The Atlantic Coast—Peace Has Taken Hold
“At a time when the talk of peace is universal, one of the only places where it is a reality is also the most unlikely. This is where the war began…. Yet today there is a sense of self-confidence that one feels on the surface of one's skin…. The peace process seems to have taken firm hold, undermining the power and influence of the indigenous leaders who have remained in exile.
Ana Carrigan, a freelance film maker and journalist who just completed a film on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, got it just right in her February 6 article in The Nation. Between 1981 and 1984, when the revolutionary government began to apply its audacious new policy in that region, self-confidence on all sides was in shorter supply than rice rations. Neither the government nor the people seemed able to really comprehend what had engulfed the region in war. The two sides were not talking to each other about it much either, because the communications gap was deeper and wider than the great Lake Nicaragua that separates the two sides of the riven country—it spanned four centuries and two colonial powers.*
*Christopher Columbus, who landed at the mouth of the Río Coco in 1502, claimed the entire region for Spain, but the Spanish never succeeded in establishing a presence in the Coast. Between the 1640s and 1894 the British effectively controlled the region through their commercial and military alliance with a small, but very adaptive, Indian group that came to be known as Miskitus.
A journalist's three mental snapshots, from February 1984, November 1986, and February 1988—the last exactly four years from the first— speak to the narrowing of that gap and the growing expressions of self-confidence:
February 1984: On the way to Sukatpin, a sawmill community in the pine savannah west of Puerto Cabezas, the journalist passes acres of little, wizened black twigs, stuck into the ground in endless neat rows. "What's all that, an Indian religious ceremony?" she asks the Creole pastor driving the Moravian church jeep. "It's a reforestation project, planted by Miskitu high school volunteers in Puerto Cabezas." His eyes, noncommittal, stay fixed on the potholed dirt highway. Miskitu contras set fire to it last month."
They torched the lumber company at Sukatpin, too, three months earlier. Originally a US company, it had been nationalized in 1979, and until the attack supplied 40% of the housing materials for the region. Now the machinery, the stacks of lumber, the school, the health clinic and several houses of Miskitu workers are all charred ruins.
Those who gather in a wide circle around the journalist are mainly older Miskitu men, and a few women. Off in small groups amidst the rubble stand youth in olive green, all from the Pacific. Eyes stare at toes, toes dig at the dirt, questions elicit short answers, but finally the story emerges: Over a hundred young men were taken off to Honduras by Misura, the armed Miskitu group, when the "compas" came to fight them off. (This affectionate diminutive of compañeros, used for Sandinista soldiers in the Pacific, is a learned word for Miskitus, devoid of affection.) Where 200 families worked before, now there was work for only 80. There are other problems, too—not enough rice because communities can't go out and plant, no medical personnel make visits anymore, a soldier urinated against one of the burned houses… Men answer the military questions, flatly; the women, slowly drawing the circle a bit tighter around the journalist, are the ones who register the complaints, and with energy, compas or no compas.
As the journalist walks back to the jeep, one of the men catches up with her: "You know," he confides in broken Spanish, "Misura's on our side. They didn't kidnap anyone; those boys went off willingly to fight for us."
"Fighting for you means burning down your livelihood?" the journalist asks. A slight pause. "No matter," he says. "This is a government company. "
November 1986: The 500 members of the Miskitu community of Yulu, not far from Sukatpin, gather to hear a delegation of North American Indians who have come to announce that they are donating a sawmill. Men stand on one side, and women on the other, arms folded. The space between them forms an aisle, just like they sit in the Moravian church. Only a heavy-set spiritual leader from Seattle, Washington, with long grey braids, a red poncho and a sombrero with an eagle feather breaks the placid features of the women when he begins flirting with them from his stool up on the stage. A young Miskitu woman who works for the FSLN tirelessly translates from English to Miskitu, and then to Spanish for the government officials on the stage, none of whom uses the opportunity for a speech. Her greatest feat—and personal delight, it seems—is translating a poem delivered by an Indian poet on the delegation (the next day, in Waspám, on the Río Coco, she asks the woman poet to recite it again).
The community of Yulu has achieved national fame as the site of the very first peace accords, signed in May 1985 with a dissident faction of Misura. At the anniversary celebration a year later, Yulu and seven surrounding communities—including Sukatpin—were declared a Peace Zone and a pilot project in zonal autonomy.
After the speeches, as refreshments brought by the government are offered around, a 16-year-old in camouflage fatigues with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder introduces himself to the journalist. He is a member of Kisan-pro-Peace, the organization that grew out of the peace accords. The group has expanded from the 200 who initially agreed to the cease-fire to nearly 500. With arms supplied by the government, they have formed the first Miskitu territorial militia of ex-rebel fighters, and coordinate with the Sandinista Army to protect the zone from contra attacks. Just behind us stand two new concrete block buildings—a school and a clinic. A brigade of Miskitus and mestizos came from Puerto Cabezas to encourage the community to participate in the construction, but failing to ignite much enthusiasm built them themselves. Asked what has happened since the cease-fire, the boy gives a disgruntled shrug. "Nothing's happened really, nothing. There's the new Peace and Autonomy Commission, but they're all pro-Sandinistas." "Doesn't Kisan pro-Peace work with it?" "Well, yeah, but..."
February 1988: The World Council of Indigenous Peoples, under its new president, Donald Rojas, has just concluded an international seminar in Managua. The WCIP's stated goals are to discuss the Esquipulas peace accords (which include no mention of the situation of indigenous peoples in the region), the human rights issue, Spain's 1992 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the "encounter" between two worlds (the native Americans call it an "invasion") and Nicaragua's autonomy project. The unstated goal is to improve relations with the Nicaraguan government, strained since January 1986, when then-WCIP president Clem Chartier entered the coast clandestinely with Brooklyn Rivera, head of Misurasata, the other armed Miskitu group. (Bill Means, International Indian Treaty Council leader, had a similar goal in joining the November 1986 indigenous delegation. His brother Russell had been on the illegal trip as well, and on his return to the States personally encouraged Elliott Abrams of the State Department to give Rivera more money, because "Misurasata could overthrow the communist Sandinistas.")
Several dozen WCIP delegates, arriving in Puerto Cabezas behind schedule, spend what remains of the morning listening to Mirna Cunningham, a Miskitu doctor who has been the presidential delegate to the northern part of the region since mid-1984, give a rundown of the socioeconomic situation and Major Ernesto Sosa do the same with the military situation. As the group sits listening to Major Sosa, he is interrupted with the announcement that a few minutes ago Comandante Lino Nard of Yatama, an 8-month-old coalition of the armed Miskitu groups, signed a cease-fire accord on behalf of a dozen of his men. Nard, still in camouflage uniform and pistol, enters the government office unaccompanied. A soft-spoken, unusually tall Miskitu from the community of Wasla, Río Coco, he has the eyes of a man who has spent a lot of time in the bush—six years, to be exact. He explains that he left because the Yatama leaders are corrupt and only fight among themselves for the US money. The people, he says, want peace.
The delegation then goes to Waspám, the main town on the Río Coco. It is about 3:00 in the afternoon. The school, now being reconstructed, fills with people trying to get close to the visitors—no wide circles here. Men, women and children are shoulder to shoulder, and more perch atop the piles of construction materials. After a brief consultation in Miskiu with an intent-seeming man, Dr. Cunningham explains with a resigned but pleasant smile that she has tried to persuade only one representative of the Peace and Autonomy Commissions from the river communities to speak for everyone, since it is necessary to get back to Puerto Cabezas before dark, but they have traveled a long way and all want to tell the delegation their stories.
With Cunningham herself translating, the nearly two dozen representatives sent by their communities jockey for position to speak. The representative from Ulwas explains that his people only want to plant in peace, but can't when the mortars come. "We hear the noise of war and it sounds like it's on the radio, but it's real, nearby." Another, from El Carmen, says his people want to travel freely up and down the river without being kidnapped by the contras and taken to Honduras. The Francia Sirpi representative says his community wants its people back. (Some 1,200 people—all but 47 families, who were away the day Bishop Shlaeffer came in December 1983—were taken to Honduras on foot by Misura. Only one family has been brave enough to return.) The representative from Santa Clara says the warriors kidnap them and at times the Sandinistas mistreat them, but that with the revolution they have more chances to study than during Somocismo.
One after another, they say the most serious problem is the war. One delegate says he knows it is Reagan who is sending weapons, munitions and bombs, but the Nicaraguan people in both the Pacific and the Atlantic need tools, not bombs. The government delegates are trying to resolve the problems, he adds, but there are not even enough materials to finish the school.
The vice-coordinator of the commissions on the river, the only woman to speak, steps forward holding a 2-inch-thick sheaf of papers filled with signatures. As she begins to read a six-point declaration signed by the communities, her voice breaks. She stops a moment, apologizes, and explains that one of her sons was among a group recently kidnapped. The declaration calls for a cease-fire and an end to the kidnapping on the river; supports all government peace efforts; asks that repatriation not be blocked in Honduras and that "false leaders in Honduras not continue... saying to our brothers that if they return to Nicaragua they will be assassinated by the EPS [the Sandinista Army]"; and requests WCIP recognition of the Peace and Autonomy Commissions.
One of the sharpest debates in the WCIP workshop on the Esquipulas accords had been whether to specifically name the United States as the main obstacle to peace. Diplomatic concerns had won out, and the final document only spoke of the need to end the armed aggression "directly influenced, promoted and sustained historically and currently by interests foreign to the region, by actions that due to their interference in national sovereignty directly violate the most basic principles of international and human rights laws." On the return from Waspám, several WCIP delegates respond to the journalist that the vote would have gone the other way had it been taken after the visit.
In its final report, the WCIP wrote this about the trip to Waspám:
“Local authorities were waiting for the delegation and together we walked toward what had once been a school. As we went, the destruction to which the war of aggression had treated a formerly mighty people was evident. Centers of growth and development, today mute ruins, were more eloquent in their despoilment than a thousand speeches about peace. Also evident was the fear of another attack, another kidnapping, at the same time that hope for a prompt peace was stressed.
...On the return trip [to Managua], the silence spoke of the reflections that occupied us. Surely, each emphasizing one's own perspective, but all sharing the weight of the destruction we had witnessed, the bullet-pocked walls of the school, the partially destroyed houses with pretensions of being housing. We understood the absurdity of the war, at the same time that we shared the immensity of its victims' hopes for a prompt and lasting peace; their generosity committed us, and thus we understood the urgency of the response that they demanded, and to which they have a right....
The people river flows backThat same report opened with the following image:
“On our arrival two things coincided: a warm reception by the civilian and military authorities... and the people of Puerto Cabezas, and the arrival of eight families of Miskitu brothers and sisters who were returning from Honduras in one of the flights sponsored by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees].... These two events would set the tone for what would be a memorable visit in more than one respect.”
It was the second day of UNHCR flights that week. These "air bridges" of about 50 people each from Puerto Lempira, Honduras, to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, had begun on May 12, 1987, the result of an agreement reached in March by a new commission made up of representatives from the two countries and UNHCR. An agreement made at the same time to permit repatriation by land at Leimus, just upriver from Waspám, was effected in September, a month after all the Central American governments agreed in the Esquipulas peace accords to facilitate repatriation, "when it is of a voluntary character and manifests itself individually."
At the time of the agreement with Honduras, that government limited the monthly repatriations to 300 people. By February 1988, the number had more than tripled.
UNHCR's top year-end figure of Sumu and Miskitu refugees in Honduras was 16,004, in 1986.* Although 1,500 crossed into Honduras in early 1981, as relations between the then-civic organization Misurasata and the government hardened, it was in the first half of 1982, with the government's forced evacuation of the Río Coco communities, that the number jumped another 10,000. By the end of 1984, when the refugee population began a temporary decline, it had reached well over 15,000.*
*UNHCR figures include only those it assists, known as "mandate" refugees. Since UNHCR is mandated to attend only refugees at least 30 kilometers from the border, the armed Miskitus control other, usually undocumented refugees resettled along the Río Coco itself. Some movement between the two groups causes fluctuation in UNHCR figures that does not represent movement to or from Nicaragua.
Some of this outflow reflected the personal decision of those fleeing the war, the deteriorating economic situation or the generalized ethnic tensions. Much of it, however, was the result of manipulation or coercion by Misura or Misurasata. In March 1982, for example, the entire Sumu community of Musawás, some 1,500 people, was taken to Honduras by Misura. In June 1983, the Miskito fishing village of Set Net fled with a Misurasata band to Costa Rica in a stolen government shrimp boat; they had been told the Sandinistas were on their way to kill everyone. The best-known and most propagandistically manipulated case internationally was that of Francia Sirpi in December 1983; Bishop Shlaeffer, who trudged with the villagers to Honduras, was a naturalized Nicaraguan from the United States. (envío, Vol. 5, No. 65, November 1986, briefly analyzes how this event was distorted in the ‘Moonie’ film, "And Nicaragua Was Our Home.")
Misura's goal was three-fold, and was particularly evident in the April 1986 mass exodus to Honduras of over 9,000 people from the Rio Coco communities to which they had recently returned: 1) embarrass Nicaragua at key moments (in December 1983 the announcement of the first amnesty for Miskitus, and in April 1986 the House of Representatives vote on $100 million in contra aid]; 2) provide a fresh pool from which to recruit fighters (by force, when necessary); and 3) create a controllable population to produce food and attract aid, then used for the fighters.
By mid-1987, according to “The Central American Refugee Crisis,” by Kai Ambox for the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Programme in October 1987, there were about 14,400 Miskitu refugees in six villages in the Honduran Mosquitia, of which the two largest were Mocorón (5,540) and Patuka (4,944). Tapalwas, an all-Sumu camp, had 629 refugees. In Costa Rica, a camp in the town of Limón, mixes about 1,000 Miskitós, Sumus, Ramas and Creoles. Until January 1986, the camp was under the corrupt administration of a contra named Modesto Watson, who then joined Misurasata. More than 1,500 Miskitus are in a camp called Achiote, in Puntarenas province, and 19 Miskitu families are in the Playa Blanca settlement, mainly financed by the Dutch government, on the Osa Peninsula in western Costa Rica.
A preliminary accord, signed on July 2, 1987, between Nicaragua and Costa Rica with UNHCR participation, confirms the will of the parties, through a tripartite working group, "to do all necessary in favor of voluntary repatriation." Between 1985 and that period, less than 200 Nicaraguans repatriated.
Few in Costa Rica want to return, according to Kai Ambos, who interviewed 150 of them. While some refugee centers are located near contra camps, cases of forced recruitment there have not been reported. The contras do have a strong ideological hold on the refugees, however, partly due to their assistance in helping the refugees leave Nicaragua, and partly to the general anti-Sandinista tenor of the country. Refugee workers in Achiote and Playa Blanca told Ambos that most refugees receive only contra information, through both direct contact and the contra radio stations.
From Honduras, however, indigenous refugees are returning in larger numbers than the government and international aid agencies can absorb. In 1985, UNHCR officially repatriated 566 and in 1986, 1,714. By mid-August 1987, after the air bridge had been operating four months, another 1,935 had already returned. That figure nearly doubled by year's end, to 3,726, with the opening of the Leimus border crossing. By April 15, 1988, 2,896 more had returned in the weekly flights (four a day, twice a week by then) and Leimus crossings. The International Red Cross and Nicaraguan government officials confirm that 8-10,000 more, mainly those who crossed to Honduras during Easter of 1986, have returned on their own.
Dr. Cunningham says 20,000 are now back on the Río Coco, and she expects another 10,000 to return from Honduras in the course of this year. That would reduce the current UNHCR-aided refugee population to virtually nothing, but at least 5,000 more are estimated to still be living in the Río Coco area in Honduras. Their decision to return will inevitably be tied to what happens within Yatama as a result of current negotiations with the Nicaraguan government.
Dim present, bright futureAs Dr. Cunningham points out, both the government and international aid agencies have enormous problems keeping up with the exponential numbers of returnees—the government because of national scarcities, and the aid agencies because budgets are approved abroad many months earlier. "We need help for the 20,000 who have already come back, and also for the 10,000 who will be returning in the coming months," she explains, "but agencies only want to start after the people get here." Only 7,500 of those already back on the Río Coco have stable living conditions.
UNHCR officials, according to Kai Ambos, laud the "excellent relations" they have with the Nicaraguan government and "the importance that the Nicaraguan government gives to this repatriation. ..." Life for the returnees, however, is not easy, because of the war. "We really cannot offer development, tranquility and living facilities as many expect," Ricardo Chaverría, vice minister of social welfare, told Ambos. "We simply receive all, and create special programs."
Until recently, Nicaragua received the smallest international contributions for refugee programs, but this has increased with the growing repatriation. There are now several large, internationally-assisted programs for repatriated refugees in the north, two of which are under UNHCR auspices. The first of these provided $350,000 for resettling 500 Sumus originally from Musawás, and 1,500 Miskitus from Sandy Bay, on the coast north of Puerto Cabezas. The project included transport, dwellings, agricultural tools and domestic and personal supplies. Since the Sumus realized it was too dangerous to return to Musawás, way north on the Río Waspuk, they originally opted for El Salto, somewhat closer to the mining town of Bonanza. But the hydroelectric project near there is an occasional contra target, so they finally settled on Sakalwas, even closer to Bonanza. Fortunately they were not hit in the sweeping contra attack on the mining town in December.
A larger project, perhaps reaching $1.5 million, has been approved by the UNHCR offices in Geneva, with financing from the European Economic Community. Although the details are still being discussed, the basic plan is similar to the first, this time to benefit 8,000 returnees on the Río Coco and other communities.
A third major project—around $750,000—is co-financed by EEC and War on Want, a British nongovernmental aid agency. It will benefit just over 1,000 families in 38 communities with new and repaired schools and health centers, training courses in health and bilingual education, and agricultural production assistance. The first 3-week bilingual workshop for teachers in grades 1-6 was held in Tronquera in February. Planned for 60 teachers, 75 enthusiastic young men and women, all bilingual and some even trilingual (Spanish, Miskito and Sumu), showed up from all along the river and the savannah communities just south of it.
Nicaragua’s ecumenical Protestant development agency, CEPAD, also has an agricultural project for repatriated refugees, and IDSIM, the social development agency of the Moravian Church, has assistance programs as well.
Reception centers have been built in Puerto Cabezas and Leimus and a third has been financed. From there, returnees are theoretically taken within a few days to their communities of origin, though lack of transport sufficient for the increasing numbers means inevitable bottlenecks.
The overall situation in the 34,000-km2 North Atlantic region is also fierce, by Dr. Cunningham's own account: nearly half the population—65,000 people—has been affected by the war and still needs food and clothing subsidies, as well as materials to rebuild the destroyed communities. The population of the main town, Puerto Cabezas, has nearly tripled in the last five years, to its current 25,000 figure.
The region, 700 kilometers from the capital, must be supplied by ship, since the only road from the Pacific cuts across a corridor the contras use to penetrate from Honduras. Both Nicaragua and Cuba provide food to the region, but as Dr. Cunningham notes, "We can only guarantee what we get, and we divide it equally. Sometimes we provide six pounds of rice per person a month, and sometimes only a pound and a half, but no one starves." Because some people return on their own, the government only realizes a community has grown beyond UNHCR lists of returnees when it does a census. When the contras got the people on the river to cross in 1986, much of the basic grains provided by the government for their return from the Tasba Pri resettlement the previous fall went with them. "Now they have it all," Dr. Cunningham added, with just a trace of bitterness.
"From an economic viewpoint, we have a brilliant future," predicted Mirna Cunningham to the WCIP visitors. The coastal region as a whole has 80% of the country's forestry reserves, important fishing potential in the rivers, lagoons and 520 kilometers of Caribbean coastline, and in the north, gold and silver mines as well.
But the presidential delegate also called the area the transnational companies' "museum of shame." The visible exhibits in this museum are the vast expanses of treeless grasslands that used to be pine forests, and the rusted train locomotives left behind when the companies abandoned their no-longer profitable export activities. The invisible ones are the 87% illiteracy, 20-30% infant mortality and 90% infant malnutrition the revolution encountered in 1979 and has worked hard to lower, as well as the void where social and productive infrastructure ought to have been. Palpable, if not visible, is the hatred people were taught by the British to feel toward the "Spanish" on the Pacific. (If that hatred was justified by the Spanish conquerors' extermination or exportation of indigenous peoples in the Pacific, and if it was never ameliorated by their descendants in power in the past century and a half of independence, the task remains to place the blame with those who deserve it and not with the people of the Pacific as a whole.)
At the worst point of the war only 2 of the 29 health posts and centers in the northern region were operating; now there are 34. Technical and teacher training programs in addition to basic literacy and bilingual-bicultural programs have been initiated, as have adult programs in Miskitu, Sumu and Spanish. Five hundred coast students are outside the region or abroad on scholarships, studying geology, mineralogy, marine biology and other careers to prepare them for the important role they will play on their return in managing and developing the region’s resources within the autonomy framework. Finally, there are programs to reintegrate into normal life those indigenous fighters who have laid down their arms—scholarships for those who want to study and work opportunities for others.
The material base of the region, too, must be reconstructed, as the only guarantee of the peoples' ability to fully exercise their autonomous rights. But the economic projects already under way, and others still on the drawing board, require peace. Attacks such as those on the three mining towns in the coast in December 1987 set the recovery of the region back a whopping $20 million. Such wanton devastation mocks the other achievement of the year—reactivation of the Siuna mine, inactive for four years due to lack of electricity.
A lot more peace than warMajor Sosa, regional EPS head, estimates that last year the region saw less than 5% of the military activity that took place in 1985, the period of the first peace accords signed on the coast. He adds that militias are the fundamental base of the military structure and that 70% of the troops and 30% of the officers are from the coast.
The attack on the mines was an FDN operation, with no apparent participation by Yatama; by contrast a number of Sumus were among those who repelled the several thousand FDN fighters. Yatama’s only significant military operation occurred on January 22 of this year—not coincidentally the day before the arrival to Managua of Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera to begin a new round of negotiations with the government. In this attack on the reforestation and lumber operation in Slimalila, north of Puerto Cabezas, a Catholic deacon and a repatriated refugee were killed, the sawmill destroyed and 45 people kidnapped—among them the father of ex-Yatama commander Uriel Vanegas, who negotiated a settlement for his 400 men last October.
Lino Nard, the Yatama commander who took amnesty in February, denounced a more recent CIA plan to simultaneously attack Leimus, Waspám and Tronquera. Nard, who was a member of Yatama's military high command, says the plan was agreed to at the end of January in a meeting he and other Yatama military staff had with CIA members. "The idea was only to harass, and in Tronquera to destroy the INRECASA refinery," Nard told Barricada, the Sandinista daily newspaper, in early March. "The real objective was to stop the return of Miskitus from Honduras and boycott the cease-fire and autonomy process in the coast." Major Sosa, in a separate interview in February, said about 200 members of Yatama and FDN were in two Río Coco communities north of Waspám preparing for the attack.
According to Nard, alias "Apache," Yatama had 2,000 armed men a month after its creation last summer; he himself controlled 150 in the coastal area between Río Grande de Matagalpa and Río Escondido before he abandoned the military route. He claims there are now no more than 300 active combatants in the organization.
Salvador Pérez, Ministry of the Interior delegate for the north Atlantic, gives Yatama slightly more benefit of the doubt. "In our January analysis we calculated some 800, but now we’re verifying information that upriver on the Coco 220 of a force of 300 deserted.* South of Puerto Cabezas, 100 out of around 250 men are in peace talks with us. That would leave about 500—300 along the river and 150-180 in the south, and the latter, too, are interested in peace. There are perhaps another 300 in Honduras."
*0n May 2, as this article went to press, a definitive cease-fire accord was signed between the government and Maximo Pantin, another member of Yatama’s military high command, together with six other local Yatama commanders. The accord, affecting 200 fighters who presented themselves in Leimus three days earlier, establishes that they will create indigenous self-defense militias to protect 11 communities upriver from Waspám under the coordination of the EPS and the Ministry of the Interior. Pantin is a brother of Eduardo Pantin, who signed the first accord in May 1985.
The peace talks mentioned by Sub-comandante Pérez are currently taking place in Alamikamba and Prinzapolka, south of Puerto Cabezas. In the last two years, the eight communities in the Yulu peace zone have become twelve, and last year several important accords with fighting groups resulted from a process of patient dialogue. The best known of these was with Uriel Vanegas, who signed an agreement in October 1987 permitting a third of the men under his command to convert themselves into an indigenous militia, a third to enter productive or commercial activity and the remainder to receive scholarships to continue their studies. (The 23-year-old Vanegas is himself now an active political figure in Puerto Cabezas, working with Kisan pro-Peace.) In turn, the pacified communities receive services such as health, education, supplies and transport, previously disrupted by the war. "That is our basic approach to the accords since 1985," explained Major Sosa, "and both sides of that accord are still complying."
The other side in that case now calls itself “Kisan pro-Peace, Autonomy and Development, Comandante Eduardo Pantin” (in memory of the dissident Misura commander who negotiated the 1985 accords and was later mysteriously killed.) The group has become a magnet for other forces entering into accords and, as its new, expanded name implies, is moving into the sociopolitical arena as well.
Encounter of a third kindIn Nicaragua's ongoing search for peaceful solutions, then, one track has been quietly and successfully followed with indigenous field commanders at the local level over the past three years. Another, at the highest government and contra levels, is grinding tensely on in Managua as this article is being written, under close international scrutiny.
There is yet a third track—the second round of negotiations with Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera. While partaking of elements of each of the other two, this encounter has its own unique characteristics, a result of its particular history.
In December 1984 the government initiated the first round of negotiations with Rivera as a logical extension of the newly announced autonomy process: if the set of rights that make up the autonomy package on the coast are legitimate, so must be the struggle of armed indigenous people fighting for those rights. The basis for peaceful resolution of the struggle rested with the belief that no fundamental contradictions existed between the revolution and indigenous demands based on legitimate historical grievances. With that call, Brooklyn Rivera, head of Misurasata, stepped forward. Stedman Fagoth, then head of Misura, did not.
Conceptual differences between the Sandinistas and RiveraThe talks with Rivera took place in four sessions between December 1984 and May 1985 in Colombia and Mexico, with a raft of North American Indian and non-Indian advisers on Rivera's side, and a generous amount of international media coverage. Vice Minister of the Interior and FSLN National Directorate member Luis Carrión led the government team. The negotiations terminated when—as the world learned only last year in the Iran-Contragate hearings—Rivera was given a reported $100,000 by the Oliver North operation to abandon them.
Leaving aside such US government manipulations, there were a number of major conceptual differences, both about autonomy and about the negotiation process itself:
1) In the Sandinista conception, autonomy was recognized as an equal right of all ethnic groups on the Coast—peoples historically marginalized from the rest of the country, each with its own ethnic identity, forms of social and productive organization, relationship to the land and its resources, language, religion, world view and cultural aspirations. Autonomy is, in brief, a right that grows out of their separate historical development. In Rivera's conception, autonomy was an a priori aboriginal right—a right of Indians as the original owners of the land.
2) In the Sandinista conception, the elaboration of the autonomy process had to be a preeminently grassroots process—the theoretical underpinnings would be developed by the autonomy commission, after evaluating the aspirations and experiences of other historical examples against Nicaragua's unique reality, but a key part of understanding that reality and the aspirations of a heretofore unheard
people would come directly from those on the coast, speaking in their own voices. In Rivera's conception, it was to be a bilateral process, negotiated between the central government (representing the hostile power) and Rivera (representing the relevant coastal interests), to be ratified only at the end by the populace.
3) As a corollary to the above point, in the Sandinista conception, relative peace necessarily had to precede such grassroots consultation—physical security and mental tranquility of all concerned demanded it. Rivera saw the process in reverse: he would only consider a cease-fire once he was satisfied with the results of the bilateral autonomy negotiations.
4) For the Sandinistas, autonomy was the appropriate form for finally incorporating a multiethnic nation of peoples into a nation-state, and thus was to be an integral part of that nation's Constitution and other legal guarantees. For Rivera, it was an agreement between Indian nations and the state within which they found themselves, and as such should take the form of a treaty between the state and the Indian nations' representative (himself as head of Misurasata).
In generous pursuit of its logic, the government invited Rivera to join the five-person national autonomy commission once an in-place cease-fire had been established (two self-selected regional commissions, of 35 members each, later merged with the national one). In pursuit of his logic, Rivera refused. By the time the talks broke off, the only thing accomplished had been a temporary cease-fire with Misurasata, which gave some of the beleaguered villages a respite and a taste for the peace they continued to pursue through other means.
There are contextual changes tooThe region Rivera is returning to three years later has changed significantly. The autonomy statute he could have participated in drafting was approved by representatives of all the communities on the coast and passed into law by the National Assembly last year; its key principles are sanctified in the Constitution passed the year before.
The Peace and Autonomy Commissions, created in some communities in August 1985 to act as liaison between their relatives in the fighting force and the government, now exist in over 90% of the villages and have become incipient forms of local popular power; in many cases their elected members have taken on responsibility for health and sanitation conditions, education, relations with the regional government, investment priorities for the year and other community issues. Frequent targets of the Miskitu contras, they have earned the respect of both the government and the communities, thus widening the once narrow and mutually mistrusted space in which to be not exclusively one or the other.
An oft-related example of how this mutual respect came about took place in the Río Coco community of Kisalaya one day, when some government soldiers entered on a routine reconnaissance mission. Their arrival inspired a number of Miskitu fighters on the Honduran side of the river to cross and confront them in the community. At risk of their lives, the commission members reportedly walked out between the two poised groups and announced that if they wanted to fight they would have to do it elsewhere or shoot the commission members first. Both sides departed.
Another palpable change is the lowering level of interethnic tension. Always present on the coast, it began to reach worrisome proportions in recent years and to focus primarily on Miskitus. Sumu leaders could be heard to say that if autonomy meant their people would be slaves of the Miskitus again, they preferred the Sandinistas. (Miskitus, armed by the British colonialists, forced Sumus and Ramas to pay tribute to the Miskitu monarchy set up by the British, and sacked their villages, selling the men as slaves to the British.) Representatives of the Creole minority in Puerto Cabezas openly blamed the Miskitu fighters for needlessly perpetuating the war.
Government leaders and political activists, avoiding the temptation to exacerbate the situation with divide-and-conquer tactics, have focused on uniting the region around shared aspirations for peace and mutual respect, and its rightful place in the nation as a whole. Miskitu leaders such as Mirna Cunningham and Hazel Law have seen their particular responsibility in this, on both sides of the country. During the National Assembly debate on the autonomy statute, for example, Law, an Assembly representative, responded emotionally to a mestizo colleague who was arguing that non-costeños should live in the region five years before being allowed to vote there: "We’re trying to end that kind of discriminatory thinking, not legalize it. The mestizo compañero from the Ministry of Construction who was killed recently by the contras while rebuilding our communities—should I have told him he couldn't vote because he had only been living among us risking his life for two years?"
Rivera’s position on the coastIf the coast is changing, Rivera is not. While no longer using the term "aboriginal" rights, his April 1987 draft treaty, presented to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in August, argues that "the Indian peoples have an inalienable right to all of the lands, waters and resources of the traditional Indian territory which is to be known as the autonomous territory of Yapti Tasba." That territory "encompasses the traditional territories of the Miskitu, Sumu and Rama Nations, including those areas that are now populated by Creole, Carib (Garífona) and Ladino communities." This self-governing territory would have a "constitution and laws established democratically by representatives of all the Atlantic Coast people," although "representatives of the Indian organizations [unspecified in the draft] who are signatories of the Treaty will establish the Provisional Government of the autonomous territory" and will "appoint an Interim Military and Security Command to provide security and police forces..." before elections. He recognizes five languages as official; they exclude Spanish and include two (Rama and Garífona) that are known by only a handful of their own people.
"The Government of Nicaragua shall make no claim to any proprietary right to the land, subsoil, rivers, lagoons, cays, islands, adjacent seas, seabed, fish, wildlife and natural resources of Yapti Tasba," according to Rivera's draft. Curiously, the western boundary of "Yapti Tasba" would cut a southeasterly diagonal swath through the coast, starting at an indigenous community in Jinotega on the Río Coco and ending at Punta Gorda, not far south of Bluefields. According to Norman Bent, a member of the Moravian church mediating team, Rivera's delineation would exclude part of the mining areas; it would also exclude a substantial amount of farming and cattle land, particularly in the south, that Creoles have fought hard for. But the important factor to Rivera seems to have been that it would also eliminate the bulk of the mestizo population in the region.
Constraints on the Nicaraguan government's responsibilities regarding economic policy, military defense, police and security forces, foreign relations, citizenship and immigration, customs and international borders, currency and the postal system, "amnesty for individuals who may be accused of crimes against humanity" and the judicial system in general are such that the government is virtually limited to "guarantee[ing] economic and logistical resources necessary to establish and maintain the autonomous governing authorities and institutions of Yapti Tasba" while it seeks to be economically self-sufficient. The latter area of "cooperation" is presumably what is meant by Article 1, which states that the "Miskitu, Sumu and Rama Nations will exercise their right to self-determination within the framework of the Nicaraguan State."
The unfolding of the negotiationsRivera arrived for the first session of the current round on January 23, with a 9-person delegation including several of his former advisers, and an aide to Senator Edward Kennedy who, together with elements of the State Department, has become a major Rivera backer over the years. The Yatama attack on Slimalila the day before his arrival was not the only show of divisions within his organization. Paid ads in Costa Rican and other papers, and a communiqué from the of Yatama “political directorate” in Miami, published in Nicaragua's La Prensa, denounced Rivera with varying degrees of specificity and venom as a sell-out, and claimed that he didn’t have Yatama's authority to negotiate in its name. While undoubtedly damaging Rivera's own strength and credibility in some circles, the crass display of divisions did nothing so much as demonstrate that Yatama as a whole is weaker, more divided and more dependent on the United States than ever.
Despite all this, the Nicaraguan government accorded Rivera the respect due a major opponent and the space due one with whom there are no fundamental contradictions. His negotiating counterpart is Tomás Borge, president of the Autonomy Commission, minister of the interior, founding member of the FSLN and a member of its National Directorate. On his first visit (January 23-February 2), Rivera held rallies in both Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, and on the second (March 6-16), he was given the freedom to travel to 20 communities on the coast to explain his position.
Four meetings with Comandante Borge on the first occasion, coordinated by a conciliation team made up of members of the Moravian Church and CEPAD, resulted in the mutual agreement to suspend offensive military actions for the duration of the talks. A 15-point set of preliminary basic accords signed on February 2, just before Rivera left the country, contains agreements on social, economic and political matters. The former mainly reaffirms work already being done by the government with repatriated refugees and internally displaced people in the Coast region. It proposes the creation of a support commission to include the government, Yatama, the Moravian and Catholic churches and the Sumu organization Sukawala, among others.
In the economic section, the government recognizes the right of the coast peoples to the lands and waters they have traditionally worked, "which form an inalienable territory, and serve as an essential element for their survival and development." It also recognizes their right to communal ownership of the lands, forests and waters within their traditional territory and agrees to reach an accord with the autonomous government of the region for the rational exploitation and usufruct of subsoil and ocean resources, whose just distribution would benefit the development of the Atlantic Coast and the country. The essence and much of the language of these accords are already contained in the Autonomy Statute approved by 220 elected community representatives in Puerto Cabezas last April.
In the political section, the Nicaraguan government reaffirms its recognition of the rights of the Atlantic coast peoples to autonomy, "which consists of determining their own political, economic, social, cultural, educational, religious and legal development without external influence within their traditional territory according to their historical and ethnic values and traditions within the framework of the Nicaraguan state." On a subsequent speaking engagement in the states, Rivera argued that this definition accepted for the first time "our" definition of autonomy, and "collective" Indian ownership of territory, instead of what he calls the government's plan for "communal" ownership. (In 1980, Misurasata, still then a civic organization, demanded communal land titles in contraposition to what it at that time claimed was government insistence on private or cooperative schemes.) Reverend Bent, questioned about Rivera's claim, seemed quite sure it was a misinterpretation.
The political section also commits the government to guarantee the establishment of Yatama and its "current leaders" in the country’s civic and political life once a definitive cease-fire is arranged and to recognize and respect community organizational forms within the development of autonomy. What turned out to be a key element was the naming of the Atlantic Coast as an emergency and reconstruction region, and the agreement to create an Emergency and Reconstruction Committee at Yatama 's initiative, in which Yatama would have "effective participation." Yatama committed itself to help obtain external resources and international technical cooperation for the region’s immediate needs and economic development, in coordination with the government. It is key because the sustenance aid bill approved just after the cease-fire accords were signed in Sapoá contain $2.2 million for Yatama, to be provided "consistent with the February 2 accord signed by Yatama and the government." Although the bill's language does not specify that the money goes to Rivera, Washington sources say that is the understanding.
A measure of the muddle of the US meddlers (and of the Miskitu rebel leaders themselves) is that one of the signers of the cease-fire accords that gained the Pacific contras their own $17.7 million was Osorno Coleman (Comandante "Bias"), the top-ranking Yatama military leader. Bias, who refused to meet with Rivera during his visits to the outlying communities on the coast, is allied with Wycliffe Diego, the third top Yatama leader (together with Rivera and Stedman Fagoth). Diego, in turn, reportedly has the backing of Major Eric Sánchez, head of the Honduran Army's Fifth Battalion, stationed in that country’s Atlantic Coast.
If Rivera's faction of Yatama is now to be financially quite comfortable, it is not evident what renewed popularity that will gain him in the Coast. Leaders of Kisan pro-Peace, in a press conference following passage of the US aid bill, said they wanted no part of such aid, which comes with strings attached. During Rivera's first trip to the coast, crowds were a third the size of those when he visited before his first round of negotiations in 1984. In the stadium in Puerto Cabezas this time, hecklers demanded that he account for the CIA money he had already received; others shouted, "You’re coming too late"; and still others, "Where are the kidnapped from Slimalila?"
Between Rivera's two trips, he was denied a visa to attend a Yatama assembly held on February 26-29 in Tapamlaya, a UNHCR refugee center in Honduras where he has strong support. The plan of Fagoth and Diego was to bring in their own supporters and demonstrate that even in his own stronghold Rivera was a fraud. While a Yatama communiqué disseminated by the RN (Nicaraguan Resistance, the contra umbrella organization) said that "neither the Yatama Council of Elders, nor the political commission, nor the military high command, nor our current and only director, Wycliffe Diego," had authorized Rivera's initiative, outside observers in Honduras say a strong majority supported the negotiations and a return to Nicaragua. That version is supported by Lino Nard, who says he brought with him a letter, signed around that time by 393 refugee leaders in Honduras and directed to US administration and Honduran military officials, demanding their immediate repatriation to Nicaragua.
One purpose of the meeting, according to observers, was to fill the slot on the RN board of directors vacated by Alfonso Robelo. Two US Embassy officials in Honduras, Tim Brown and Rich Shadeister, reportedly had a major hand in the meeting. Hoping for their part to block any cease-fire agreement separate from the Sapoá talks, they brought RN director Azucena Ferrey, who spoke in favor of unity with the contras. The Yatama document claims the assembly resolved "to work in coordination with the Resistencia Nicaragüense," but independent observers concur with Rivera associate Armstrong Wiggins that there was overwhelming opposition to integration or association with the RN. Nonetheless, the communiqué, cited extensively in an Agence France Presse dispatch of March 12, claimed that the authority of both Fagoth and Rivera is no longer recognized in Yatama and that Fagoth was once again being investigated for human rights violations. The document was signed by four people, including Wycliffe Diego and Osorno Coleman.
On Rivera's second trip to the northern port town in mid-March, an altercation occurred that most agree was an organized provocation. Less clear is who provoked whom. Close to the end of the tour, Bernard Neitschmann, a Miskitu-speaking University of California geography professor and long-time Rivera supporter and adviser, was expelled from the Coast for having reportedly incited people to keep on fighting in a community the delegation visited. That night people demonstrated in front of Rivera's hotel, but were kept in check by the police. The following day Rivera (still leader of an opposition military organization, it should be remembered) led a demonstration of 1,000 people, mainly from his home town of Sandy bay, through the streets of Puerto Cabezas. During the parade, he and Clem Chartier, also a member of his entourage, were taunted by a group of about 100 who demanded to know why Rivera had brought Chartier and Neitschmann if he was serious about peace. Both sides, according to a foreign anthropologist there at the time, carried sticks and stones. Finally the scene erupted into fighting. When the police succeeded in breaking it up, according to the anthropologist, 14 people had to be sent to the hospital—most of them from the Sandinista Youth group, which had reportedly prevented a fight from breaking out earlier in the day.
Rivera, apparently loathe to accept that the Autonomy Statute is now part of the law of the land, has been pushing for a referendum on the two autonomy "proposals." According to the same anthropologist, who interviewed him, Rivera also wants Yatama to take over defense of the coast and function as the provisional government pending elections for the autonomous region. With such difficult topics on the agenda, no new accords were contained in the final document signed by Rivera and Borge. The document did, however, refer to "lamentable incidents" in Puerto Cabezas, which were "overcome."
Signed on Rivera's departure on March 16, the document committed the two sides to return to the talks as soon as possible. Norman Bent later said they would resume on April 15, "to beat Sapoá." However, Rivera had not returned by that date—the opening of contra talks in Managua. Nor had he by the second round of talks with the contra leadership in Managua, April 28-30, in which Wycliffe Diego participated.
A recognition becoming a realityIn the WCIP seminar on autonomy, Peruvian economist and WCIP adviser Julio Tresierra called Nicaragua's autonomy a recognition of the country's multiethnic reality. "The process starts from that reality and makes it a law, not the other way around.... Nor is it a question of political will, which would be paternalistic. The Sandinista revolution has not conceded autonomy; it has recognized it." One of the still open questions he raised was what it will mean to promote "the culture of the nation" in an avowedly multiethnic nation.
Having been recognized and made law, autonomy must now be implemented. Two very important steps in its implementation bracket this year—one, a visit to the Coast at the beginning of the year by vice-ministers of all the ministries functioning there, and the other, elections for the Regional Council planned for the fall.
In January and February, meetings were held in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas among vice-ministers, their regional delegates and local officials in categories ranging from production, foreign commerce and cooperation, infrastructure and finances to social, electoral and judicial. At least in the north, the meetings included the participation of representatives from the Peace and Autonomy Commissions, Kisan pro-Peace, and Sukawala. The Managua officials went fully prepared to restructure toward greater decentralization, but what they got was the beginnings of an answer to Julio Tresierra's question. The chief concern of the ministerial delegates in both regions, most of whom are themselves costeños, was that decentralization not be a simple separation, but rather that the central ministries adjust their own national planning as well, to include regional concerns and ways of thinking. In Puerto Cabezas proposals abounded to give increasing authority for implementation and oversight of production and services to municipal bodies, communities and the Peace and Autonomy Commissions.
In Bluefields, where the meetings took place first, they were conceived of as official and high-level, but in Puerto Cabezas the participation of the indigenous representatives was vitalizing. Several government representatives commented that they not only made useful contributions, but also had their first opportunity ever to directly hear the real problems and limitations ministries face in this economy of survival, which helped bring their suggestions down to earth. The northern region, much slower than the south to first take hold of autonomy, appears to have now found its stride. The cause is not clear, but it can be hypothesized that, a) the indigenous people in the north now have more developed forms of popular organization than the Creoles in the south, and b) the Creoles put tremendous initial energy into the formulation of early local drafts of the autonomy statute only to see some of their brightest suggestions fall out of the final version worked out in a joint commission. While reasons for the latter seem to range from compromises on issues where there was disagreement between the two regions to the decision to work out some ideas further before putting them into law, many disaffected Creoles simply felt confirmed in their old fears that decisions were "still being made in Managua."
Regarding elections for the regional council, which will be the highest regional authority, demarcations of the electoral districts are still being designed. The challenge, as both Mirna Cunningham and Johnny Hodgson, regional autonomy director in the south, agree, is to guarantee a just balance between equal and proportional representation of the widely differing sizes of ethnic groups. This means careful attention to the ethnic composition of the districts themselves as well as contemplating quota formulas to guarantee that, for example, the Ramas—a population of only 7-800—are represented on the council in their region.
From its worst disaster to one of its successesIt does not seem premature to say that the Atlantic Coast has been one of the success stories of Nicaragua's revolution. To do so should not suggest that the whole coast is now Sandinista, or that everyone is even ready to live in harmony with the revolution. Nor does it pretend that the wounds of more than three hundred years of divisive colonial history, followed by nearly a century of racist denigration of the coast by Managua governments and rapacious greed by foreign companies no longer hurt.
What it does mean is that the revolution has hammered out a holistic theory, compatible with its principles, and has been daring enough to put it in practice in the midst of a war perpetrated by one of the most determined and powerful countries in the world. That theory is a new concept of ethnic-state relations based neither on separation/isolation/marginalization of whatever does not conform to the dominant culture, nor its assimilation/integration/subordination. Rather it is predicated on the thesis that if the ethnic identity of all the nation's peoples in its full political, economic, social and cultural aspects is guaranteed within the existing state, the unity of that state will be strengthened by its diversity rather than weakened.
If the Sandinistas once saw the world too much through a class prism, underestimating or even fearing the strength and legitimacy of ethnic issues, organizations such as Misurasata and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples under the presidency of "fourth-worldists" like Clem Chartier erred in the opposite direction. (One of Misurasata's slogans is "Only the Indian Can Help the Indian.")
Today that class/ethnic contradiction is being slowly synthesized into a new understanding. Julio Dixon, General Coordinator of CORPI, the WCIP regional body in Central America, himself a Panamanian Guaymí, opened the WCIP conference saying, "Our struggle is not isolated, forgetful of workers and peasants.... We do not deny that we are within a nation-state, but it is a form not created for Indians. Peace, autonomy and human rights are our aspiration." Alejandro Serrano, President of Nicaragua's Supreme Court, followed, saying that "the landscape is always seen from one perspective. When partial perspectives join together and share their viewpoints, we get a more universal picture. There is no single perspective or solution." Tomas Borge, in his closing speech to the same conference, affirmed that ethnic problems cannot be solved without national liberation, but that the specificity of ethnic or indigenous struggles must be added together with class struggle.
The clamor for peace on the Coast, the degree to which that clamor has been answered by fighters putting down their guns and returning to a dignified peace, and the numbers in which indigenous refugees in Honduras are putting away their fears and returning to their homeland are all demonstrations that Nicaragua's theory is a valid one.
Even more encouraging, if less quantifiable, is the hesitant yet growing willingness of the coast peoples to participate in forging their own future rather than just tearing down the old and waiting for some charismatic leader or foreign power to bring a new one to them. Glimpses of this can be found in the numbers of costeños abroad on scholarships as well as of those in leadership positions in the military forces on the coast. Perhaps most of all it can be found in the "sense of self-confidence" that film maker Ana Carrigan felt—and in the fact that the wide circles of mistrusting communication are being replaced by people shoulder to shoulder.