The Atlantic Coast: A Policy of Genocide?
The Nicaraguan government is periodically accused of human rights violations in the Atlantic Coast. The most extreme accusation is that there is an actual policy of genocide of the Miskitu people. Because these accusations have re-emerged recently, the Center for Research and Documentation on the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA)—an autonomous research center ascribed to the National Council on Higher Education—has conducted its own investigation on the coast. CIDCA’s study, of two months duration, included interviews with 170 people from 30 Miskitu, Sumu and Creole communities in Special Zones I and II (recent political-administrative designations roughly corresponding to the northern and southern parts of the department of Zelaya, respectively). Lengthy interviews were also conducted with local pastors as well as with bishops and other regional representatives of the major churches there (Moravian, Catholic and Anglican). In addition, officers and personnel of the military and security forces were questioned and data was gathered from all the ministries in charge of providing services to the region (health, education, store provisions, etc.)
Based on that study, completed in April 1984, called “Trabil Nani*: History and Current Situation in Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast,” CIDCA has written this shorter article for envío. This article brings up to date information we had presented in earlier envío articles. (See envío issues: 4 (Sept. 1981); 9 (Feb. 1982); 10 (March 1982); 18 (Dec. 1982) and 31 (Jan. 1984.)
*”Trabil Nani” means “many troubles” in Miskitu
From Fagoth to Reagan: The same charges In his recent address on Central America, Ronald Reagan gave the presidential seal of approval to every accusation that has been made against the Nicaraguan revolution, no matter how unverified or demonstrably false.
Halfway down the list of allegations presented as fact came the statement: “There has been an attempt to wipe out an entire culture—Miskitu Indians—thousands of whom have been slaughtered or herded into detention camps where they have been starved and abused. Their villages, churches and crops have been burned.”
The charge of genocide was first leveled against the Nicaragua government in January 1982, when 39 Miskitu communities were evacuated from the Río Coco following a series of counterrevolutionary attacks along that part of the border with Honduras. Stedman Fagoth, former leader of Misurasata, the indigenous organization founded in the Atlantic Coast in 1979 and organizer of the very attacks that precipitated the evacuation, accused Sandinista soldiers of killing at least 400 Miskitu civilians. He claimed that an additional 3,000 had “disappeared,” implying further foul play by the Sandinistas.
Independent organization such as Americas Watch and International Indian Treaty Council conducted their own on-site investigations in the new settlements in early 1982. Necessarily of short duration, these investigations nonetheless demonstrated that accusations of deliberate, massive brutality were false, exaggerated or could not be substantiated.
It was true that abandoned villages and crops were burned, a fact made public by the Nicaraguan government. No one was forced to go to the resettlement site, however. Of the 21,000 people affected by the evacuation, 10,000 preferred to cross to Honduras and another 3,000 left for Managua and other areas inside Nicaragua. Those who made the 80 km trek to the resettlement site on foot were accompanied by teams of medical personnel; children, old people and pregnant women were airlifted there. According to all reliable reports, no unnatural deaths occurred in connection with the move.
Now, two years later, allegations of human rights violations—particularly of the Miskitus—have reemerged with even greater intensity, and by people who command media attention. For example, the West German film director Werner Herzog—himself responsible for the death of several Peruvian Indians during the making of “Fitzcarraldo” four years ago—has announced in Europe plans to produce a “stylized ballad” about what he calls the “appalling” situation of the Miskitus.
A testimony to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States in October 1983, by Dr. Bernard Nietschmann, a geography professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has also been widely disseminated. With a sprinkling of graphic detail and claims of scientific objectivity, he charges that there have been “widespread, systematic and arbitrary human rights violations in Miskitu Indian communities.” Those who have attempted to verify his charges have been troubled by the fact that Nietschmann provides no names, places or even dates for the alleged crimes.
The piece de resistance is an article in the National Catholic Register (January 8, 1984), based on an interview with ex-Green Beret medic Jim Stieglitz, who claims to have visited the Bluefields area of the Atlantic Coast. He describes mythical concentration camps, forced labor, rampant smallpox, tiger cages and checkpoints en route where Russian is the lingua franca. The article is such an audacious fabrication that even his geography is incorrect. Teotecacinte, named as the Atlantic Coast site of a concentration camp alleged to contain 25,000 Miskitus, is in reality the northernmost border community in Jalapa, in the Pacific. (Nicaraguan immigration records show that Stieglitz was in the country for only two days, not long enough to make a round trip to Bluefields by land, as he claims to have done.)
Although knowledgeable observers abroad generally discount such excesses, a purpose is served. They shift the field of inquiry. The very real conditions of war in the Atlantic Coast, for example, are ignored in the effort to learn the “true” story about human rights violations. While the fact that the region is under attack cannot excuse human rights violations of innocent citizens, or explain away failures or errors by the Sandinista revolution in grappling with more fundamental problems, neither can that fact be dismissed as irrelevant or willfully distorted by those who claim to be disinterested, apolitical observers of the process.
The first section of this article presents an overview of the military situation, the changing tactics of the counterrevolutionaries and the effects their actions have had on both the social fabric of the coast and its limited infrastructure. It is a necessary backdrop to understanding the real conditions in which the various actors must operate. In the following section, we present our findings on violations of bodily integrity, as well as looting and issues of religious freedom. We conclude with a summary evaluation of the charge of genocide by examining specific government programs in the communities.
The counterrevolution in the Atlantic Coast:The counterrevolutionary strategy in the Atlantic Coast has been similar in many respects to that in the Pacific—basically to create the conditions for a hoped-for internal uprising against the Nicaraguan government. The tactics in both parts of the country include a vicious “anti-communist” propaganda campaign; selected harassment and assassination of community members cooperating with revolutionary programs such as health and education, or of skilled professionals (agrarian reform technicians, doctors, construction workers, etc.); and destruction of infrastructure and of community economic projects. It is evident that these activities are calculated to:
A strategy of attrition against a backdrop of old hostilities
a) block the rural populations from experiencing the social and economic benefits of the revolutionary programs;
b) counteract any transformations at the ideological level;
c) terrorize those who do not cooperate with the counterrevolution, or who elect to work with the government programs;
d) sabotage an economy already weak as a result of the war against Somoza, the international economic crisis and the US economic blockade in order to exacerbate discontent; and
e) create a situation of chaos in which the government will be perceived as losing control, unable to protect the citizenry, thus undermining its moral and political authority.
Whereas the propaganda campaign in the Pacific region has focused only on anti-communism in an effort to obliterate divisive class contradictions, in the Atlantic Coast the “Sandinista-Comunista” theme has been supplemented with a barrage of symbols rooted in historic ethnic-centered hostilities between the coasts.
The main source of this propaganda has been Stedman Fagoth, but his seeds of hatred are sown in fertile ground. Tensions between the Miskitus and the “Spanish,” as most coast people still call the population from the Pacific, go back nearly four hundred years to a period in which the Miskitus allied with the British to prevent Spanish domination of the region.
This latent hostility has been rekindled numerous times since then, most recently when the Sandinistas tried to bring the revolution to the isolated coast too quickly and with little sensitivity to traditional cultural forms and emerging indigenous pride. Misurasata leaders such as Fagoth manipulated these errors for their own ends, seeing the growing indigenous organization as an effective power base from which to challenge the revolution in the region. The coastal peoples, steeped in anti-political, religious views, were particularly susceptible to charges made by the revolution’s opponents, both domestically and abroad, that the Sandinistas were “atheist communists.” By late 1980, demonstrations of this attitude had begun to concern the revolutionary government, which viewed the coast as a strategic weak point against US aggressions.
From Fagoth’s flight to “Red Christmas” The flash point came in February 1981, just after Reagan took office, and the spark was the land issue. The Nicaraguan government had already agreed to provide communal land titles for indigenous communities that did not already have them. Negotiations were to be based on a study being prepared by Misurasata. But in February, the government learned that Misurasata had unilaterally changed the issue and the terms of presentation. It now intended to publicly unveil a claim for 33% of all Nicaraguan territory at the closing ceremony of the literacy crusade in Puerto Cabezas, thus forcing government capitulation to the unexpected demand. The timing of the claim, furthermore, coincided with the much more aggressive policy of the new Reagan administration toward Nicaragua.
Acting hastily, the government peremptorily arrested 22 of Misurasata’s leaders. Though all but Fagoth were quickly released, the stunned and angry indigenous population was not mollified. Many did not even know what the charges against Fagoth were, as radio transmissions and newspapers from the Pacific area did not reach them. Others who had seen documentation proving that Fagoth had been an informer for Somoza’s intelligence apparatus in the 1970s were not convinced. Still others questioned the timing of the government’s disclosure. The government responded to this last point by saying that it has suspected Fagoth even before the formation of Misurasata, but had decided at that time to give “a second chance.”
Large demonstrations in support of Fagoth were held in many Miskitu communities. In May Fagoth was released on the provision that he go to the coast to calm his followers, and then accept a scholarship to study abroad. He went to the coast, but promptly crossed the border into Honduras. Soon he was broadcasting accusations against the Sandinistas back into the Atlantic Coast in Miskitu over the clandestine radio transmitter of the September 15th Legion, a band of ex-National Guardsmen operating from Honduras.
In July, Brooklyn Rivera, another Misurasata leader, presented another territorial claim which far exceeded the parameters of the original discussion about communal lands. This was rejected by the government. Claiming that the government intended to “parcel” indigenous lands and that his own life was in danger, Rivera too fled to Honduras. At that the government withdrew Misurasata’s mandate and announced that it would conduct future dialogue directly with the indigenous communities. Relations between the government and the Miskitus were tense.
Fagoth’s broadcasts from Honduras combined historic and religious symbols with fabrications about Sandinista atrocities against Miskitus and exhortations that others join him. Due both to his strongman popularity and to Sandinista military excesses (for example, several Miskitus had been killed in Prinzapolka during the February arrests), Fagoth was able to play on Miskitu fears and resentments. He enticed several thousand followers to join him, and from these ranks he put together his initial fighting force.
The following is an overview of the activities of Fagoth’s counterrevolutionary organization, Misura, a member of the CIA-funded Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), as well as of Rivera’s more recently formed group which retook the name Misurasata. The latter is based in Costa Rica and belongs to the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) headed by Edén Pastora and Alfonso Robelo. MISURA was responsible for all military actions mentioned below through early 1983, at which time bands of Miskitus from Misurasata began a series of incursions into southern Zelaya. There is evidence that by October 1983 the two organizations were carrying out coordinated attacks.
With the help of the Honduran military and ex-members of Somoza’s National Guard, Fagoth set up several military training camps near Mokorón and other areas in the Miskitu region of southeastern Honduras. Honduran Colonel Leonel Luque reportedly visited the camps several times, and on one occasion a military plane carrying Fagoth, Luque and several other colonels crash-landed, creating a brief public scandal about Honduran army participation in the counterrevolutionary planning and coordination.
Miskitu fighters, once trained, were sent back to their original communities in small groups to do further political work, create a support base and recruit others to join them in internal camps being set up in the isolated coastal areas. At least eight Moravian pastors participated either directly or provided assistance through their positions in religious organizations on the coast.
The bands began to attack Sandinista patrols, government supply outlets for the communities, and even targeted certain civilians. For example, at the end of December 1981, 80 youth from the southern Zelaya community of Tasbapounie set up a camp on the other side of Pearl Lagoon and kidnapped five members of Tasbapounie’s CDS. They also stole a state fishing boat, as well as the communications radio, medicines, the boat and seven cases of condensed milk for the children’s program from the community’s health clinic. (In that case, Comandante Lumberto Campell, vice minister for the region, went to Tasbapounie and let it be known there would be no reprisals if the youth promptly returned and acknowledged their errors; some 30 did. Knowing the camp would be discovered, the rest fled, leaving the tied-up prisoners behind.)
By December, two months of continuous attacks along the Río Coco (the border between Nicaragua and Honduras) had resulted in 60 civilians and Sandinista military dead. Seventy lbs. of gold were stolen from the Cerro Dorado mine; there were assaults on food distribution posts, health centers and transport facilities in a number of river communities, and in one a farmer was found with his throat cut and his eyes out of their sockets.
The most internationally known of the Miskitu contra brutalities during this period occurred at the hospital in Bilwaskarma. Dr. Mirna Cunningham, regional health director in northern Zelaya, and her nurse, Regine Lewis, both Miskitus, were taken to Honduras, beaten, raped repeatedly with religious singing in the background, then released back into Nicaragua the following day as an example to others working with government programs.
The plan known as Red Christmas was underway. It consisted of fomenting insurrection in the Río Coco communities, moving down through the basically Miskitu northeast triangle of Zelaya and ultimately taking the port town of Puerto Cabezas. The strategy was to declare this a liberated Miskitu zone and appeal for international recognition and assistance.
The Nicaraguan government responded by evacuating the communities along the Río Coco to a safer area and militarizing the border with Honduras. The evacuation was carried out abruptly to avoid giving those in the camps across the river a chance to respond. Villages were then destroyed so they could not be used as internal bases by the counterrevolutionaries.
1982: Irregular bands become a regular army Throughout the following year, tensions escalated rapidly as a series of events confirmed Sandinista fears that the counterrevolution would be increasingly aided by the US government. In February, for example, US media revealed that three months earlier the Reagan administration had allotted $19 million to the CIA for paramilitary actions against Nicaragua by non-US task forces as well as for military training assistance from other Latin American countries, in particular Honduras and Argentina.
In July, joint Honduran-US military maneuvers resulted in the transfer of the Honduran 5th Battalion to Mokorón, terrain ominously similar to Nicaragua’s own Atlantic Coast. Furthermore, during these exercises a reported 60 C-130 flights from the US Southern Command in Panama brought 4,000 tons of military equipment to the area. Thousands of tons of this equipment, as well as older Honduran armaments replaced by the new shipments, went to the contra forces.
The groups under Fagoth’s direction continued setting up bases inside Zelaya. They tended to be located in unpopulated areas—either in jungle lowlands or wooded hills but close to communities that could provide food, new recruits and military intelligence information. The camps were often strategically located near key supply roads and waterways.
Loosely coordinated attacks by small bands quickly changed with the discovery and destruction of some of these camps as well as with training of the counterrevolutionaries in new techniques and use of sophisticated equipment by US specialists in Honduras. By midyear military detachments of a more conventional character and with tighter command structures began to appear.
At this time, Sandinista military presence in the communities in Zelaya was either nil or at most one to five soldiers in a small post. Military forces would be sent only after an attack in or near a village. Their objective was to protect the villages from further harassment, locate and disband the camps and act as a brake on the use of the communities as a support base. This also meant trying to determine if contra organizers or informers were active in the village.
Community support stemmed from a variety of factors: allegiance to the ex-Misurasata leaders, adventurism (in which the youth did not seem to comprehend the implications of their actions), family and ethnic ties, coercion of community members by the Miskitu counterrevolutionaries (including outright kidnappings) and fear of the Sandinistas.
The fear was kept alive not just by Fagoth’s constant charges of genocide, but also by some real abuses committed against a suspect civilian population caught in a guerrilla style war, particularly a war with ethnic overtones. The cultural differences, the language barrier, the history of 400 years of mutual hostility between the coasts and the difficulties of fighting in swampy terrain unfamiliar to the Sandinista soldiers from the Pacific all played a part in this. So did the racial and political stereotypes built up on both sides. To many of the deeply religious Miskitus, all Sandinistas were atheist communists; to the tense soldiers, many of them barely trained peasant recruits, all Miskitus were contras by virtue of their earlier support for Stedman Fagoth.
Some half a dozen camps were disbanded over the course of 1982, near Seven Benk, Sandy Bay and Walpasiksa. The heaviest fighting of the year occurred in July, with the second attempt by the counterrevolutionaries to create bases in the Seven Benk area near the road to Puerto Cabezas. Some villagers had alerted the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) of the presence of the camps, and the operation was quashed after a series of combats lasting 14 days. This was the first evidence of the change from irregular bands to regular military units with heavy weaponry. According to Miskitus captured during the fighting, the plans were to assassinate those involved in government programs, blow up strategic local bridges and the Wawa River ferry-barge, and take over the Tasba Pri settlements prior to the celebration of the third anniversary of Somoza’s overthrow. In the various battles in the region during July and August, the contras suffered a reported 136 casualties and the EPS 28.
1983 and 1984: The war hits the communities By 1983, counterrevolutionary activity in Zelaya was aided by far more sophisticated heavy arms supplies, speedboats and ever greater coordination by CIA and other foreign trainers. This included the first reports of direct foreign participation in the attacks themselves. Mid-1983 also saw the first attacks in southern Zelaya by Miskitus working with Misurasata in Costa Rica, and in October bands from both groups participated in an extensive series of attacks in northern Zelaya.
The year was further characterized by more generalized violence against the populace and direct attacks on the few community-based centers of production. Among these were the burning down of the reforestation project in Slimalila in April, the destruction of a major sawmill in Sukatpin in October and a simultaneous attack on the oil storage tanks in Port Benjamin Zeledón. The latter involved the loss of 380,000 gallons of oil and caused the shutdown of the sawmill in neighboring Prinzapolka for lack of fuel. The loss of jobs in the Miskitu communities resulting from theses attacks ran into the hundreds, not including the secondary effects on those who count on the markets of wage laborers for their agricultural surpluses.
Whole communities were persuaded or coerced to go Honduras or Costa Rica, and the people reportedly often had to carry the contras’ heavy weapons on the long march. At least six communities were taken to Honduras in 1983, and one to Costa Rica. According to the few who escaped, community members were not given a choice about whether or not to go.
In all, there were at least 20 sizable actions in northern Zelaya in 1983. The major series of confrontations occurred in October with the concentration of 1,500-2,000 Miskitus of Misura and Misurasata in the area south and east of Puerto Cabezas. In addition to the examples cited above there was a direct attack on the port facilities in Puerto Cabezas in which indiscriminate mortaring of the town from speedboats left one Miskitu civilian dead and 11 others wounded.
In several communities occupied during October, villagers reported that the bands were made up of Miskitus, “gringos” and Asians usually described as Chinese (though they were more likely Vietnamese or Korean mercenaries). In Wounta, the counterrevolutionaries arrived in 75 hp boats that they bragged had been given to them by the CIA. Villagers there describe the majority of the foreigners as “short Japanese,” who talked mainly in signals, forced M-16s on the men in the community and “appeared particularly mean.”
On December 1, 1983, the Nicaraguan government announced an amnesty for 307 Miskitu prisoners—all of those in the minimum security prison farm in Managua. They were promptly returned to their communities or reunited with their families in Tasba Pri. In January, the first of these was killed in the community of Lapán, in a death-squad style, pre-dawn attack on his house—an obvious warning to the others not to cooperate in any way with the revolutionary programs.
Similar attacks have continued into 1984, with two new elements. The first is that the contras began to mine the few roads in northern Zelaya, resulting in the indiscriminate deaths of civilians, military personnel and government employees. The second is that the Miskitu contras finally carried out their threats to attack the communities of Tasba Pri. In April, a band of 300 attacked the resettlement community of Sumubila for the first time, mortaring the settlement, burning down the health center, kidnapping some 40 community members and killing or wounding at least 17, many of them women and children.
More than a hundred Miskitus and Sumus have returned to Nicaragua either from refugee camps or the armed groups in Honduras, and many tell of coercion, deprivation and misery under Fagoth’s leadership. Brooklyn Rivera, too, accuses Fagoth of the torture and death of Miskitus, both those from the communities and those in his own ranks. Rivera claims that his ranks have been swelled by many who escaped Fagoth’s groups. Despite the fact that Misura and Misurasata actions have been coordinated on occasion, Rivera characterizes Fagoth as crazy, corrupt, driven by his political ambitions and too intimately linked with the Somocistas.
The human cost—violations of human rights The war in the Atlantic Coast, as in the Pacific, has been tragic and costly, most of all for those in whose name the aggressions are being conducted. Communities have been uprooted and families, traditionally close, have been divided emotionally, physically and politically. Many Miskitus have died, usually as contra combatants, now sometimes as Sandinista combatants, and even occasionally as civilians. Of the latter, some have died at the hands of the counterrevolutionaries, some in crossfire or at the hands of Sandinista soldiers, and some due to the difficulty of survival when they flee to the bush to avoid the fighting in or near their villages.
It is evident that the growing military presence on the coast following Red Christmas added to existing tensions between the indigenous populations and the revolution. Furthermore, there have admittedly been abuses by some members of the Nicaraguan military and security forces. In conversations with Miskitu villagers from 27 villages where there had been conflicts, 23 of which were in northern Zelaya, we heard frequent negative comments about the treatment they received from Sandinista soldiers in the past, but claim that now they “are good, not like they were before.” Reports of specific abuses centered mainly in the communities around the Seven Benk and Walpasiksa camps, and occurred during the July-September 1982 period, when these camps were being routed.
The following is a summary of our investigation into accusations of violations of bodily integrity (killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, beatings and rape); looting and confiscation of property; and denial of religious practice.
Civilian Deaths: We heard various testimonies about people who had allegedly been killed not as a result of combat, the majority of them in 1982. They referred to the communities of Sisin, Wiwas, Sukatpin, Kikalaya, Sangnilaya and Butara in the north, and Kakabila, Pearl Lagoon, Karawala, La Barra and Tasbapounie in the south.
Some presumed dead later turned out to be alive, either as prisoners or fighting with one of the two Miskitu groups. Such was the case of Axel Mercado, a CEPAD official, who had been a prisoner but did not appear in his own community after the amnesty. He was later found working in another village. The government has reviewed a list compiled by the Moravian Church of 70 Miskitus reported disappeared—all between July and October 1982, and all from outlying areas of heavy fighting. According to the government, they are not prisoners.
It is difficult to verify what has happened to them. Rivera himself has accused Fagoth of ambushing Miskitus who fled their communities and the contras often bury their own dead hastily as they flee from a combat area, without notifying family members later. The Sandinista Army, too, has buried dead contras left behind without any way of identifying them.
Arbitrary Arrests: The majority of Miskitu arrests occurred during the Red Christmas period, when 167 were detained, including a number of Moravian pastors, and held in the Puerto Cabezas jail pending hearings. Many of these were then sent to the Miskitu prison farm in Managua.
Seventy-seven people reported to us that a relative had been jailed arbitrarily since December 1981. The assignation “arbitrary” must be considered somewhat subjective given that 1) individuals have assisted the counterrevolutionaries in a variety of ways and for a variety of motives, not always understanding the significance of their actions; 2) language problems and irregular hearings processed once in Puerto Cabezas have resulted in insufficient scrutiny of people’s actions; and 3) relatives may not always know the extent of a person’s involvement. Nonetheless, the general amnesty reflected at least in part recognition that the detention and judicial process had not been very rigorous.
Rape: We heard six reports of rape, all of them second hand. Since this differed substantially from Nietschmann’s generalization, we pressed the subject with pastors and priests. They discounted our suggestion that cultural pressures might make women reluctant to admit such experiences, as was prevalent in the United States until recently.
Torture: A number of those we interviewed did not initially distinguish between torture and abuse such as beating or simply hitting a prisoner, tending to use the word torture for all three. While reports of actual torture were never as exotic as those offered by Dr. Nietschmann and others, we were told of 27 cases of physical abuse, of which eight were qualifiable examples of torture. (The majority of such cases consisted of holding a person’s head under water to force the person to give information). The other 19 referred to prisoners hit or shoved with rifle butts during the transfer from their community to Puerto Cabezas or during their stay in the jail there. No physical abuse was reported to have occurred during the initial period of questioning in the villages. In 5 of the 19 cases, it appeared that prisoners had actually been beaten. Non-specific references indicated that additional numbers of people had been mistreated, but the extent of this is unclear. On the other hand, a nurse we interviewed in the Bluefields hospital said that in her experience, none of the wounded counterrevolutionaries treated there showed signs of abuse. A doctor in the same hospital said they are given the same priority for scarce blood or transfer to the Managua hospitals as wounded soldiers.
We have learned of some steps that have been taken by the government and military to bring practice in line with policy regarding such violations of the civil and military codes. Some commanders have been shifted out of the region since 1982 and both officers and soldiers have been imprisoned, though we have only limited information on the numbers involved and the specific sentences. As examples, two soldiers were jailed for hitting an old man in Sandy Bay last year, and a sub-lieutenant just received an 18-year sentence for damaging property in the wholesale distribution center, detaining people in the church, killing cattle and mistreating people in Lapán.
Looting and Confiscation of Property: Complaints about robberies or destruction of personal property are frequent. We heard such complaints from residents of Karata, Sisin and Yulu relating to 1982, and from Wounta, Kukalaya and the communities that comprise the new resettlement of Sangnilaya which took place in 1983. All these communities are in the north. We also heard second-hand references to belongings having been burned or taken from some houses in Karawala, Tasbapounie and El Cocal (a Mestizo* community) in the south.
* “Mestizo: Spanish-speaking people of mixed European-indigenous origin
All reported looting occurred during periods of combat, after people had fled the village. While most people interviewed believe the Sandinista soldiers are responsible, it is probable that the counterrevolutionaries have done their share. A few people have also admitted seeing personal belongings in the home of someone who had returned from hiding earlier, or being sold by a resident of another community.
One widespread complaint was the use of village animals to feed the troops, without either asking permission or offering payment. To resolve such problems, the government announced in January 1984 that villagers would be compensated for all war-related losses and damages. An effort is being made to curtail such acts by military personnel by making them reimburse the villagers themselves.
Religious Practice: One of the most frequent accusations made abroad is that the Sandinistas do not respect the religious practice of the Miskitus, and specifically that they deny them the right to hold religious services in their communities. On the basis of our research, that is categorically incorrect. We heard no such complaints from villagers or religious leaders in the communities we visited. Furthermore, clergy of several denominations, including the Moravian Church, noted that there were no such reports in their regional synods, which are attended by pastors from all the coastal communities.
Nonetheless, the issue of religion is indeed a principal grievance of the Miskitus. The church is a fundamental and sacred part of Miskitu culture, and this sensibility has been abused by military considerations in general and military personnel from the Pacific region in particular.
For example, when troops were temporarily stationed in the villages, they initially tended to stay in the churches. From a military standpoint this is logical, since these are usually the largest and best constructed buildings, and therefore most secure. While complaints range from the fact some soldiers smoke or play cards in the church to one obviously abusive act of tearing up religious literature, the fundamental irritant was that they stayed there at all. Companies are now instructed to find other solutions, although in some cases the community has consented to let them use the church, particularly when troops are also from the coast.
An even greater violation of community sensibilities has been the use of churches as an interrogation center during initial detentions; this has diminished as security forces get to know the people better, and such general questioning has become more anomalous. The practice was repeated in Wounta in October 1983, but residents there report that when the commanding officer arrived in the village after the combat had diminished he was highly critical of the troops and ordered the detained men released immediately.
The social cost of the war: It is one thing to voice concern about violations of human rights by military personnel in a tense situation with few controls—such as prevailed on the Atlantic Coast during the early period of fighting. It is another to charge the Nicaraguan government with a policy of genocide toward the Miskitus. Such a charge is explicit in statements by Stedman Fagoth and President Reagan and thinly veiled in Nietschmann’s testimony. To evaluate the validity of this charge, it is necessary to look beyond human rights violations to key indicators of government policy toward the social wellbeing of the group in question.
“Another” violation of Miskitu human rights
It is precisely the goal of the revolution to make Nicaragua’s peoples (all ethnic groups) self-efficient in basic food production, to improve their standard of living with a rational and ecologically sound system of production, and to maximize their participation in determining their own future. Two of the most fundamental measures of a government’s commitment to the social and cultural reproduction of a population are health and education. They are the necessary underpinnings to a people’s full participation in the activities mentioned above. For this reason, we present our findings below.
In the Atlantic Coast, the indices of health and education were never as high as they have been since the revolution, despite the aggressions and economic limitations. Health centers and health posts increased from a total of 26 in all Zelaya in 1973 to 44 in 1983, many of the existing ones were upgraded, and plans are well underway to build six more health posts in southern Zelaya. The number of doctors in the region increased from 39 to 63, and in northern Zelaya alone there are now seven times as many nurses as there were previously in the whole region.
There have been ten massive campaigns to immunize the population against polio, dengue, DPT, measles and malaria. And most important of all, consultations and medicines are now free or, at most, cost 10 córdobas (US$0.30). There is also a major tuberculosis campaign, and 771 miners suffering lung diseases and laid off without assistance before the revolution are now receiving pensions. The majority of these are Miskitus.
But this new emphasis on health care by the revolution has suffered serious setbacks as a result of the war. Contra activities have included 20-30 robberies of medicines; terrorization of at least 60 health brigadistas, doctors and nurses in the outlying areas; and an ongoing campaign of rumors to convince the population that the vaccines used in the campaigns will turn the people into communists or make them sterile. Twelve of the 29 health centers in northern Zelaya have been closed as safety conditions worsened. Medicines have become increasingly scarce due to the US economic blockade, the diversion of supplies to the war front, and the refusal of ships to enter Nicaraguan harbors mined by the CIA.
Education: Together with health, education has been a prime concern of the revolutionary government. In the Atlantic Coast, where absolute illiteracy reached the 80% mark in outlying areas, a literacy crusade in native written languages (English, Miskitu and Sumu) taught 12,500 to read and write. It is now estimated that illiteracy has been reduced to 50%, despite the dispersion of the population, ideological diversionism carried out by the contra groups, the danger to popular educators traveling in the region and the shortage of prepared people to carry out the programs.
Although since 1979 there has been an increase of 116% in the number of teachers in northern Zelaya, 226% in the number of students and 106% in new rural school construction, basic problems inherent in the history of the region mean that improvements will only come over the long term, even without the counterrevolution. The most serious of these is the language problem. Until now, all classes were taught in Spanish, even though that is not the first language of a majority of students. A law passed in 1981 requires classes to be taught in maternal languages for the first four years, but many teachers, though often functionally multilingual, do not have teaching skills in the appropriate language to do so. Since there are so few qualified teachers in the region in any language, the process requires a teacher training course that does not take the teachers out of school.
The bilingual bicultural program (Miskitu-Spanish in the north and English-Spanish in the south), recently approved in principle, is hampered in practice by the fact that cultural traditions are basically oral, and only now are beginning to be gathered and analyzed by those preparing the programs.
Genocide? From the interviews, it is clear that most of the indigenous population left in the coast, as well as many now in Honduras, have become convinced that Misura is not fighting for their interest. As a result of the attacks toward the end of last year, Miskitus and other coast people began participating in the military structures and state security in growing numbers. This has generally served to improve community/military relations, due to common language and shared customs. An even more telling sign of change is that some communities have begun to ask for protection or, as in the case of Tasba Pri and several Miskitu and Creole communities in southern Zelaya, have formed their own voluntary militia units.
Ironically, the war is thus having the effect of breaking down barriers that would have taken much longer under other circumstances. Accumulated knowledge about the previously unknown Atlantic Coast has now been translated into cultural-political orientations for civilian and military personnel going to the coast from the Pacific, and an FSLN member now travels with each company to deal with any problems that might occur.
While there have been many problems on the Atlantic Coast, particularly but not exclusively with the Miskitus, and abuses by some military personnel as well as many errors committed on all sides, it is impossible to conclude that there has been any government policy to violate the human rights of anyone. Any visitor to the resettlement communities of Tasba Pri, for example, can see that they are not detention camps. People can travel freely outside Tasba Pri, except to their former communities, which are now part of an off-limits militarized zone. Furthermore, those who live there are neither starved nor abused. They grow bananas and vegetable crops on their own private plots; rice cooperatives formed the first year are already producing a profit for their members; and in several communities cocoa cooperatives are well underway. Complaints about food shortages usually center on items such as oranges and fish—traditional staples of their diet—which are not readily available inland. Not only are the Miskitu and Sumu residents not forcibly detained, many even participate in the armed defense of the settlements. In fact, the attack by 300 counterrevolutionaries on the settlement called Sumubila on April 17 was repelled largely by the self-defense unit of the community itself.
Although many long to return to the peaceful river life they knew before the aggressions, all acknowledge that material conditions are an improvement over those on the Río Coco. Residents have been given titles to their lost and well constructed houses, and many have access to running water, electricity, health care and education facilities for the first time. They actively participate in community decision-making, and some have administrative jobs in the ministerial agencies there as well.
A visit to Nicaragua by Americas Watch in February 1984 resulted in a report which states that “the most important improvement has taken place in relations with the Miskitu Indians” and that “the Americas Watch is very pleased by the positive developments affecting them” (“Human Rights in Nicaragua,” April 1984, p. 3). This opinion, which coincides with our own findings, calls into question where President Reagan, Dr. Nietschmann and others get their information and how carefully they scrutinize it before making it public.