Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 57 | Marzo 1986



The Sumu Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast—Defining Our Own Reality

Envío team

“The rights of autonomy of the indigenous peoples and communities of the Atlantic Coast will be exercised in the geographic area that they have traditionally occupied. This right is recognized and guaranteed by the Revolutionary Government.”
—Principle 7 of Nicaragua's draft document on autonomy

“If we were to talk of original rights, about where the Sumus have traditionally lived, it would be to talk about all of the Atlantic Coast.”
—Murphy Almendárez, General Coordinator of the Sumu organization, Sukawala

Much has been heard both within Nicaragua and abroad in the past six years about the "Indian problem" on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. Positions taken in the debate, particularly that voiced by Brooklyn Rivera, leader of the armed indigenous organization, Misurasata, often lump together the problems and demands of all three native peoples of the Atlantic Coast—Miskitus, Sumus and Ramas—as if they were one, and as if Rivera legitimately speaks for all.

Rivera is not the first to do this. There’s a tendency to presume that “all Indians think alike.” This presumption, always false, has several sources. One is that, indeed, indigenous peoples everywhere have suffered similar fates at the hands of governments, dominant classes and ethnic groups other than their own. In the colonial and post-colonial periods, they have been forced to cede land that they once occupied freely, to make way for spreading capitalist relations of production and concepts of private ownership of property.

At the end of last century, theoretical treatises on the causes of Latin American backwardness were inclined to focus on the indigenous and black blood among the mass of the population, claiming that this dilution caused laziness and lack of entrepreneurial vision, in turn seen as the root of the problem. Today, schemes to assimilate indigenous peoples into the dominant culture vie with others to keep them marginalized and oppressed, and with still others that would glorify that marginalization and make of it a monument to how modern societies went somehow wrong.

The traditional Left in both Latin and North America has made few successful efforts to incorporate the palpable reality of ethnic oppression into its class-oriented theories and practice. For their part, aboriginal and other ethnic-based movements find it hard to see beyond ethnic oppression to their typically exploited position within the class structure of the country they live in. This negative dynamic has led many thinkers in such movements to reject both the Right and the Left and to postulate that the two ideologies have more in common with each other than either has with them. Furthermore, the failure up to now of third world national liberation movements and governments to find adequate responses to pent-up indigenous demands combines with indigenous intransigence and impatience to produce a growing self-conception among native peoples as the “fourth” world and to seek allies only among themselves and unquestioning sympathizers with their cause.

The first potential brake on this trend is occurring in Central America. The past ten years of struggle by the groups that now make up the URNG in Guatemala have seen an impressive increase in mutual respect, joint practice and serious efforts among indigenous and non-indigenous people to cross-fertilize their experiences and their legitimate aspirations. In Nicaragua, too, the Sandinistas are showing themselves open to public self-criticism of their original precepts, a careful re-examination of the demands of native peoples and other ethnic communities of the Atlantic Coast and a conversion of their legitimate rights into not just concessions of the central government but fundamental principles of the revolution itself.

Nicaraguans of the two coasts carry the scars of centuries of bitter history in which the struggles of two colonial powers—England and Spain—were fought out vicariously by the populations originally there or brought to the area over the course of time. These scars, frequently reopened in modern history, make trusting and open dialogue difficult today. On the part of the coast populations this historic mistrust is layered over with a strong veneer of anti-communism fostered by Somoza and US missionaries in the past and by the Voice of America and Honduran and Costa Rican propaganda in the present, which distorts their view of the Sandinistas. On the part of the Pacific population in general, the mistrust is easily agitated by their memory of Nicaragua's divided territory for so much of the country’s history and its fragile unity even today. On the part of the revolution in particular, it is cautioned by some evidence of separatist sentiment among the coastal peoples and by ample evidence of direct US manipulation of the situation for its own ends.

A significant minority of the 80,000 Miskitus who live in the vast but scantly populated Atlantic Coast region (the province of Zelaya covers over 50% of Nicaragua's territory, but is home to less than 10% of its population) have interpreted Sandinista efforts in the worst possible light. Several thousand have chosen to take up arms. Some of those, in open collusion with the US government and the main US-financed contra group, FDN, have publicly stated their desire to overthrow the Sandinista government. Others have been more guarded, claiming that they’re fighting only to assure their rights. Many of the fighters themselves, as in any war, aren’t clear what they’re fighting for. They defer to the explanations of their leaders and the assistance that comes from abroad to give meaning to their possible death.

According to a commander of Misura, the other armed Miskitu organization fighting the government, who himself is now in dialogue with the Sandinistas, more than 300 Miskitu fighters in his organization have died. The population has suffered disruption of its agricultural activities, attacks by the armed organizations on economic activities in the region, and a drop in health and education services due to attacks on government vehicles and personnel when they enter the war zones. Most of the Miskitu communities are now pressuring their "muchachos" to negotiate a dignified end to the fighting. They are asking for political, not military, leaders to represent them in the space opened up by the government's willingness to grant a measure of autonomy and a possibility for first-class citizenship unprecedented in Latin America.

Meanwhile, the viewpoints of another indigenous group on the Atlantic Coast generally go unheard. The historic experiences of the Sumus, their world view and their character as a people—to the degree that such a generalization is ever valid—lead them to draw different conclusions and voice their aspirations in a different way than the Miskitus. Once the dominant population on the Atlantic Coast, the Sumus now number no more than 8,000 and thus their voices are drowned in the general uproar of Miskitu demands.

The Sumus live mainly in the mountainous area of what is today the mining region of northwest Zelaya province, although smaller groupings of communities or single villages are found near the mouth of the Río Grande de Matagalpa north of Bluefields; and along the Umbra, Prinzapolka and Wawa rivers, all in northern Zelaya. There are also communities on the Río Siquia near Chontales and the Río Bocay in Jinotega (the latter relocated into Matagalpa due to the presence of the FDN along the border with Honduras).

When fighting began in the Atlantic Coast in late 1981, Sumu communities were the first to be taken to Honduras by Misura, some through the sowing of fear and others by outright kidnapping. An estimated 2-3,000 Sumus—perhaps a third of the total population—have lived in Misura-run refugee camps or resettlement centers of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in eastern Honduras for the past four years. More than 300 civilians from Musawas, the Sumu capital of 1,600 people taken to Honduras in March 1982, have made their way back to Nicaragua in recent months. Several hundred more are expected to return soon.

Few Sumus have participated in the counterrevolution. On the contrary, despite early tensions on the Coast, Sumus have largely participated in tasks of defense and construction of the revolution. In October 1985, 30 Sumu fighters who had been directly under FDN command turned themselves in to the Sandinistas, and are now either studying in Managua or defending their region against the FDN incursions.

Most Sumus, particularly the younger generation, admit to having more problems with the Miskitus than with the Sandinistas. When the revolutionary government first announced its decision to recognize the Coast's right to an autonomous government, Sumus were quick to respond that "if this means renewed domination by the Miskitos, we would prefer to keep things as they are."

The Sumus have their own organization, Sukawala (an abbreviation in Sumu for Association of Nicaraguan Sumu Communities), which originated in 1974. Sukawala was never recognized by the other indigenous organizations on the coast in the past decade—first Alpromisu, then Misurasata—despite the fact that both pretended to represent Sumu as well as Miskitu interests. Sukawala has suffered several setbacks for lack of funds and internal problems and was most recently reformed in April 1985 to push for Sumu rights and a Sumu position within the autonomy process. Sukawala leaders define the organization's role as promoting its people’s social development rather than representing them politically, but add that the current period has brought about the need for a clearer political definition, which they define as “independent and pro-revolution.”

The following report is the result of a visit by envío to three Sumu communities—Mukuswas, Espanolina and Wasakin—near the mining towns of Rosita and Bonanza. In Bonanza, we also talked with some of the people from Musawas who have returned from Honduras. In Rosita and in Managua, we talked at length to the leadership, both young and old, of Sukawala.

Sumus grasp hold of autonomy

In June 1985, the five members of the national autonomy commission and the more than eighty members of the two regional commissions from Special Zones I and II (roughly the department of Zelaya) held a weeklong seminar in Managua. In that meeting the three commissions unified into one and drafted what commission members conceived of as a “guide document” of proposed principles and policies for the exercise of autonomy in the Atlantic Coast (see envío¬, October 1985).

The idea was that this document would serve as the basis for a house-to-house consultation in all towns and communities of the Atlantic Coast. As anthropologist and National Autonomy Commission member Manuel Ortega explained at the time, “We hope that the principles outlined there will hold, but we expect people to accept some parts of the document, reject others and give us a deeper understanding of what the rest means to them. It will be on the basis of this popular consultation that a statute on autonomy will be drafted for the Constitution.”

One key problem is that few people on the coast have ever developed a programmatic vision of what autonomy should be. Decades of isolation and implicit or explicit repression on the coast have meant that aspirations have been frozen in a past century of collective memories. For the Miskitus it’s the historic memory of relative autonomy under the protection of the “benevolent colonizers,” the British, and of being their subordinate power on the coast. For the Sumus it’s the idyllic memory described by elder leader Ronas Dolores Green, of “living with only our own people, breathing pure air and bathing in our clear fresh rivers, before the foreigners came and little by little exterminated our resources, converting our land into a desert.” Other groups, too, the black Creoles, the Ramas, Garífonas and mestizos, each harbor their separate dreams and none has had the opportunity in recent decades to express them or bring them into consonance with contemporary reality.

The official stage of consultations on autonomy ended last November, but the Sumus weren’t satisfied. "The consultation was valuable in that it gave some indicators about a possible regional government and other aspects," said Murphy Almendárez, general coordinator of Sukawala, “but it was too abstract.” He explained that the autonomy document referred to one geography, one history and one set of rights for the whole coast, whereas there are numerous realities, not only between ethnic groups but also between geographic areas of the region. A corollary criticism was that the philosophical and political terms used in the document generated confusion among the largely uneducated population.

During the earlier consultations, Almendárez added, “Our people kept asking us, ‘Who did this autonomy? Tell us.’ When I’d ask government officials, they’d always say that we have to discuss it, to propose something.” Such suspicion has been prevalent during the autonomy process, illustrating both the mistrust and the paternalized dependency the population has always felt toward the central government.

Sukawala decided to stop just being critical. “We realized we can't wash our hands of it and leave it there,” said 24-year-old Almendárez. “For example, the autonomy document talks about right to land, but we have to say how we want it.” They decided to hold an assembly of Sumu communities in late February.

Manuel Ortega wholeheartedly agrees with the initiative: “It’s extremely positive that the Atlantic Coast communities are being insistent. The success of autonomy depends not on the commission but on the energy of people's participation.”

Sumu history: A tale of persecution

All historic or anthropological accounts agree that the Sumus were once the most numerous population on the Atlantic Coast, geographically extending from Punta Gorda (some 40 kilometers south of what is today Bluefields) north to the Río Patuka (prior to 1960 the border between Nicaragua and Honduras). Their communities extended westward into what is today Chontales in the south and Matagalpa and Jinotega in the north. Some say that once they even went as far west as Nueva Segovia.

As Ronas Dolores Green points out in a history of the Sumus that he wrote for Nicaragua's Center for Research and Documentation on the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA), “The centers of population were Bilwi (Bil = snake and Wi = leaf in Sumu), currently known as Puerto Cabezas; another place is Wawa, the name of a kind of insect that tradition says can hear its name....” Sumu place names in the Pacific, according to Dolores, include well-known areas such as Pancasán (Pamkasan: Pamka = tapir, Asang = mountain, or mountain of the tapir), Matiguás (Matiwas: Mata = tick, Was = river, or river of ticks), and Waslala (lalah = yellow, or yellow river). In the Atlantic Coast, many communities now considered Miskito have Sumu names, among them the Río Coco Miskitu capital of Waspam (Pam = fish), Bilwi and Wawa mentioned above, and Asang.

Miskitus originally tended to live only along the seaboard, particularly congregating in the area of Cape Gracias a Dios, as Columbus named it when he landed there. Generally described in history books as gregarious, the Miskitus were in a geographic and cultural position to develop trade relations with the British.

The British armed the Miskitus to fight off the Spanish, who claimed the territory as theirs. With their military superiority, the Miskitus sacked many of the Sumu villages as well, taking Sumu wives and children as their own or selling them as slaves to the British. More inclined to marry outside of their own people than the endogamous Sumus and Ramas, they also mixed with both the Europeans and the African slaves that came to the Coast. Miskitus, soon a phenotypically mixed bag, grew in numbers and geographical extension at the expense of the Sumus and Ramas.

The “Nicaraguan Mosquitia,” defined as a protectorate of Great Britain, together with the Miskitu monarchy inserted into Miskitu culture by the British Crown as a form of indirect rule, fostered a progressive transculturation of the Sumus toward being Miskitu. Both Sumus and Ramas had to pay a tribute to the Miskitu king because they lived in what was supposedly the exclusive property of the Miskitus.

Moravian missionaries, too, are responsible for such transculturation. Having translated the New Testament and many of the Moravian hymns into Miskitu in the latter part of the last century, they turned their attention to the more isolated Sumu communities starting in the early 20th century. While Sumus are grateful for the educational services the Moravians brought and the unprecedented attention they paid them, they are not happy that they were taught in the Miskitu language, which the missionaries had learned. The Moravians also encouraged an end to the Sumu practice of living in tiny, dispersed, extended family communities, and often cajoled them to move closer to the coast than they wanted to. In this effort, the missionaries showed insensitivity to the differences between Sumu language groups (there were ten, of which seven are now extinct), and even tried on several occasions to push Sumus into larger communities of Miskitus, particularly in southern Zelaya.

An account of the distribution of Sumu communities written by Nicaraguan anthropologist Jorge Jenkins and Gotzvon Houwald in the early 1970s details the transculturation of Sumu communities still taking place, whether by Miskitus moving into Sumu communities (as was the case of Kwabul on Río Pis Pis north of Bonanza), or the reverse (more common in the Río Bocay area of Jinotega). At the time of that study there were ten different areas of Sumu settlement peppered throughout Zelaya, the northern part of Jinotega and the southeastern part of Honduras, roughly totaling some 7,500 people.

The geographic dispersion of the Sumus and their absorption by the Miskitus makes an accurate census very difficult. A 1981 Sukawala document lists the Sumu population in Nicaragua as 15,000, but most Sumus today, including Sukawala leaders, agree with a figure closer to 7-8,000.

Whatever the absolute numbers, it is undeniable that the Sumu population has steadily declined over time, threatened from all sides as well as from within. In addition to the early Miskitu raiding parties, there are historical accounts of massacres between the different Sumu language groups, incursions into the Sumus’ northern Zelaya highlands by peasants pushed off their own land in the Pacific starting in the 1950s, and, most devastating, the discovery of gold in the Sumu hills by North Americans at the end of last century, which brought them nothing more than cyanide in their rivers. “It wasn’t for adventure or by accident that we have lived so dispersed,” Almendárez points out. “It obeys the laws of history. When there's been a war or some other danger, we’ve always fled to one place or another.”

Autonomy: Defining our own reality

Ronas Dolores, attempting to walk a diplomatic line between indigenous solidarity with the Miskitus and the Sumus' fear of again being dominated by them, said, “We and the Miskitus once loaned our region to others without much choice, and getting that loan repaid makes us brothers. But that doesn't mean that we both want the same things. I was born a Sumu and I will die a Sumu. We have to find out what we want from autonomy as Sumus. Let me put it this way: bananas and plantains won't grow in the same field.”

For the Sumus, as for native peoples everywhere, at least the underlying question is the same, however it maybe phrased: What does it mean to be indigenous? What is the essence of the rights that must be defended? As a Guatemalan Quiche woman struggling with this question said, “I have been accused of becoming a ladino because I have a blender. Does this mean that being Indian is necessarily linked to old, marginalized, backward ways of doing things, that I have to sit and grind maize by hand on a stone in ordered to still be considered part of my culture?”

Sukawala invited 46 representatives from the nine Sumu communities in the mining region to its February assembly to define their own reality. Prior to the assembly, Sukawala leaders drew up their own guide document, with the same essential goal as the earlier one drafted by the Autonomy Commission that it serve to inspire a deepening of the concepts and lead to specific proposals. The representatives divided into four groups to discuss the points in the document: autonomy, land and land rights, natural resources and the environment, and social assistance and the military aspect. At the end of the second day, the proposals were discussed in plenary. At the time of this writing, the results were being prepared in both Sumu and Spanish to present to the autonomy commission and the communities.

Almendárez counted the assembly an almost total success, particularly in that they were able to define a number of concrete proposals. Also,” he added, “with the assembly our people cleared up their earlier idea that we knew the definition and just weren't telling them.”

“The mining region has many different ideas about autonomy,” explained Almendárez. “For some it means more attention to communities, more social services, housing and development, for others it means communal territory, and still others say it has already been achieved by nationalizing the mines.” Despite limited historical experience with national governments, the Sumus quickly determined that social concerns such as education and health are government responsibilities with or without autonomy. Autonomy, they decided, has to mean more freedom to promote their own rights as Sumus. The goal, then, was to separate out general visions that are coherent for all Sumus from the particular needs of certain sectors, such as the refugees from Musawas who can’t yet go back to their community because of FDN activity there.

The draft prepared for the assembly translates the Sumu definition of autonomy (¬Alas yalahnin lani¬) as ‘to live our system of life.” “It is a natural concept,” the document says, “to live a harmonious freedom. It does not deny the right to development, but it should be in accord with our reality.”

One key issue in both the draft document and the assembly was land rights. The sections on this theme in the document reveal a poetry and a special love for the land seldom expressed by non-Indians: “The green hills and rivers for us enclose their own mystery. This mythical reality of our history is today a reflection of our melancholy. Today it is not known. This land is seen as virgin, yet these virgin mountains held Sumu populations. Today it seems that communication is difficult, but then there was a communications network between people and people. It was all one land. Therefore our right is to emphasize history.”

Asked about the difference between the Sumu conception of land and that of a non-indigenous peasant who also relies on a close relationship with the land for survival, Almendárez responded: “It's more philosophical, not just a piece of land as a means of work or a commercial relation. For us it’s a question of reciprocal unity more than anything else. They could give us the best lands anywhere else, but we only defend where we live together with our brothers. We know were home is, we've lived there before anyone else. That's why the Sumus who went to Honduras are returning. It has no price, this correspondence. It's like a family, like when you know that family unity exists.”

When asked whether Sumus define their land by communities or by territory, Almendárez grinned. “This is the most central proposal, and the most problematic. It generated a lot of debate in the assembly. In the end we concluded that we would propose recognition of a geographic demarcation for the Sumus that goes from Kukalaya to Waspuk.”

“We have to look at the future,” Almendárez explained. “What will the Sumus have in ten years? There could be more peasant movement, or the Profonicsa project in Kukalaya (a government lumbering project midway between Rosita and Puerto Cabezas), which is bringing more people, could stop and those people would have to find something to do. Or the mine in Rosita could start up again and the population could grow. The war will stop one day, we would assume. If we're talking about autonomy, something has to be left for the Sumus, so we can feel secure in this situation. We've never had this possibility before.”

Within this territory, the Sumus want titles to their communities as well. Some communities, Ronas Dolores pointed out, had once received titles thanks to the Harrison-Altamirano treaty between Britain and Nicaraguan President Zelaya in 1905. Dolores' own community, Wasakin, has already received recognition of its community title from the Sandinista government. At the July 19, 1985 public celebration of the sixth anniversary of the revolution, President Ortega handed over to Dolores a signed title for 35,000 hectares of land in Wasakin's name. The government has reiterated that it plans to grant titles to all the Sumu communities.

In Mukuswas, we were told that there were serious health problems among the children because their water is bad. In this case it’s because Miskitu families squatted on the land across the road eight years ago and started cattle ranching. The water that Mukuswas uses is downstream from the pastures and the Miskitus, they say, are indifferent to their problem. The Mukuswas residents said the government is going to give a title for 35,000 hectares to their community and the two adjoining ones of Espanolina and Santa Maria. They are hoping that then MIDINRA will buy out the Miskitu ranchers.

The larger territorial proposal, the Sumus recognize, is problematic. For one thing, it is one among several conflicting proposals made by different peoples on the Coast: some Miskitus are pushing for one indigenous territory that would encompass the Sumus and Ramas; and the Creoles are inclined to view any demarcation of separate areas as divisive. Almendárez says that a designation of Sumu territory does not imply a desire to exclude themselves from the proposal for a regional autonomous government.

Another difficulty, and perhaps one that colors the positions of the other groups mentioned above, is that the area marked off by the Sumus includes Bonanza and Rosita, where two of the nationalized gold mines are located. According to Murphy, the Sumus aren’t proposing that the mines be their exclusive property, but that they participate in decision-making and that exploitation of the mines acknowledge their views as a people. “Our policy would be that we take a percentage in taxes for scholarships and social attention additional to the services the government would give all communities. The mines have never meant anything for us except the end of us.”

The mines: Wealth for some, death for the Sumus

Wasakin is one of the oldest communities along the Río Bambana. As Ronas Dolores tells it in an article he wrote for the CIDCA quarterly magazine, Wani, an American trader first became interested in a gold rock a Wasakin resident had in his house. Soon the “gringos” were hauling machinery upriver from the Coast and employing Sumus to work in the mine they set up on a nearby hill, later called Rosita. In 1892 alone, some 500 explorers were combing the Sumu lands for the shiny yellow rocks. By 1920, three or four foreign companies controlled all of the mining production in the Atlantic region and began to invest in deep-pit mining. By 1942, eight years after the price of gold on the international market had nearly doubled, the Bonanza mine opened. Deadly chemicals such as cyanide began to be dumped into the rivers that flow into the Rio Bambana. First the river fauna died, then the crops along the river and, then, by 1950, people themselves. According to Dolores, 40 children died in March 1979 alone.

Wasakin is almost reached by a road south from Rosita built since the revolution. It only remains to be poled across the shallow, rocky bend in the rushing Río Bambana in a ¬pipante¬, the coast’s long, flat-bottom canoes, to the cliff on which their hundred-year-old community is situated.

Wasakin is a more prosperous and densely populated community than most, with over 600 residents. The thatched-roof wood or bamboo houses stand on their tall pillars in tight family clumps marked by deeply worn footpaths. Banana, coconut and other trees abound, as do flowers, tomato plants, children and friendly puppies. Life centers, as it does in all Sumu communities, on hunting, tending crops for subsistence and sale, religious activities and swimming or washing in the river. Some individuals from Wasakin are also self-employed as güiriseros, or gold panners, in areas beyond the community property. At the insistence of PEMIN, the association of güiriseros, the government has just raised the price of a penique (two grams) of gold to 5,000 córdobas, attempting to match the black market rate, mainly operated by the contras. Those envío talked to appeared relieved by this decision.

The Río Bambana is not as contaminated now, since the Rosita mine has been closed for several years, but a steady gray stream of toxic waste still runs into it. Despite this, several women and children were swimming in the river the day we arrived.

The mines need extensive investment to become safe and productive, as well as to find a way to dispose of the dangerous waste. No reactivation, on the other hand, means no earnings. envío suggested that the Sumu plan would surely create unexpected contradictions for the Sumu communities. “There's a popular saying,” Almendárez shrugged in response; “’Banging on one nail pops out another one.’ We would have to study the problem and come to an accord.”

The defense question

The Sumu position on defense also differs from that of many Miskitus. They are prepared to defend both the revolution and their own territory, but due to their few numbers, the need to produce to survive and their low education level, they want to be in local self-defense militias rather than be sent to other parts of the country. Some argue that military service should be voluntary, so that those who want to can study.

Given their location around the strategic gold mines, the Sumus have been victims of attack by both the FDN and Misura. In the fall of 1985, the FDN made a concerted effort to take the mining region, but was repelled by the Sandinista Army (EPS) and Ministry of Interior (MINT) troops and the local militias. Sumus participate significantly in all these forces.

All the communities we visited have experienced the direct and indirect costs of this counterrevolutionary war. Unlike the majority of the Miskitus and Creoles, who still tend to look on the US as the replacement for the British as their protectors, few Sumus have any illusions about the US government’s role in perpetrating their suffering.

For most of the past two years, contra activity in the region has meant that medical personnel from Rosita were unwilling to go out to the communities in the mobile teams that had been set up. It also meant problems making deliveries of medicines and food supplies. That situation has been somewhat relieved, at least for now, and the area has just gotten an ambulance.

As in the Pacific, civilian and government vehicles and personnel have been prime targets for the contras, as have schools and health centers. It’s part of their effort to prevent the population from experiencing the benefits of the revolution. Since a number of Sumus have been killed as housing construction workers, stringers of electricity lines and the like, the Sumus are not inclined, as are many Miskitus, to blame the government instead of the contras for the lack of services.

In each village they told us that up to late 1985 they had been unable to go out and plant their crops for fear of kidnapping. This year, due to Sandinista military successes, the Sumu populations are again venturing into the mountains, where they traditionally plant their crops of rice, corn, bananas and other basic crops. Some of the FDN previously operating in the region have been pushed back into Honduras and others went deeper into central Zelaya, approaching areas in which Misurasata operates.

Wasakin has its own self-defense militia of 35 men, we were told, so the contras have never directly attacked the community. A Sumu named Ampino Palacios who works with the FDN kidnapped one resident out in the fields in 1985, but he managed to escape and return. The people, however, told us they are still constantly afraid.

The story was worse in other communities we visited. In Mukuswas, once situated deep in the woods off the road that runs between Rosita and Bonanza, Miskitus attacked in June 1983, taking 33 residents by force. After that, part of the original community of 150 relocated closer to the road. Two of the kidnapped families have now returned from the Misura camp in Honduras.

In Espanolina, a community of 190 just down the road, 8 people, including the Moravian pastor, were kidnapped in February 1985. He and five others escaped; the other two are believed dead. Nine more were taken from Santa Maria and another killed, leaving orphans. Five youth from Espanolina are in the Sandinista Army (EPS), guarding the bridge down the road that crosses the Rio Tungki, together with others from Mukuswas.

In Bonanza, we met with twelve families from Musawas, north of that mining town, who had spent two years in the Misura camp called Tapalwas in Honduras. In mid-1984, they managed to leave Tapalwas and sneak back into Nicaragua to the mountains behind their home, fearing to encounter the Sandinistas, who Misura had told them would kill them. They were protected for a year by a group of 30 young armed Sumus fighting with the FDN, but lacked clothes and salt. Finally, Sumus working with the government in Bonanza discovered they were there and persuaded them all to come down into Bonanza.

Some of the 30 Sumu fighters who turned themselves in are now studying in Managua, others working in the state mining company. Still others have joined the MINT troops, having learned while in the mountains that the FDN was not in the least concerned with their interests. While the latter is a positive step in many respects, it has not been without its problems. Some Sumus who have been fighting on the side of the revolution all along are very bitter toward those who were on the other side.

Since the FDN and Kisan (a recent regrouping of Misura with open US financial support) still sometimes enter Nicaragua by way of the Rio Waspuk, on which Musawas is located, these people and the 200 others who have been repatriated with the help of the UNHCR are afraid to go back. The government is giving them land near Bonanza to sow, and most said they would stay there until the war ends, working to pass the time while their youth study. Most are crowded into houses belonging to the mining company, many of them quite run down.

We sat on the porch of one of the houses talking to the men who slowly gathered around us. An older man sat on the steps beside us playing with his daughter. A young man in an EPS camouflage uniform swung in the hammock while his mother leaned against the wall of the house. The men did the talking, explaining that in Honduras they had little freedom to pick fruit, plant or cut wood. The advantages, they told us, all went to the Miskitu refugees, because they had men participating with Misura. They said they’re happy to be back, but feel like orphans since none of the things are theirs. They also said that they are now mixed with people of different cultures, and prefer to live apart, but can’t until the war ends.

Asked why they thought there was a war and how they thought it might be stopped, the men said nothing; a few chuckled ruefully. Then the woman by the hammock spoke softly: “It would stop a little if the richest man that supports it would stop.”

An even greater challenge

The Sandinistas and the peoples of the Atlantic Coast are grappling with serious and difficult questions that will have a major impact not only on their own future but also on the course of central government/ethnic minority relations in the rest of Latin America. The challenge is to identify and respect the just rights of all the nation's peoples without threatening national unity itself. If this can be accomplished in Nicaragua, it will add immeasurably to the possibility that other governments and movements will rethink their positions. If it cannot, it will be a setback of equal proportions.

The autonomy commission offices in the coast are now processing the results of the original consultation on autonomy, while the consultation itself goes on. In south Zelaya, where the process is further along than in the more wartorn northern area, a survey is being prepared to get the population's reaction to the concrete proposals that predominated the first time around. As Johnny Hodgson, who heads the commission in the south, said, “When the statute is finally drafted, there won't be any surprises.”

Meanwhile lawyers from the coast are beginning to work on the legislative proposal itself. It will probably be ready for introduction to the National Assembly before the Constitution, perhaps sometime this summer. The regulation of that law will be the responsibility of the regional government.

Last month the Sandinista bench of the National Assembly studied the autonomy document in a daylong seminar to be better able to discuss and defend it in the open forums on the Constitution that will be taking place throughout the country. In one of the opening speeches of that seminar, another autonomy commission member, Orlando Nunez, told the attentive FSLN representatives that “it’s not enough to merely support legitimate struggles that aren’t our own. We have to feel those struggles in our being and make them ours. That’s what it means to be a revolutionary.”

Murphy Almendárez says he’s optimistic about the process. “We have to be realistic; we may not achieve everything we’re proposing to the autonomy commission. We’re prepared to discuss, consider other proposals and negotiate. But the important thing is that there’s an opportunity for the first time for us to discuss and propose solutions for our future, and we’re using it.”

The lesson the Sumus have learned, that autonomy is a process they have to help define, rather than wait for the government to define for them, has been slow to take hold on the coast, but it’s on the increase among other peoples as well. In the measure that coast people ‘s political participation in the course of their future grows and is fruitful, the other extreme, that of those Miskitus who assume that their only effective voice is a rifle, is isolated. As Manuel Ortega pointed out, “A people who are permitted to feel their dignity don’t sell out.”

A voice from the Autonomy Commission

Sukawala hasn’t yet officially presented the proposals that resulted from its assembly to the autonomy commission. The following excerpts from an interview with Manuel Ortega permit the opportunity to learn not about the commission’s response to these specific proposals but about the theoretical thinking that has gone into the commission's work.

“On the coast, the revolution, in the sense of people's participation in their own and their country's destiny, begins with autonomy. People are being converted from objects into subjects. It’s hard for everyone, for them and for us. This is a permanent struggle; we have to keep an eye on both the great long term goals and the daily struggles.

“The underlying idea of autonomy is that it really begin to respond to the problems. We don't want halfway solutions to problems that just arise again. For example, regarding the land demand, there’s often confusion between legitimate rights and specific forms of guaranteeing their exercise. The tendency of small groups is to limit boundaries. I don't believe that delimitation of territory in itself can guarantee the exercise of rights; Bantustan models have never done so in history.

“Autonomy establishes a territory for all the people of the Atlantic Coast in which their rights will be guaranteed. The autonomous government itself could define areas in which different groups have greater insertion. The indigenous peoples and ethnic communities themselves can propose areas, but we have to see the dangers of localism, exclusivism, and the possibility that this could backfire against the very people who are proposing it for their own protection. For example, the Miskitus say the autonomous territory should be self-sufficient. The country as a whole isn't even self-sufficient, much less one region. This localism loses sight of the nation. Only with the revolution is there the possibility of guaranteeing the conditions, because the material means are being recovered and the people are guaranteed participation.

“Culture isn’t developed by isolation; that's only the way to become a museum piece. It’s a kind of reverse racism to say that indigenous peoples have a different mind, because it’s saying that they can’t understand other things. This is where dignity comes in. Exposure to others means new thoughts to be contemplated from within one's own reality. If I feel confident of who I am, if I feel a first-class citizen I can go anywhere in the world unafraid. I'm enriched by that, and nobody can take anything away from me. Isolation is a defensive position toward a hostile world.

“Regarding participation in the decision-making and benefits of the exploitation of resources, that is already a principle of autonomy. Yes, there needs to be a quota for coast people, with compensatory mechanisms, but not because the Pacific exploited them. In fact, Nicaragua is a very dependent nation and the major exploitation was done by the United States. Compensation isn’t for culpability, but for justice, because of the unequal development of the Atlantic. But exclusive rights just exacerbate the problems. We have to find the mechanisms within autonomy to bring the most oppressed and exploited up to equal levels with the others.

“We all tend to see our problems locally. The problems the Sumus have experienced with the mines exist everywhere there are mines in Nicaragua—in Chontales, in Leon, everywhere. The only special case in the mining region of the Atlantic Coast was racial discrimination, but the brutal exploitation and the danger to the population was the same. So it's not a question of compensating only one, but rather that the more developed sectors help the others equalize their development. We have to create equality based on the solidarity of all Nicaraguans.

“Regarding the Sumus’ position on defense, it’s an understandable philosophy. The revolution is studying the defense question for the ethnic groups with an eye to flexibility. The only principle is that everyone has an obligation to defend the country. There are many possible forms, but they also depend on the forms the aggression takes.

“In my view there are no ‘essential’ indigenous rights. All human beings have the right to eat, sleep, speak their own language, carry out their own religious practices, engage in production, guarantee their survival, etc., all within their own culture. The autonomy statute will necessarily reflect approved generalities, and will provide a legal framework for them. It’s up to the autonomy process on the coast itself to assume these generalities in different ways for different groups according to their own realities. The larger groups will have to take this as their challenge and demonstrate their willingness. The central government guarantees that the same conditions of equality have to be provided for all, but it will be up to the autonomous government to determine how.”

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