Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 4 | Septiembre 1981



The Atlantic Coast Area Of Nicaragua

Envío team


It is very difficult for people who are not familiar with Nicaragua to comprehend the tremendous differences that exist between the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the country. The Atlantic “Coast”, which in reality comprises the entire eastern 56.2% of the country, is divided into two states: Zelaya, with 59,094 sq. km.; and Río San Juan, with 7,448 sq. km. This “Coast” is a totally separate reality culturally, linguistically, ethnically, religiously, politically and historically.

Major divisions within this sector include the Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza mining area; the Waspam/Río Coco area on the border with Honduras; the Puerto Cabezas area; and the Bluefields/Corn Island area. Within the very distinct perspective of the whole Atlantic Coast, each of these areas has its own derivation of that general overall perspective.

We will present a brief historical background of the area, the Atlantic Coast experience of the Insurrection and how it differed from that of the Pacific, positive and negative government actions since the victory, a sketch of recent problems and finally, a short reflection on the situation.


The Atlantic Coast was never affected by the Spanish conquest which took place in the 16th Century. The first visitors of any number or frequency were the English pirates who exchanged firearms, machetes, tobacco, cotton cloth, metal cooking utensils, rum and other goods from Europe for turtle and other meat, corn and other vegetables, honey, fish, canoes and hammocks. The indigenous population soon gave up their traditional dress, cooking utensils, etc., in favor of the manufactured goods brought by the British. This created a dependence and a necessity for maintaining good relations with the British.

Later, the British established sugar plantations and lumber camps in the area and, after their capture of Jamaica, brought in thousand of Black slaves to work. The treatment of the Blacks by the English was as brutal as that of their Spanish counterparts toward the indigenous on the Pacific Coast.

The Misquito Indians aligned themselves with the British in the attacks on Spanish settlements and soon the coastal area, known as the Mosquitia, became a British protectorate. The English colonization of the area was not done violently, except in the case of the Black slaves; instead they used and solidified the alliance with the native leaders to achieve their domination. In 1687, the English created a Misquito King, which was a role not previously existing in the indigenous social structure. This artificially created structure, which had very little social function, lasted for the next two centuries.

On the Pacific side, Nicaragua gained its freedom from Spain in 1821 and for a short time was part of the United Province of Central America. This was dissolved in 1838, and Nicaragua become an independent nation.

In 1849, missionaries of the Moravian Church came to the Atlantic Coast from Germany for the purpose of “civilizing” and acculturating the Creoles and indigenous. They did accomplish many positive things, especially in health and education. The Moravian Church is an evangelical protestant denomination begun in Moravia during the Protestant Reformation.

Soon the entire Misquito population was converted. Since the Moravian church encouraged the development of a native clergy and eventually became an entirely “native” church in Nicaragua, the pastors had great influence in the Misquito community and, to some extent, replaced the tribal leaders as community leaders. The teachings of the Moravian church, not unlike those of the Catholic church at the time, were supportive of the capitalistic system of the British, and later of the U.S. dominating interests.

The growing interest in Nicaragua as the site of an interoceanic canal brought U.S. influence to the country. By using the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, there are only eighteen miles of land that have to be crossed between the Atlantic and Pacific.

The U.S. took advantage of the tensions between Nicaragua and England over the Mosquitia, and soon the U.S. had acquired a contract for the rights to the proposed canal. In 1855, the American filibuster, William Walker, financed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, invaded Nicaragua and declared himself president. Two years later he was ousted by the same interests that had brought him to Nicaragua.

The growing problems in the area caused England, in 1860, to withdraw the status of “protectorate” in the Mosquitia, and the area became a “reserve” under Nicaragua with the right of self-government.

In 1893 Zelaya became president of Nicaragua and opened the doors to foreign investment, especially in the mining and timber areas and the banana plantations on the Atlantic Coast. Within the thirteen years of his presidency, 10% of the Atlantic Coastal area had been sold to foreign investors. In 1894, because of continued uprisings in the area, Zelaya, with U.S. backing, issued the declaration of “Reincorporation of the Mosquitia”. Because this action was taken with no consultation of the coastal people, they looked upon this “reincorporation” as a take-over.

The indigenous people did not ever recognize the artificial territorial boundaries created by the Europeans, and “The Mosquitia” extended well into what is now Honduras. People freely crossed the Río Coco and families lived and farmed on both sides. Even officially, the border between Honduras and Nicaragua was not settled until 1960 when the International Court at The Hague fixed the Río Coco as the boundary. Somoza then forced 5,000 families to “relocate” south of the river which proved to be disastrous for them, and many died. Many people today still maintain farming areas on both sides of the river. To them, the “frontera” is still an artificial one that has little personal meaning.

The ambitions of Zelaya and those of U.S. interests began to conflict, and Zelaya was forced to step down in 1909. Three years of instability and inability to find a government satisfactory to U.S. interests brought the landing of the Marines in Nicaragua, a military presence which lasted almost uninterrupted for twenty-one years. The Marines occupied the Coast cities of Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas, Prinzapolka and Río Grande from 1926 to 1931.

The U.S. civilian and military presence had very real economic effects. Foreign exports went from 28% of total production in 1911 to 51% in 1918, most of those exports going to the U.S. The principal areas of exploitation were the mines, rubber, mahogany, cedar, pine, and bananas.
The Atlantic Coast never became a “banana republic” like most of the other Central American countries for several reasons: the soil was not as fertile, so profits were not as great; the banana companies were unsuccessful in acquiring much of the land from the Miskitos who, instead, contracted to sell their product to the companies for a fixed price; the combination of a disease of the banana trees and a devastating hurricane in 1941 ended, practically speaking, the presence of the U.S. banana companies.

Continued attacks by Sandino’s men against U.S. presence in Nicaragua took their toll, but with Sandino’s assassination in 1934 and the establishment of the U.S.- formed and trained National Guard, foreign investment again increased. The war years and the resulting need for rubber contributed to this. The relationship between the workers and the companies was the typical “company store” dependence of low-paid, salaried native workers under foreign supervision and management. Foreign exploitation reached a peak during the 50’s and then, due to a combination of factors, many of the foreign investors began to leave: Somoza had begun to raise taxes on foreign companies to obtain a larger “piece of the action”; over-exploitation of timber reserves caused a decrease in lumber production; the Native Banana Cooperative, the only remaining banana company, closed in 1960; the mines also began closing during the 60’s.

Under the Somoza dynasty, a successful propaganda campaign was waged, with the help and encouragement of the U.S., to convince the Coastal people that their greatest enemy was Cuba, which intended to force the evils of atheist communism on the whole area. “War games” were held in the area supposedly in preparation for a Cuban attack. The culmination of all of this was the launching of the Bay of Pigs operation from Puerto Cabezas in 1961.


The Coast’s population is the result of a rich mixture of different ethnic groups and represents just 10% of the total Nicaraguan population. The Coast’s population density is 1.6 inhabitants per square kilometer. Miskitos represent the biggest ethnic group in the Coast, with a population of over 120,000. They are the majority group in North Zelaya and their language is a lingua franca among all the indigenous groups in the Caribbean region. They are believed to be descended from the Chibchas of Colombia.

The Creole population is estimated at around 80,000 and is the result of a number of migratory waves. The first to arrive were escaped or shipwrecked slaves, followed by slaves brought by the English to work on timber extraction and on the big plantations. They either already spoke Caribbean English upon arrival in the Coast or quickly learned to speak it. They all converted to the Moravian religion and were educated in Moravian schools. Culturally, linguistically and religiously they identified with the English and subsequently with the North Americans. The Creoles mainly live in the area around Bluefields and Corn Island.

There are around about 10,000 Sumos, who mainly live in the northern mountains. They have their own language and customs. Small groups of Ramas can be found in South Zelaya, although they have lost much of their language and many of their customs. There are also people of Chinese descent, most of whom arrived when their entry to the United States was cut off. They live in coastal communities and dedicate themselves above all to business. Finally, there are also descendents of English, Germans and Americans who arrived in the Coast at different moments in time.

Because of the extensive intermarriage among all these groups, it is quite difficult to visually distinguish one group from another. Often it is the culture in which one has grown up, rather than the percentage of a particular ethnicity, that determines a person’s self-identification with a particular group. It has only been since the Sandinista victory that the various ethnic groups have developed a pride in their heritage and a desire to preserve their language and culture.


The Insurrection played a very different role in the life of the people on the Atlantic Coast from that which it played on the Pacific. All during the Somoza years, the Atlantic was more or less ignored by the Managua government. The Guardia who were there had, for the most part, been sent there as a punishment and “put in their time” until they were allowed to return to the Pacific. Their presence on the Coast was limited and, to a large extent, non-repressive. Thus the people did not have the intense hatred either for Somoza or for his National Guard that was so strong on the Pacific. Also, there was virtually no bloodshed on the Coast. With the Sandinista victory on July 19, both Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields were turned over to the FSLN without a fight. The Guardia stationed there had fled in the days prior to the victory. Many Coastal people refer to the Sandinista Insurrection as the “Spanish Revolution” since it had little personal meaning for them.

One notable exception to this lack of violence was in the mining area. Work had been going on for almost ten years in forming Christian Base Communities and in conscientizing the people. In 1975 and 1976 the people began telling of both sporadic and concentrated killings by the Guardia who considered any sign of organization as either Sandinista- and/or Communist-based. They also told of mass graves, tortures, etc. The priests in the area began to document these incidents. In 1976, after there was no longer any question about the veracity of the charges, the Capuchins, along with the bishop of Bluefields, published a denunciation of the disappearance, torture and/or killing of hundreds of campesinos in the area. This declaration is considered one of the important steps that led to the final overthrow of Somoza. The mining area saw considerable fighting between the Guardia and the Sandinistas during the Insurrection.


The problems that the Government of National Reconstruction had to face on the Atlantic Coast began almost immediately after the victory.

Economically, the whole country was devastated, and no less so the Atlantic Coast. The few American companies still operating either pulled out or were nationalized. However, this did not solve the problem. The new government was faced with newly nationalized companies with factories and machinery in disrepair; lack of availability of spare parts; lack of trained management and technical personnel; and a population with little political consciousness or “revolutionary fervor” and so not willing to undergo the wait or the sacrifices necessary to turn things around.

This, combined with some very serious and readily admitted mistakes on the part of the Sandinistas, has created some extremely serious problems, which continue to threaten the peace of the Atlantic Coast.

One of the most unique and exemplary characteristics of the Nicaraguan Revolution has been the continued emphasis by the Sandinista leadership on the admission of their mistakes and the acceptance of justifiable criticism. The experience on the Atlantic Coast has not been different in this respect. They not only recognize the legitimate claims by the Coastal, communities, buy they also recognize their contribution to some of the problems.

Many of these mistakes were made in the first few chaotic months after the victory but they are still paying for them. Others have been made more recently and have served to strengthen the internal and external opposition.

With the publication, on August 12, of the “Declaration of Principles Regarding the Atlantic Coast”, the Government has shown to both the Coastal people and foreign observers its serious commitment to the indigenous of Nicaragua. The Minister of INNICA, Nicaraguan Commission for the Atlantic Coast, Comandante William Ramírez, said in an interview at the assembly in which the Declaration was published, “Certainly errors have been committed, but the actions of the revolutionary government on the Atlantic Coast have been more positive than negative… The government has made errors in appreciation, in lack of experience”, he added, but emphasized that “the problem is not one of race, language or color, rather one of underdevelopment, exploitation and backwardness”. It will be precisely through development of all the region’s potential that the problems will be resolved.

Probably the first mistake of the Frente, made in the euphoria of victory, was to proclaim all of the good things that the Revolution would bring to the Atlantic Coast. People failed to realize – possibly even the Frente failed to realize – the amount of time and resources that would be required to achieve these promises. Also, many of the accomplishments that have been achieved are in the small, remote villages leaving the more vocal, larger communities to complain about unkept promises.

An example of this is sugar. All over, people complain of shortages of sugar. Nicaraguan people have developed the habit of consuming large quantities of sugar and the people in the larger communities were used to having as much as they wanted while those in the more remote village often had none. The new government has tried to educate people to control their sugar consumption and, at the same time, has seen to it that the villages have their share. This makes less available in the “cities” and causes complaints.

The people were used to a very small number of Guardia on the Atlantic Coast. After the victory, large numbers of young Sandinista soldiers arrived with absolutely no cross–cultural education or sensitivity. Many had never been to the Atlantic before. Almost none spoke either English or Misquito. All of this, plus their youth and inexperience, led to misunderstandings, incidents, resentments. Because of the serious threat of a counterrevolution, there are still large numbers of soldiers, especially in the north, and the people still do not like it.

Probably the Frente’s biggest mistake was in naming to the Council of State Steadman Fagoth Mueller, a young Misquito leader. Through this action, the Sandinistas helped to make Steadman the hero and savior that he is to the Misquito people. Then, in February of 1981, Steadman and the other leaders of the indigenous organization MISURASATA, which had been formed with the encouragement of the Frente after the victory, were arrested. The people were incensed. The other leaders were eventually freed but Steadman was charged with fostering counterrevolutionary and separatist plans. He was also identified as an informer for Somoza’s Security Force. As far as the people were concerned, he was still their leader and they protested his arrest. Finally the Government freed him on the condition that he go abroad to study. Within a few days he had crossed over into Honduras and is apparently collaborating with the Somocistas there. He continues to influence the people, mostly through the radio station operated by the counterrevolutionaries in Honduras.

Many young Misquitos have crossed into Honduras where their living conditions and the influence of Fagoth make them easily manipulated by the large number of Somocista ex-National Guard who are training there with the openly stated objective of staging the “counterrevolution”.

MISURASATA, which means Misquito, Sumo, Rama and Sandinista together, had become a very strong organization on the Coast. The fragmentation caused by the arrest of the leadership and the internal struggles afterwards have left the indigenous people without an effective, recognized organization.

During the time of Steadman’s imprisonment, about 2000 Misquitos gathered in Waspam in a continuous peaceful demonstration in support of Fagoth. After three weeks, the government forced the people to disperse. For many, that was the action which cemented their opposition to the Government.

Two other incidents have become symbols to the people of Government repression. One was the attempt by government soldiers to arrest a MISURASATA leader in Prinzapolka, during which a scuffle ensued which left eight people dead; two Misquito men are still in jail as a result. The other incident was during a peaceful demonstration in Bluefields against the presence of Cuban teachers and doctors. The Army was called in to disperse the crowd. Even though these are mild actions in comparison to the brutal repression the people on the Pacific experienced under Somoza, to people who have not experienced that, it is quite strong and these incidents continue to be used against the government and often obscure the accomplishments that have been made.

One of the on-going attitudes that contribute to tension in the area is the tendency on the part of some middle-level authorities to consider all criticism as a counterrevolutionary stand. This fosters a spirit of suspicion, of fear, of mistrust, between the government and the people and among the people themselves – suspecting each other of being “orejas” or informants. It is a very difficult situation and the real threat from the north makes nervousness on the part of the military somewhat understandable.

The list of very real, and in some cases critical, problems which were inherited by the Sandinistas is lengthy.

The most critical seem to be transportation problems, food shortages, and lack of industry and jobs. The only transportation between Waspam and Managua is a plane once a week, sometimes. The plane is frequently cancelled because of mechanical difficulties. Between Waspam and Puerto Cabezas the only transportation is the Entercar, an army truck which twice a day makes a four-hour long, crowded, uncomfortable trip. There are three Managua-Puerto Cabezas planes a week, which still are insufficient for getting the necessary food and other supplies, as well as people, to the Coast. The only Puerto Cabezas-Bluefields travel is seven hours by boat, once or twice a week. Getting from Managua to Bluefields is a little easier; one plane a week or daily by a 5-hour bus to Rama and then down the river 6 hours by boat. This is the only transportation to the three principle towns and doesn’t begin to compare to the difficulties of transportation to the outlying villages.

The soil and climatic conditions add to the problems. The area has a very high annual rainfall, frequent flooding of the many rivers and a soil that is very acidic. This limits the crops that can be grown. Thus the food shortages are intimately connected to the lack of transportation, as most vegetables, meat, dairy products have to be brought from the Pacific. Refrigeration facilities are almost non-existent, and so, of course, are fresh milk products.
One of the biggest food-related problems for the small farmers is the following. Ideally, the farmer sells his surplus rice and beans in order to buy the things he needs such as salt, sugar, clothing, medicine, tools. He will save enough from the harvest to provide his family with their staples until the next harvest, as well as to have seeds to plant. However, in reality, economic necessities often force the campesino to sell too much or all of his harvest. He is also hampered by lack of adequate receptacles in which to store the surplus. Thus when planting time comes, he has no seed and has to buy back, at a higher price of course, the product that he originally sold. This he also must do in order to provide his family with food until the next harvest. One solution to this problem, one which the government is working on, is the construction of small silos in each community for the storage of basic foods.

Almost everything costs more on the Atlantic because of the costs involved in transportation. Unemployment is high. Some factories have been shut down or almost shut down due to a shortage of repair parts and skilled technical personnel. The fishing industry operates on a very small scale, except for shrimp and lobster which are exported, because of lack of boats, no way to repair existing boats, and lack of refrigeration facilities necessary to market the fish.

Even though the presence of U.S. companies was always sporadic and has been gone for many years, it is still looked upon by many Coastal people as “the good old days”. These companies provided jobs, even if the wages were minimal and the nation’s natural resources were being exploited. People could order things from U.S. mail-order catalogs, send the order up on the cargo boats and get the goods when the boat returned.

Communications media are almost non-existent. This has far-reaching consequences. Bluefields is the only place on the Atlantic with telephones and television (which is received principally from Costa Rica). There are no local newspapers and, in the north, only La Prensa arrives. All papers are one-to-several days old. There is one radio station in Puerto Cabezas which broadcasts almost no local news and one station in Bluefields. Thus there is no effective way of disseminating information, clarifying misinformation or countering the rumors and gossip that abound in a small town. The counter-revolutionary radio from Honduras is received all along the Coast, and again, there is no effective way to combat this propaganda.

Health problems are monumental on the Coast. Tuberculosis is four times as prevalent as it is in the rest of the country, an estimated 95% of the population suffers from parasites, malaria is very common, as is malnutrition. Many Misquito people refused to have their children vaccinated, some in protest against the government, some because they believed the vaccine would harm their children. There are 130 outlying communities along the Río Coco and getting everything to function smoothly for one vaccination is a miracle, let alone for the follow-up vaccinations.

The fight against disease in the coastal areas is a horrendous task. In trying to eliminate the mosquitoes that bring malaria and dengue, health workers are faced with standing puddles of water all over the area, with little possibility of eliminating them in the year-round heavy rains. Getting to the farther communities to even educate them on what measures they can take is a difficult undertaking requiring four-wheel drive vehicles and boats with outboard motors which are very scarce.

Badly needed are more bilingual or trilingual people from the Atlantic Coast to work with the government. There are more Creoles than Misquitos participating in the government. Bluefields has had, because of its educational opportunities, a sizable number of semi-professional people who, by the time they finished high school, were literate in two languages. They were employed mostly in banking, economics, and mechanics (they were almost the only ones who know how to run the machinery). The Frente wisely has given Blacks a prominent place in the local administration in Bluefields and this has served to minimize somewhat the problems in that area.

In contrast, the Misquitos, because of their lack of individualism and competitiveness, did not as often aspire to leave the village or go on to the university. Those who did, and returned to the area, were often out of place and no longer accepted by their own people.

Bureaucracy also contributes to the difficulties since many matters can only be resolved in Managua – a time-consuming and cost–prohibitive task for poor people. Also many plans originate in offices in Managua with people who have no knowledge of the impossibility of implementation on the Coast.

The government’s past mistakes have caused a fear and distrust among the people that feed their historic lack of identification with the rest of Nicaragua; that makes them recall the U.S. presence as a good thing; that reaps the harvest of years of Somoza and U.S. propaganda which painted communism as exemplified by Cuba as the greatest of all possible evils.
Compounding the problems created by the Sandinistas themselves and the large and serious problems that they did not cause but are faced with solving, is a series of beliefs which the people have. Many of these beliefs seem unfounded, some based on isolated incidents or half-truths, but to many of the people they are real and increase the separation between people and government.

The belief mentioned earlier that there was something harmful in the vaccine is but one example. The food shortages are blamed on “all the food goes to the Army”, or “they sold all the beans to Cuba”. The almost fanatical fear of Communism is a huge stumbling block, and they see the lines to buy rice or sugar as the undeniable proof of its imminent arrival. The distrust leads the people to believe that their mail is opened, that prisoners are abused and tortured, that their property will be confiscated; it leads the Sandinista Army to believe that everyone who complains is involved in counterrevolutionary activities.

Probably the saddest belief is that held by some of the very poor, very simple and upset people who believe that if a counterrevolution is launched from Honduras, the U.S. will back it with troops and supplies and solve all the problems.


Often the concentration is on the difficulties and little attention is paid to the achievements, which, given two short years and tremendously limited resources, are considerable.

For the first time the Nicaraguan government cares about the Atlantic Coast and is trying to improve the life of the poorest people. Any benefits received by the people under the British, the U.S., and Somoza were rather accidental. If, in the process of extracting the wealth from the country, some crumbs fell to the people, that was all right. But there was no effort to insure any betterment of the living conditions of the majority of people.

In contrast to these years of indifference and/or neglect, the Sandinista Government began the Literacy Campaign, which has received international recognition, shortly after their victory. On the Atlantic Coast, the campaign was conducted in Spanish, English, and Misquito and opened new doors to people in even the most remote villages. Continuing education for those newly literate people is being provided throughout the area.

Health care, which still faces tremendous obstacles, has brought limited but free medical attention. Each town with more than 2000 has a resident doctor and a clinic. Health campaigns are being carried out against dengue, malaria and other diseases. A new hospital is being built in Bluefields and should be completed within a year.

The contribution of the large numbers of Cuban doctors and teachers cannot be overlooked. These people volunteered for two years and served in the most remote areas, where often Nicaraguans refused to go, many times having to overcome an extremely hostile community. Most people will admit that their contribution and service have been far more positive than negative.

The highway linking the two coasts is under construction, a major undertaking considering the terrain, number of bridges required, length of rainy season, difficulties in getting supplies. It should be finished next year.

Drinking water and electricity are coming to areas that have never had them before.

ENABAS (Government Distributors of Basic Foodstuffs) and the People’s Stores are trying to bring basic foodstuffs to the most remote areas at the lowest possible cost while guaranteeing against speculation and hoarding.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, INNICA and some church organizations are setting up daycare centers and cooperatives in towns and villages. In traditional farming, the wife goes to work in the fields with the husband. The children are left at home in the care of one of the older children or a grandparent. Often they do not eat from early morning when the mother leaves until late evening when she returns. The daycare centers will aid in providing a nutritional noon meal as well as adequate supervision. Parents will contribute small amounts of food to the center to make it a community project, and classes will be offered to the parents in health and nutrition.

The military and government have provided jobs to many people who would be otherwise unemployed.

Everyone agrees that the old system of bribes and pay-offs that was the only way of doing business under Somoza is completely gone.


The Church on the Atlantic Coast is also quite different, and in each area of the Coast the community problems are reflected in the Church. More than half of the coastal people are protestant, the vast majority of them belonging to the Moravian Church. All of their pastors are Misquito or Creole.

In the north, where most of the Moravians are Misquito, the whole MISURASATA problem has extended into the churches. Several Moravian pastors have gone to Honduras. The government recognizes the tremendous accomplishments of the church in health and education, but there are tensions now because of the whole political problem.

The Catholic church in the north is mostly staffed by U.S. missionaries, many of whom reflected the fear of Communism so prevalent in the U.S. during the years of their formation.

In the mining area, the Church is much more involved in the revolutionary process due in large part to the different experience before and during the insurrection. The community is also much more supportive of the process.

In the Bluefields area, the Moravian church is mostly Creole and thus does not have the political problems of their churches in the North.

The whole state of Zelaya is one Catholic diocese and the Bishop, an American Capuchin named Salvador Schlaefer, is regarded highly by the government, as well as by clergy, religious, and laity. Fewer of the religious and priests in Bluefields are American, and more are native Nicaraguan. There seems to be more openness and optimism and more trust on both sides, even though there are still areas of difficulty.

Under Somoza the priest could walk into the jails and, if the Guardia refused to let them in or to do what they asked, they threatened to go to Somoza and were almost always given what they wanted. While this leverage served a very good purpose, many clergy came to expect deferential treatment.

The Church itself has said it no longer wants special privileges but, in practice, it is often hard to adjust to the new way of doing things.

The Church is faced with a difficult situation. It is committed to the people, not to any political system, and needs to be in tune with the people’s needs and problems. The Church, all the churches, are in a key position on the Coast. As elsewhere in Nicaragua, the Costeños are very religious, and religion is an integral part of their lives. The Church is in a position to be the bridge between the people and the government. It is a difficult and often thankless job and one that requires dialogue, openness and trust by the church and the government, as well as by the people. But the possibility is there for this dialogue to work.


What are some possible solutions to the problems on the Coast? Time and experience will certainly be a positive factor, as will any lessening of a threatened invasion, especially one with U.S. backing.

The more services that the government can provide the people, the less discontent they will have to contend with. Such services include better food distribution; more and better transportation; daily flights to the major Coastal communities. More jobs are a real necessity, as is overall development. Restoration of the fishing industry would be of benefit to the whole country, economically and nutritionally.

Special cross-cultural training for all Pacific people going to work on the Atlantic would greatly contribute to alleviating tensions and misunderstanding. Toward the same end, the government should use the experience and advice of these who have lived and worked among the Coastal people for many years.

The proposed division of Zelaya into two states and more decentralization of power would also eliminate many complaints: teachers who must go to Managua to straighten out pay problems, meetings in Managua which require several days travel for people in the outlying areas, etc.

Some way of communicating with the people regarding local issues and problems would also reduce misunderstanding and confusion.

Very hopeful is the proposal to open an office of the National Commission on Human Rights on the Atlantic Coast. The commission is now beginning a study project for the next four months which aims to: try to educate the people to the role of the commission and win their confidence; send people who know the area to the Coast for an extended visit to talk to the people and assess the situation; evaluate the trip and make recommendations to the government; and, hopefully, open a permanent office of the Coast. Complaints of prison conditions, alleged mistreatment by authorities, or any possible human rights violations could all be investigated by a group in whom the people could have confidence and who have influence in the government to see that violations are corrected.

To people for whom the military presence is very threatening, a lessening wherever possible of that presence would help, especially a lessening of the carrying of guns. Many of the soldiers are very young and behave like young boys. Their casualness and sometimes carelessness with their weapons is frightening to people who are unaccustomed to weapons. Even the constant use of military language, for instance in the Health Campaign, is inappropriate and counter-productive in the culture and experience of the Atlantic Coast.


The Revolution brought to the indigenous and Creole peoples of the coast a pride in their heritage, their language and customs, and this very pride is what now makes them determined not to have someone else’s will imposed on them again and to be a part of the decisions that affect them.

The Misquito have a very communal life style with a tremendous amount of sharing and great importance on spiritual values. Unlike the “españoles”, they seldom live on isolated farms; rather, they form a village where they live, and then they farm the communal lands together, sharing the harvest among them. There is a strong avoidance of anyone having a standard of living higher than the rest of the community; instead they try to better the whole community at the same time. The community is governed by a Council of Elders who carry out the community laws and sanction those who violate them. They trust one another. In the villages where the “compas” are Misquito there are fewer problems because they understand their own people, they understand the language and they know what to regard as a problem and what is just a difference in culture.

The Bishop of Bluefields, who has spent 34 years on the Coast, states that those who come to work on the Atlantic must be willing to learn while they are teaching. They have to learn about the different cultures and make an attempt to learn the language. They must accept that the values are different, people’s goals in life are different and their aspirations are different.
In many respects, the values of the Misquito are very much in conformity with the goals and values of the revolution and with a genuine understanding of the culture; the Sandinistas could build on that foundation. But the Misquito will not be forced to do things according to plans that they consider to be from outside.

The Sandinista Government is confronted with an extremely difficult dilemma. Faced with all of the social and economic problems still plaguing them after two short years in power, they must decide how much of the limited resources can and should be applied to an area in which only 10% of the population resides. At the same time, this small minority poses serious problems to the government, and the area contains the vast majority of its natural resources. The solutions require patience, openness, and wisdom on the part of the Sandinistas and at least minimal cooperation by the Costeños.

As Comandante Luis Carrión, Vice-Minister of the Interior, has said, “The great challenge that we set forth and that we try to resolve in the ‘Declaration of Principles’ is to integrate without destroying, to integrate while respecting, to integrate while conserving those contributions which are positive and belong to these minorities”. No small task, especially when the minorities concerned often do not want to be “integrated”.

Most all of the Church people agree that, at the top levels of the Sandinista government, there is a willingness to learn with and from the indigenous communities on the Atlantic Coast in an effort to have them participate in the revolutionary process and bring the benefits of the revolution to them. The concern is that this spirit of willingness and openness somehow dissipates at lower levels where there is the most contact with the people. Thus, the manner in which the government policies and directives are implemented at the community level will be an important factor in the outcome of the Atlantic Coast problems.

The complexities of the problems on the Atlantic Coast cannot be overstated. They cannot be understood through a superficial study, nor can they be resolved easily or quickly. But for the future of the Nicaraguan Revolution they must be confronted.

Sources for this article:

La Mosquitia en la revolución by the Centro de Investigación y Estudios de la Reforma Agraria, Colección Blas Real Espinales, Managua, 1981.

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