Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 59 | Mayo 1986



Miskitus on the Río Coco Whose Political Football Are They?

Envío team

"Before, we lived well, ate fish," mourned the kuka (Miskitu for elderly woman), to journalists at an impromptu community assembly in Leimus in late April. "If we wanted to work in the bush we had no fear, only of tigers; now we go there afraid." As if to herself, she muttered the word "Reagan," then shouted to the crowd, "I don't want Reagan to give more weapons! I don't want to see more weapons! We want to live in peace!"

The Río Coco community of Leimus is already well known in human rights circles; it was the site of a highly publicized but never fully clarified reprisal by Sandinista soldiers against Miskitu suspects for the torture and assassination of several of their comrades in December 1981. Now, ironically, it is one of the few river communities left intact after some 12,000 Miskitus crossed into Honduras in early April of this year. Similarly ironic is the fact that this wise old woman from Leimus is among the few Miskitus who correctly identify the primary source of their misery.

Leimus, once a thriving agricultural community, is a bumpy hour's drive up­river from Waspam, the commercial capital of the river that, since 1960, has divided Nicaragua from Honduras. In January 1982, the government evacuated Leimus, together with more than 40 other villages along the river and in the pine savannah that lays just behind it, following a two-month rash of attacks by the armed Miskitu group, Misura. They were resettled in an area called Tasba Pri, some 40 miles south of the river.

The move back to the river

On May 29, 1985, after three and a half years of war with Misura and another Miskitu organization, Misurasata, the government announced its decision to permit the "slow, orderly and planned return to their place of origin, insofar as their security can be guaranteed." A month later it was revealed that the possibility of allowing people to return to what had been a militarized zone was clinched in mid-May by the secret signing of a preliminary cease-fire agreement with Eduardo Pantin, head of Misura's high command. (A similar accord had been signed in April between the government and Misurasata leader Brooklyn Rivera, but return to the river had not been among his demands, since Misurasata's social base was south of Puerto Cabezas, along the coastline proper.) Pantin and the Misura commanders who supported his position guaranteed protection of the road up from Tasba Pri in lieu of the Sandinista army (EPS), whose presence, the population feared, might provoke attacks by Misura bands not beholden to the agreement.

In an important demonstration of trust in and respect for the feelings of the communities, the Sandinistas also pulled back the military posts that had been in place along the river. Together with 8,500 other Miskitus and several hundred Sumus, Leimus' 650 inhabitants in Tasba Pri streamed back. Over the ensuing months, caravans of government and civilian trucks carried thousands of families, their chickens, pigs and zinc roofing to their beloved river. Several thousand more found their own way back from other towns and villages in the vast Atlantic Coast province of Zelaya, where they had been working or living with relatives. Others came from as far away as El Limón and Rivas, in the Pacific. Some 500 Miskitus were repatriated from Honduras with the help of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in the last half of 1985, and up to 1,000 more returned on their own.

Efforts to maintain a slow and orderly pace were no match for peoples' eagerness to return, and the communities filled faster than the government could provide adequate provisions. Shipments of subsidized food promised by the government until the harvest of the first plantings ten months later continually fell behind the actual head count. International aid agencies, caught by surprise as much as the people themselves, were slower to conclude that the return was propitious. Government requests for emergency assistance—mosquito netting, machetes, nails, more zinc roofing, medicines—only began to arrive at the transshipment point in Puerto Cabezas late in the year.

By January 1986, an estimated 14,800 people had returned to the Río Coco. All but the upriver communities, which had temporarily camped in Waspam to wait for boat motors and for the end of the rainy season to slow the current, were in place. Despite the hardships accompanying the return to their villages, which in many cases had to be completely rebuilt, people were overjoyed to be back and showed little signs of rancor.

How, then, are we to understand the sudden exodus to Honduras of all but a few thousand of these same people? Are they, as a US official explained it, a "political football" in the ongoing struggle between the Nicaraguan government and US-backed Miskitus warriors? Were they kidnapped, as the Sandinista government suggests? What led up to this event, and whose interests does it really serve?

Moves toward a political solution

As we detailed in the October 1985 issue of envío, events in the first half of 1985 had shifted the situation on the Atlantic Coast from an all-consuming military struggle to one of primarily political dimensions. Although Misurasata leader Brooklyn Rivera walked out of his talks with the government in May, and Eduardo Pantin was killed in June in what appears to have been a gun accident, the tactical cease-fire agreed to by both had held, with few exceptions, until January 1986. Among the early exceptions were the blowing up of the Puerto Cabezas water supply system, located in the neighboring community of Tuapi; the kidnapping of a six-person vaccination team as it arrived in the Miskitu community of Alamikamba; and an attack on the island of Rama Cay in Bluefields in which several Rama Indian youth were killed and visiting medical personnel from Managua were kidnapped.

While these actions carried out by dissident sectors within the two groups caused tensions to flare, government forces refused to be provoked. Individual dialogue continued with an expanding number of Misura chiefs, though none had the authority of Pantin. Where talks reached the stage of a signed accord, the EPS withdrew, leaving defense of certain communities and other key points to those Misura troop commanders. With fewer attacks on government vehicles, the communities began receiving regular delivery of food and medicines for the first time in two years. This breathing space in turn allowed the coast peoples to turn their attention to the autonomy process formalized by the government in December 1984.

In both north and south Zelaya local volunteers carried out an initial consultation of the population, based on a draft document that had been elaborated by the 80-member autonomy commission in June. By late November, the scheduled end of the consultation, the turmoil of the return to the river, the fragile military situation and the general exhaustion of the population meant that few people in the north had given the project the full attention it required. In the south, on the contrary, an estimated 90% of the urban population and the outlying communities that were not in inaccessible war zones had been consulted about the principles and proposed policies for an autonomous region. (A poll is now being conducted in the southern region, based on the various points of debate gleaned from the consultation and informal discussions; an assembly of community representatives is planned for next month to discuss the results of this poll. As Johnny Hodgson, coordinator of the regional autonomy commission in the south, put it, "When the final statute is elaborated, there will be no surprises. We aim for consensus, but where there are firm differences, the commission will decide based on majority opinions.")

The US takes a firmer hand

This easing of tensions would not last; it was not in the Reagan administration's plans. In the first days of September, an assembly of Miskitu combatants, the vast majority from Misura, was held in Misura's base camp at Rus Rus in Honduras. After excoriating both Brooklyn Rivera, for his "sell-out" in even talking to the Sandinistas, and Stedman Fagoth, who had been finally expelled from Misura the previous month for his violent and uncontrollable personal ambition (neither Fagoth nor Rivera attended the assembly), the 700 participants voted to create a new, unified armed organization called Kisan (Miskitu for "Nicaraguan Coast Indian Unity"). The vote came after Wycliffe Diego, a Moravian pastor who had replaced Fagoth as head of Misura and was tapped to head Kisan, announced that the US was prepared to give the new organization 300,000 from the first part of the $27 million "humanitarian" aid package. Diego made it clear that in return Misura and Misurasata were expected to unite, continue the war and take a seat on UNO (the United Nicaraguan Opposition, formed to channel the aid to the contra organizations).

It soon became obvious that Kisan was not a unification of the two organizations at all. It was a re-garbing of Misura, which had, on the one hand, repudiated its former links with Fagoth, and on the other, tightened its alliance with the FDN. Although two or three Misurasata leaders were named to Kisan's high command, they were dissidents who had nine months earlier tried unsuccessfully to expel Rivera from his leadership position.

Lured by the new US funding, some Miskitus previously involved in dialogue went back to the fold, among them the commander who had been protecting the returning population in the northern half of the road to the river. Others have continued to honor the cease-fire, and pressure for peace from the communities has forced still others to recognize that continued war is unacceptable. By early this year those in dialogue, whose combined troops number nearly 500, had become the sole defenders of an area southwest of Puerto Cabezas comprising some nine communities.

To the confusion of outsiders, this group, too, has accepted Misura's new name, designating itself "Kisan pro-dialogue." Asked recently why they had adopted the name of an organization that had openly deepened its ties to the FDN and the US and was determined to continue a war they no longer agreed with, Juan Salgado, a member of the original group to open talks with the government, responded, "It is to show our respect for the Council of Elders' decision to form a new organization without Fagoth; but we disagree with it ideologically."

In mid-October, Kisan "Pro-War," as it has come to be called, carried out its first major action: it blew up the strategic suspension bridge over the Río Sisin, on the only road to the Río Coco. This bridge was one of the points that had been turned over to dialoguing Miskitu forces several months earlier, but they were unable to defend it against the Kisan attackers. The population was at first indignant, since this put a stop to the caravans of both people and food going to the Coco. Some, however, were later swayed by Kisan's argument that this counterproductive action was part of the struggle Kisan was supposedly carrying out on their behalf. Combined with Kisan's later tactic of distributing money among the returned communities on the river, the effort can be clearly seen as one aimed at fomenting discontent with the government for failing to satisfy the population's material needs.

Russell Means promotes war,
then cries foul when treated as a warrior

At the international level as well, it was clear that the Sandinistas were not going to be permitted any space for political solutions or media victories. The Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, which functions openly as Misurasata’s propaganda arm, sent out numerous bulletins in the latter half of the year, describing Sandinista "intransigence" on the indigenous question. In accord with Rivera's own line, these communications either underplayed or totally ignored the autonomy process, the return to the Río Coco, the creation of Kisan or the context of US aggression. Organizations such as the Indian Youth Council began vicious attacks on Nicaragua in their newsletter and in fundraising appeals. For their part, the major media viewed what promised to be a historic autonomy process in Latin America as a non-event, giving it virtually no coverage.

As early as March 1985, US Indian activist Russell Means first announced that he intended to bring 100 American Indians to Nicaragua "to fight with a shovel in one hand and a rifle in the other." Repeating his threat in November to the international media, he entered Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast in early January with Brooklyn Rivera, World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) president Clem Chartier and Survival of American Indians Association national director Hank Adams.

In a San José press conference on February 10, Rivera described their trip as a peaceful, fact-finding mission, coolly ignoring the fact that he is the leader of an armed organization fighting the government and that his delegation included a North American Indian who had repeatedly declared war on the Sandinistas. He also chose to ignore the fact that this rather spurious group had illegally entered the country, when all—with the likely exception of Means—could have come in openly. (Rivera's major tour of the coast in October 1984, at the invitation of the Sandinista government, had skyrocketed his prestige.)

Numerous sources on the coast claim that Rivera's goals were anything but peaceful; according to them, he went in promoting a return to the war, presumably to regain his waning political control. In some of the communities, we are told, this stance sealed the progressive loss of support he has suffered in the past year for living the "good life" abroad instead of representing his people inside the country. Other, formerly supportive Miskitus, including founding Misurasata leader Hazel Law, have openly criticized Rivera’s reliance on mal-intentioned US advisers such as Prof. Bernard Nietschmann of the University of California at Berkeley and representatives of the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) and Cultural Survival.

On January 21, the government, learning of Rivera's activities, attacked the group's position. It was the first attack initiated by the Sandinistas since May 1985. ILRC and Cultural Survival went on the offensive even before any verifiable news was available, sounding the alarm that the lives of the group were in danger. Admitting that they lacked concrete information, they mounted a major campaign among Indian and Indian rights groups that the Sandinistas had bombed a number of communities, killing many civilians. Journalists who later accompanied Red Cross and church officials on a visit to Layasiksa, one of the communities supposedly leveled by aerial bombs, discovered that positions just outside the community had been bombed but that the village itself had not. "Based on the things we had been hearing from abroad, we expected to see the community wiped off the map," said Moravian Bishop Hedley Wilson, "but it is not the case."

"If we get sufficient military and humanitarian aid for Misurasata," Russell Means raved in the San José press conference, "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." Driving home his point, he added, "If anyone—FDN, ARDE, United States of America, Costa Rica, Honduras—if anyone wants a future in Central America, they have to deal with Misurasata."

Request for US military aid goes afoul

Means made good his press conference promise that he and Rivera would seek military aid for Misurasata from high State Department officials. But in a public exchange of letters in the op-ed pages of The New York Times in mid-March, Means expressed dissatisfaction with their meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams. "Abrams felt it appropriate that Misurasata put itself under Kisan, a tiny Indian contra group based in Honduras and unable to show support of any kind from the Indian communities of Nicaragua," wrote Means. (It estimated that Kisan-Pro War has between 1,000 and 2,000 combatants. Misurasata is frequently said to have no more than 300, though its civilian social base is significant in the area where it operates.)

"The United States is not asking the Indians represented by Mr. Rivera to subordinate themselves to any other organization," responded Abrams in a letter to the Times. "We ask only that they be prepared to cooperate in a common struggle for democracy and independence in Nicaragua. I have no doubt that they will do so. They need help, and we are going to help them." Misurasata was for its first several years allied with ARDE and Rivera still maintains warm relations with Edén Pastora; in public, Rivera has opposed any cooperation with the Somocista-riddled FDN in Honduras. Rivera was quoted during his trip to Boulder, Colorado, however, as saying that Misurasata would accept money from any source, even the CIA, to fight the Sandinistas.

The net effect of Rivera's publicity stunt was negative for all who participated in it. Clem Chartier was stripped of his presidency in the WCIP for having jeopardized the organization's diplomatic role with the Sandinistas; the trip was viewed as adventurist by many journalists; and a subsequent tour by Rivera and Means to Indian communities in the US created violent open rifts within the Indian movement in the States. American Indian Movement leaders Vernon Bellecourt and Bill Means, Russell’s brother, were quoted in the Colorado Daily saying that the dispute was in large part kindled by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The fact that President ("I am a Miskitu") Reagan made no reference to this otherwise favorite anti-Sandinista issue in his speech before the House vote on the $100 million can be interpreted as tacit recognition that it did not go as the Administration would have liked. Guatemalan Indian leader Rigoberta Menchú, in Nicaragua at the time of the Costa Rican press conference, responded to a question on the subject with pointed subtlety. "When Russell got shot at Wounded Knee," she said, "all he got for it was thrown in prison. When he gets shot fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, he gets on the front page of The New York Times. It is very hard for Indians to maintain a principled fight and not fall into opportunism."

Kisan prepares for the exodus

Respecting the wishes of the communities that there be no Sandinista military presence in the Río Coco, the government in general maintained a low profile. Nicaragua's social welfare ministry (INSSBI) assured basic food supplies every two weeks; MIDINRA, the agrarian reform ministry, provided seeds for planting; and the joint government-civilian Return Commission continued its huge task of getting people and belongings back to their original communities. The only military activity was that of a mobile army medical unit that traveled through the communities treating the sick and showing films such as the US-made "Nine To Five" (retitled in Spanish, "How to Kill Your Boss"). By early this year the Sisin Bridge was repaired, making it possible to finally begin delivering the quantities of donations that had accumulated. Elected representatives from each village relayed communications between the government and the Miskitus-speaking populations, and saw to the reorganizing of community life.

Kisan quickly took advantage of the situation to insert itself into the communities. In some cases this presence took the form of Kisan fighters living with their own families and carrying out what government representatives describe as coercive military instruction of the youth; in others Kisan's military presence grew even more menacing, including command posts and anti-air weapons. By the first months of 1986, an estimated 500 Kisan fighters were spread through the river communities from San Carlos to Cape Gracias a Dios, together with a larger contingent of FDN forces located south of the community of Kum, which was supplied by helicopters from Honduras. Across from Leimus itself, US artillery had been installed along the Honduran shore of the river, directed toward Nicaragua.

Between January and March ten civilians were kidnapped, two tortured and killed, and ambushes of military personnel by Kisan increased. In total, Kisan carried out some 30 such actions in those three months. In early March, the Sandinista government made known its displeasure. As Army Subcomandante Ernesto Soza explained, "We tried to persuade Kisan that war is not the answer, and that militarily they are no big deal. We tried to dialogue, we sent letters, religious figures and people of the communities talked to them, all trying to explain that we didn't want to create a situation that would endanger people." An FSLN representative working in the zone added that any Kisan member who showed signs of being swayed by the government's argument was pulled back to Honduras and replaced by another. Kisan's response to these efforts, said Subcomandante Soza, "was to mortar one of our border posts, kill two government workers, rob the communities' food supply and rape several women."

In a press conference on March 19 to present Jimmy Wilson,* a Kisan intelligence chief who had decided to take advantage of the amnesty, Interior Ministry (MINT) Subcomandante Salvador Pérez also made the situation clear to international journalists. As he detailed to the press, Kisan's military chief Adan Artola, accompanied by other members of Kisan's high command and several US advisers, went to the Río Coco communities of Saupuka, Bilwaskarma, Saklin, Wasla and Kum in early March. There they reportedly laid out their immediate military plans, which included mining installations and the roads to Tronquera, Leimus, Waspam and Bismuna; control of river traffic; and attacks on the border posts in Leimus, Waspam and the military base in Tronquera. He added that Radio Miskut and Radio 15 de Septiembre, contra stations in Honduras, complemented this propaganda campaign with messages in Miskitu that people should prepare to cross to Honduras, saying that the invasion would come in April. The broadcasts harangued the population to combat Sandinista "totalitarianism," accusing the FSLN of ethnocide. A variant in their plans, he added, was to try again to impose a provisional government (first tried in November-December 1981 as the centerpiece of a strategy called "Red Christmas"). The alternative to laying down their arms and separating themselves from Reagan's plans, Perez made clear to the press, was that "we will act with the energy necessary to dislodge them from the area."
*In his testimony to the press, Wilson said that in late 1981 he was forcibly taken from the Río Coco by the Somoza Guard and trained for combat in Honduras. He said he could give the names and locations of clandestine cemeteries where more than 100 Miskitus killed by Stedman Fagoth were buried. He said that the populations on the Río Coco were rejecting the contra forces because they took the government-provided food and medicines, and that in Honduras the Miskitu refugees were constantly pressured not to return. Those captured while attempting to return, he said, faced jail or death. He added that the groups had been coming into the river communities at night and taking the young boys to training camps, one of which was inside Nicaragua. He stated that Kisan had eight anti-tank mines in Wasla, six in Saklin and ten in Bilwaskarma that they planned to put on the road. The communities had denounced the presence of these mines, because they are the ones that suffer. He mentioned the possibility of an invasion in the region, which he said would be carried out by Miskitu forces with US help.

In these same months, January to March 1986, air and naval violations from Honduras increased in the region, as did cross-border provocations. These actions coincided with the first phase of the "Cabanas 86" joint military maneuvers, which got underway in Honduras' Atlantic province of Cape Gracias a Dios in early March. US Army engineers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were parachuted in to Durzuna, Honduras, just across the Río Coco from the Miskitu community of San Carlos. Their job was to expand an airstrip, built in 1982, to accommodate C-130 transport planes; the 450 tons of heavy equipment dropped with them will then be used to extend road access in this area. (The airstrip, which lies some 20 kilometers into Honduras, will be used in phase two of Cabanas 86, scheduled to take place in May and June only five km from the Nicaraguan border. This phase will include parachute attacks and "small, special operations units in anti-guerrilla struggle." Among the objectives of Cabanas 86, according to a Pentagon declaration, "is training in support of operations in isolated places." Phase two will reportedly involve troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, which participated in the 1983 invasion of Grenada.)

On March 18, the Honduran armed forces made the surprise announcement that the "General Tosta-86" joint maneuvers, scheduled for April in the same province, would begin immediately, and in early April, 4,500 more US troops and an equivalent number of Hondurans were sent to the neighboring province of Olancho for yet another set of exercises, called "Lempira 86." Military sources were quoted as saying that Olancho, also bordering Nicaragua, "presents magnificent conditions for training special forces for jungle fighting."

Kisan dislodged

On March 25, Sandinista troops made a pre-dawn raid on Bilwaskarma, presumably from their base in Waspam, about a four-hour walk upriver. Residents interviewed later in Honduras by Americas Watch said that Kisan had a base of about 40 combatants there. Although the population of 900 seems to have been in the community when the attack occurred, most fled to the other side of the river, where they listened to the combat, which they said lasted some six hours. Those interviewed said they knew of no civilian deaths. The following morning, March 26, a similar surprise attack was made on Kisan positions in Wasla and Kum, two communities of about a thousand people each further downriver from Bilwaskarma. Although a soldier envío spoke to a month later who had fought in Wasla said no people were in the community when they attacked, Americas Watch found one man in Honduras who said he had been there. According to the Americas Watch report of April 11, 1986, the man said the Sandinistas fired several mortar shells that landed right next to the church. "When asked if there was a Kisan base in the town," the report states, "he said yes. Where was it? Right next to the church."

At Kum some 200 Sandinista soldiers attacked Buena Vista, an abandoned EPS military post about 15 minutes walk outside of the community, which had been taken over by Kisan. envío could see virtually no signs of fighting in the village itself, which was one of several left intact after the 1982 evacuation. A soldier there also said the houses had been empty when they arrived, which conformed to Comandante Soza's earlier comment that as a result of the government's warnings to Kisan, people from these communities had been sleeping at the river’s edge, a kilometer from the village, and returning during the day.

Defense Ministry sources say that three Sandinista soldiers were killed and 15 wounded in the five hours of fighting at the Buena Vista camp. Kisan, they say, suffered a total of 14 dead, 30 wounded and 7 captured, figures that closely match those given by refugees from the three communities in which fighting took place. Ministry officials say they achieved their limited goal, which was to drive Kisan back across the border. They emphasized that the objective was not to follow and annihilate them, which would have risked civilian lives. Neither government officials nor refugees in Honduras mentioned any use of planes or aerial bombardment, as disinformation sources in Washington said had occurred. Refugee officials in Honduras acknowledged that there were no wounded among the arriving civilians.

Delayed exodus

As enterprising journalists and human rights analysts would soon discover, the two military operations on March 25 and 26 had about as much to do with the flight of 12,000 Miskitus from the Río Coco over the next weeks as a soccer game did with the 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras. According to the Americas Watch report, "Relief workers in Honduras began to hear from refugees in December 1985 that Kisan planned to move all the people living on the Nicaraguan side of the Río Coco into Honduras. They planned to do it before the rainy season started at the end of April." The only effect the combat had on Kisan's project was to disrupt their schedule.

Journalists who covered the refugees' arrival also made no effort to hide the fact that it was thoroughly manipulated by both Kisan and the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Boston Globe reporter Pamela Constable, for example, wrote that the arrival "was orchestrated by US officials to benefit the Miskitu exile cause and to bolster the Reagan administration's portrait of Sandinista repression against the Indians."

With many reporters in Honduras to follow another administration propaganda fiasco—the supposed Nicaraguan "invasion" of Honduras—the US Embassy arranged a press flight for Thursday, April 3, to Srumlaya, a Honduran border town that was serving as a temporary UNHCR reception center. Even Vice President George Bush was rumored to be planning to accompany the tour to greet the incoming wave of refugees. The flight was postponed for four days by bad weather and Bush never appeared, but other journalists arriving in the Honduran Mosquitia on their own learned what they would have been treated to. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "At 9:45 a.m. Thursday, a team of US military personnel—five doctors, five nurses, two dentists and four veterinarians—were flown in Chinook helicopters to Auka [a UNHCR refugee center nine miles from the border] as planned. They brought about 20 truckloads of medical supplies, apparently expecting to see as many as 800 refugees, according to a refugee official who was present. "Only about 50 refugees were there.”

Where were they

?On March 28 the Washington D.C. press carried a story saying that 3,500 Miskitus were pouring into the Río Coco area. Since the UNHCR had only registered 250 new refugees between March 24 and 31, refugee officials flew over the area on April 2 to verify whether there were more. They noted about l,000 or more in Srumlaya, seemingly hiding from the plane under makeshift roofs. Kisan told the UNHCR in the presence of Americas Watch that no refugees were to leave Srumlaya for Auka and Tapamlaya (another UNHCR-run camp) until after the press conference the following day. According to the Boston Globe, exile leaders had told a relief official that they had delayed the refugees even earlier at the border to "make them politically conscious" before facing questioners in the camps. An Embassy official was seen in both Auka and Srumlaya several different days between March 28 and April 2.

Even journalists who later went on the Embassy trip were conscious of the manipulation and of the presence of Kisan militants during interviews with the refugees. As one reporter later told envío, "There was always another Miskitu standing next to the refugee, well dressed, with boots and a new t-shirt, and a button saying 'Jesus Will Save Me.' You could tell they were coaching the refugees in Miskitu on how to answer our questions."

In his April 7 article, Baltimore Sun staff correspondent James Bock said relief officials expected more refugees from the Río Coco, where at least 5,000 remained at that date. Refugees interviewed in Srumlaya and Auka in early April confirmed that “everyone” was going to leave the Río Coco. And in fact, by mid-April, an estimated 12,000 had crossed into Honduras en masse, including from towns upriver where there had not even been any Sandinista military presence, much less military activity.

Only Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) and the rabidly rightwing Washington Times had a different story. ("Although all of the facts are not yet clear," said an April 15 ILRC press statement, well after everyone else seemed to think they were, "recent reports indicate that the flight of thousands of Miskitus was triggered by a Sandinista military invasion of the villages along the Coco River. In the dark of the early morning hours of March 25, the Sandinista army suddenly moved hundreds and perhaps thousands of its soldiers into several of these villages." Calling the limited military actions of the Sandinistas "gross and inexcusable abuses" against the villages, ILRC demonstrated its continuing willful ignorance of the situation by demanding that the Sandinista government "address Indian demands through a political process rather than military operations." The Washington Times, for its part, quoted State Department sources as saying that 40 civilians had died, and that the Sandinista operation "seemed aimed at clearing the villages along the border of their Indian inhabitants.")

Also ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa pursued this same line. Joseph McLean, the refugee officer in the political section, offered to reporters the opinion that "the villages were useful to Kisan, and the Sandinistas just decided they couldn't afford to put up with them any more. [Clearing out the villages] is a classic example of one way to deal with a guerrilla movement."

The Embassy was not the only US administration entity to capitalize on the event. CIA director William Casey included it in a speech on April 6, Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams included it in his testimony to Congress on April 8, and, as mentioned earlier, George Bush even planned to grace the refugees with what would have been highly visible concern for their well-being. Later in the month several "refugees" were themselves shipped off to Washington to plead their case.

Why were they taken; why did they go?

The story pieced together from numerous interviews is that while the communities in or near the combat area crossed the river to avoid the fighting, most returned when it was over. The real exodus began several days later. As Guadalupe Taylor, a resident of Saklin, told a Newsday reporter in Honduras, "People from Kisan had come by before saying that whatever battle there is, don't leave your village, but then they came and told us to go. Later, two members of the Council of Elders came—they were going to all the villages as far as Kum—and told us to leave. We left our crops in the fields, took our clothes and started coming. Only three families stayed on that side. They had sick old people so they went deeper into Nicaragua."

Several hypotheses have emerged in the attempt to understand why Kisan wanted the Río Coco population in Honduras. The most likely one is that Kisan will be able to dominate the population there in a way it could not do inside Nicaragua. From its "safe haven" inside Honduras, protected by the Honduran Army's Fifth Battalion and with the acquiescence of the Honduran government, Kisan can both recruit and train Miskitu youths freely. International relief agencies, acknowledging that forced recruitment has gone on for years among the earlier Miskitu refugees, have been and will remain powerless to stop it.

The non-combatant population, in turn, can be used to supply food for the fighters. While some of this food might be diverted from relief programs, it is more likely that they will be expected to produce it. In 1983-84, many of the Miskitu refugees who had arrived in early 1982 were transferred from the camp at Mocorón to smaller communities. Each family was allotted about an acre and a half to farm, where it is said that in 1984 they produced a bumper crop of eight billion pounds of rice. Last year Honduras' Forestry Service told the Miskitus that they could clear no more land for farming, but according to Dan Eberhard, project director for the World Relief Corp. at Mocorón, the government has now verbally agreed to grant each Indian family about five acres of land to farm. Inadvertently offering a clue as to why Kisan wanted to wait until April for the exodus, Eberhard added that that new arrivals will have to plant their crops before the wet season starts in late May. (According to one reporter, the premature departure from Nicaragua meant that a bumper bean crop due for harvest in April was left behind.)

The theory that, as Americas Watch phrased it, Kisan is "moving the sea to the fish" presupposes two things: 1) that Kisan recognizes it is incapable of controlling territory or winning a victory inside Nicaragua, and 2) that it is preparing for a long struggle. To quote Americas Watch again, "It can at least maintain a fiefdom in the Mosquitia, with funding from the US and support for its civilian base from international relief agencies. In the future, if circumstances permit, the population—by then fully organized by Kisan—could be repatriated to Nicaragua to cover guerrilla operations."

Miskitu refugees on the Honduran border have been a convenient magnet for both US government and private aid in the past several years. In 1984, a good part of the $680,000 in aid provided to Honduras by the rightwing organization Americares went directly to Miskitu fighters. In that same year, Congress appropriated $7.5 million to assist some 5,000 Miskitus who had not participated in the UNHCR resettlement program. (A leaked internal report by one aid agency in 1985 indicated that Misura uprooted some who had been in UNHCR self-subsistence programs, driving them back down to the border to provide a pretext for such aid.) Beginning in 1985, private rightwing organizations such as Friends of the Americas; Causa (associated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church); its affiliate, International Relief Friendship Foundation and others have increased their aid to this area. Kisan head Wycliffe Diego recently acknowledged that his organization had received $2 million of the $27 million in humanitarian aid, but that it was not enough. The assistance that Kisan hopes to receive from the US via UNO if the $100 million is passed will also be supplied in Honduras, not Nicaragua.

In such a scenario, Kisan, like FDN, will be reduced to small bands engaging in terrorist actions with sophisticated weaponry. Other information, however, contradicts this protracted terrorist war theory. Some Miskitus are saying that the CIA approached Kisan recently regarding the possibility of a direct US invasion in the Atlantic region. Nicaraguan Defense Ministry officials have said they don’t rule out the possibility of an attempt to divide the country through a naval invasion of Bluefields or Puerto Cabezas and the installation of a provisional government. Such a "Koreanization" of the country would envision the Atlantic region then being used as a beachhead for attacks against the central and Pacific areas of Nicaragua. One official suggested that new Indian leaders espousing a "fourth worldist" line might be put at the head of such an effort, since Rivera, Diego and others have lost much of their international prestige.

Both Misurasata and Kisan are badly divided internally. It’s not at all clear that such a plan, if it exists, would gain the full support of both groups. Within each, some admire US values and its goal of overthrowing the Sandinistas; others are simply dazzled by the relative wealth flowing their way. Still others, and it is not clear how large this group is, uneasily accept the alliance with FDN and the US as the only way to continue their struggle. They haven’t lost sight of the fact that US governments have never done anything good for North American Indians and that the FDN ideology is the same one that left them marginalized and oppressed for half a century. They fear that a US invasion, or an FDN victory, would not bring a satisfactory response to their demands and that they would have to continue fighting. The US could find that its dreams of a crowd on the Puerto Cabezas dock, anxiously cheering the arrival of US gun ships, are seriously misguided.

If Kisan leaders really want what Wycliffe Diego claims they do ("We don’t want to separate from Nicaragua; we want to officialize our language, study in our own language, have our churches respected, control the mines and resources, and have Miskitus run the development of the Atlantic Coast"), they have less contradictions with the government of Nicaragua than they do with their current allies. They would surely have to make concessions, i.e., would have to recognize in practice that there are five other peoples on the Coast whose rights and aspirations must be equally guaranteed and they would have to come to terms with the fact that autonomy differs from separation precisely in that the central government does not relinquish total control; it retains its right to make decisions that affect the nation as a whole. Finally, they would have to make the leap of faith that the government and Kisan Pro-Dialogue have already shown themselves willing to make—that there are gains to be made in carefully testing the waters of mutual trust. As part of that leap of faith, they would have to come to the same conclusion the kuka¬ in Leimus has already reached—that the Miskitus' historic enemy is not the Sandinistas but the US government.

As for the Miskitus on the Río Coco, they don’t conform to the image of a "political football"—innocent victims kicked around by both sides equally for propaganda purposes. They aren’t neutral; they’re bound to the Miskitu warriors in Kisan not only by ethnic and ideological ties, but by family ties as well. They, more than other Miskitus, are thus loath to believe that Kisan leaders could be fighting for nefarious motives or would intentionally endanger them.

It is therefore likely that some people on the river believed Kisan members who repeatedly told them that the Sandinistas were coming to send them back to Tasba Pri, or to forcibly recruit their sons, or to bomb their villages. Others, particularly those upriver, according to some Miskitus in Puerto Cabezas, must have been coerced.

In any case it is unarguable that, left to their own, none would have gone to Honduras. In a two-day trip along the Río Coco in late April, envío was told by those in the remaining villages of Bismuna, Kisalaya, Waspam and Leimus that no one really wanted to be in Honduras; it wasn’t their land. "If Kisan comes here," we were told again and again, "they will have to kill us all or go away, because we’are not going." (The one thing these villages have in common is that there are now EPS posts not far away. While this makes people n the villages nervous that they might get caught in future fighting, it is also likely that Sandinista army presence is the reason Kisan never came to these areas.)

While a few have escaped and returned to Nicaragua in the past several weeks, there are reportedly roadblocks, and Kisan closely controls the area. US soldiers in the area have even been said to be preventing people from coming back. The UNHCR, requested immediately by the Nicaraguan government to help secure their return, says it has received no answer yet to its petition to the Honduran government. Asked what change in conditions would prevent a recurrence if people did return home, an FSLN representative with years of experience in the river zone responded, "These people were in Tasba Pri before, not Honduras. When they come back, it will be with the full knowledge of conditions there and why they were taken. We believe they’ll come back ready to defend their right and their desire to be here."

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Congress Is Forced to Recognize Contadora

Miskitus on the Río Coco Whose Political Football Are They?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development