Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 296 | Marzo 2006



“We Want Respect from the National Government”

The national parties saw March’s autonomous elections in the Caribbean Coast as little other than a way to measure their strength going into November’s national elections. But coast people have different needs, concepts and realities than the rest of the nation, as the rector of one of the coast’s two universities passionately argues from her wealth of experience.

Alta Hooker

I was born in Puerto Cabezas, in the coast, and am from the black culture. I studied at the Moravian high school and then studied nursing in Bilwaskarma, in English. Our mother tongue is Creole, similar to English. In the eighties I was in charge of the municipality for the FSLN for three years, then studied economic planning and management in Cuba. On my return in 1987, I was entrusted with the Regional Health Delegation in the North Caribbean Coast, though I was only a nurse. Even at that time we coast people didn’t have access to higher education in the region. Later I was able to study in URACCAN, the Caribbean Coast university that we coast people made, and I’m now its rector. In the 1990 elections I was elected to the very first North Atlantic Autonomous Regional Council and was reelected in 1994, serving two terms until 1998. In my second term, I was president of the Regional Council’s executive board and also chaired the Health Commission. Today I’m the representative of coast civil society in CONPES [National Social Economic Planning Council, a consultative body to the presidency]. I speak from all these personal, professional and political experiences.

Starting with a blank slate

The Autonomous Regional Councils were created as a result of the Autonomy Statute passed by the National Assembly in 1987 as a response to the war of the eighties. That war was felt more forcefully on the Caribbean Coast than in the rest of the country, especially in the north. Although passed in 1987, the autonomy law didn’t go into effect until the general elections of 1990, when we elected our first autonomous authorities in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions [RAAN and RAAS, respectively]. So these autonomous governments are still a relatively new experience given that we’ve had barely four periods.

None of us elected to the first Regional Council had any idea what we were supposed to do. It was our only governmental experience; we didn’t know what participatory democracy was. Up to then, most of the new Council members only had experience in military matters, either in the indigenous Yatama movement or in the FSLN, which between them won almost all the Regional Council seats that year.

You have to realize that only one top Sandinista political leader was born in the coast, and he was from the South. The day after the elections, all Sandinista politicians and government officials on the coast who were from the Pacific packed up and left, leaving us with no power, no administrative skills, no clue what to do in the regional governments and no idea how to dialogue with each other. It took us two years to understand that we wouldn’t be able to survive as coast people if we couldn’t reach some agreement among us. With that we began to try to understand what autonomy meant in practice.

What the Councils can do

The two coast regions cover roughly half the country’s territory and are home to about 10% of the national population. Each region’s Autonomous Regional Council works in a parliamentary manner. The 45 directly elected members make the best decisions they can in a given arena, and are joined in this task by the elected National Assembly members for their region (3 in the RAAN and 2 in the RAAS). The Councils from the two regions meet together occasionally, to decide on the most important issues. But whatever decision they make has to be in line with national policies; we can’t invent anything on the coast that can’t be plugged into them. What we can do is design and implement autonomous regional policies, and it frustrates us that when we do we get accused of being separatists.

What does the autonomy law say on this? It clearly stipulates that each autonomous region is responsible for administering health, education, transport, community development and justice in our territories in accord with coast reality and the coast population’s needs, as long as it does so in a way that’s also coherent with national plans. With respect to natural resources, the law establishes that we must coordinate everything we do with the central government. In other words, we don’t simply take the health or education ministry’s policies and superimpose them on the coast; our duty is to bring them into line with our reality.

Lack of a regulatory law
wasn’t the bottom-line problem

The Autonomy Statute was left unregulated for nearly 15 years. When a regulatory law was finally passed in 2004 it was a very important step, but I personally think that all the focus on it kept us captive for way too long. Many coast people thought that autonomy wasn’t moving forward because the law wasn’t regulated, but we discovered that wasn’t the problem. Now we know better.

The first Regional Councils jointly drafted a regulatory bill in the second or third year of their term, but President Chamorro shelved it. After that, we kept making improvements, and by the end had presented three proposals.

There was a huge debate, a real odyssey, before we finally got the bill introduced into the National Assembly. After so many years without seeing autonomy function, the sectors that believed the problem was the regulatory law were really anxious to push it through, while others thought the law itself was inadequate and wanted to rewrite the whole thing. Those of us who wanted to get it regulated argued that we shouldn’t touch the law itself because we’d never be able to defend a new one in the National Assembly. It took a lot of time to agree that the best thing was to regulate the one we have. That effort and the actual passage of the bill taught us that it wasn’t the lack of a regulatory law that prevented autonomy from advancing.

Why the disenchantment and abstention?

In their pre-electoral coverage for the recent elections, the national media reported that the coast population’s is generally disenchanted with the Autonomous Regional Councils and their members. And it’s true; people don’t speak of them very highly, as is documented in the first Human Development Report on the Caribbean Coast—“Is Nicaragua Assuming Its Diversity?”—which we did in 2005 with support from the United Nations Development Program.

But why are people so disappointed? Because the national politicians control our decisions. Every four years when the regional elections come around, all the national parties come to the coast promising to support the autonomy process, to build the Río Blanco-Puerto Cabezas highway, to bring new jobs with good salaries. But where are the budgets implemented? Where’s the money concentrated? Where in fact is everything concentrated? In Managua. Our own Regional Council candidates promise exactly the same things, but have any of these promises been kept? No.

The disenchantment with autonomy is expressed in electoral abstention, which has been climbing with each regional election. But why is that apathy specifically aimed at our own elections? The population says there’s no point in voting for Regional Council members because they don’t do anything and aren’t responding to people’s needs, such as better living standards, better hospitals and schools...

Their track record isn’t all bad

Nonetheless, even in the midst of such huge obstacles, the Autonomous Regional Councils have been working and have in fact done many things. I’d like to highlight some of those efforts.

Health: The Councils designed our regional health model in coordination with all of civil society and with strong social participation. The model establishes revitalization of the Caribbean culture as a principle. Among other things, this means that traditional doctors in our two autonomous regions have the same right as Western doctors, and that our midwives have exactly the same position as a pediatric nurse.

With some frequency the national media report on the outbreak in Río Coco communities of an illness Miskitus call grisi signi [crazy sickness]. Western medicine sees it as a form of collective hysteria, but the traditional healers understand it as an ailment that affects people when they lose their harmony with their environment. Whenever this illness appears in a community the Health Ministry sends doctors who can’t cure it or resolve the underlying problem. Only the traditional doctors know what to do. So, if this is our reality, our health model has to respond to it.

In the coast the Health Ministry treats 40% of the population and the traditional doctors 60%. Coast midwives attend half of the births and the Health Ministry the other half. People in the coast go first to the traditional doctor and then to the Western-trained doctor. So our health care must be based on this reality. In the two Health Secretariats of the autonomous regions’ health system, there’s always someone in charge of Western medicine, someone concerned with traditional medicine, and someone who deals with community participation in health.

Education: We’ve also made progress in our regional educational model by incorporating our autochthonous knowledge, which means that the community has to teach us this the knowledge handed down from our ancestors, the values they transmitted to teach us to be good, educated people. We think our educational model must be based on this knowledge, as well as on intercultural, bilingual education and the study of our own history. One of the principles of our education is that all coast people have to speak two languages; our own and one other. According to our system, intercultural bilingual education begins in preschool and continues through primary and secondary school until reaching higher education. We want an education that makes us feel proud of who we are. I had to learn to feel that pride and not worry about speaking better Spanish, because it’s not my mother tongue. There was a time when I felt ashamed of speaking Spanish badly; but not now because I learned my history and found out where my ancestors came from.

Territorial Demarcation: The Council members have also participated in the whole territorial demarcation process. We coast people made the Demarcation Law ourselves and had to do a lot of negotiating and fighting to get it passed. What have we ended up with? The Mayangnas now have titles for their territory, but haven’t been able to register them. Why? Because Managua tells us that only the central government can register them and will only do so under the co-domain system, which means that the territory belongs to both the indigenous people who live there and the central government. The government argues that this has to be done for national security reasons, because otherwise the coast’s autochthonous peoples could use or lend their territories for drug trafficking or opt to secede. No one in the coast agrees with those arguments, so we haven’t gotten any further with the process.

I’ve denounced in the national media that the central government has no interest in complying with the territorial demarcation. For example, the Demarcation Law establishes that the communities can make their own assessment of the territory to be demarcated, with support from anyone they consider capable. So URACCAN trained technicians in the Rama community to be able to demarcate their own territory, but the government didn’t accept our technicians and they were detained while they were working. This is one example of how everything we do or try to do gets turned into a conflict and set back.

Community Justice: The Regional Councils have also worked to give form to community justice. Just as indigenous and black people have their own ways of understanding health and education, they also have their own forms of justice, which is exercised in the communities. Decisions related to justice are made in community assemblies, which decide what to do with someone who has broken some law. A coast person can therefore be punished twice for the same crime. If tried by Western justice, he or she will be punished by national laws and then, on returning home, by community law. Since the autonomy law permits us to design our own justice process, we’ve also been working on this objective.

These are only some of the many things the Regional Councils have done, so why do people feel so disenchanted? It’s largely because we haven’t been able to apply the things we’ve designed. The central government is too suspicious, or perhaps even ignorant, of the regional governments. We haven’t been able to get any central government at all to sit down with its technical team and study the autonomy law. But we’ve had to study the central government’s policies and then study even more to understand how to influence them. We’re always studying. For example, we now have a graduate course in university management because we have to learn how to direct our university. We’re always preparing ourselves, but we can’t get anybody in Managua to make the effort to understand our reality or even to study the autonomy law. Despite its constitutional ranking, the autonomy law isn’t studied in any of the university law schools on the Pacific side. As a result, the law is completely unknown. All of this makes it even harder for autonomy to advance.

A one-sided notion of decentralization

The autonomy law also establishes that everything we do in our regions must be done in a decentralized way. The national government talks constantly about municipal decentralization, but the coast isn’t a municipality; it’s a region. While the autonomy law establishes that the municipalities in the autonomous regions respond to the Municipalities Law, it also makes clear that they’re subject to the autonomy law. So what kind of decentralization is going to be set up in the coast? Has the central government negotiated this with us? No. Does it want to talk to us? No.

What has it done instead? It established a Secretariat of Attention to the Atlantic Coast, headed a person from the Pacific who is one of the biggest pillagers of our natural resources. How could they appoint such a person to advise them on what to do in the coast? How can we go forward that way? How can people be enamored of their Regional Councils if we haven’t even been given the opportunity to demonstrate our capacity?

Autonomy should mean doing things our way

It’s not easy in a situation like this to keep coast people motivated about autonomy. What good are regional models if they aren’t allowed to function? What good are health and education models if they don’t have financing? All our efforts to hammer out our own models have taken us a long, long time, and now that we have them, the international agencies come to impose their own agenda, their own projects on us. So now what do we have? They’re currently into the “gender approach.” I don’t have anything against the gender approach; I’ve always defended it. But now everything has to do be done with the approach they decide on even though we’ve been designing our own gender approach based on indigenous and black culture. And it has different nuances that they need to study. The same with “poverty reduction.” We already have our own proposal to reduce poverty in the coast, but do you think they’re supporting us to implement it? No. Why? Because they don’t understand it. They’re dispersing us, weakening us with so many projects from outside, making it very difficult for us to do things.

And there are things that are even worse. One of the Liberal parties has a project to “hispanize” the coast, and has said as much. They’ve come right out and said that the coast problem will be resolved once the majority of the population is mestizo and they don’t have to discuss our regional plans with us in Managua. And in fact, with the huge levels of internal migration we’ve seen in the past decade or so, 75% of the coast population is now mestizo.

We now have a coast agenda

As coast civil society, we feel responsible for our region. We were born there, we live there and we’re going to be there forever. Our coast needs better living conditions. We aspire to a kind of development in which a black person can feel proud of being black, an indigenous person proud of being indigenous and a mestizo proud of being mestizo. With that aspiration, coast civil society has been negotiating an agreement with the Regional Councils since 2001. Finally, in December 2005, we got the two Regional Councils to approve a Concerted Minimum Agenda.

What are its key points? First, we lay out that we want peace and public security, and that they must be part of an effective struggle against drug trafficking and of the creation of the right conditions to deal with the coast’s vulnerability, because if there’s no flooding one year, there are rats, and if it’s not rats that eat all the crops it’s worms, and if it’s not worms it’s more flooding.

Another fundamental point in this agenda is political-institutional: the strengthening of autonomy. We make it clear that autonomy won’t be strong unless there’s a real and effective arena in which the central government will dialogue and negotiate with the coast. We can’t continue with a situation in which the central government Cabinet only works for half the national territory. Our Council members, our government coordinators, our Regional Council presidents aren’t members of the government Cabinet, and the only person who talks to coast people at all is that secretary of “attention” to the coast. Relations have to change. The central government must stop colonizing the coast. We want to be part of a country that really recognizes its diversity, and not only recognizes it but is proud of it.

We propose good governance and institutionality to strengthen autonomy. The autonomy law refers clearly to strengthening the autonomous institutions, but the central government is only strengthening the delegations of its own ministries in the coast. And what does that even mean? It means that the bulk of the resources stay in Managua and only a small part reaches the coast. It also means that nothing is done to strengthen our own Health Secretariat or Education Secretariat or our Secretariat of Justice, or any of the autonomous institutions.

We also state in the agenda that the whole autonomy process must be decentralized, and that for this to happen the national government has to have confidence in our autonomous regional governments. They are governments, after all, whether the central government likes it or not. They’ve been elected and their functions have been clearly established in the law.

We also propose civic participation in decision-making in all arenas. We struggled hard to get representation in CONPES; we’re not there because they gave us a seat, but because we fought for one. We’re also present in the National Health Council and National Education Council, but we still haven’t been able to win a place in the national government Cabinet. We have proposals on health, education, territorial demarcation and the economy that we need to discuss with that Cabinet.

Among our economic positions is the idea that the coast economy must go back to its traditional commerce with the Caribbean countries, not with the Pacific side of Nicaragua because everything from there arrives late and costs more. We’ve proposed a development plan that looks to the Caribbean. The autonomous government coordinators and Regional Council presidents have gone to meetings in the Caribbean countries and the Presidents of the Caribbean countries met in Bluefields to discuss how to plug the coast economy into CARICOM, the Caribbean common market. Nicaragua’s current deputy foreign minister, Javier Williams, a coast person, has been doing very good work and is strongly pushing for this economic orientation. One expression of this Caribbean basin effort was the Garífuna Summit, held at the end of 2005 in Corn Island. Work is also being done to create sister relations with Caribbean countries.

We also have proposals to protect and conserve our forests, but we can’t do anything just with proposals. We need national will. For example, there have been numerous denunciations with respect to the deforestation in our territories, but nothing changes because of complicity within the national entities. The limited knowledge among Managua politicians about the importance of our forests also influences the problem. The majority of our national politicians know about cattle, but they aren’t familiar with the forest, so they don’t consider it a crime to destroy a community’s forest to create a cattle pasture. They fine a cattle rustler a greater amount than a person who cuts down the forest. And there you have it; there are no credit policies to maintain the forests, but there’s financing for cattle. Our regional governments could also do more. They have been using the tax money that all mining, fishing and forestry concessions pay for projects, but so far they haven’t used it to strengthen our regional natural resource management plan.

We also have proposals in our agenda for improving the infrastructure. It’s not right to keep punishing the coast, preventing us from getting around in our own territory. There are periods of the year when the highway is completely destroyed and the only way to travel on it is to follow a tractor opening it back up. Last year the national government sent a delegation to the coast to work out a solution to the air transport problem, but their “solution” was to cut our flights, so we couldn’t travel at all for two weeks. Then it was decided in Managua to increase the fuel tax in the coast, so a plane ticket from Bilwi to Managua that had cost just under $100 in January 2005 now costs over $150.

Our history both unites and divides us

Reaching consensus in the coast isn’t easy given our history of division and infighting. We were colonized by the English, who used us black people to supervise the indigenous workers since we had more education than the indigenous people. Why am I a nurse? I didn’t want to be one, but in the coast all black women had to be either nurses or teachers. That’s how things were designed. I wanted to study something else, but it wasn’t possible. The Miskitus and Mayangnas didn’t study. The black foremen were in charge of ensuring that they would work. And since we oppressed the Miskitus, they got even by oppressing the Mayangnas, running them off their land and pushing them into the smaller territories where they now live.

Bluefields is the cradle of the black culture. When the English left the coast, they left their children, a mixture of black and white known as Creoles, in charge. There were even Creoles in Bluefields who had indigenous slaves. The Bluefields Creoles and their culture were the elite of the Caribbean Coast. The Miskitu line of kings ran the coast until 1894, but in the later years they did it from the south, separated from their own people, with a court of black advisers. Although I’m part of the black culture, I was born and raised in the north, where we’re a small minority and the Miskitu population is the majority—or was until so many mestizos started coming in recently in such numbers. Although we were never permitted to speak an indigenous language—what do you want to speak that in this house for!—we learned to coexist with them. All this history is hard to erase. I know that some day we’re going to heal, but that day hasn’t come yet.

Do you think we can reach agreements easily with that history? Of course not. The only thing that pulls us together quickly, and I’m not saying this to be negative, is to go against Managua! If we want to reach agreements, it’s good enough to say: Look, they’re going to come from Managua to tell us what we have to do. Do we want that? And right away, we come to an agreement.

Coast civil society is crucial

Civil society has a crucial role to play in surmounting all these obstacles and finding a way to advance autonomy. The Council members won’t do more than we let them. Given how things are, if we don’t push them, they’ll just fold their arms and say; I can’t do anything. The churches, the NGOs, the ethnic communities of indigenous and black peoples and the universities are all represented in coast civil society. It’s open to everyone and those who come are interested in sharing a regional agenda for the development of the coast.

We all share a single agenda and are represented in the different entities. The Inter-American Development Bank comes, UNICEF comes, UNDP comes, and we split them up among us, each one of us going in representation of civil society even if not as the coordinator, because we can’t be everywhere. We try to direct the efforts toward the priorities we perceive and to promote the population’s participation.

Anything in the coast requires a lot of dialogue. As members of civil society, we’re coming to realize that we’re only going to survive with our proposals and propel them forward if we can move beyond political interests and seek the regional interest, some designing, others working, others doing advocacy work, all of us concerting our efforts. In our Regional Health Council, for example, 450 people meet together every six months so they can then tell the Health Ministry and the Autonomous Regional Council what our health priorities are.

We want participation in
designing our university as well

We’re making the same effort to promote the population’s participation in the designs of our university as well. For example, we never design an area of study based only on our vision. If it’s health, we ask the health workers how they would like a masters program in public health to be, and they give us their opinions.

We’re putting a lot of our faith in education to help change our reality. URACCAN’s mission is to bring education to all coast sectors. To reach everybody, we created four campuses: one in Bluefields, another in Siuna, another in Nueva Guinea and another in Bilwi. And if that weren’t enough, we created an extension in Rosita, one in Bonanza and one in Waslala. This is a huge challenge, because each campus has its own profile and way of organizing. Each one is different. In Siuna it’s mainly mestizo and in Nueva Guinea it’s pure mestizo; there’s only one black woman, and she’s a professor we sent from Bilwi. And in Bilwi, the organization of the whole university is more indigenous. Each different ethnic group organized things differently and makes its decisions in different ways. And they also have different ways of reaching agreements with each other.

The Coast University wasn’t created by government will, but by our own determination. UNAN-Managua created an extension on the Caribbean coast three times, and three times they shut it down. Why? Because higher education was very costly on the coast. It was easier not to do it, to leave us without a university. And if we have a university on the coast today it’s because coast leaders got together with the conviction that we coast people have to have one. They began to give classes in their own homes. We went to study in their houses. But now we have the infrastructure.

Since URACCAN is a community university, with extensions to the community so it can participate, we invented seven institutes: one for traditional medicine, which accompanies the design of the regional health model; a language institute, which accompanied the process of planning the bilingual education model; a natural resources and environmental institute, which supported the environmental planning process; an autonomy institute, which has been responsible for accompanying the territorial demarcation process; an indigenous women’s institute, which is accompanying, researching and designing the strategy for working with women of different ethnic groups; a socio-environmental research institute; and an inter-cultural communication institute, which has four community radios administered by Channel 5 television in Bilwi so that communication can reach all the communities.

The central government’s disdain is nothing new

In 1934 Horacio Hodgson, a senator from the coast in the Nicaraguan Congress, accused the government of Nicaragua of systematically destroying this region—which was known as the department of Zelaya at that time—ever since what it calls the “reincorporation” of the Mosquitia in 1894. Before that, he argued, the Mosquito Indians and the Creoles maintained lucrative and extensive trade with Europe and the United States. He added that another error the central government committed in relation to this department during those previous 40 years was that it didn’t undertake to develop national capital, encouraging capitalists and businessmen from the interior to come to the coast and deal with us. This department, he went on, lacked good roads, modern ports, a telephone system and adequate hospital systems; Bluefields itself produced a third of the nation’s income yet had nothing.

Seventy years have passed since Senator Hodgson said all that and yet the story in the Caribbean Coast is still the same today. We want to change this history. We aspire to a negotiation among equals. We have exactly 32 signed agreements with the Transport Ministry. Have any of them functioned? No. We have 52 signed agreements with the Health Ministry, and have they functioned? No. We also have signed agreements with the Education Ministry and they haven’t functioned either.

We’ve told international cooperation that there won’t be any progress in the coast unless we coast people participate in national decision-making. There have to be real spaces for dialogue with the national government because we want to reach consensus with it. We want the national government to respect us.

Alta Hooker is rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN).

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