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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 77 | Noviembre 1987



The Atlantic Coast Testing Ground for Peace

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Exactly two years ago, we wrote in these pages that the Atlantic Coast was "on the razor's edge." In December 1984, Nicaragua's newly elected government had announced that it recognized the legitimacy of the coastal peoples' aspirations for greater autonomy and that the realization of those aspirations had become a principle of the revolution. The government also announced that, as a result, it would dialogue with any Indian fighters struggling for those same goals. That call netted highly publicized negotiations in Colombia and Mexico with Misurasata leader Brooklyn Rivera, and secret talks in the Coast itself with a dissident faction of Misura. The former ended in frustration for reasons that became clear only two years later, in the Contragate hearings (as we describe below). The latter brought a cease-fire accord, the return of thousands of evacuated Miskitus to their communities on the Río Coco, and the eventual conversion of the participants in those talks into a significant force for peace.

Why describe such a positive turn of events as a razor's edge? Because on the other side, the CIA responded by creating a new Miskitu contra organization called Kisan—a unification of Misura and Misurasata in theory but never in practice. It tied the new group even more closely to the FDN, increased its arms, money and training, and resurrected the idea of a "liberated zone"—or possibly even direct intervention—in the Coast. Kisan inaugurated its military career by blowing up the strategic Sisin bridge on the road to the Río Coco, thus isolating those who had returned to their communities. Six months later Kisan, coordinating closely with the US government, cajoled or forced more than 10,000 of those same Miskitus to cross over to Honduras. The mass exodus helped convince Congress to approve $100 million more for the contras, $5 million earmarked specifically for Misurasata. To which side of the razor the delicate balance would swing was far from clear.

Today autonomy is law, and community life has become relatively peaceful in 1987, after five convulsive years of war. The three armed Miskitu groups—recently unified into yet another new organization, this time called "Yatama"—are reduced to a skeleton force, due both to the broadmindedness of the Sandinistas and the single-mindedness of the CIA. The weight has definitively swung to the side of peace.

Many steps forward, few back

Much has been written about the problems in the coast during the early years of the revolution. The Sandinistas, with an honesty that has few precedents in the history of government, have openly acknowledged their errors (the same cannot be said for the other sides in the conflict). Equally unprecedented is the relative speed with which the Nicaraguan government began to come to terms with the problematic of the coast, radically adjusting its analysis and applying more appropriate policies.

All this should not suggest that the coast has become Sandinista, or even that the problems are now resolved. What it does mean is that a new theoretical approach is in place and in practice that is permitting the slow but healthy resolution of 400 years of conflictive history.

In a kind of poetic political justice, the coast has also served as a successful testing ground for Esquipulas II. Nowhere else in Nicaragua did the Reagan Administration have such comparative advantage in its compulsive war against the Sandinista revolution, yet many of the Sandinistas' experimental efforts to bring peace to that region are today key elements of their approach to the Central American peace accords. Amnesty and community-based peace commissions, for example, began on the coast—the former almost four years ago.

At a more conceptual level there is the creative search for political rather than military solutions; a consistent but flexible application of the revolution's principles; pluralism within the broad framework of the revolution, now embodied in the Constitution; the recognition that not all who have taken up arms are contras—thus providing the basis to reincorporate many directly back into civil society; and the goal of national unity based on the dignity and real identity of Nicaragua's multiethnic population. It is no demagogic accident that the slogan "Autonomy Is Peace" emerged from the communities on the coast two years ago. Today the same committed determination makes "Esquipulas II, Guarantee of Peace" one of the main slogans in the Pacific.

The Nicaraguan government acknowledges the Coast’s inspiration in its design of measures to guarantee peace for the entire nation through the Esquipulas accords. It is thus of double merit to review them here.


On December 1, 1983, the Nicaraguan government decreed its first amnesty law (Decree 1352), specifically pardoning Miskitus serving sentences for counterrevolutionary activities (crimes against Public Order and Security) committed in the previous two years. Within days, 307 Miskitu prisoners were released. The decree also granted all Miskitus who had taken refuge outside national territory the right to return freely. Four days later Decree 1353 extended this right to all Nicaraguan nationals, and guaranteed safe conduct to all those involved in contra activities who laid down their arms, except 1) officers of the ex-National Guard or members of Somocista security involved in repressive acts, 2) those sentenced for crimes against public order and security, and 3) contra leaders who had asked for or accepted foreign financing for counterrevolutionary activities or had led or planned terrorist attacks against the population or economic resources of the country.

This was further broadened in January 1985, when the very first law passed by the newly installed National Assembly conceded amnesty to all Nicaraguans involved in counterrevolutionary activities who turned in their weapons, either inside or outside the country. As in the previous amnesty law, the Agrarian Reform Ministry was assigned to reincorporate back into production peasants returning under amnesty. Although this new law was originally to be in effect only until July 19, 1985, it been extended by the National Assembly each year since then, making Nicaragua the only participant in the Central American peace accords to already have such a law in place when the agreement was signed. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the other countries in which such a law would be applicable according to the accords, have yet to grant amnesty to irregular or insurgent forces operating there.

According to Hazel Law, Miskitu activist, educator and one of three representatives from the coast in Nicaragua's National Assembly, it was the women in the Miskitu communities who persuaded the government to grant the first amnesty. "They insisted that they weren't enemies of the revolution," she explained. "Their demands were for amnesty, return to the Río Coco, less pressure on the communities, respect for their customs and traditions, land and languages; in short, a change of policy."

Law helped organize the women to fight on behalf of husbands or sons who had taken up arms or been jailed for supporting the indigenous struggle, at that time still viewed by the government as simply counterrevolutionary. "The mothers explained that their boys had gone to fight because of misunderstandings and mistreatment," she said.

By mid-1983, with the help of the International Red Cross and Bishop John Wilson of the Moravian Church, they saw to it that family members could visit the Miskitu prisoners in Managua. They also questioned the prisoners in their own language and demanded the freedom of those who had not been captured as combatants. “This was the beginning of the amnesty,” says Law, definitively.

There are no exact figures on the total number of indigenous rebels who have returned through the amnesty program or, encouraged by it and accompanying events, simply returned to their communities in the past four years. According to Sub Commander Salvador Pérez Alemán, who heads the Interior Ministry in the northern part of the Atlantic Coast, 185 Miskitos turned in their weapons in the first eight months of 1987 alone. Among them was a group led by a member of Kisan's high command in charge of military training.

Much more important than numbers were the implications of that initial decision. First, government acceptance of amnesty was implicit recognition that not all indigenous fighters were "contras." In the coast, and soon thereafter in the rest of the country, the term "alzados en armas" (rebels who have taken up arms) came slowly into official use to designate those who, for one reason or another, had come under the sway of the contras but were not irreconcilably opposed to the goals and principles of the revolution. Second, this positive move by the Nicaraguan government suggested an opening, the beginnings of a new policy; it awakened expectations of real solutions not only among the population but among some of the indigenous combatants as well.

Negotiating with those on strings

In late October 1984, following a meeting in New York between Daniel Ortega and Brooklyn Rivera, head of the armed Miskitu group Misurasata, Rivera accepted an invitation by the government to tour the coast. In early December formal negotiations began in Colombia between Rivera and a government delegation led by Luis Carrión, Vice Minister of the Interior and FSLN National Directorate member in charge of coastal affairs. Days before the first meeting, a National Autonomy Commission was inaugurated; the parallel process of peace negotiations and development of the autonomy project were officially underway.

Rivera presented himself as the sole legitimate representative of the entire Atlantic Coast and maintained that the first order of business was ratification of his draft autonomy treaty, a stance the government refused to accept. By the third session, held in Mexico in late April, however, both sides agreed to suspend offensive military actions.

In the following session, which took place on May 26-27, 1985, Rivera, after consulting his North American advisers at one point, angrily broke off the talks, accusing the Sandinistas of intransigence. While his change of attitude was perplexing at the time, the May 1987 Contragate testimony of Oliver North's aide, Robert Owen, revealed that Owen had given Rivera a sizable cash payment before that session. "The feeling was," Owen explained to the congressional hearing committee, "that if he went to his negotiations with the Sandinistas and walked out of them ...we would try and help him." While that bribe effectively scuttled the talks, the tactical cease-fire agreed to in the previous session held until January 1986, when Rivera entered the coast clandestinely with several North American Indian leaders to try to regain support for the war among communities involved in the incipient peace process.

Despite persistent pressure from many quarters that the Nicaraguan government negotiate directly with the contra leadership, it refuses to do so, arguing that "there is no point in a dialogue with the puppets, only the puppet master who controls the strings." Sandinista leaders refrain from making Rivera a case in point, but since 1985 merely respond, when asked if they would consider reopening negotiations with him, that he may return to the country under the amnesty program.

Cease-fire and dialogue

The Sandinistas have, on the other hand, reiterated their willingness to talk with any armed group in the field that is in a position to take independent decisions. This is yet another policy whose origins are found on the Coast, and which has proven efficacious for both sides.

Although the negotiations with Rivera kindled expectations, the breakthrough came not in those highly-publicized charades, but in talks in the cCoast itself with Commander Eduardo Pantin. Pantin, Misura's top commander inside Nicaragua, who represented 40 dissident chiefs and 200 fighters in the talks. Unlike Rivera, he agreed with the government that the first agenda item was a cease-fire. On May 20, 1985, three days after his first meeting with government representatives in the community of Yulu, near Puerto Cabezas, Pantin signed a secret joint agreement. It included a cease-fire between his troops and the Sandinista army, normalization of services to communities in the pine savannah where his group operated, and support for the return of the communities evacuated from the Río Coco in January 1982. In a May 29 government communiqué announcing many of these measures, issued right after the failure of the talks with Rivera, President Ortega also included the decision to rescind the use of identity cards, and urged that the autonomy process, dragging in anticipation of Rivera's incorporation, go forward with all deliberate speed.

The following month Pantin died in circumstances that have never been made public by those members of his group who were present. Government officials, revealing the secret accords, eulogized him as a genuine peacemaker. While Pantin's group splintered temporarily without his leadership, it essentially reconstituted itself by September, following the US-sponsored assembly to create Kisan. A month later, it was joined by Commander Reynaldo Reyes, a member of Kisan's new military high command, who defected in response to the demand of increasing numbers of Miskitu communities. Within months, the group, which called itself "Kisan Pro-Peace," had doubled in size and been given responsibility for the military defense of seven communities surrounding Yulu, in coordination with the Nicaraguan army.

The group recently expanded its name to "Kisan Pro-Peace, Autonomy and Development, Cdte. Eduardo Pantin." Reyes, the organization's general coordinator, says the change signifies that the organization has moved beyond dialogue and defense to full participation in making autonomy work. His organization now helps other armed groupings in their initial stages of dialogue with the government.

The continuing success of the cease-fire agreement with Kisan Pro-Peace after two years stands as evidence of the guarantees offered by the Nicaraguan government. As Hazel Law points out, "The Ministry of the Interior and the Sandinista Popular Army answer to the government; there are no contradictions between them like there are in other countries of Central America."

The most recent fruit of this dialogue policy was the announcement on October 3 that an entire operational command of 400 Miskitus led by 23-year-old Uriel Vanegas, had reached an accord with the government. It is the first military group of that size to join the peace process, and was reportedly one of only three in Yatama. At 17, Vanegas had been among the first young Miskitus to join Misura in Honduras and take up arms in mid-1981.

He and his fighters are guaranteed absolute freedom and all their civil rights. According to the agreement, one third will do productive work; another third will take up studies; and the remaining third will retain their weapons, as Kisan Pro-Peace and some other groups have done, forming territorial indigenous militias in coordination with the army.

Peace and Autonomy Commissions

Members of the Miskitu communities inadvertently became intermediaries for peace starting in early 1985. As Hazel Law describes it, "An indigenous military chief would send a letter or talk to them, asking what was happening, and people would say, 'Well, now they're talking about autonomy and dialogue with Brooklyn Rivera.'" Pantin, too, first sent word that he wanted to dialogue through contacts in the communities.

The formal decision to create community-based commissions as intermediaries in the dialogue process, however, came in a meeting of 300 community representatives in August 1985, called to train participants in the grassroots autonomy consultation. The volunteers, many of them women, argued that there could be no autonomy as long as their men remained in the "bush," and could not participate.

Having received government approval and guarantees, the commissions got in touch with Miskitu officials such as Hazel Law when relatives in the armed groups indicated a willingness to talk. First called Dialogue for Peace, they were renamed Peace and Autonomy Commissions on May 17, 1986, at the anniversary celebration of the cease-fire talks with Pantin. At that same celebration, Yulu and surrounding communities were designated a "peace zone" and pilot project in zonal autonomy.

Now, a year and a half later, 96 out of some 120 Miskitu communities in the north Atlantic have structured peace and autonomy commissions. Each has 7 to 11 members, including a coordinator, vice-coordinator, secretary and 4 others who may have specific duties such as overseeing communal affairs or talking with the "alzados." Although with characteristics specific to the region, they are similar to the recently formed local peace commissions in the Pacific in that they encompass different sectors of the communities—pastors, ex-Misurasata fighters, members of Kisan Pro-Peace, etc. When Miskitus from Yulu were interviewed by members of a special National Assembly commission prior to presenting the autonomy statute for debate, the Esquipulas II accords were described to them. "Hmmm!" they commented, "They’re behind us! We were an example."

Hazel Law estimates that 80% of the indigenous fighters are now participating in the cease-fire, but warns that making peace is not as easy as making war. "Our boys went to war out of rebellion. To convince them that there are guarantees, a new climate, requires more time and care. Sometimes we wonder if we could have had 90% by now instead of 80%, but suddenly out of enthusiasm someone would act precipitously, and everybody would freeze up, so we'd have to return to careful work. They'll have to be careful in the Pacific, too, and not go too fast."

Like their newer counterparts in the Pacific, the unarmed commission members frequently put their lives at risk. Those who were in Puerto Cabezas during the mass exodus in April 1986, for example, crossed into Honduras to convince those who had gone that the stories Kisan told them about army plans to attack were not true. On January 19 of this year, commission members delivering food to the Río Coco communities were kidnapped by the Honduran Army's Fifth Battalion and held prisoner for three months. Another member was tortured in Mokorón, Honduras.

After more than two years, the commissions have gone well beyond their original conception. Law, noting that they are now taking up community problems, says that in some communities members are put specifically in charge of health and education. Asked if the commissions are turning into something more permanent, she responded, "I believe they’re beginning to be the organization of the North Atlantic* that will set the model for how autonomy should go forward. They're also becoming our link with the rest of the country. For example, our women have relations of respect and solidarity with AMNLAE [the Nicaraguan Women's Association]. A moment is coming when they will gain a profile as an organization because they have the recognition, the legitimate consensus of the people. The community elected them and they’ve earned the respect of the revolutionary government."
*The new official name of the autonomous region in the northern half of the Atlantic Coast. The other is called South Atlantic.


On September 2, 1987, after a day and a half of debate, the National Assembly ratified the autonomy statute with few changes, none of them substantial. It was an emotional moment for many in the modestly formal legislative hall; perhaps most of all for Ray Hooker, Creole deputy from the Atlantic Coast, who, as director of the Autonomy Commission, guided the project skillfully through rough waters on both sides of the country. (The most dramatic of Hooker's many travails was when he was shot and taken captive by Misurasata warriors while campaigning for his National Assembly seat in September 1984; along with two others, he was held for 55 days with no medical treatment for the wound in his side.) Interviewed for national television just after the near-unanimous final vote on the autonomy statute, he controlled his grin long enough to say, in his customary deliberate tone, that this seemed to him an appropriate way for Nicaragua to commemorate 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first encounter between Spain and the indigenous peoples of the continent.

Analytical justice to the 43 articles of the new autonomy statute cannot be done in this space, but a few of its more important concepts deserve mention. First, Nicaraguan autonomy breaks with both traditional currents of government policy toward indigenous and other minority ethnic populations within a nation-state; it proposes neither integration (assimilation) nor marginalization—both of which result in inequality for the subordinated culture. Rather it aspires to incorporate the six ethnically different communities on the Atlantic Coast into national life, guaranteeing their equal opportunity through the preservation and development of their distinct cultures.

The most obvious and frequently mentioned of these guarantees regard language, education, religion, recognition of traditional forms of communal land ownership and rights to the land, forests and waters on those communal properties. As important, if not more so, is the guarantee that those communal lands may not be alienated in any way, through sale, lien or even donation (Art. 36). Anyone who has studied, for example, the proletarianization of the Guaymí Indians in Panama, can attest to the destruction of land-based indigenous culture by creating indebtedness that can only be repaid by selling off individual plots of communal lands.

Another subtle but key aspect is the right to ethnic self-definition (Art. 12). The autonomy statute thus guarantees the traditional practice on the coast, whereby ethnic identity is a matter of community acceptance based on the individual’s personal decision and cultural practices. One of the most telling negative examples in this case is Canada, where tribal land rights belong only to proven direct descendants of early treaty signatories. Any tribal member who marries outside loses the right to that communal land and to tribal identity, and becomes subject to a different set of laws, thus dividing indigenous interests. On the contrary, one of the goals of Nicaragua's autonomy project, appearing in various articles such as the one above, is to assure unity and equality rather than antagonistic division among the different ethnic communities on the Coast.

As might be expected in a region in which those communities range in size, levels of wealth, education and social stratification, and in which one group has dominated others at different points in history, there are differing degrees of satisfaction with the statute. Not everyone got everything they wanted. Furthermore, the law itself is a fragile newborn, conceived in war by the unlikely couple of forward-looking revolution and an ethnic struggle whose aspirations are caught between the 18th century and the 20th. It has been a difficult birth the Reagan Administration tried its best to abort.

Recognizing all this, Autonomy Commission president Tomás Borge emphasized to the National Assembly, as he had to the 2,000 people who attended the final debate on the statute in Puerto Cabezas last April, that "this law, like the Constitution, is clearly not a finished project; it is the beginning of a rebirth, destined to transcend and improve itself until self-confirmation, until spiraling maturity and scaled summits of consciousness provide the answer."

Whether the infant will grow and thrive, providing an inspiration, if not a model, for other ethnic struggles, depends not only on the determination of its protagonists—the peoples of the coast and the Sandinistas—but on that of its enemies as well. If events on the Atlantic Coast have provided a wealth of successful examples for the Central American peace accords, it is now to be hoped that the region will respond in kind, guaranteeing a context of peace in which this new experiment in ethnic-state relations can develop.

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