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  Number 365 | Diciembre 2011
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Nicaragua

Notes on the elections in the North Caribbean region

What were the elections like in Bilwi, the North Caribbean capital, and what were they like in a Miskitu community in the northern savannah? There are both similarities and differences with what happened in the rest of the country: a lot of abstentions and changes in the correlation of political forces, but no violence. The FSLN-Yatama alliance was weakened and many people still have structural problems very much on their agenda.

Salvador García Babini

I traveled to the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) on November 1 to see how the “civic fiesta” was developing in Bilwi, the region’s capital, and in some Miskitu communities. After three days in the city I went up to the savannah area in the northern part of the municipality of Puerto Cabezas, where I spent four days, including election day, in the community of Sangnilaya, then returned to Bilwi for two more days. Throughout the trip I sought out the opinion of people with different political affinities to try to form as accurate a map as possible of the reality.

Two views on the elections

Without analyzing every detail, the November 6 national elections can be read in at least two ways. The first points out the most outstanding events before, during and immediately after the voting, trying to establish patterns. Different organizations and media have been able to show that to ensure favorable results the FSLN conducted a series of practices from both within and outside the State that translated into what could be called “low-intensity fraud.”

A second view highlights the underlying specific and diverse social processes in each region of the country that go beyond the current dynamic and represent people’s concerns about their social setting, which they hope to see included in the parties’ agendas beyond the electoral period—and which at least theoretically speaking should indeed be there. It is from this point of view that I’m writing.

The official Supreme Electoral Council results for the RAAN, in numbers of votes, were FSLN 49,460; PLI 35,100; PLC 10,429; ALN 1,005 and APRE 147. Based on the electoral roll, average abstention hit 50%. Unfortunately, the CSE webpage didn’t post the electoral results by municipality [by the time this was written], much less by polling station [still not], which is not only illegal but also affects the possibility of a more transparent review of the voting—which would weaken the CSE’s credibility even more—and makes it difficult to see cultural explanations for voter behavior in the different communities. Given that four different ethnic groups live in the North Caribbean, breaking down the data is the only way we can understand the “who,” “how” and “where” of voter participation, percentages of abstentions and null votes.

Bilwi on the eve of the elections

There wasn’t much of an election atmosphere on the streets of Bilwi compared to other years, when activists fought in public places to promote their leader’s image.

Who would be elected President was predictable beyond party preferences. After sampling different opinions, I found two likely explanations for this certainty: the divisions among the Liberals and local perceptions of the FSLN’s mobilizing power on the Pacific side of the country. A man in the central park jokingly told me: “Daniel’s already won. All that’s left are the elections.” The candidacies of Enrique Quiñónez for the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), who isn’t known in the region, and of Arnoldo Alemán for the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), who is seen as Daniel’s puppet, were viewed here as an FSLN ploy to split the Liberal vote and prevent the second-place PLI Alliance from having a strong showing. This view had an unsettling effect on voters critical of the FSLN, causing a low turnout. Resigned, they were sure that no candidate could wrest the presidency from Ortega.

The FSLN has a good mayor and
lots of young people in “politics”

It should be acknowledged that the FSLN’s image has improved, at least in Bilwi, with Guillermo Espinoza running the municipal government—now for a second term. He may well be the most popular mayor in the last 15 years. According to most of those interviewed, he has done more and better public works.

As Mayra Chow, a law student at the Bluefields and Indian Caribbean University (BICU), explained: “The mayor has paved streets that were never paved before. And unlike the previous mayor, Elizabeth Enríquez, from the regional indigenous party Yatama, this mayor has done a very good job. He also improved the infrastructure in the central park, although this wasn’t a priority for the people, and he did it well. Sure he did it to promote the FSLN’s campaign, but it’s benefiting people.” According to comments later heard in the savannah communities, the rural population that occasionally travels to Bilwi also gives this mayor’s works positive ratings.

Mayra considered people of her generation happy with the government and believed they would ratify Daniel Ortega. She told me that “young people were invited to participate in political life” and, while she doesn’t totally agree with them missing school because of campaign activities, she thinks it’s important for them to be involved in politics and be “taken into account.” The political life they’re involved in has focused on organizing cultural events and proselyting campaigns. Taking a medium-term view, one wonders whether this involvement will translate later into young people really making decisions in the region’s social and political life. And what’s more, if the time comes, will they be able to defend the objectives of regional autonomy against the national party’s interests?

No clear accounts about Hurricane Felix aid

After Hurricane Felix in September 2007, the RAAN received donations from different international institutions to rehabilitate the affected communities. Some of these resources were channeled through the mayors and the regional government, but their execution has been seriously questioned for its lack of transparency.

Francis Escobar, owner of a popular diner, commented: “Politicians aren’t honest about making public everything that came in as donations for the region. And because we don’t know how much came in, we don’t know how much went missing. If it’s like they say on the news, a lot of food donations, money and construction materials came in but a lot of it got lost along the way. As a citizen, I can say that the regional government, both the Yatama and Sandinista members, mismanaged this aid for the Miskitu people. Everybody knows about this mess.”

The failure of government authorities to promote accountability mechanisms (reports, newsletters and assemblies) has negative effects. When people don’t know how much money the government received and how it was used, it undermines the credibility of political parties and public institutions, feeds accusations—not always justified—about the incorrect use of resources, fosters electoral abstention and, in sum, makes the political system so untrustworthy that governability becomes even more difficult. It becomes much harder for any government institution to inspire people to comply with their own civic duties.

As Francis Escobar ended by saying, “Community people see the bad example of the leaders—that they steal—and that motivates them to say: ‘Who are you to tell me to behave when you’re the biggest thief?’ Respect has to be mutual.”

Back to Sangnilaya

On Thursday, November 3, I took the truck that leaves every other day from St Peter’s Catholic Church and went up to Sangnilaya, a Miskitu community some 37 miles north of Bilwi. I hadn’t been back for two years, but I ran into some friends in the truck and we had time over the four-hour trip for them to catch me up on issues I was interested in.

I heard that the forests have been gradually recovering from the effects of Hurricane Felix and are providing a certain amount of food and productive autonomy. Even so, some families that hadn’t been able to keep beans for seed in 2010 were hoping that some government institution would provide them so they could plant in November and December. Sometimes, socio-ecological vulnerability (crop theft, pests, floods and droughts) limits the possibilities of storing seeds from one productive cycle to another.

In the last three years some projects have improved people’s lives. In 2009, DANIDA (the Danish government cooperation agency) together with the Bilwi mayor’s office, finished building a road connecting Sangnilaya with Santa Marta, cutting 12 miles off the trip by the old roads. In 2010, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) financed the construction of 95 houses in the community (all but 10 of the 67 houses there in 2007 were destroyed by the hurricane), and Masangni, a local cooperative that provides community forestry services, built a further 10. A European Union project (Eurosolar) installed an office in the community with solar panels to power its five computers and cordless telephone.

Of all the people I talked to about these changes, only a few perceived the national government as facilitating the projects. Thanks went to the NGOs and the locally placed international organizations. Governmental presence is weak.

The limitations of the “doctor” and the judge

Not all the news in the community is good. Hitler Pérez, an auxiliary nurse, works alone in the health center, which has to treat three other communities in addition to Sangnilaya, for a total of 1,230 potential patients. He feels overwhelmed by his responsibilities: consultations, home visits and writing reports. He tells me that some of the medicines given by the Health Ministry each month only last 15 days. Among those most in demand are acetaminophen, ibuprofen, amoxicillin, procaine penicillin, gentamicin and diclofenac in capsules, all used to alleviate pain, fever and infections, especially in pregnant women and small children. Some years ago the community requested a better supply of medicines and a doctor to attend cases whose complexity and treatment are beyond a nurse’s knowledge. They’re still waiting.

As in other communities in the area, insecurity is an issue that’s increasingly worrying the population. Apolinar Taylor, currently the wihta (judge) of Sangnilaya, has conducted intelligence operations to confiscate gallons of chicha (corn-based moonshine) and check out who’s selling marijuana, because alcohol and drug consumption is associated with the theft of animals and domestic violence. The wihta wants to make a small two-cell jail in the community to deal with petty crime, ensuring public punishment in his local administration. He spoke about this with the National Police authorities in Bilwi and asked them for help with construction materials but they told him their institution has no resources.

Elections in Sangnilaya

On Sunday the elections in Sangnilaya went smoothly. People from there and the neighboring communities of Iltara and Butku gradually drifted in to vote. The two polling stations (8060 and 8061) were both situated in the school. One could feel the formality of public ritual in the air, a quiet that made people talk in whispers. An hour before closing time, FSLN activists—the only ones present in the community—got organized and went by car to find eight people who, for whatever reason, hadn’t come out to vote. Eight more grains for their mill.

Around 8pm, after the ballots were counted, one of the monitors posted the results over the door. For President: 208 votes for the FSLN, 37 for the PLI Alliance, 9 for the ALN, 6 for the PLC, none for APRE and 28 ballots annulled.

Daniel Ortega’s triumph in Sangnilaya was something of an exception in the savannah and seacoast communities, where the PLI Alliance actually won in a number of the polling stations.

In these three communities, 452 people were listed on the electoral roll. With 288 voting, the abstention rate was 36%. It isn’t an insignificant fact, even considering the history of low turnouts in previous elections in the communities.

What was the voting like in other parts of the region? What do people think about their material conditions and the range of political possibilities—some more concrete than others—for changing them? How much impact do they think the government, the political parties, the NGOs, the churches and they themselves could have on the desired changes? How do these variables affect how they participate in the elections, including not going to vote?

I stayed another day in Sangnilaya after the elections to record any noticeable reaction once they knew who had won the presidency. But nothing happened. There were no celebrations and no fights. Families resumed the everyday activities that for centuries have given them a large measure of autonomy from the political, economic and social fluctuations around them.

On Tuesday morning I walked the six miles to the highway to catch the bus that goes by on its way from Waspam, on the Río Coco, to Bilwi. To complete the political picture, I wanted to learn about any variations the elections had produced in the Yatama-FSLN alliance.

The alliance is seriously weakened

The alliance Yatama and the FSLN forged in the 2006 elections, when between them they won most of the 45 seats in the autonomous Regional Council, still held in these elections. What was their agreement? Brooklyn Rivera, Yatama’s official leader, guaranteed the FSLN the votes from his social base and in exchange the FSLN included Miskitu representatives in the National Assembly and the Central American Parliament, starting with Brooklyn himself. The Miskitu people, loyal to their party—nee anti-Sandinista military organization in the 1980s—expected benefits for the communities, not just for Yatama’s leaders, in the form of work, materials to build houses, land, credit and even pensions for former Yatama combatants.
They have received almost nothing. Many of those interviewed agreed with what former commander Osorno Coleman told me: “People agree with the alliance but they don’t see any benefits. Those who get them are the legislative representatives, state officials and Yatama activists. But most of the former combatants are disappointed. That’s why many of them didn’t vote or voted for another party.”

Beyond internal disputes, which there are, the alliance is seriously weakened by this lack of grassroots Yatama support. This was shown by the electoral results in the savannah and northern seacoast communities, where the vote for the PLI Alliance was close to or even exceeded the FSLN vote in many polling stations, whereas in the last general elections, the Yatama-FSLN alliance won most of them.

Brooklyn Rivera: “They’re going to eat iron!”

On learning the ballot results among his people, Brooklyn Rivera spoke on the Yapti Tasba radio station. Noticeably annoyed by the grassroots “disobedience” and the possibility of losing power in the political game, he threatened these Miskitu communities: “Now you can’t go to the regional government to ask for help! You’re going to eat iron for not having voted for the FSLN!”

Benito Felicito, “Negrito,” is a Miskitu former combatant who lived in Sangnilaya and now rents a small house in Bilwi with his wife and three children. I usually visit him and wanted to hear his opinion about the political situation. “Five years ago,” he told me, “I campaigned for the FSLN- Yatama alliance. I told people what the benefits would be. But in five years I haven’t seen anything good for the communities, not for those of us who fought or for the coast in general. How can I now go back and ask for votes for the FSLN?” His testimony moves me. He speaks with pain, disappointment. His words let me imagine how many others would tell me the same thing.

Not enough land and too many problems

Bilwi’s population has been increasing steadily over the last 30 years, through both natural family expansion and constant migration from the communities to the city in search of better opportunities. This has caused an urgent demand for a lot among the people who don’t have the resources to pay rent or buy a house. This demand possibly represents one of the main structural conflicts in Bilwi and tense public demonstrations are now evident.

In late September of this year a group of several thousand people occupied an area in a large field known as Loma Verde (Green Hill) on the outskirts of Bilwi. Who does this land belong to? Apparently it belongs to Karata, a Territorial Bloc comprising three communities: Dakban, Lamlaya and Karata.
Karata has had a land title since the 1920s for an area that includes where Bilwi is currently situated. But another Territorial Bloc, known as 10 Communities, received a land title at that same time, which also shows its ownership of part of the area where Bilwi is now.

Beyond the territorial overlaps between one bloc and another, the truth is that the Karata government has undertaken to lease and sell these lands to Bilwi inhabitants who aren’t descendants of its own bloc. With this historic framework in mind, the occupants of Loma Verde argue that the land they’ve settled on belongs to the 10 Communities Bloc and they, the “children” of this bloc, have the right to stay there. It’s a fight in which the right to live in dignity puts the legalistic arguments into check.

“We’re the ones running the boat”

Negrito is one of those claiming a piece of land on Loma Verde. When he went to the Karata offices a few months ago to ask for a place to build his house, they told him: “You need land? I’ll give you the document if you pay me US$1,500.” A poor man can’t pay that kind of money. As a Miskitu and a former combatant, Negrito feels he’s entitled to his own space for his family.

Although the dispute hasn’t been resolved yet and has already cost the life of a 17-year-old boy, allegedly murdered by people from Karata, the political parties haven’t pledged to find a solution to this problem.

A sizable sector of former Yatama combatants, in which Negrito is an activist, no longer find in Yatama, much less the alliance with the FSLN, the arena to build a political agenda that responds to people’s concrete interests and problems. At the same time, they are aware that they won’t get any results if they don’t get into the political game. They must negotiate with the hegemonic authorities.

That’s why they’re now thinking of founding a new party and fighting for use of the Yatama name, adding another distinctive word to it. As Negrito told me enthusiastically, “Yatama’s current emblem has a boat, a paddle and a spear. We’re going to leave the boat, but our emblem will be different: a gun and a man on the paddle, so people can see that we’re the ones running the boat.”

If this project for a new indigenous party eventually gets grassroots support, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in 2012, the year of the next municipal elections, in which Yatama and the FSLN leadership refuse to let it emerge. Taking recent history into account, we can also imagine that this will generate violence, even deaths. The coast’s political class must address in time the underlying claims feeding peoples’ discontent. And they must find electoral channels. The “boat” must be navigable on other courses and by other captains.

Salvador García Bambini is an anthropologist.

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