Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 65 | Noviembre 1986



How to Read the Reagan Administration: The Miskito Case

Nitlápan-Envío team

As protests against the Nicaraguan government's suspension of La Prensa continue to echo in Washington's autumn air, new evidences of for whom the US press is free have suddenly begun to surface.

* October 1, 1986: A government leak reveals secret destabilization plans against Libyan leader Muhammar Qhaddafi, worked out between President Reagan and his National Security Council (NSC), with the goal of making Qaddafi believe that the US is on the verge of bombing his country again. The White House denies using the US press in its campaign against Libya.

* October 5, 1986: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the CIA has a monumental annual budget to maintain a network of journalists, newspapers and other media sources ready to carry out propaganda campaigns at any time.

* October 7, 1986: Former NBC White House correspondent turned State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb resigns his post to protect his credibility and, somehow, that of the Reagan Administration, in the face of revelations about the Libya disinformation campaign.

* October 13, 1986: As investigative journalists scramble to demonstrate their journalistic independence by revealing ties between high US government officials and contra gun runner Eugene Hasenfus, whose plane was shot down in Nicaragua a week earlier, The Miami Herald reveals another bit of "news": the Reagan Administration has been passing secret information to journalists for three years as part of a campaign to erode international support for the Sandinista government. This campaign, too, was designed by the NSC. An unnamed Reagan official calls it "a vast psychological warfare operation," and cites the fabrication of the November 6, 1984 "MiG Crisis," which obliterated favorable news coverage of Nicaragua's presidential elections, as a centerpiece of the effort.

Publish the "big lie" or perish

Such orchestrated manipulations of the media—and by extension of public opinion—by the US government is nothing new. Nor is collusion, witting or unwitting, by members of the fourth estate itself. A particular twist, perfected by this Administration, is what has come to be called in some circles the "Big Lie." Unlike traditional Washington disinformation campaigns, Reagan's "Big Lie" doesn’t rely on the clandestine passage of false information to a network of journalists. It rests on a premise similar to that of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels: if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it. A corollary premise is that what Washington officialdom says is news, whether or not it is true and no matter how many times it is repeated. Ultimately it relies on confidence that the lie itself will not become the news peg.

Up to now, that confidence has been singularly well placed. Journalists who in the past didn’t hesitate to destroy the career of a President for tripping on the steps of an airplane ramp tend to remain respectful as Reagan fabricates his way through press conferences and public speeches.*
*Not all contributors to the US media cave in to the Big Lie. Media watchdog for The Nation Alexander Cockburn, referring to Reagan's March 16, 1986, speech on Nicaragua, wrote, "I counted 47 distortions, false conclusions, outrageous inductions and direct misrepresentations of fact." Nor did he spare media colleagues. Noting that the press made some timid efforts to correct the record, he criticized them for failing to cite a San Francisco Examiner story the same day as the President's speech, which disclosed that the contras were being financed by cocaine smuggling rings with the collusion of Federal authorities. "To have had and not used such a story, available on the AP wires as the President was denouncing Sandinista drug trafficking," charged Cockburn, "suggests an astounding degree of self-censorship on the part of the press, which now regards it as treason to assemble factual rebuttal or provide balancing commentary from serious opponents of Reagan policies."

Correspondents in Nicaragua, for example, tend not to lose much sleep over the choice between contradicting the Administration with an honest story on Nicaragua and protecting their career future. Few are willing to incur the wrath of their editor by finding their name linked to such red-baiting headlines as "Post Reporter [Christopher Dickey] Shows His True Colors" in rightwing media-harassing publications like Human Events or the Accuracy in Media Bulletin.

"I am a Miskitu": A case study

Persecution of the Church, persecution of the press, persecution of Jews—sacred issues all, and all used by the Administration in pursuit of its objective in Nicaragua with no regard for fact or context. Another such theme is persecution of Indians. Given the US government's inglorious domestic record on the subject, there is a dangerous potential for backlash, but Reagan is no more troubled by such conflicting images than he is by the conflict between truth and fiction. He has made of the Miskitu people on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast another of his Nicaraguan causes célèbres—as long as they are willing to be cast as abject victims.

The campaign began in early 1982, when the Sandinistas abruptly evacuated 49 villages from the Rio Coco, bordering Honduras on the Atlantic Coast. The evacuation followed a two-month spate of attacks on communities and Sandinista border posts by Miskitus and ex-National Guardsmen operating out of Honduras, in which 60 people were killed, including several Miskitu civilians brutally murdered for cooperating with the revolution.

Several reported abuses by Sandinista soldiers of Miskitus suspected of collaborating with the armed groups in this early period of the war—in particular, oft-publicized allegations regarding the death of a group of civilians in Leimus just before the evacuation itself—have allowed all manner of flagrant accusations against the Sandinistas to take root in the most fertile of any terrain—doubt. One is led to ask: if that story has some basis, how can I be sure these others don’t?*
*The Americas Watch Report of July 1985, titled "Human Rights in Nicaragua: Reagan, Rhetoric and Reality," states that "there is no evidence that they [the Leimus incident and another in Walpa Siksa in 1982 about which Amnesty claimed to have evidence] were directed or condoned by the central Government...." In the same paragraph Amnesty states: "There has never been evidence of racially-motivated or widespread killing of Miskitus."

The campaign's image of Sandinistas as unrelenting persecutors of the Miskitus is further aided by other factors favorable to the Administration: the readiness of Miskitu contra leaders to make outrageous charges; the understandable tendency of Miskitus to believe these lies by their own leaders and ultimately to incorporate them into their oral tradition; and the conventional wisdom that genocide is the most likely response of any central government toward its indigenous population. The campaign is aided, too, by the administration's pattern of distorting or omitting any context, such that actions the government is charged with appear to be without provocation.*
*Amnesty International's March 1986 report documents the battery of conflicting accounts of the December 23, 1982 events in Leimus. The report also notes that government forces had just discovered that during a brief occupation of San Carlos two days earlier by "opposition forces" (presumably Miskituos), "seven soldiers captured there had been tortured and killed, their bodies mutilated."

As we will see later in this article, the Reagan Administration's Miskituo campaign has diverged even further from reality in the past year. The question we will try to answer is, Why now?

Vintage lies at their source

The Reagan Administration’s early excesses are now legend.

* Not content to simply question the Sandinistas' wisdom or intentions in evacuating the Miskitu communities from Nicaragua's conflictive border with Honduras in January 1982, Jeane Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, said that Sandinista abuses of the Miskitus were "more massive than any other human rights violations that I'm aware of in Central America today." Human rights monitoring agencies were stupefied by the statement, given the terror of El Salvador's death squads and the unchecked slaughter of thousands of Guatemalan Mayans that they had been denouncing for several years—with no response from the administration.

* On the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, Ambassador Kirkpatrick claimed that the Sandinistas were building concentration camps for 250,000 Miskitus. This is some three times the total number of Nicaraguan Miskitus, quite apart from the fact that only some 22,000 people (Miskitus, Sumus and mestizos) living along the border were affected by the evacuation, or that the resettlements to which 8,500 of them went bore no relation to any reasonable definition of a concentration camp. For example, there were not even any fences; and people were forbidden only to return to the river, which had been designated a militarized zone.

* Most embarrassing of all was the picture published at that same time in the rightwing French publication Le Figaro, curiously mis-captioned as Miskitus being burned by the Sandinistas. When then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig brandished the magazine before television cameras, the shot’s photographer quickly identified it as one of Sandinista insurrectionists killed by Somoza, whose bodies were being burned by the Red Cross—in the Pacific, in 1978.

Reagan himself has scarcely missed an opportunity since then to include the Miskitus in his litany of lies against the Nicaraguan revolution.

* In his May 9, 1984 speech, he said, "There has been an attempt to wipe out an entire culture—Miskitu Indians [false]—thousands of whom have been slaughtered [false] or herded into detention camps where they have been starved and abused [false]. Their villages, churches and crops have been burned" [true, following the evacuation, admitted and explained at the time by the Nicaraguan government].

* In remarks at an April 15, 1985 Nicaraguan refugee fundraising dinner, Reagan went on at particular length about the Miskitus. A sample paragraph: "As you know, the Miskitus supported the Sandinistas against Somoza [false; many Miskitus barely knew who either Somoza or the Sandinistas were]. But shortly after taking power, the Sandinistas attempted to indoctrinate the Miskitus in Marxist dogma [false]—and the Indians resisted. The Sandinistas tried to put their own people in as leaders of the Miskitu community [false]—and the Indians resisted. The Indians resisted so much, the Sandinistas labeled them 'bourgeois'—and, therefore, enemies of the people [false—no Sandinista would ever confuse a Miskitu with a member of the capitalist class]. They began to arrest Indian leaders [true—in February 1981 the leaders of the then-Indian mass organization Misurasata, formed after the revolution, were briefly detained]. Some were murdered, some were tortured [false—all were released unharmed, even top leader Stedman Fagoth, who was paroled after two months despite admitting to having been an informer for Somoza during the 1970s]. One Miskitu leader told our AFL-CIO that Tomás Borge and other leaders of the Sandinistas '...came to my cell and warned me that Sandinismo would be established on the Atlantic Coast even if every single Miskitu Indian had to be eliminated'" [The only true part of this story is that Fagoth did tell it to an AFL-CIO delegation].

* At the US Air Base at Bitberg, Germany, three weeks later, Reagan said, "Today freedom-loving people around the world must say: "I am a Berliner, I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism, I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag, I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban and a Miskitu Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism."

* On June 6, 1985, Reagan told a group in Birmingham, Alabama that the Sandinistas are conducting "a campaign of virtual genocide against the Miskitu Indians."*
*Writer Abraham Brumberg, in a rare critique of the President's lying ("Reagan's Untruths About Managua," NYT Op-Ed page, June 18, 1985), took particular offense at "the ease with which Mr. Reagan and his associates bandy about the term 'genocide,' mentioning the Miskitu Indians in the same breath with the Holocaust." Noting that "about 70 Miskitus lost their lives in skirmishes with Sandinista troops some three years ago," Brumberg asks, "How could anyone with any sense of history or moral distinctions compare this with the systematic slaughter of six million Jews and millions of others during the Second World War?"

Speak victimization, aid more war

All these comments only have in common that they are loosely based on events that occurred at least two and, for the most part, three years earlier. They also all portray the Miskitus purely as victims, ignoring the fact that several thousand of their number, armed and trained by the US government itself, are making war against the Sandinistas.

Quite curiously, the only major speech on Nicaragua in the past three years in which President Reagan forsook mention of Miskitu victimization was on March 16, 1986, preceding the first vote on this year's contra aid bill. It might have been because at that very moment former American Indian Movement leader Russell Means had taken the Miskitus out of the category of victim and into that of determined and troublesome contras. Means and Brooklyn Rivera, leader of the armed Miskitu group that took the name Misurasata, had just clashed with Under Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams in the pages of The Washington Post over the conditions for direct military assistance to Rivera's group.

In a press conference in San José, Costa Rica, on February 10,* Means had told journalists that he was arranging "high-level State Department meetings" and claimed that "if we get sufficient military and humanitarian aid for Misurasata on the Atlantic Coast there can be an immediate army of 15,000 Misurasata warrior-fighters and consequent to the interests of anti-Communists, the Communist government of Nicaragua will be pushed out of the Atlantic Coast within months." With five days to go before Reagan's speech, Means' angry characterization of Abrams' position in the meeting ("manifestly more anti-Indian than anti-Communist") had appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Post; two days later Abrams' paternalistic answer ("They need help, and we are going to help them") was on the letters page of the same paper.
*The press conference was called to denounce a Sandinista attack on Rivera, Means and two other North American Indians who had entered the coast clandestinely in early January. In a recent conversation with a representative of the Central American Historical Institute in Washington, DC, ABC-TV journalist Bob Martin, who accompanied the group, admitted that Rivera used the trip to exhort Miskitus in the so-called Peace Zone to abandon a cease-fire that had at that time been in effect for nine months.

Don't give peace a chance

In his New York Times article, Abraham Brumberg says of Reagan: "Convinced, apparently, that the end justifies the means, he is prepared to use even the most unscrupulous tools—including untruths, quarter-truths and travesties of history—to topple the Sandinistas. And then, to top it off, he has the gall to claim that he 'remains committed to a peaceful solution in Central America.'"

Nowhere is that condemnation more demonstrable than in the specific case of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast in the past year. The Reagan Administration's unscrupulous tools include not only travesties of history, but the garnering of support by questionably scrupulous Indian and non-Indian organizations and individuals in the States, and more military assistance to and control over the armed indigenous organizations. All this at a time when the support base for the organizations inside the region is seriously eroding due to their ruthlessness, the communities' exhaustion with the war and progress in the Nicaraguan government's efforts to respond to the indigenous peoples' legitimate demands. The bulk of the Miskitu communities have now joined the Sumus and Ramas in clamoring for peace.

The backdrop: Why now?

October 1984 marked the public beginnings in Nicaragua of what, if left to take its own long course, could be a historic reversal of centuries of conflictive relations between indigenous peoples and other oppressed ethnic groups in Latin America on the one hand and the colonial and post-colonial central governments that have oppressed them on the other. After several years of painful examination, Nicaragua's revolutionary government made the self-critical admission, surely unprecedented for any government, that, failing to understand the history, nature and aspirations of the coastal peoples, its policy toward the Coast for the previous five years had been largely misguided. Two key aspects of the rectification of this policy were the recognition of aspirations for autonomy and, by extension, that there were legitimate bases for dialogue with honest representatives of the armed indigenous struggle.

The latter opened the way for the highly publicized talks with Brooklyn Rivera in Mexico and Colombia between December 1984 and May 1985. While those talks ultimately resulted in a stalemate, it was not before a mutual non-aggression pact was signed. Rivera admitted to several spectacular violations of the agreement even before walking out of the talks and has since repeatedly denigrated it in public statements, but it remained essentially in effect until Rivera's trip in January 1986.

Meanwhile, secret talks were going on inside the region with a faction of Misura (Misura was Stedman Fagoth's group, formed in mid-1981 when he fled to Honduras following his conditional parole). On May 17, 1985, Eduardo Pantin, Misura's highest commander inside Nicaragua, and forty of his military chiefs, representing a total of 200 men, met with regional government representatives and a number of observers. Within three days (a week before Rivera broke off his own public talks and charged the Sandinistas with intransigence), an initial agreement was signed pledging both sides to a definitive cease fire, free circulation of civilian and government vehicles to supply the communities, rejection of military weapons and supplies introduced from outside the country, firm support for the return of the evacuated communities to their places of origin and promotion of the autonomy project as the optimum means for achieving the legitimate rights of the indigenous peoples.*
*See "The Atlantic Coast: War or Peace," in envío, October 1985, for more details on the events of the previous 12-month period.

By October 1985, Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast stood, as we said in the pages of envío at the time, "poised on the razor's edge." On the positive side, a guide document outlining the fundamental principles of the autonomy project had been drafted and agreed to by consensus in a weeklong meeting in June with representatives of the six different ethnic groups on the coast. Translated into the four languages of the coast and accompanied by comic-book style illustrated versions, it was at that very moment being circulated in the region as the basis for a grassroots consultation. Many of the 14,000 Miskitus and Sumus displaced deeper into Nicaragua had returned to the Río Coco and, once over the shock of seeing the remains of their villages overrun with jungle growth, were beginning to plant and rebuild. Food subsidies and supplies promised by the government were being sent up with the caravans and housing materials promised by international aid agencies were beginning to arrive in Puerto Cabezas. The group under Pantin, shaken by his accidental death in June, had nonetheless doubled the number of troops it spoke for, and was again in talks with the government—the new commanders, like the original ones, urged to dialogue by insistent Miskitu communities looking for political leadership rather than a continuation of the seemingly endless and unwinnable war.

On the negative side, despite—or more likely because of—the successful shift from a military to a political struggle on the coast, the US had attempted to unify Misura and Misurasata around a commitment to continue the war, and to fortify the alliance between them and the FDN, using the political umbrella of the newly created Unified Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). Although the deal was sugared with an initial $300,000 from the $27 million in humanitarian aid passed in July, the only Misurasata support for it in the unification assembly held in Honduras at the end of August came from hardliners who had opposed Rivera's talks with the government. The net result was that Misura's image was purged of Fagoth (who had been kicked out a month earlier due to excessive violence against his own Miskito forces) and the organization was renamed Kisan. Within six weeks, Kisan would blow up the strategic Sisin bridge between Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco, making delivery of supplies to the returned communities nearly impossible; within four months it would begin a series of military actions from bases in and around these communities abandoned by the Sandinista army as part of the return agreement.

Despite the US effort to perpetuate the war on the Coast, the balance sheet so far in 1986, following Misura's reincarnation as Kisan, has been cautiously in the black. On the positive side, most Miskitu communities in the north have active Peace and Autonomy Commissions, which continue to pressure for dialogue between government representatives and their relatives in the armed groups. Pantin's faction of Misura, which changed its name to Kisan Pro-Peace, has continued to grow and is now taking a strong role in promoting the autonomy project. Drafts of an actual statute on autonomy have been written in both the north and the south zones of the Coast and are undergoing final conceptual approval by elected community representatives before the language is unified and the draft submitted to the National Assembly for ratification. Important language regarding the coast’s relationship to the rest of the nation is being approved in the constitutional debates going on at this moment. As of May 1986, some 200 Miskitu fighters had officially taken advantage of the amnesty to lay down their arms and hundreds more had quietly melted back into community life. More than 1,000 Miskitu and 300 Sumu refugees have returned to Nicaragua through the United Nations repatriation program and perhaps twice that number on their own. Of the 10-20,000 Miskitus who crossed into Honduras in early April, more than 7,000 have already returned, even bringing some of their relatives who had fled in 1982.* Pilot projects in zonal autonomy in both the north and the south of the region were designated in May. And, finally, reports in both the US and Nicaraguan press indicate that the promise of large-scale US financial assistance to Misurasata and Kisan has led to equally large-scale infighting among and between the two groups.**
*See envío, May 1986, for details on the exodus itself.
** The $100 million in contra aid reportedly includes $5 million each to Kisan and Misurasata (the two organizations each put their own troop strength at about 2,000, and the other's at 250 to 500. Sandinista and independent estimates tend toward the lower end of that range, particularly in the case of Misurasata).

On the negative side, Kisan is back in the communities along the Río Coco, carrying out its threats of terror against Miskitu Sandinistas and leaders of Kisan Pro-Peace. For example, Onofre Martínez, a Miskitu FSLN representative in the Río Coco was murdered in September, at the orders of his own cousin Wilfredo Martínez, a Kisan leader. So was Jimmy Wilson, a former Kisan intelligence chief who had joined Kisan Pro-Peace in April. Some Miskitus familiar with the river communities say that many are now more afraid of Kisan than they are of the Sandinista army. By May 1986, Fagoth's replacement, Moravian pastor Wycliffe Diego, admitted to a journalist that Kisan had ultimately received $2 million of the $27 million. This does not include all the private assistance from Woody Jenkins' Friends of the Americas, Rev. Moon's Causa International, the Christian Emergency Relief Team and others who say they are in the Honduran Mosquitia to aid Miskitu refugees, but whose shipments of food, boat motors, trucks, etc., often find their way to the contras, according to legitimate relief workers in the area. Nor does it include the weapons replenishments and military infrastructure left behind after the joint US-Honduran military maneuvers that continually take place in the Mosquitia.*
*In addition to maneuvers in Honduras' Atlantic Coast region just between March and May of this year involving thousands of US troops, the expansion of an airstrip to accommodate C-130 transport planes, the extension of roads, mock parachute attacks and other "small, special operations units in anti-guerrilla struggle," US Embassy sources in Honduras revealed in late October that another 500 Marine Rangers have been parachuted into that country's Mosquitia for training in night attacks, air operations and survival in the mountains and swamps of Nicaragua.

Travesties of history: Take 2

As this complex and still precarious process continues to unfold in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, slowly etching sharper lines between those who genuinely defend legitimate indigenous demands and those whose interests are other, the disinformation campaign in the US functions as if none of it is happening. Virtually the only change is that, just as with the financial campaign, in which public funding has its well-orchestrated private side, so too is there a growing private side to the Administration's anti-Sandinista Miskitu campaign.

Below we will focus on some of the key materials of the last year—a period initiated with the US creation of Kisan. In particular, we will concentrate on a State Department pamphlet published in June 1986, called "Dispossessed—The Miskitu Indians in Sandinista Nicaragua," as well as on a private contribution to the genre, a TV film called "And Nicaragua Was Our Home," funded by Moonie sect's Causa International. Although the footage for this film was reportedly shot in 1984, and the film itself completed early last year, it was shown nationally in the US on PBS channels this summer, just before the second round of voting on the $100 million.

1. "Dispossessed": Telling it the way it wasn't"Dispossessed" tries to capitalize on the shocking exodus of Miskitus from the Nicaraguan side of the Río Coco to Honduras in April 1986. That exodus, according to journalists and Americas Watch observers in the area as the first Miskitus arrived and others who toured the Nicaraguan side two weeks later, was pre-planned and triggered by Kisan itself. They also say that both Kisan and the US Embassy in Honduras bumblingly manipulated a publicity show about the event.

The pamphlet, however, insists that Sandinista attacks on three Nicaraguan Miskitu communities caused "some 10,500 residents along the lower Coco River to flee to Honduras." This version does not explain why villages far away from the three (each of which had a Kisan military base located in or near it), including those in the upper part of the river, “fled” as well. It also sidesteps newspaper accounts of interviews with the first refugees to arrive from those three communities, in which several said they had indeed crossed to the Honduran side during the brief army attack, but had returned and crossed again a day or two later when members of Kisan's Council of Elders came through all the communities telling people the time had come to leave.

The text of the 14-page pamphlet is as notable for what it omits as for what it includes. The most glaring omission, not surprisingly, is that by June, the date of the publication, several thousand of these same villagers had already returned to Nicaragua. (By September, that figure had reached 7,000).

The 1-page section subtitled "Borge's Autonomy Plan" contains not only the greatest number of lies, but also the most omissions. Only two sentences even deal with the autonomy process, one of which states: "In June, he [Comandante Borge] announced the formation of a national autonomy commission to work out the details of a program to give the Indians greater participation in local government and guarantees of noninterference. Return of communal property and demilitarization of the region still remained stumbling points."

By June, in fact, three autonomy commissions, created the previous December and comprising some 80 people from the Coast and 3 from the Pacific, had already agreed to 14 basic principles and objectives that are unmatched anywhere in Latin or North America. One of several points dealing with land says in part: "The indigenous peoples and communities of the Atlantic Coast have the right to collective or individual ownership of the lands that they have traditionally occupied. Additionally, ownership transmission and land use processes established by their customs will be respected." In the middle of a war of aggression, demilitarization is out of the question, but where accords had been reached with Pantin's group, EPS troops were withdrawing from certain points, leaving their defense to dialoguing Misura chiefs. (One such point was the Sisin bridge, blown up by Kisan four months later.)

The historical section is a masterpiece of self-serving textbook-style US history. Below are two illustrative examples.

a) A paragraph discussing 17th and 18th century relations between British traders and the Miskitus, simply says: “...British influence declined in the mid-nineteenth century, and the Crown signed a treaty recognizing Nicaragua's claim to the territory, even though the Miskitu nation wanted international recognition of its own sovereignty.”

And how was it that British influence declined, one might ask? In fact, the US government, following the Monroe Doctrine dictate, America for the Americans, began pushing Britain out to eliminate competition for control of a possible inter-oceanic canal—an effort that culminated in 1894.

As to evidence of the US reaction to the "Miskitu nation's" request for international recognition of its sovereignty, we offer the following note, attributed by Judy Tazewell, ed., The Miskito Question, Compita Press, to US Secretary of State John Clayton, writing to his representative in Nicaragua in 1848: “We have never acknowledged and never can acknowledge the existence of any claim of sovereignty in the Miskitu kingdom or any other Indian claim in America. To do so would be to deny title of the United States to our own territory. Having always regarded an Indian title as a mere right of occupancy, we can never agree that such a title should be treated otherwise than a thing to be extinguished at the will of the discoverer of the country.”

b) The next paragraph of “Dispossessed” states in part: “During the Somoza years, US and Canadian companies tapped the rich natural resources of the Nicaraguan Mosquitia. Although tribal life was untouched, many Indians felt exploited. When the development boom declined in the late 1960s, the Indians were left with little more than temporary employment in remaining forestry and mining industries.”

"Tapped" is a quaint way to describe the ravaging of the Atlantic Coast’s natural resources by the mainly US companies. "Development boom," is apparently a State Department euphemism for the classic enclave process that left behind not a stick of infrastructure that did not directly serve the companies and not a hint of an internal market. The boom "declined" when, for example, Nicaraguan Long Leaf Pine Co. (NIPCO), which had set up operations in Puerto Cabezas in 1945, abandoned the region not 15 years later after having cut down every last pine tree in sight. Furthermore, Tribal life was not untouched by the myriad US export operations, as oft-cited Miskitu defender Prof. Bernard Nietschmann points out in Between Land and Water. And finally, for the record, the Sumus were the ones who "felt" most exploited. They bitterly recall sending delegations to ask mining company representatives to stop throwing cyanide waste in their rivers, thereby killing not only the fish and the crops adjacent to the rivers but also Sumu children and adults. They were roundly rebuffed.

To use Brumberg's words, the pamphlet is a slick blend of "half-truths, quarter-truths and travesties of history." The introduction, for example, claims that "shortly after the revolution, the government insisted that Cuban-style block committees replace tribal councils, that religion be supplanted with allegiance to the FSLN, and that Indian lands belong to the state, instead of to community farmers." The first assertion is a half truth: the Indians did resent the effort to set up Sandinista Defense Committees, but this form of mass organization indigenous to the revolutionary struggle on the Pacific was not an attempt to replace the deference given to elders in community decision-making. The second assertion is not even a quarter true; and the third is a travesty of history that ignores the fact that it was the Miskito king in the late 19th century and every central government following him that had conceded the indigenos lands to the North American companies or designated them as belonging to the state. The Sandinistas, by contrast, nationalized the mining companies in 1979, began immediately to invest in much-needed schools, health centers and other social infrastructure, and approved a Misurasata proposal to give titles to indigenous communal lands—a project that fell apart in February 1981 only when Misurasata leader Stedman Fagoth demanded that 75% of the coast come under Misurasata jurisdiction and threatened to expel all Creoles and Mestizos. In all, using Brumberg's categories as rigorously as possible, we counted 38 outright lies, 9 half-truths, 15 quarter-truths, and 23 travesties of history (the latter categorized as such mind-boggling misrepresentations that they cannot be remedied by a simple correction of facts).

2. "And Nicaragua Was Our Home"—US TV Promotes the Miskitu WarThe issues concerning the film "And Nicaragua Was Our Home" include not only its disinforming content, but also why the Corporation for Public Broadcasting agreed to show it in major cities across the US just before the contra aid vote. CPB moderator John Dinges introduced the film acknowledging that it was "not a work of objective journalism," but "favors the cause of the Miskitu rebels to the exclusion of any other point of view." Numerous other films on Nicaragua have been rejected by CPB on far less categorical grounds of one-sidedness.

Be that as it may, Dinges' point is well taken. The Moonies openly espouse the warring Miskitus' cause—at least that of Fagoth's group (Rivera's is never mentioned in the film), unlike the Reagan administration, which prefers to quietly fund the Miskitu contras and publicly denounce Sandinista "repression" of Miskitus as if there were no US-directed war on the coast. It amounts to much the same message, however, since the film depicts their cause as little more than an end to Sandinista repression.

The film is very professional (despite the fact that director Lee Shapiro, according to one reviewer, appears to have no prior film credits). Detailed familiarity with the Miskitu communities and the events of recent years is required to be able to separate the truth from false extrapolations, Miskitu oral tradition or cobbled footage of events that simply did not occur as Shapiro depicts them.

The most glaring example of the latter is his presentation of the carrying off of Francia Sirpi's population by Misura, a trip that made major US media headlines. Shapiro claims to have gone with 100 Miskitu guerrillas who were "on their way to the occupied village of Francia Sirpi where 200 Sandinista soldiers keep constant watch over the Miskitu people. I... became witness to an international incident in which a [US] bishop and a priest felt they barely escaped assassination by the Sandinistas."

First of all, that incident took place in December 1983; Shapiro, elsewhere in the film, said his clandestine trip into the Coast took place in late 1984. Second, there were only some five militiamen in the village; the only effort Shapiro makes to demonstrate his accusation about 200 troops is to record a lot of shouting and impressive machinegun fire into a pitch black night sky. Father Wendelin Shafer, in a cut-in interview not made during the trip, only admits to hiding under the bed during the sound of battle. This is in line with the version given by a villager who escaped the exodus and said the whole firefight had been simulated by Misura to frighten people into leaving. In short, the cobbling serves to perpetuate the Misura version of events put out in the media at the time, which cannot be corroborated by straight footage, or by the actual statements of the two clergymen.

Vidal Poveda, a young man with a missing arm who testifies in the film to the alleged 1982 events in Leimus, gives somewhat different details about what happened to him than those attributed to him in the 1986 Amnesty International report. More seriously, his claim that 75 other people were killed in Leimus has become part of Misura's oral tradition, uncorroborated by the best efforts of human rights organizations such as Amnesty. Nor is there any evidence to support claims voiced in the film by supposed eye-witnesses that old people and pregnant women were tied inside churches and burned if they could not make the walk from distant villages to Waspam (the grouping point from which everyone was transported to the Tasba Pri resettlement site in trucks). In fact, the Sandinistas provided helicopter transport for these people.

Shapiro inadvertently gives an example of Miskitu oral tradition in the making (the conversion of rumor, buttressed by unprovable corroboration, into unshakable fact) in his interview with an old couple that had fled their community during a Sandinista attack on nearby Miskitu guerrilla positions:

Man: There's a rumor out that they're coming back to tie peoples’ hands and then throw diesel on them and light them on fire.

Woman: This is nothing new. They did that in the village of Auya Pini. [Untrue, although she may well have been told this story by a Miskitu fighter and believed it.]

Man: They're going to throw diesel on us and burn us. Oh my, it is so bad. Just like as if there was no God.

Shapiro claims that the Sandinistas did return on February 12, 1985, and destroyed the villages "to force the people to relocate to a newly constructed camp." Since he chose not to name these villages that are supposedly no longer there, it is impossible to respond to his charge other than to say that there are no reliable reports of Miskitu villages being involuntarily relocated later than 1983.

Shapiro's indifference to fact-finding leads him to foolish excesses as well as dangerous ones. He presents an older Miskitu who claims that during a stint as scout for the US Marines in the late 1920s he came upon Sandino's wife Blanca Arauz dead in a field one day, buried her and went home to compose a song about her, which he sings. Apart from the fact that he was probably not 10 years old at the time, Blanca Arauz died in childbirth in the Segovias, not in a field in the Atlantic Coast.

Interlocking directorates in the propaganda war

The film gives special credit to Prof. Bernard Neitschmann, intellectual author of much of what has come out about the Miskitus in the last three years and a member of the advisory board of Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), Brooklyn Rivera's propaganda arm. He is quoted several times in "Dispossessed" and his testimonies, articles and a particularly specious "little Nicaragua quiz" published in The Wall Street Journal without the precaution of prior fact-checking just before the April 1986 contra vote, make up much of a State Department packet sent out that same month. His articles on the Miskitu cause have appeared in publications ranging from the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, to Akwesasne Notes, to Co-Evolution Quarterly, although the latter publicly regretted having published him. He is also an official adviser to Brooklyn Rivera, although not exclusively. His position that there is a "Misura-Misurasata internal front" presumably explains why he was willing to advise a film that does not support Misurasata.

Other members of the Miskitu rebel propaganda network and Rivera advisory board include Armstrong Wiggins, a Miskitu who provides much of the questionable material for the pro-Rivera bulletins put out by ILRC; Ted McDonald of Cultural Survival; Jim Anaya, an Apache lawyer affiliated with the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), who arranged for Bob Martin to accompany Rivera's clandestine trip into the Coast; and Senator Ted Kennedy. NIYC kicked off last fall's Miskitu campaign with a fund-raising letter blasting the Sandinistas’ treatment of the Miskitus at the very moment the fragile cease-fire had converted the convulsed region into a peaceful one.

So, why now?

This article has not even scratched the surface of all the refutable accusations made by Reagan officials, by Dr. Nietschmann, or by Brooklyn Rivera, Wycliffe Diego and their adherents. The wilder the stories of the latter group, the more useful they are to Reagan and the more attention they attract from broad circles of white liberals. Rivera's claim, for example, (quoted here from his statement to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, published in the NIYC newspaper, Americans Before Columbus) that "Eduardo Pantin was captured by the State Security then transferred to Puerto Cabezas and two days later to Yulu where he was tortured and executed in the presence of several Indian witnesses" encouraged Sen. Kennedy to write Nicaraguan officials demanding an accounting of Pantin's death. It doesn’t matter to Rivera's purposes that no such witness has ever come forward, or that there’s no reason why the Sandinistas would want Pantin dead, or that they have remained committed to the peace talks with his successors, or that the Ministry of the Interior published a poster just after his death with a photo of the signing of the peace accords with him and dedicated a monument to his peace efforts on the anniversary of his death.

Given the past year’s events, the Miskitus’ pro-war strategy has lost any internal logic it may once have had; it has become a no-win struggle. Misguided, at best, by a profound conviction that no central government can ever be trusted, the leaders of their military organizations permit themselves, ironically, to be kept on a tight but glittering leash by the most powerful central government in the world. Attempting to portray their struggle as independent, they claim that if the FDN were to win and not grant indigenous demands, they would turn their weapons on it. Until now, US government supplies and funding for Misura/Kisan have been channeled through the FDN, which thus has an obvious stake in not letting it get too many weapons. Diego has argued that he cannot abandon his alliance with the FDN—even while acknowledging that it is linked to the same interests that left the coast so ravaged to begin with—because that the Sandinistas would betray any agreement within a year and he would only end up with two enemies. Meanwhile Kisan and Misurasata leaders maintain the fiction among their loyal followers that they cannot lose with the US government behind them. At the same time, they continue to whip up anti-Sandinista sentiments among a Miskitu population that is losing many more lives at their hands than at the Sandinistas’.

For the Reagan Administration's part, its public campaign lamenting the plight of the Miskitu population is even more spurious. For all its touting of dialogue with the contras, its actions in this case have been singularly aimed at scuttling the increasingly successful talks with the Miskitu fighters. Its financial encouragement of the armed indigenous struggle is equally duplicitous; the US has no more intention now of permitting a real independence struggle by any indigenous group anywhere than it did in the days of Secretary of State John Clayton.

What does the US government want then, and why is it apparently willing to directly fund both armed Miskitu groups for the first time? At a minimum, it doesn’t want to lose one of the most powerful elements of its image war, one that successfully divides even the most progressive solidarity forces, to say nothing of the American Indian Movement itself. Further up the scale, it doesn’t want to see a new set of relations emerge between the Sandinistas and the Atlantic Coast’s indigenous population. Such a new model, as incipient and scarred with historic mutual mistrust as it is, would challenge the continuity of oppressive conditions in which most native Americans find themselves, including in the United States. At the top of the scale, a clue can be found in a new document prepared by Democratic policy consultant Bernard Aronson, who wrote Reagan's last speech on Central America. Called "How to Win in Nicaragua," the document suggests, among other things, the takeover of Bluefields on the Atlantic Coast and the installation of a "provisional government" protected by the US Marines that would ask for international recognition. Such a plan would be difficult to pull off if the world believed, as a small but growing group of people from the coast now do, that the revolution offers them the first opportunity they’ve ever had for a respectful and dignified place in their country’s national life.

Nicaraguan officials do not discount their country’s possible "Koreanization" by the US, but shrug off its efficacy. The attempt to take and hold either Puerto Cabezas or Bluefields would require a major invasion and occupation force. Furthermore, they add, the heart of the revolution is in the Pacific and could not be defeated from positions on the coast. Meanwhile, the US government, Congress included, blithely perpetuates a war in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, in the name of that region's population, that the Nicaraguan government and increasing numbers of the population itself are trying to bring to a dignified end.

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