Update On The Atlantic Coast
The military actions of counter-revolutionary bands have intensified on the Atlantic Coast. There is a lack of news about that half of Nicaragua, so unknown on the Pacific side of the country.
As we have discussed before, especially in envío N° 4 of September 1981, the whole history of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua is one of isolation, disinterest (except in the exploitation of the natural resources), and a total lack of identification of the people there with the rest of Nicaragua. The northern part of the Mosquitia, the zone inhabited by the Misquito Indians, extends well into Honduras. The border between the two countries, the Río Coco, was not definitively settled until 1960, and it has never had any real meaning for the inhabitants on either side of the river, who live and farm on both sides and cross freely. Lands are owned communally. The religion is Moravian and Catholic; the language is Misquito, with English as the second language for many. There are approximately 160,000 Misquitos in the Mosquitia, about 120,000 of them in Nicaragua, according to statistics of the Moravian Church and CIERA, a government center of investigation.
After the Sandinista insurrection, which hardly touched the Atlantic Coast, there were many changes in the area. From the beginning the Sandinistas approached the Coast from a policy of integration which, although well intentioned, was ill-advised in the opinion of many who work for the rights of indigenous peoples. Trying to bring the revolution to the Coast and make the people feel a part of the changes, the Sandinistas initiated the Literacy Campaign in Misquito and English as well as Spanish. They increased health services and community programs. But the presence of many Sandinistas who knew almost nothing of the culture, language or customs of the people was an irritant. The government encouraged the development of MISURASATA, an indigenous organization. They helped to develop the leadership of a young Misquito, Steadman Fagoth Müeller, and his leadership became almost absolute among the Misquito people. He was their representative in the Council of State. In March, 1981, at about the time that MISURASATA was to sign an agreement with the government regarding communal lands, Fagoth was arrested for fomenting separatism. He confessed to having been a member of Somoza’s security forces. Other MISURASATA leaders were also arrested. During an incident in Prinzapolka, in which the Sandinista police were trying to arrest one of the leaders, four Misquitos and four Sandinistas were killed. After extensive pressure from the Misquito community, Fagoth was conditionally released. He immediately fled to Honduras, where he became active in the counter-revolutionary activities fostered by the ex-Guardia there. The way that the whole MISURASATA and Fagoth matter was handled involved a series of mistakes which the Sandinistas readily admit. The admission,however, does not undo the damage or erase the resentments.
In January, we published an interview with Norman Bent, Moravian pastor and executive director of CASIM, the Social Action Committee of the Moravian Church. Norman Bent indicated that the situation on the Atlantic Coast had improved, particularly in the relations between the Misquito people and the government. While we knew that military activity by counterrevolutionary groups had increased, we did not know the extent of those activities, nor the seriousness of the situation. This was due, in part, to restrictions on news and travel which were in effect at that time.
One of the events which possibly precipitated the general opening up of information on the Coast was the unexpected departure from Nicaragua of two American priests and three American nuns on January 14. All of them worked in the northern region of the Atlantic Coast. They were asked to leave the country on the technicality that their papers were not in order. The government later publicly stated that the action taken had not been correct, and it invited the missionaries to return. When the event became known, through an “interview” with Bishop Schlaefer of Bluefields, which appeared in La Prensa and which was later denied by the bishop, there was a great deal of confusion and speculation regarding the matter. The official statements by the Ministry of the Interior and by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua are included in this article.
It seemed that the matter of the religious workers magnified other rumors which had been circulating about the situation on the Atlantic Coast and increased the pressure on the government to clarify the situation.
Even though raids and defections had been taking place periodically from July on, there was also a concerted effort by church and government leaders to improve relations and rebuild confidence. A brutal raid at San Carlos in December, in which 35 Sandinistas were killed, threw everything into chaos. The people were frightened; many fled in hopes of finding a better situation in Honduras. The military presence was, of course, sharply increased, which in turn added tension in the villages. Little of this was known on the Pacific side of Nicaragua.
The only radio station in the area, Radio VER, operated by the Wisconsin Friends Committee and funded by AID (U.S. Agency for International Development), has been taken over by the government.
The silence on the part of the government regarding the Atlantic Coast ended dramatically on February 3 with a press conference given jointly by the Ministries of Defense and the Interior. At that conference details of the attacks by armed counterrevolutionary bands within Nicaraguan territory were given. These incidents occurred during November, December and January and resulted in the deaths of sixty Nicaraguans, both civilians and military personnel. Pictures were shown which demonstrated that many of those killed had been brutally tortured.
The information included details of a December 29 attack on the hospital in Bilwaskarma, by a band of 15 counter-revolutionaries. The hospital administrator was wounded; a Misquito woman doctor and a nurse were taken to Honduras and raped repeatedly (during which those present reportedly sang religious hymns); and then they were returned to Nicaraguan territory and released. The women then reported the incident to the military.
A videotape was shown of the confession of Efrain Wilson, who was presented as a Moravian pastor. The Moravian church later clarified that Wilson had ceased practicing as a minister in 1964 and since that time had not held credentials with the Moravian Church. Wilson is a carpenter on the Atlantic Coast. According to the Moravian Church he has from time to time done carpentry jobs for the church but has not worked for them on a regular basis. He was Regional Coordinator on the Río Coco for MISURASATA. Wilson elaborated on a plot called “Red Christmas”, which had as its goal a general uprising of the Misquito people on the Atlantic Coast and the definitive separation of that area from the rest of Nicaragua. The attack on San Carlos was to have been the signal for this general uprising.
The involvement of many Misquitos in the subversive plans resulted in general mistrust on the part of many Sandinistas toward all Misquitos and all members of the Moravian Church. Many people from the area with whom we have spoken have indicated that because of the historic lack of observance of the border and because of the extremely strong family and ethnic ties, many of the people who were perceived to be aiding the counterrevolutionary forces, were in reality not aware of the political ramifications and were only trying to help a father or brother on the other side who was asking for help. Others were knowingly involved.
The UNHCR (U.N. High Commission on Refugees) estimates the number of Misquitos who have crossed into Honduras at 3,500. Other studies have estimates as high as 10,000. It is extremely difficult to determine accurately, given the inaccessibility of the areas involved and the frequent movement back and forth of the people.
According to the confession by Wilson, many Misquitos went to Honduras for military training given by the Somocistas and Fagoth and his companions there. Many then returned to Nicaragua, where they in turn trained others, especially in the area of Sandy Bay, above Puerto Cabezas. The testimony indicated that in the course of these actions, if the northeastern section could be controlled by the counterrevolutionaries, they could then ask for outside help which could serve to justify air support from the U.S. and a blockade of Nicaragua. The strategy of trying to provoke the Sandinistas into armed action in Honduran territory has been apparent along the border for many months. When the Sandinistas failed to act in the hoped for way, reports were published of supposed massacres of hundreds of Misquitos by the Sandinistas in Honduran territory. While some Honduran officials originally corroborated these charges, the subsequent denials by both the Nicaraguan and Honduran governments received little coverage.
According to Wilson’s testimony, help to those in Honduras came from those training in Florida and California and from the Honduras military. The presence of Argentinean advisors was also mentioned.
A letter written in English by Wilson to friends describes the conditions in Sandy Bay and the progress of the plans taking place. It also refers to Steadman Fagoth as the leader of the plan and the one issuing orders from Honduras to those inside Nicaragua. Wilson indicated that there was extensive involvement of religious leaders among the Misquitos in Nicaragua, and mentioned the Moravian Church specifically.
The Moravian Church has been present on the Coast since 1849 and has been active in running hospitals and schools and more recently has had many development and social action projects. The Church began in Czechoslovakia in 1457.
Wilson named Moravian pastors along the Río Coco who, he claimed, had encouraged the participation of their people in the activities against the government. He also mentioned the use of vehicles of CASIM and CEPAD (Evangelical Committee for Development) for the transportation of supplies to the counterrevolutionaries. He said Catholic “pastors” (which could refer to priests, deacons, or delegates of the Word) also were involved, although he did not mention their names.
Since the press conference Moravian pastor Morris Vidaurres and Samuel Mercado, a CEPAD driver, have given declarations explaining the work of the counterrevolutionary groups and corroborating the testimony of Wilson.
CEPAD has issued a statement denouncing the anti-government activities and said that the use of its vehicle was without its knowledge or consent. On February 9 the CEPAD Executive Board met with Comandante Rene Vivas. Vivas, Vice-Minister of the Interior, issued a letter on February 12, which states: “The Ministry of the Interior was able to confirm the participation in counterrevolutionary activities of some irresponsible functionaries of CEPAD in North Zelaya, including its highest representative, the general coordinator Samuel Sanders. The investigations carried out prove only the individual participation of some functionaries of CEPAD, not the participation of CEPAD as an institution.” According to CEPAD, Vivas recognized the importance of the work on the Atlantic Coast, and they are free to continue their work. CASIM, however, will not be operating their programs in 1982 and will be coordinating their work with CEPAD. The Moravian bishop John Wilson was present at all of the meetings with the government.
The Moravian Church has also issued a statement expressing its sorrow at the deaths of the Nicaraguans and strongly condemning the counterrevolutionary activities. The letter not only laments the alleged implication of Rev. Francisco Colomer, president of CASIM and one of the leaders of the Moravian Church on the Coast; it emphatically supports him, denies his involvement and elaborates his extensive work in support of the revolutionary process. The church states that any of its people who are involved are acting as individuals and have no support from the official church.
The Moravian Church also sent a letter to Comandantes Borge and Ortega regarding the situation. Their letter lists what they feel are the principal causes of the problems now existing on the Coast. These include: the lack of a progressive orientation toward the Coastal population in order for them to understand better the objectives of the revolution; the unemployment problem which creates more difficulties in understanding the revolution; the cultural friction between the Coastal people and those from the Pacific; mismanagement of the MISURASATA problem, which generated a lack of confidence between the people and the Frente; and problems over land ownership for the Misquito people. The letter makes several recommendations which include: establishing an Orientation Center regarding the culture, idiosyncrasies and reality of the Atlantic Coast; working commissions comprised of pastors, military and state organizations to look for solutions; restructuring the State Security and the Frente in the northern zone; prompt judicial processing of those detained; acceptance of aid from voluntary organizations in the new communities set up recently; an emergency plan enacted for the lower Río Coco; and the formation of a commission of church, political and military leaders to work for the reintegration of the indigenous people who fled to Honduras and want to return.
On February 5 at another press conference Captain Roberto Sánchez, head of communications for the Ministry of Defense, confirmed the deaths of an additional twenty-five soldiers and militia who had been listed as missing. They were captured in military confrontations during the end of November and the first days of December.
Because of the impossibility of protecting the villages along the river, as well as other security problems, the government is moving up to 15,000 Misquitos to new areas further inside the country. The government said it preferred this solution to an armed confrontation in which many innocent Misquitos could have been killed. It seems clear that the government would not have undertaken this move if it could have found a workable alternative.
On February 11-12 we had the opportunity to visit one of the relocation areas near Rosita, a mining town in Northern Zelaya. The government had agreed to take two members of a visiting American delegation, Roger Wilkins and Andrea Young, to the area.
We went by helicopter to Rosita. One thing that impressed us all was the reaction of the children when we arrived. There was absolutely no fear of the military or government people on the part of the children. On the contrary, they ran up, laughing and shouting, and accompanied all of us down the road.
That afternoon and the next morning we met with INNICA, the Nicaraguan Institute for the Development of the Atlantic Coast. They explained to us the reasoning behind the move and what they hope to achieve. Given the rapidity with which the situation developed, much effort went into studying soil and climatic conditions in order to find an area as similar as possible to that which the people left. They also looked for an area with sufficient land so that the communal farming practices of the people could be respected and encouraged.
Some 4200 Misquitos from the upper Río Coco have been moved so far. All of the villages between San Carlos and Waspam have been evacuated. These were small, inaccessible, isolated villages which were subject to flooding every year, and every year the flooding necessitated emergency relief. Very few services were available in the villages. Because of these conditions and the difficulties in improving them, the possibility of moving the villages had been considered prior to the present situation. Since the Sandinistas felt it was impossible to protect or control the frontier and because the situation was becoming continually more serious, the decision for the move was made. The most tragic part of a very difficult situation is that the people had to leave their few belongings behind. After they left the villages, consisting mostly of small huts, the villages were burned to prevent them being used by the counterrevolutionaries.
The trip to the camp, which is located about a half hour from Rosita, was made by truck. There are 1691 people in this particular camp, from seven different communities. It is a provisional camp. Materials are beginning to arrive for people to build their own hoses. At present they live in tents. The frequent tropical rains turn the camp into a sea of mud.
A school has been built, as well as a small clinic. A storage building is under construction. The government has mobilized a large team to help in the situation. There are 46 people working in the camp from various ministries and agencies. The team includes 8 medical technicians, 1 general practitioner, 1 pediatrician, 1 dentist, 1 pharmacy student, 3 nurses aides, 1 environmental sanitation specialist and 3 teacher-supervisors, 10 Misquito teachers. There are 3 Catholic deacons and one Moravian minister.
We talked to many people in the camp. Many told us they were glad to be there. One man said the counterrevolutionaries had attacked his village and killed his brother, a teacher. He said when they went to their farms in Honduras, they were killed. On Christmas and New Year’s they were hiding in the mountains and could not even celebrate with their families. He said he had confidence in the government, even though it is young and poor.
Other people were sad, some bitter, at the move, especially those from villages that had not been touched by the violence. They are a very simple people who have lived in isolation and understand very little of the international politics that has created the situation in which the government was forced to take this drastic step.
The resettlement camp, at this point, is not an enviable place to live, but it appears to be the only alternative under the present circumstances. Much effort is needed to work with the people to help them make the transition, and many will probably never accept it.
Because of fear and uncertainty over what was happening, many reportedly fled rather than move. There have been reliable reports that conditions on the lower Río Coco are very serious: many of the families have their farms on the Honduran side, and they are not permitted to cross the river to harvest their crops because of the military situation. This condition, if not resolved soon, could result in serious food shortages.
Captain Sanchez has emphasized that the situation in which the government finds itself is new: they will probably make some mistakes, but they are trying to resolve the problems in the way that is best for the country and for the people on the Atlantic Coast.
We again spoke with Norman Bent, whose perspective is optimistic: “We want the international community to know that the Moravian Church and CASIM are for the revolution. We believe in the revolution. I’m talking especially about the hierarchy of the Moravian Church, and also about quite a big percentage of Moravians who could be hurt by mistakes of their own people. Yet they are with the revolution. We hope that the Frente will understand our willingness to contribute in a very positive way to seeking solutions to the problems there on the Coast, because it is not only a military problem but also an ethnic, social, economic and religious problem. I think it needs participation and understanding from both sides to find solutions.”
It is hoped that the increased access to information on the Coast will continue and that the government and churches will redouble their efforts to find ways of cooperating for the benefit of the people.