas last year. Those agreements have been an essential step in the autonomy process for the ethnic minorities on the coast.
Law says she withdrew from Misurasata once the Peace and Autonomy Commissions, which began to form at the community level in 1985, filled the vacuum left by that organization. She now works actively with this nascent civil indigenous movement and maintains an office in Puerto Cabezas to help Miskitos who come from their communities in search of solutions to their problems.
"I have movement experience, not party experience," comments Law. In her view, the history of the indigenous organizations in Nicaragua began with Alpromisu (1973), continued with Misurasata (1979) and is maintained with the Peace and Autonomy Commissions and with the rebel groups now in dialogue with the government.
"Those who have contributed most to autonomy are least able to define it"DC: What is autonomy for Nicaragua’s indigenous people?
HL: There are very different conceptions of autonomy. Those who have contributed the most to it are least able to define it theoretically. They have their own ideas and expectations according to their own reality. The people of the Río Coco, for example, initially interpreted it as being able to return to their communities. For them, autonomy means to be able to rebuild their communities, to plant, to finally have such basics as bilingual education, which they could never have before. There's progress in education now that we have a bilingual method up to the third grade. That can be expanded as the communities return to normal.
The challenge is to put the autonomy law into practice. We're advancing slowly because of the limitations imposed by the war and those of the region itself, but let's remember that the Miskito, Sumu and Creole people promoted their own language and literacy projects with the support of government institutions. We had to overcome problems of consciousness in those institutions, and the people educated themselves. The literacy campaign was one of the richest experiences of the revolution before autonomy.
DC: Does the autonomy plan satisfy the demands that Misurasata made in 1981?
HL: Plan 81, for which we were imprisoned, the so-called separatist plan, was the opinion, the consensus of Misurasata's base at that time. The plan said that if the Nicaraguan Institute of the Atlantic Coast (INNICA) had a minister named by the FSLN, why couldn't one of the representative organizations, the strongest one of that period, name another minister without removing the one that the FSLN had appointed? In technical terms, this is called co-management. We didn't call it co-management, but that's what we proposed for the state coordinating body for the Atlantic Coast.
We also proposed the creation of a vice-minister of education for the Atlantic Coast, who, in addition to overseeing education in local languages—which we had not yet even achieved—would also oversee education in Spanish. But we believed that the vice-ministry should be in the hands of the people concerned, the beneficiaries, which would be putting the revolution's principles into practice. The Literacy Crusade in Native Languages had taught us that we needed a structure made up of the Coast people themselves for projects that were exclusively for them.
Another proposal was to assign government scholarships to match the region's potential—forestry, mining, navigation and medicine. The region was demanding this, and still is. This and formalizing communal land titles in line with a project Misurasata developed in 1980 were the two most important proposals.
Another request, although not as fundamental, was that Misurasata have a representative on the government junta of that time. That was a suggestion by Stedman Fagoth's advisers, particularly Eddy Matute, who was linked to Alfonso Robelo's Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN). Given that we were the strongest organization on the Atlantic Coast—Matute called it the organization with the strongest base after the Sandinista Front—why then couldn't we have a representative on the Governing Junta of National Reconstruction? Matute said that Córdova Rivas* didn't represent as many people, and it’s true that PCD candidates came in a distant second after the FSLN in the elections.
*Rafael Córdova Rivas, a large rancher and Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) leader, served as one of the five members of the Government Junta of National Reconstruction from 1979 until the presidential system replaced it after the November 1984 elections.
"The contradictions characterized a society that doesn’t know itself"DC: How did the FSLN react?
HL: If the Sandinista Front or the government had understood, had discussed it, they would have realized that they would lose nothing by giving us a minister to represent the organization. Instead, they carried us off to jail, accusing us of separatism, and ultimately moved into a military response.
We were freed after 14 days, on February 19, 1981, but the rebelliousness, especially among our young people who were just finishing the literacy campaign, reflected a struggle of the indigenous communities as a whole. Imagine interrupting brigadistas to put them in jail along with their leaders, when they are at the peak of the most important experience of their lives, of their history. The literacy crusade was the first time our young men and women had done something for their people. For the first time, our communities were really excited about doing something that had been impossible before.
The rebelliousness that the jailings provoked among the young people and in the community was therefore only to be expected, as were all the events that occurred after Fagoth fled to Honduras in May 1981. Fagoth declared war as a member of the September 15th Legion and announced that his organization would be called Misura—he took off the "sata" ending, which indicated unity with the Sandinistas. The only organization for the Miskitos was Misurasata, although the Sandinista Front had tried to transplant the CDS and other organizations like AMNLAE into the communities. Everything became Misurasata because it captured indigenous aspirations, as Plan 1981 demonstrated.
The contradictions that sparked this rebellion were not irreconcilable. Rather, they are characteristic of a society that doesn't know itself, that, in a process of transformation, is beginning to confront its own ignorance, its own practice and history.
The experiences of struggle of the organizations forged by the Sandinista Front in the 18 years preceding the revolution have their own peculiarities; they were different from the indigenous people's experiences of struggle. The contradictions were natural, and led finally to a grassroots debate that has enriched this revolution.
Although the mestizos of the Pacific Coast were not convinced of the need for the literacy crusade in local languages, it did happen; the revolutionary government was willing. It took six months, but it did respond. Six months was nothing compared to centuries of denial and 50 years of dictatorship. The very participation of indigenous youth in such a project for the first time enriched the Sandinista revolution, the FSLN’s platform. The Sandinista revolution is in the hearts and minds of all the peoples of the Americas, and the indigenous are part of the American peoples.
DC: You think the Sandinista Front came with good intentions, then?
HL: From 1979 until the capture of Fagoth, I think there were good things within a contradictory but rich dynamic. If the government hadn't sought to imprison all of the indigenous leaders and the literacy brigadistas, I think we would have begun the autonomy process in 1983. But there was violence. The Miskito and Sumu people, rebelling because of the FSLN's inappropriate response, were ripe for the CIA's plans to start a war. Remember that an internal front was being built in Nicaragua in mid-1980, and Fagoth played an important role, supporting the protests promoted by COSEP, the MDN and all the ultra-right parties.
In the first years of the revolution, there were great communications advances on the Coast, such as the telephone system and the television transmitter in Bluefields. In the north, there was never anything more than a local radio transmitter. This lack of communication, which extends from the information media to the difficulties of transport, limits what people know and understand about the revolution.
DC: Were Misurasata’s demands separatist?
HL: Overall, as an organization, no, and Plan 81 was not separatist. But Fagoth did have some questionable ideas, and his behavior in the Council of State and in front of the people were induced by his advisers. The problem was that the behavior by Fagoth, one of the organization's highest leaders, affected the collective. Mistrust of him was projected onto all the local Misurasata cadres, where there had been great potential. Today you'll find many community leaders who were with Misurasata and are now contributing to the autonomy process.
It was presumed that the land demands were separatist. Those demands alarmed the FSLN, and with some reason, but I think we should have discussed it. The people financing us as an organization called to tell us that we were asking for more than what belonged to the communities because we had marked out more than 45,000 square kilometers only for the Miskitos, Sumus, Ramas and Creoles. Where was the land for the mestizos?
The FSLN’s concern was that the mestizos had been their base in the northern Atlantic region before the revolution. We would have understood, because if we wanted them to respect our rights, we weren't going to violate those of others. But the FSLN didn't argue the technical problem of how Misurasata demarcated the communal titles. The fact is, the topographer we had hired drowned in the Río Coco when he had only covered eleven communities, so the lawyers, in order not to lose their money, just drew on the map with a pencil, leaving 45,000 square kilometers.
"Brooklyn lacks firm positions; he’s influenced by those around him"DC: How would you interpret Brooklyn Rivera's ideological evolution?
HL In the first place, you have to recognize that Brooklyn's ideological formation is religious. He was raised in the Moravian Church and afterwards studied theology in a Baptist high school. He was a member of the National Baptist Youth, and acquired his positions about the rights of peoples from within that youth movement. So his ideological underpinnings are religious, and progressive to a certain degree. He's very calm, very reflective, but he doesn't have firm ideological or political positions; those around him can influence him.
At one time, he supported some guerrilla organizations, especially those that included indigenous people. He was very responsible and not lavish when he was here, while Fagoth was just the opposite. Given his lack of firmness, however, I would say he's not a true leader. This was perhaps the greatest weakness I began to see in him, when we were leaders in the same movement.
What is certain is that Brooklyn tried to work here until August 1981, but the FSLN closed the political and organizational spaces. Nonetheless, his decision to go to Honduras wasn't right because at the last assembly in Tuapí, in front of members of the solidarity movement from the Federal Republic of Germany, it had been agreed not to leave like Fagoth had done. We made public declarations that the National Guard's fight had nothing to do with the indigenous cause; his going to Honduras was a big surprise to me.
Afterwards I realized he had major differences with Fagoth, because the indigenous youth didn't agree with Fagoth taking orders from Somoza's ex-Guardsmen. As an armed group, Misurasata came from a group of youth dissenting from Fagoth's line. The indigenous organization had begun to splinter in late 1981, with some leaders staying here, in certain measure to try to rescue Misurasata. There was Rafael Zelaya and Jorge Frederick and others, but they were afraid of being jailed. We started making arrangements with the Red Cross and CEPAD, but the group soon disintegrated; Rafael Zelaya left for Costa Rica saying that the FSLN was persecuting him, and others did the same.
The effort to rebuild the organization was very weak. People were confused and we were watching to see what Brooklyn was doing and thinking. I wrote to him in 1982 to try to clear things up, because he had an agreement with the organization. I asked him to tell me why he went to Honduras, then said, 'Look, the FSLN isn't going to kill us; it can repress us'—because there had been repression for the organization since 1981—'and it can close the political spaces for us, but nothing more.'
DC: Who was supporting you at that time?
HL: I wrote to the president of the World Council of Indigenous People (WCIP), José Carlos Morales, to intercede and deal with Brooklyn, because our leader in charge of such things, Roger Herman, had left as well. Herman was calling me from Costa Rica because he knew I was looking for international support to get the FSLN to dialogue with us [Misurasata]. We excluded Fagoth. Herman was also looking for José Carlos Morales to seek his support, but Morales told him he couldn't do much. The last call I got from Herman was to tell me he was going to Venezuela where his brother was, and that he'd found no support in San José. From there, we lost all contact.
When I went to Costa Rica in April 1982 to firm up my idea of getting the World Council of Indigenous People to mediate, I was expecting Brooklyn to arrive, but he sent Armstrong Wiggins in his place, with a letter. Brooklyn had fled Honduras because Honduran security was after him, but since he didn't arrive in San José, there was no meeting.
The meeting's goal had been to promote mediation with Brooklyn's group, but Armstrong asked that Fagoth's position be included in the WCIP analysis. He came as Brooklyn’s representative, but didn't say anything about Brooklyn's positions. Since we already knew what Fagoth's positions were, and had decided to exclude him, I stopped right there and asked the WCIP president and the brothers in Mexico and San José to isolate Armstrong. In effect, they froze him out; he left the meeting and didn't come back. We left it that the WCIP would push for its Human Rights Commission or the Working Group to meeting [with the government] in Nicaragua in June.
I continued to wait and eventually the news arrived that Brooklyn had made an alliance with Robelo. The document said that the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ARDE) had agreed to guarantee the ethno-development of the indigenous communities of the Atlantic Coast. I wrote to Brooklyn again. Although I received almost no word from him directly, we had an indirect relation through journalists. 'You're confusing the nature of the indigenous struggle with this accord with Robelo,' I told him. 'Why didn't Robelo help the indigenous people when he was owner of the La Colonia supermarket chain? Why didn't he see the poverty of the indigenous communities then?' I wrote to him. 'Now he sees, because he can use them as instruments of war, because now he's looking for an alliance.'
"They listened to the people because we took them to the people"DC: How did you reconcile with the Sandinistas?
HL: In July 1982, I began to move closer to the government, because Comandante Campbell came to look for me. I had been insisting that they put in practice the bilingual education that the Council of State had approved, and he proposed that I put together a project. I accepted happily, because it meant I could return to Puerto Cabezas. When I arrived, I could see that the indigenous communities were really mixed up, directionless and totally resentful. This was November 1982. All the measures the government was implementing were military; if the national rice ration was a pound per person, in the communities it was half a pound, so the people wouldn't supply the fighters.
I came as a researcher for CIDCA [Center for Research and Documentation on the Atlantic Coast], to support the bilingual project, but that was the least of what I did. Most of my time I spent listening to people tell me about their problems; I realized that if people continue seeing you as their leader and you don't take up that role, there's no one.
The most persistent were the women. And there were no end of problems. For example, there was the problem of the people who had been evacuated to Tasba Pri,* which was no solution for them.
*Tasba Pri was the name given to the complex of five resettlement communities some 40 miles south of the Río Coco, where 9,000 people were relocated in January 1982 after a series of armed Miskito attacks from Honduras in previous months.
People spoke of the indigenous fighters the same way people on the Pacific referred to the FSLN before the triumph. Do you remember that the people of the Pacific called the guerrillas their "muchachos" during the insurrection? Well, the indigenous people also called their fighters "los muchachos," while the FSLN called them contras. The communities supported them, gave them food and people would rather be beaten up than say anything. People told me they were fighting the FSLN for their lands, for recognition of their rights, for respect; meanwhile, the government treated them like counterrevolutionaries.
So we began to fight for a change, to convince the FSLN that they had to change their policies. We tried to talk to FSLN leaders in the region and got a response from Subcomandante José González, then the delegate of the Ministry of the Interior. Some other FSLN members also listened to us, young people who understood what we were saying because of their own experience in the insurrection. Furthermore, they listened to the people because we took them to the people. Before the December 1983 amnesty, we got the government and the International Red Cross to provide flights for family members to visit prisoners in Managua.
The fighting groups heard about these internal negotiations and the news reached Costa Rica. When we got the amnesty, even Brooklyn declared that it was a positive step, but that more was needed.
I took a poll among those who had sons fighting in Misurasata to see if they considered a dialogue possible. They said they would support a dialogue if it came about, that if the government would accept it they would too. They asked me not to give their names if the government didn’t accept—people still said things with fear. At that time, the FSLN delegate was William Ramírez and I told him we needed to seek a dialogue again. He responded that it wasn't possible. I insisted and continued to work with those who more or less understood.
In February 1984, the Sandinistas accepted negotiations. I called Brooklyn and said to him, "Tell me the truth: according to what you say, you're not fighting to defeat the Sandinista revolution. Are you willing to enter into a dialogue with the Sandinista Front for indigenous rights?' 'Yes,' he told me, 'I'm not fighting to destroy them, but so that they respect us.' 'Good,' I told him, 'the FSLN has said yes and we're going to support you.'
Then he told me that he needed international support; that was why, although we'd had the answer since February, the talks with Brooklyn didn't begin until October. When he entered the talks, he did it in a positive spirit.
DC: Why did the conversations begin in New York?
HL: Brooklyn tried to set up a meeting during President Daniel Ortega's visit to New York, because he was concerned about the level of the talks, he wanted a high-level dialogue.
After I called him in February, he told me that yes, he wanted a dialogue. I went to San José and we had a fraternal meeting because we were of the same organization. I saw that he had good will but was also mistrustful, so he wanted the famous international support. We began to look for aides to Senator Kennedy, for journalists and everything. That was when another one of his mistakes began. I'd had fights with the US organization, the Indian Law Resource Center [ILRC], since 1983. I'd been in one of their conferences with indigenous organizations that reflected their own reality, the repression in the United States. They talked about how their lands had been taken away; they criticized the reservations that really enslave Indians in the vices of alcohol and marihuana, until they end up living off charity. These are Russell Means' people. Afterward, through the ILRC, where Armstrong Wiggins worked, they took us to an organization of supposedly indigenous businessmen and the FBI came up to me. A man gave me his card, called me by name, and sitting there at the table told me that the FBI could work in favor of Nicaragua’s indigenous people.
DC: If Brooklyn began with good will, what made him change afterwards?
HL: The CIA method of dividing political parties and organizations. If they don't buy, divide or corrupt people, they take advantage of their weaknesses. This explains the support Brooklyn gets through the Democrats. We also deserve some of the blame, for being naive. It was the first time we had done any of this. The ILRC people were serving as Brooklyn's private secretaries, trying to second-guess everything for him. When he came here to Nicaragua, we would have liked him to come thinking like someone from inside the country, despite the euphoria. Sure, the euphoria of speaking at a gathering at the stadium after so much time was normal, but his message was a little too strong.
Another of Brooklyn's problems is economic dependence, because the ILRC pays his expenses in Costa Rica. At the beginning, the dialogue wasn’t a CIA project, although one of his advisers was unquestionably from the CIA. At the United Nations, they told me to pay close attention to how much access these people had to the UN chamber and offices—more than anyone else. That's how it was done; with economic dependence on the ILRC, which according to them is support from their donor agencies, but those agencies are the most conservative US religious organizations.
I remember in 1983, when I went to a meeting of the UN Indigenous Working Group, I questioned the ILRC openly when I saw their proposed five-year plan. I told them they were proposing indigenous environmental conservation as if our environment was still intact and our forests hadn’t been cut down. They also said that indigenous people were an island within a nation. Why, if we indigenous live with mestizos and Creoles, all together? We got into a debate, and I told them that their positions were ahistorical. Later, when Brooklyn came here, I told him I had read many accounts of indigenous struggles and indigenous matters and that the ILRC position was out of line with ours, with the American reality.
I think the CIA began to design its strategy to use Brooklyn after the third round of talks between him and the government in Mexico. It was a careful job; one of Brooklyn's weaknesses is women and they used that to make him feel like a star. When he went to Colombia [for the fourth and what turned out to be the final round], he was put in a luxurious hotel while the Nicaraguan delegation stayed somewhere else. Because I was part of the Misurasata delegation, I stayed in the fancy hotel too and I realized what the treatment was. His advisers, however, were suspicious of me because of the positions I had taken.
DC: Who supported your pressure for autonomy inside the country?
HL: There were other Miskito sectors, like those of Marcelo Zúñiga and Armando Rojas, who were looking for something similar but with less persistence. I said fine, if this doesn't work, I'll go work on the bilingual project, and if not that, then on another project; but you have to go for something. Because of this attitude, I appear almost individualistic. But it's not true that my efforts were individualist; there were other people behind me, at least in pushing for the dialogue and the return to the river.
It has been said that the return [from Tasba Pri to the Río Coco] was due to Brooklyn's dialogue, but that's not true; it was won by the women of Bum Sirpi, by Sandinistas who began to listen to the people and by the other communities. We knew the government would accept the return; they were discussing our proposals even before the talks started. But everything has a process.*
*On May 29, 1985, three days after Rivera walked out of the talks with the government and nine days after the government had signed a secret peace agreement with Eduardo Pantin, President Ortega issued a communiqué permitting the displaced people in Tasba Pri to return to their communities, rescinding the use of identity cards on the coast, and urging that the autonomy process, which had been moving slowly pending a favorable outcome of the talks with Rivera, move forward with all due speed.
When Brooklyn came to the first round, he brought such a bare-bones agenda that I told him we would make a more comprehensive one, so that the same thing that happened to us when we negotiated Fagoth's liberty wouldn't happen again; I told him we didn't want to discuss Plan 1981 again. 'Look,' he told me, 'I have a group that's working in Costa Rica.'
That's another of his errors: working outside the country. You have to work among the people.
DC: Do you believe Brooklyn can vindicate himself?
HL: I remember a discussion I had with Brooklyn in Geneva, in July 1985. He had already broken off talks with the government but told me he was willing to renew them. But right after what happened in January 1986,* he started using the same language as the Somocista contras, calling the Sandinistas "rabid dogs," for example. Then he tells me he's ready to ally with anyone except the FSLN. Then, in The Washington Post articles [in May 1987] about the Iran-contra scandal, we read that [Oliver North's assistant declared] they had given lots of money to Brooklyn [in April 1988 to encourage him to abandon the talks].
*Rivera entered Nicaragua clandestinely with Russell Means and other North American Indians to promote a resurgence of the war and the army attacked their position.
I think that even with all those millions of dollars he still has a chance, but he's losing credibility because his people are beginning to come back from Costa Rica, which shows there are still contradictions, the same as in 1981. It's a slow process that maybe the people themselves will end. I think Brooklyn's biggest mistake was to join the CIA project. We know the FDN and the CIA led the National Opposition Union (UNO) [the name of the contras' umbrella political front before it was changed to Nicaraguan Resistance]; and the organization Yatama was formed in May 1987 as part of their larger project—according to them to guarantee their pro-war policies. In fact, Honduran army Colonel Erick Sánchez directs Yatama.
DC: How is this reflected among the Miskitos?
HL: There's been a series of events that have disappointed me. The Miskitos have evidently begun to lose confidence in Brooklyn; the government holds sway with its laws and institutions. I’m not mixed up in it now; I got disenchanted. But that doesn’t mean that there haven't been fruits from this effort. We opened the dialogue; there was the cease-fire and repatriation; the internal dialogue with Miskito fighters came out of the dialogue we started in 1984.
Actually, we initiated that internal dialogue too, because they [Misura] tried to kidnap me in 1985. I hadn't mediated a dialogue with Misura, so they said I was favoring one group without recognizing that Misura was from the same indigenous people. All that experience taught me that our organization was divided and I'm sure it's true.
The progressive sectors must be brought together, because there's no reason to be afraid of real debate: of comparing the autonomy law with the 1981 plan, and Misurasata’s original general line. That debate is what's going to convince indigenous people.
DC: How is it that Hazel Law suddenly turned into a National Assembly representative for the Sandinistas?
HL: You have to ask the FSLN directorate that question, too. It has its sectoral organizations, its leaders for the workers or peasants, for teachers and for women.
Throughout history, whether we like it or not, there’s been a process among indigenous people; things don't happen overnight. The experience of indigenous organizations begins with Alpromisu, continues with Misurasata and is maintained with the Peace and Autonomy Commissions and the peace dialogue with the armed groups. I come from the indigenous movement, I'm proud to say. I have movement experience, not party experience. It makes me proud that the FSLN invited me to stand as a candidate in the elections.
Some people do recognize that criticism was necessary, even with holes in it, and that history can shed light, helping to interpret a series of phenomena. We wouldn't be able to understand the revolution without history either, as I pointed out to the FSLN at one point.
They called me a contra for a few years. I knew that was a product of ignorance, that they didn't understand the situation. Some Sandinistas, even including Miskitos, called me a contra because I went to Tasba Pri to tell the compañeros there that the people were right; they should return to the Río Coco. All in all, we are the result of an experience that led to violence.