Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 322 | Mayo 2008



We Have More Important Rights Pending Than Just the Vote

This Miskitu leader, who has fought for autonomy from the earliest days of the indigenous organization Misurasata, shares her reflections on the conflictive reality of Nicaragua’s North Caribbean region.

Hazel Law

The Caribbean Coast hit the national headlines again on April 4 due to a violent confrontation in the streets of Bilwi between different factions of the Miskitu regional political party Yatama. I was in Managua when the fighting broke out and the bloody images on television reminded me of gladiator movies, which show how the powerful of those times forced slaves or whoever fell into their hands to fight to the death for their entertainment.

Violence over whether or not
to hold the municipal elections

Yatama is the organization that inherited the spirit of those young indigenous people who fought both civically and militarily against the Sandinista government in the eighties for demarcation of indigenous lands and respect for their identity and communal organization. But this time the violence was largely internal and was ostensibly over whether or not to postpone the upcoming elections in Puerto Cabezas, Waspam and Prinzapolka, three municipalities of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera made this proposal months ago on the grounds that conditions don’t exist to hold elections there given the damage caused by Hurricane Felix last September. As usual, the leaders of the political parties from the Pacific—I say that because they aren’t truly national parties—competed to exploit what happened, but those most seriously injured were sympathizers of the Yatama faction that wants to put off the elections.

My original position was that the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) shouldn’t postpone them, but as Yatama’s pro-election faction sacked the Puerto Cabezas municipal mayor’s office in Bilwi during this outbreak of violence, destroying the records, they inadvertently gave the game to those who favored postponement. It’s the second time since Hurricane Felix that the same mayor’s office has been pillaged, which is unacceptable, because if there were grounds for claiming that Yatama Mayor Elizabeth Enríquez’s administration hasn’t been transparent, the way to demonstrate that is with evidence, not destruction. The events of April 4 have only increased the confusion among the indigenous population.

Regrettably it seems that those who are most informed and are demonstrating and mobilizing most around this dispute live in the municipal seats of Bilwi and Waspam. I still don’t know what the consensus is out in the communities, because the people’s right to a free and informed consultation before this decision was made wasn’t respected.

We want to elect our authorities our own way

As a result of the armed confrontation between the indigenous organization Misurasata—now called Yatama—and the Sandinista government, there was palpable solidarity in the eighties, both international and among Nicaraguan brothers and sisters. A lot was said and written about indigenous rights, the rights of the coast communities. But what do we see now? Politicians, analysts and the national media are focusing exclusively on the right to elections, making the right to the vote the only emblem of democracy.

But we indigenous peoples have been struggling for a very long time to win recognition of a whole set of specific rights that spring from our traditions. Among them is the right to elect our authorities our own way. Our argument is that we see no reason to hold municipal elections in municipalities where there are indigenous communities. For example, we’ve seen the experience of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It has over 551 municipal governments in which the authorities are elected by “uses and customs” given that Mexico is a signatory of the International Labor Organiza-tion’s Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Oaxaca’s indigenous peoples finally got that right respected after confrontations, marches and demonstrations.

Like many of us, Oaxaca’s indigenous elders realized that the national political parties polarize, divide and corrupt our communities. So they decided to do away with party-based elections in their communities and struggled until the government of Mexico had to accept the integration of indigenous traditions into the electoral system.

The closest we came was
the popular subscription system

When the FSLN and the PLC decided to impose a bipartite system and reformed both the Constitution and the Electoral Law in 2000, they did away with the popular subscription system, which permitted community organizations to nominate candidates for municipal elections and for the Autonomous Regional Councils in addition to political parties. The popular subscription system had been allowed for municipal elections all over the country and also on the coast for the regional elections starting with the 1990 elections. That helped avoid polarization among us here on the coast.

With popular subscription gone, the CSE left the newly-created regional party Yatama out of the 2000 municipal elections on the excuse that it hadn’t fulfilled the new Electoral Law’s requisites on time. There were marches, protests, even deaths, and with support from the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) the case was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Finally, five years later, the IACHR ruled in Yatama’s favor, condemning the Nicaraguan State and ordering the Electoral Law reformed to include indigenous uses and customs for the election of authorities in the coast’s indigenous and ethnic communities. Another reform ordered by the Inter-American system was the possibility of appeal to the Supreme Court if it is believed that the CSE has exceeded its functions. None of this has been fulfilled and today the politicians, analysts and philosophers of the Pacific act as if they know nothing about this international decision. All they do is claim to regret the violation of the right to vote in the three municipalities.

Yatama’s evolution from
military organization to regional party

In 1990, with the end of the war, the members of Yatama returned from the fighting as heroes. They were nothing more and nothing less than the equivalent of “los muchachos” in the Pacific who felled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. That’s how they were seen and how they saw themselves. All the Yatama combatants who returned from the war moved directly into leadership posts in their communities. They became the wihta [judge or chief] or the síndico [in charge of environmental affairs], and were backed by the majority.

Very quickly their leaders’ latent power interests began to take precedence. One of them, Brooklyn Rivera, became a central government minister when President Chamorro appointed him to direct the Institute of Development of the Autonomous Regions (INDERA). As an autonomy activist, I viewed that institution as contradicting the Autonomy Statute, because it usurped the functions of the autonomous governments. I felt obliged to criticize Brooklyn, to write opinion pieces against all this in the newspapers. He refused to speak to me for a year and a half. Another leader, Stedman Fagoth, became an adviser to the Natural Resource Institute, now the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.

In 1992 Brooklyn and I talked about reunifying the indigenous organization and then sat down with Fagoth, but personal interests continued to prevail. Fagoth went off with the PLC and was elected to the National Assembly on its ticket in 1996. Osorno Coleman, a former Yatama military leader and later one of its civilian leaders, also worked in the Chamorro government between 1990 and 1995, at the head of an institute that supported former combatants. After that he joined the Nicaraguan Resistance Party.

In the 1990 elections, which ended the FSLN government, Yatama’s top leadership supported Violeta Chamorro’s candidacy on the UNO ticket. At the same time it used popular subscription to run candidates for the North Atlantic Autonomous Regional Council under its own name as a social organization, winning 22 of the 45 directly elected Council seats. Yatama member Alfonso Smith won a National Assembly seat running on the Social Christian Party ticket, which gave Yatama 23 out of 47 seats, since the RAAN’s two National Assembly representatives also sit on the Regional Council.

For me the most serious failure of the Yatama directors and Autonomous Regional Government structures has been not maintaining a communication link with community leaders. When we were Misurasata we worked for the common good and had that link; we cultivated it. That’s no longer true and there’s been no effort to recover it. They’ve let everything slip out of their hands, distorting the original project.

The regional government structures have messed up as well. They’ve done nothing for autonomy. The autonomy law establishes the obligation of creating a coordination mechanism between the regional government and the communities. But after 18 years of an autonomous regime, no Regional Council has even published a resolution establishing how the communication with the communities will happen, how often the communities are to be informed, how they can participate in drawing up the regional plans… We’ve recommended that the regional governments reestablish promoter groups, and that the people should name the promoters, but they haven’t done it.

The regulatory law for the Autonomy Statute was approved over four years ago but there’s still no impetus to be seen in the autonomy structures. It seems as if the boards of directors of the Regional Councils in both the RAAN and the RAAS have been getting comfy with their salaries and have forgotten all about their legal mandate and the people they’re supposed to represent. Regional pressure groups need to be created to push the regional entities to exercise their responsibilities correctly.

Yatama allies with the FSLN

The problem is that power is erosive. In the 1994 regional elections—they’re every four years, unlike the presidential elections, which are every five—the population turned its back on Yatama because it hadn’t responded to their aspirations. In those elections, Yatama only got 11 Council seats in the RAAN. That’s what’s called a “punishment vote,” right? And in the third election in 1998, it only got 6 seats. More punishment. The PLC was the big winner that year, and when it gave no space to Yatama, Brooklyn began to negotiate a regional alliance with the FSLN. That gave Yatama a bit of impetus, so it started improving again, winning 12 seats in the last regional elections, which together with the FSLN’s gives their alliance the majority in the RAAN. Brooklyn then decided to maintain Yatama’s alliance with the FSLN in the national elections.

The Yatama-FSLN alliance was agreed to around issues that are very important to our people: guaranteeing the demarcation and titling of indigenous and Creole communal lands, incorporating native professionals from the coast in central government institutions and promoting compensation for those affected by the relocations during the war of the eighties. With those three commitments, Yatama managed to improve its showing in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) as well, where it had very few sympathizers between 1990 and 2007. Demarcation is an issue for any people with a communal tradition, which holds true for communities in the RAAS. As a result, Yatama got four more Council members there, having previously only won two by the skin of its teeth.

We don’t think the national Yatama-FSLN alliance has homogenous support on the coast. The Sandinistas in the RAAN aren’t happy with the fact that Yatama got the first-place nationally-chosen National Assembly slot on the FSLN ticket and got three deputy minister posts in national institutions. Coast Sandinistas, a number of whom are Miskitus, say they’re being marginalized.

As for the Yatama grassroots reaction to the alliance with the FSLN in the presidential elections, the mid-level base understood it, but the real grassroots didn’t. The marks from the military confrontation of the eighties haven’t disappeared yet. My empirical observations suggest Daniel Ortega didn’t get many votes in the communities.

The former combatants kept telling Brooklyn they didn’t agree with the alliance. At best, Brooklyn’s supporters would ask me: “Do you think Daniel will honor what he signed?” I told them I did, and when they asked me why I said: “What interests me is the land. And that law was passed the very day they stripped Alemán of his immunity, in December 2002.” While the Liberal bench was off crying with Alemán, the Sandinistas finally discussed the demarcation project and Law 445, on the Demarcation and Titling of Communal Lands, was promulgated the following month. “What’s more,” I told them, “I believe President Daniel has to comply, because he already knows what you’re capable of if he doesn’t!”

Hurricane Felix devastated the RAAN

Hurricane Felix destroyed the entire northern plains area and the seaboard around Sandy Bay, where there are 10 communities. If those communities were poor before the hurricane, they’re destitute now. All their houses, schools and churches were destroyed. When I went to Sangnilaya and Sisín it was impressive to see not a tree left standing. It was a devastating effect. All the houses on the road from Bilwi to Rosita had their roofs ripped off.

Only about 30% of Puerto Cabezas was destroyed and almost everything there is now back to normal. Nothing happened in Waspam, the municipal capital of the Río Coco. But while no houses were destroyed in the upper and lower Río Coco communities or in Prinzapolka, they lost 90% of their crops to the flooding that followed the hurricane.

As always, those who get the first and most continual aid are the communities along the highway, because they’re more accessible. I have relatives in Sahsa and they told me they never went hungry; they even sent me a gift of some of the bags of soy flour they had received. Yet even though those communities received more and sooner, they’re the ones that have complained the most. Meanwhile, the most affected communities have been receiving aid in dribs and drabs, despite the government’s announcement that it would prioritize the communities that had suffered more destruction or lost their crops.

In sum, Felix directly affected 80% of the RAAN and the schools and churches haven’t yet been rebuilt; they’ve just been patched up. The children are studying in churches, or in provisionally conditioned houses. I still don’t understand why the infrastructure reconstruction has been the slowest of all the aid. In most of the plains communities I visited in February, people were still living under black plastic roofs. There will surely be an epidemic when the rains come.

Mestizo migrations and interethnic tensions

There’s a lot of interethnic tension on the coast, which was vented during the distribution of the emergency aid. For example, there are many new mestizos—we call them colonos, or settlers—in Tasba Pri [which means Free Land in Miskitu], a territory given that name by the first Sandinista government, which built three settlements there to house people evacuated from the Río Coco in early 1982 because of the war. Most of the Miskitu evacuees returned to their river in 1985 and since 1990 more and more mestizos have been moving into that zone. There are now some 23 settlements of colonos who migrated from Matagalpa, Waslala and Jinotega on the Pacific side of the country and have been taking possession of our lands. A good part of these migrations have been promoted by politicians, such as Liberal Assembly representatives and mayors who give them endorsements even though they have no legal authority to do so.

Things are even worse in the RAAS. I don’t know how our autonomy is going to survive there with the increasingly evident mestizo majority: 80% of registered voters there are now mestizos. That’s why we believe it’s important to make progress on a special judicial framework that protects community rights.

The coast’s land problem is very serious

Eighty percent of the land in the RAAN is communal; it historically belongs to the indigenous communities. The first land demarcation conflict we had was in Layasiksa. A lumber concession led to an attempt to take the land away from the communities. It’s an ongoing trend: a person or company comes in to exploit lumber and the laborers end up staying on afterwards. It’s a strategic problem, particularly on Saslaya Hill in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve area. What’s needed there is a state policy to contain the advance of the settlers.

The only valid document for settling on a piece of coast land is a legal title, and only certain entities can issue them: the Agrarian Reform Institute, then the Territorial Ordering Office and now the National Commission of Demarcation and Titling of Indigenous Lands (CONADETI)… they keep changing the name. And yet each time there’s an electoral campaign the politicians, including former President Arnoldo Alemán, come along to give out indigenous land as if it belonged to them, just to win the mestizo vote. There’s been massive disorder. They’ve given lands to former Yatama combatants, Army veterans, ex contra members… Everybody has come around asking for their bit of land. And these are our communal lands!

The fight for our rights is age-old

We’ve been struggling for years in both the national and international arenas to get traditional indigenous values incorporated into national law, and particularly to guarantee our indigenous lands. Regrettably, none of this is part of the national debate in Nicaragua today. In the eighties the country was talking about the coast, but not anymore. Now it’s only an issue when elections roll around…

We achieved a lot with the approval of Law 445, which turned the eyes of the political parties from the Pacific toward us again. But they’re the same politicians who kept that law on the shelf for two years; I think they have a phobia about communal land. We also have the Constitution on our side, which fully recognizes the right to both communal lands and all forms of community organization.

We’re now making some progress on the demarcation issue, because we had difficulties with President Bolaños. During his term I worked directly with CONADETI, an entity created by Law 445, and am also a member of the RAAN’s Intersectoral Demarcation and Titling Commission, which is CONADETI’s operational entity on the ground. I don’t know why President Bolaños was so eager to ignore that law and impose the Civil Code, violating the specific procedure established by law to register communal titles. When President Ortega took office, he issued a decree reestablishing the validity of the special procedure.

The stages that have to be followed for demarcation and titling are established in Law 445. First of all, the title has to be approved by the CONADETI General Assembly, made up of all the Caribbean Coast mayors, and also those of Jinotega because there are communal territories there as well. But it’s expensive to bring everybody together for a CONADETI Assembly session; it costs us $12,000… On May 3, we delivered a title to Karawala, in the RAAS. All the mayors met on April 21 and unanimously approved it. The title covered a territory made up of 16 communities called Awaltara Luhpia Nani Tasbaya in the delta area where the Río Grande de Matagalpa empties into the Caribbean Sea.

Our politicians are no help

But none of this is easy, because our lands are very attractive to major economic interests. Legally we’re protected by the Autonomy Statute, which gives the Regional Councils the right to veto lumber, mining and fishing concessions. If they don’t approve them, not even an excavator can come onto the communal lands. But they don’t exercise that right. Economic interests have their tentacles everywhere and it’s hard to see them clearly. In a recent roadblock organized by the settlers in Tasba Pri—there were no indigenous participants—I personally discovered three separate interests: those who wanted authorization to sell lumber felled by the hurricane, those who wanted individual titles to their lands—even though Law 445 suspends individual titles in areas claimed by indigenous communities—and those who want to open the way for a major land project in which wealthy foreigners and powerful Liberal and Sandinista politicians are rumored to be involved.

I sometimes feel that this country’s politicians, political scientists, political analysts and even its brilliant philosophers are out of touch with international events. Do they even realize that on September 13, 2007, after 21 years of struggle by an indigenous peoples’ working group, the United Nations General Assembly finally approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which among other things rescues their right to elect their authorities based on their own traditions? It doesn’t say based on political parties. Why don’t they demand this? Why don’t they even talk about it? Nicaragua is a member of the UN and as a state even promotes this Declaration, so it’s obliged to comply because these international instruments are binding. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights established this in a recent decision favoring the Mayan peoples of Belize, applying what the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says to their case. So why don’t our analysts talk about this? They only invoke the single constitutional right they seem to recognize: exercising one’s vote in periodical electoral processes. And the other special rights contained in our Constitution and those currently being highlighted internationally? Why don’t Nicaraguan analysts and politicians wake up to all this?

And not only them. I think the coast National Assembly legislators, especially the indigenous ones, have also been resting on their laurels. They’ve been in their posts for over a year now and should have already introduced a bill to reform the Electoral Law in favor of coast interests as ordered by the Inter-American system. As always, personal interests keep taking precedence.

Our own divisions hinder
the demarcation process

Another reason we aren’t advancing as fast as we’d like in the demarcation process is that our peoples go off in different directions every time there’s an election campaign. Law 445 says that land boundaries can’t be marked off or titles issued until all conflicts have been resolved, and elections always create conflicts and divide us. Sukawala, the Sumu-Mayangna people’s organization, is just as divided as Yatama.

There’s also a lot of division around organizational issues, local administration and social projects that started in 1990. I think the issue of land, its demarcation and titling, is the least divisive for us and the area in which we can achieve the most, if we handle it correctly.

Why don’t the community leaders unite?

To what extent does the Miskitu population feel represented by its communal leaders, by the Council of Elders for example? The Council of Elders was a project we initiated in 1979 to rescue the elders as a regional moral force of the indigenous peoples. During the war, the two armed organizations that grew out of Misurasata and later reunited under the name Yatama, took that project up again. But today the Council of Elders, which became a powerful regional organization for a while after the war, is suffering the same problems we see in the Yatama leadership. The regional structure has lost its solidity, unlike the community elders, because their traditional authority in the communities is one thing and the project of creating the Councils at a regional level is another. The proof is that when we go to a community to do consultations regarding the demarcation and the discussions get underway, the elders’ words, opinions and counsel still have force. On the ground the elders resolve a lot of debates and have maintained their moral authority.

Pastors, priests and religious leaders in general also help resolve conflicts within the communities. The role of the churches is very important, but I don’t think this government is interacting with the coast’s religious people now. It got off to a good start, but that interaction, that link has either gotten lost, or the government starts the communication and then interrupts it. It’s not consistent or systematic.

As for civil society in the RAAN, it’s dispersed and weak. Very few people come to the meetings and they are always the same ones. There’s a lack of dynamism, which needs to be injected by the youth, but young people of around 17 to 25 years old aren’t participating.

Corruption at all levels

Corruption is another worm that has to be combated in this country at all levels. We have to use legal instruments to fight it and to control public administration. Both the Autonomy Statute and Law 445 have express stipulations: neither the Regional Councils nor the municipal governments nor the national government can grant natural resource exploitation concessions or permits on indigenous communal lands without previously consulting the communities and guaranteeing an agreement between the community and the potential concessionaire. This right of our communities is continually being violated by municipal authorities and Regional Council members of all political stripes. Why don’t the analysts in the Pacific defend this right as passionately as the right to vote?

The laws also clearly state that the concession must provide benefits to the community. Law 445 establishes that the communities will receive 25% of the taxes generated by the exploitation of natural resources on their land, be it lumber, fish, gold or other minerals. But that’s not being abided by and the first who are failing to respect these regulations are the Autonomous Regional Councils.

In both autonomous regions there’s a structure called the National Resource Secretariat (SERENA), which, together with the Regional Councils’ National Resource Commission, is responsible for correctly granting concessions. These institutions know they’re not supposed to give an exploitation permit if they haven’t previously received a signed endorsement by the community board in the territory that will be affected, but are they complying with that requisite? In this case, yes and no, as it’s often the communal leaders who sign that endorsement. It’s true that we taught a large part of the population to read and write in 1980, but what happened afterward? It’s hardly enough for people know how to write their name and sign. Poverty frequently leads to the following kind of situation, which I’ve personally seen in Puerto Cabezas. The interested party—let’s say a lumber dealer—comes to the community, gathers the communal leaders, plies them with food and drink and they sign the endorsement he needs to exploit their lumber right there. We need to monitor those processes and educate the community members.

The influence of drugs has been enormous because there’s no state economic policy

Drug trafficking has accentuated the problems on the coast and even destroyed people’s spirituality. Before Hurricane Felix it was rumored that all of Sandy Bay was controlled by drug traffickers, starting with the pastor. When people found drugs, they’d give him his part and there’d be no problems. I remember that some six months before the hurricane the National Police made a huge drug bust, with support from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, and people in the communities and in Bilwi itself were saying, “Everybody’s broke now because there’s no white, there’s no white…” People have no choice but to recognize that drugs help move and improve the economic activity.

The worst part is that there’s no state policy to substitute the economic income generated by the drug trafficking. There’s serious official neglect. We don’t even have a policy to solve the problems faced by our lobster divers. Some 2,500 male heads of family make their living diving, working in inhuman conditions that have deadly aftereffects on their health. A law was passed prohibiting deepwater diving for lobsters, but the divers themselves are protesting against it, and they continue working in these terrible conditions since they have no other source of income.

Our region has great tourist potential, but there’s no state policy in this area either. Neither the national government nor the autonomous government demonstrates any strategic vision to find economic development alternatives. They say it takes time, but surely 18 years of autonomous government have been enough, at least to initiate pilot community development projects.

Elections or no elections,
nothing will change

Given so many problems, I recall the bloody events of April 4 and only see the historical indigenous organization Yatama divided, fragmented. It pains me to see the tree destroying itself and the ancient wisdom of our indigenous people clouded in fog.

With all those problems, what are we supposed to think about this year’s municipal elections, independent of whether they’re held in November or postponed to April 2009 or any other date? The national government and National Assembly are the ones who should decide whether to put them off, not the Supreme Electoral Council, but frankly I don’t think the date makes that much difference.

What I’d really like them to do is reform the Electoral Law to incorporate our uses and customs into the elections, so our people can elect or reject authorities according to their own traditions. Meanwhile, it hardly matters whether there are elections or not because life will go on just like before.

Hazel Law, one of Misurasata’s top three leaders when it was a civilian organization, is now a lawyer. She was an adviser to CONADETI during the Bolaños government and is a member of its Intersectoral Commission in the RAAN.

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