Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 340 | Noviembre 2009



The Caribbean Coast: Independence or Desperation?

After more than 20 years, the autonomy the Caribbean Coast won hasn’t gotten far beyond what’s written on paper plus periodical elections for “autonomous” authorities. The Miskitu regional organization known as the Council of Elders isn’t even talking about autonomy anymore; it has proclaimed independence, in what amounts to a way to call attention to the coast’s historical abandonment and mounting discontent, to give a name to all the broken promises.

Salvador García Babini y Juan Carlos Ocampo Zamora

Last April, 400 delegates of the Council of Elders of the Moskitia, representing more than 300 Miskitu communities, met for four days with over a thousand indigenous people in the port town of Bilwi, capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). At the end of that protracted gathering, they declared the independence of the “Moskitia Community Nation” and elected Reverend Héctor Williams, a pastor of the Pentecostal-influenced Christian Assemblies Church, as the wihta tara (grand judge).

Long live independence!

The Council of Elders gave the RAAN autonomous government six months to turn its administration over to the recently elected wihta tara. Tensions grew in Bilwi as the deadline neared and Williams announced on radio and other media that 5,000 Miskitu community members would peacefully take over the two regional government buildings.

In response, the Managua government sent anti-riot police to Bilwi and put the army on alert. Days earlier, lawyer Oscar Hodgson, the Council of Elders’ legal representative, went to Managua to demand a dialogue between the Council and President Daniel Ortega, but Ortega didn’t receive him. As is his wont, Ortega instead said in a speech that the Caribbean independence movement was being encouraged by the oligarchic Right and foreign embassies.

On October 18, hours before Ortega violated the Constitution to guarantee his own reelection project, some 3,000 Miskitu community members, mainly old men and boys, gathered under a heavy downpour in the main square and headed in a ragtag mass to the government center shouting “Long live independence!” The police cordoned off the way, and when some attempted to break through the barrier they were met with a shower of tear gas from the police and a rain of rocks from FSLN activitists shouting “Long Live autonomy!” In the melee, a 75-year-old man fell dead of a heart attack.

Stedman Fagoth, who headed Misura, one of the two armed Miskitu organization that fought the first Ortega government in the eighties, and is now director of the second Ortega government’s Fishing Institute, called the move¬¬-ment’s leaders “maniacs and schizophrenics.” Susana Marley, another Miskitu leader, asked for understanding that what the separatist movement wants is to “clean the prostituting and corrupt politicians” out of the regional government. She and other Caribbean leaders issued a declaration specifically accusing Fagoth, FSLN National Assembly representative Brooklyn Rivera, RAAN governor Reynaldo Francis, FSLN political secretary César Paiz and RAAN Regional Council president Carlos Alemán of being “the intellectual authors [of the violence]. As indigenous people, they have no awareness of the damage they’re causing their own people.”

Neither a conspiracy nor absurd

To think clearly about the demand for independence on the Caribbean coast, it’s helpful first to remove all prejudicial labels—messianic, conspiratorial, scandalous, absurd and the like, according to one’s proclivities. Social processes generally require a reading that weaves together various levels of analysis to capture the multiple dimensions on which they construct their reality. Above all when working in the political terrain, it’s important to differentiate between the legality, i.e. juridical aspects, of a given situation and its legitimacy, expressed in the backing a person or decision can elicit. Legality and legitimacy aren’t always found on the same side of a dispute.

In historical terms, some social demands reach such mag¬nitude at certain moments that they transform power rela¬tions, legitimizing new ways of understanding social matters. In this sense they move ahead of laws that later guarantee their legality. Universal suffrage and the prohibition of slavery are only two paradigmatic examples of such unfolding of events, which begin with changes in the social structures and end up crystallizing into changes in the legal structures.

A potted history of the Council of Elders

It’s also important to take a closer look at some pieces of the puzzle, such as the Council of Elders. Historical records dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrate that the voice of the elders was greatly respected within the Miskitu communities’ traditional political life. This is understandable bearing in mind that they were people with more experience and surely contributed greatly in the search for solutions to conflicts affecting the community, the polis.

Their importance survived even in the 1980s, when the younger generation was suddenly thrust into making life-altering decisions and members of that generation found themselves in leadership positions in the larger, more complicated and violent world they were suddenly sucked into. But unlike other historical public figures such as the wihta and the sukia (shaman) and the 20th-century síndico (the person in charge of the community’s natural resource), we have no record of a Council of Elders as a corporative political group or institution within the community, much less one that claims to represent and lead the Miskitu people as a whole and safeguard their culture.

The Council of Elders as an institution seems to have been born in the early eighties as a political-military strategy of Misura. Its apparent purpose was to pull together the various small armed indigenous groups battling the Sandinista Popular Army from their bases in Honduras and legitimate Misura’s leadership and moral force over them.

Did it reflect a maturing of Caribbean political culture or an approximation to ideas promoted during those same years by international groups like the World Council of Indigenous Peoples or Cultural Survival? Was it influenced by the CIA? Perhaps a reworking of the earlier expression of a native clergy, promoted by the Moravian Church in the many communities where it had a presence? None of this is clear. What we do know, however, is that the Council of Elders grew and functioned as part of the political dynamics of the Honduran-based ethnic resistance that, together with the FDN, made up what was known as the “contras” in the eighties. In 1989, with the war on the coast nearly over, the Miskitu combatants and the Council of Elders demobilized and rejoined the region’s political life under the umbrella of Yatama, the name the armed organizations Misura and Misurasata took when they when reunited in 1987 with a little help from their friends—the CIA and the US State Department.

Over the past 18 years the Council of Elders has forged an identity separate from and sometimes contrary to Yatama. It has also participated in certain confrontations between the central government and the autonomous regional government around issues relevant to the Miskitus in the RAAN, where the Miskitu population has its greatest weight. But it has appeared on the public stage fundamentally via the media, largely because journalists seek its opinion as an authoritative voice on coast issues.

Is this because journalists are unaware that the Council doesn’t represent the population, or even the Miskitus themselves, to any great degree? Or is it the fruit of the effect this group’s name could have on the social imagination constructed by Hollywood around indigenous peoples, conjuring up the image of a group of wise old men who protect the secrets of their tribe, in this case “the Moskitia nation”? Whatever the answer, the Council of Elders’ level of representation might increase in these times of pro-”independence” sentiments.

The context is one of generalized discontent

In April of this year, the Council of Elders appeared in the news again with its surprising announcement of a newly elected wihta tara and deputy wihta tara, both of them evangelical pastors, who declared the independence of the “Moskitia nation.” The Council of Elders had already floated this initiative unsuccessfully in 2002, but this time they raised the stakes: the new authorities not only refused to recognize the autonomous regional government, but also asked the Organization of American States and the United Nations for international recognition.

The Council’s demands—the turning over to these new authorities of both the current government and all business and personal tax revenue—could obviously be challenged by a series of valid concerns such as who would manage the economic resources, how international relations would be administered, what participation the coast’s other ethnic groups would have in this process, what process would be set up to ratify this first government and elect successive ones, and whether an independence process on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is even viable, legal and/or legitimate under present circumstances?

From a historical perspective, the lack of political will displayed by the different governments that have run the national State and their public policies regarding the different ethnic groups on the coast are the most clinching proof of the failure of modernity in Nicaragua. Although the coast isn’t the only crack in the administration of the country’s diversity, most would agree that it’s the deepest.

It’s no secret that the image of the regional government and the national political parties—specifically the FSLN and the PLC—as well as of Yatama as a regional party is very tarnished in the eyes of the majority of the northern Caribbean population. The over 50% abstention rate in the most recent municipal and regional elections is a clear sign. The national and regional governments’ poor management of the resources allocated to help the tens of thousands of people affected by Hurricane Felix in September 2007 only increased the tensions between the population and its representatives.

There’s generalized discontent with the way politics is done, and in many cases men who fought in the different organizations that ultimately became known as Yatama now feel they were duped by all sides. First of all, the war wound down on the coast earlier than on the Pacific side of the country largely because many of these anti-Sandinista Miskitu combatants were persuaded by their civilian relatives that the Sandinista government had acknowledged its earlier errors and was offering a political solution to the coast’s age-old animosity toward Managua through recognition of the region’s right to autonomy. While there was significant evidence to that effect at the time, it would be a hard argument to make today.

Second, these former combatants, who now make up or at least strongly influence the bulk of the more politicized population in the north, are still living in difficult social conditions but see Rivera and Fagoth—their two top leaders both then and now—opting for personal enrichment and their own political careers protected by a national State removed from the daily life of most people in the coast.

Ever since 1860, when a treaty between Managua and Great Britain recognized Nicaragua’s sovereignty over the coast, the Nicaraguan State has maintained an impeccable imbalance between tax collection and a near total absence of public investments in social services. Given this context and its historical roots, the Council of Elders has shown up capitalizing on a hope for change, denouncing injustices, criticizing the power structures and proclaiming new rules, particularly regarding the use of and earnings from the natural resources. It’s constructing its own legitimacy by promising a new social pact. Will it get the State to recognize it as a valid interlocutor? Will it be able to force changes in the power relations, promoting new legal agreements? And even more important, can it gain the support of enough of the population to negotiate these changes beyond what it accomplishes at certain fleeing moments?

Lumber is at the center of the project

One of the strongest demands from the communities—unquestionably associated with the sympathies awakened by the demand for independence—is to receive more of the profits generated by exploitation of the region’s natural resources. According to Félix Labonte, from the timber-rich area of Sangnilaya, “We’re the owners of the forest. The lumber [felled by Hurricane Felix] is rotting and even so, we have to get all kind of permits and spend a passel of money to bring it out. Is that autonomy? It can’t be. Autonomy’s a farce.”

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Felix in the region did nothing to sensitize the state institutions. The national government issued Decree 92-2007 and Administrative Resolution 75-2007 supposedly to assist the affected populations’ socioeconomic rehabilitation. The idea was that the communities would develop community agro-forestry through their own Forest Use Plans (PAF). But what has this meant in practice? Basically that each community has to hire a forestry regent to draft and supervise the PAF, and at the same time pay at least $5,000 in taxes to the municipal, regional and state governments and the síndico of the respective territory (a new geographical designation still being demarcated) according to the volume of lumber involved. Obviously no community can afford those costs unless it repeats the cycle of community-business alliances in which it obviously has the minority holding. Another possibility is that the community “heroes”—the NGOs—will come to the rescue, but that doesn’t happen very often on forestry issues.

Historically, the laws regulating lumber extraction have benefited the big lumber dealers to the detriment of the forest-owning communities. Among other things, this has led to a minimal but sustained level of illegal mahogany exploitation, mainly by families that must dodge barriers and a series of legal “borders” just to eke out small profits: approximately $100-200. Everybody in the RAAN—including the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR), the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), the Environmental Ombudsperson’s Office and the regional and municipal governments—knows about this business, but they don’t prohibit or really go after it because they also know that it’s right on that fine line between legal and legitimate. Furthermore, this type of exploitation has only a tiny impact on the environment compared to the volumes the businesses handle. The idea of independence doesn’t seem as preposterous given the general longing to benefit directly from the forest and its valuable lumber.

“It’s the best thing that could happen to us”

What kind of support does the Council of Elders enjoy right now from the general population? Is it just from those who sympathize with the demand for independence? It’s very difficult, if not irresponsible, to weigh up a social group’s opinion about a given issue. It’s tempting to project the idea held by a few onto the entire collective and end up influencing one position or another. Regrettably that’s a very common—and risky—practice in national journalism.

The range of views presented here is based on a series of formal and informal interviews conducted in Bilwi and some communities of the grasslands area in the northern part of the municipality of Puerto Cabezas. This information should only be read as a sample of the northern Caribbean’s heterogeneous reality.

The first thing to point out is that the Council of Elders is awakening an ethnic, specifically Miskitu loyalty in the same way Yatama does. As Alanda González, from the Auhya Pihni community explained, “They’re our people and if they do things well, we’ll support them.”

Some people have major expectations of a possible change in the political system, which could finally work to fight the structural conditions of poverty affecting the region’s population. Paradoxically, however, there’s no serious discussion of the Council of Elders’ real chances for either success or failure. For Ajandro Saiman, from the community of Panua, independence would mean “there would be no central government manipulating our authorities.” Félix Labonte sees independence as “the best thing that could happen to us on the coast because it implies the freedom to design our own government system, in which the laws would respond to the communities’ interests, needs and problems.” Alanda González explains it like this: “As life is very hard, the young population in my community is centering its hopes for change on the independence movement, because with the current system there’s no sign that the situation could improve.”

“I don’t think they’ll succeed”

The fact that most members of the Council of Elders are pastors is seen as a strength, according to Romel Calero of Bilwi: “The reverends have a lot of people who follow them even in this movement.” Some, however, recognize that the promoters of independence have yet to publicly present any government plan and haven’t demonstrated enough experience or political savvy to convert their small movement into a genuine political force that brings together the whole RAAN population.

Some people are short on confidence in what a radical change in the current system of government could bring. Among other things, they fear that once the independence leaders get into power they’ll forget the reasons behind their struggles and become just as corrupt as the current politicians if not more so.

Luis Enríquez, a Yatama member who’s in charge of the party’s headquarters in Bilwi, says, “We fought for ten years as a military grouping and our initial demand was for the coast’s independence. At that time we had a lot of international support [from the United States] in both money and weapons. But although many men and women were involved in that great struggle, we couldn’t achieve independence. I don’t understand how the wihta tara thinks independence can be achieved in such a short time and with so few people supporting them.” Apolinar Taylor, from Sangnilaya, believes that “if they’re really fighting for the Miskitus, Yatama and the wihta tara should join together to have greater strength.”

Alejo Obando, from Butku, says he doesn’t know who the wihta tara has links with or is tied to, adding that “we community members are waiting to hear what they propose before supporting it. The movement needs international support to succeed. Besides, they aren’t coordinating their activities with the community authorities and don’t have good relations with the government institutions.” Santo Lakut, also from Butku, confesses: “I don’t know any more than what I hear on the radio, because they don’t come to the communities.” Derling Salgado, who lives in Santa Marta, says: “I don’t believe they’ll be successful because they’re authoritarian. They came to my community and wanted us to do what they said and went away angry because the community didn’t obey them. If that’s how they behave now, what will they be like if they win?”

Wilbert Hernández, who is originally from Waspám on the Río Coco, but now lives in Puerto Cabezas, insists that “many communities of the upper Río Coco aren’t in favor because they believe this movement will bring a new war, and these communities already suffered the consequences of war. They’d rather not repeat that experience.”

Social imagination, historical debts

Paraphrasing Stuart Hall, one of the exponents of cultural studies in England, we could agree that independence as a political project isn’t imprinted on the Miskitus’ ethnic genes. To some degree the word “independence” is the cornerstone of a political narrative to publicly propose a new social pact with the State, without any real thoughts of genuine secession. It’s a way of attracting attention, a term that today expresses a historical chain of broken promises. The communities still don’t have all the information they need to take sides in a process that’s somewhat more urban than rural. For now and the foreseeable future it doesn’t appear that it will have any direct influence on the communities, which doesn’t mean it won’t attract attention as a latent scenario.

It should be stressed that the Council of Elders’ legal adviser, Oscar Hodgson, seems to have a lot of influence on the group. This is apparent in his speeches, at least those in which he reinterprets the past. In more academic terms, he has the task of using culture as a symbolic resource. Most people, including the media, are ignorant of history’s details, and regrettably there has been no rigorous public debate about the sources on the past and the social processes of the last three centuries. Neither the role of the Miskitu kings nor the scope of the national and international treaties that affected the coast are transparent social facts per se, as many would like to be the case.

Let’s look at one small example. In 1860 the Nicaraguan and British governments signed the Zeledón-Wyke Treaty, which established the Mosquito Reserve. Without entering into a discussion of how representative the Miskitu kings actually were, the government of the Reserve had their endorsement and participation, and in fact the reserve functioned as an autonomous district within the otherwise unitary nation-state until 1894. The demarcation of that district formed a rectangle that went from Monkey Point in the south up the coastline to Sandy Bay in the north, and extended some 100 km. into the country’s interior, representing only some 35% of the former territory of Nicaragua’s Mosquitia Coast. Many Miskitu communities—for example, those along the Río Coco—were left well outside of that circumscription. What territory will those now proposing independence demand?

Selecting situations and documents from the past to legitimize a struggle in the present is a tricky business that could trigger contradictions. The content of the treaties and judicial decisions and the Nicaraguan State’s respective failures to comply with them aren’t so important right now in the RAAN, where the Council of Elders is building itself as an alternative political organization. However, the existence of those documents is important insofar as they vindicate the Miskitus and their “leaders” of the moment as valid interlocutors to negotiate with the State and represent the coast population. In any case, the contradictions will surely be resolved somewhere between the legitimacy of the claims and the legality of the juridical tools used.

What alchemy between
legality and legitimacy?

We don’t need to focus on tradition to determine the “authenticity” of Miskitu political figures, in this case the Council of Elders. Any historiographic or journalistic research that takes for granted merely possible substance, so attractive to common sense but so costly to the exercise of thought, contains its own trap. In any event, all tradition is an invention. We need a critical vision that focuses on understanding how the Council of Elders works in practice, how it’s inserted into the political narrative and what material resources it mobilizes around the idea of independence, both in the communities and in other arenas.

In the political arenas where the alchemy between legitimacy and legality is forged, both readings of the past—including authorized and unauthorized ones—and concrete proposals mark the degree of stress on the sutures that join the desirable, the possible and the consensus required by any social change.

What will happen? It’s impossible to give a solid definitive response so soon. One thing we can be sure of is that the March 2010 regional elections will be a catalyst of some changes on the game board. And coast autonomy, never fully respected on any side, will undoubtedly be at stake.

Salvador García Bambini is an anthropology student and photographer who has focused his studies on the Caribbean coast. Juan Carlos Ocampo Zamora, a Miskitu, is an agricultural engineer.

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