Miskitu: Revolution in the Revolution

September 25, 2007

munities at the mouth of Nicaragua's Rio Grande
de Matagalpa in mid-1985, the war had been going on for
three years.' Sandinista troops were stationed inside the
villages to fend offanti-government insurgents camped in
the "bush" nearby. These Indian combatants-known in
Miskitu as "bush people"--included a number of people
from communities along the Rio Grande. Repeated clashes
had recently given way to a tense stand-off, as leaders of
both sides sought a return to peace. Sandinista-imposed
restrictions on movement to the bush were still in effect,
and farming and fishing had declined drastically, as had
many of the social and religious activities around which
community life revolved.
Over the next three years, I asked many of the area's
residents about the conflict and what the bush people
hoped to achieve. They spoke with resolute eloquence of
their "struggle for Indian rights." Miskitu people are not
out "to divide Nicaragua," nor "to take power in Managua,"
they explained. "We merely seek control over what is
rightfully ours." This notion of rights, grounded in collec-
tive memories of resistance against "the Spanish," re-
volved around demands for land, control of natural re-
sources, self-government and respect for Miskitu culture.
Together these four demands comprise what I refer to as
"ethnic militancy," a radical challenge to central govern-
ment prerogatives without full-fledged nationalist preten-
sions. The conflict arose in part because the Sandinistas
ignored or misunderstood this ethnic militancy, an error
they began to rectify only later by acknowledging coast
peoples' rights to autonomy.'
Yet there was another side to Miskitu consciousness,
which those who emphasize ethnic militancy often ne-
glect. Rooted in a long history of relations with British
colonists, North American company managers, traders
and missionaries of the Moravian church, and other
"Anglos," Miskitu people's political culture is character-
ized by deference to the powerful, dependence on external
aid, and deeply ingrained affinities with the Anglo-Ameri-
can world. In a single conversation, for example, towns-
people would recount details of pitched battles against the
Sandinistas and fond memories of people like "Mr. Bill"-a
tall, reportedly kind-hearted Texan who owned and oper-
ated a tourist camp in the Rio Grande community of
Karawala during the 1970s. Tourists arrived directly from
Charles R. Hale teaches anthropology at the Univer-
sity of California at Davis.
r__the United States in small planes to spend their vacation
at this camp fishing, exploring, and catching a glimpse of
how Indians lived in the tropical rainforest. Although
townspeople were prohibited from entering the com-
pound (except the few who became employees), all could
describe in detail what was inside: a restaurant, fine
accommodations, a bar, and a discotheque where the
tourists danced at night.
To the Sandinistas who reached Karawala in the months
after July 1979, the fences of Mr. Bill's tourist compound
epitomized gringo arrogance and neo-colonialism. They
confiscated his goods and turned them over to the commu-
nity, used the accommodations to house literacy cam-
paign volunteers, and delivered confident speeches that
the days of dependency and exploitation were gone for-
ever. Townspeople's Anglo affinity, including a stubborn
deaf ear to critiques of U.S. imperialism, only strength-
ened many Sandinistas' belief that the revolution would
save the Indians from their own ignorance. Official slo-
gans depicted the Atlantic coast region as an "Awakening
Giant" (implying coast people had previously been asleep),
and references to the Indians' "cultural backwardness"
were common. When Miskitus joined the U.S.-funded
contras by the hundreds, many Sandinistas considered
their perceptions to be abundantly confirmed.
The dual character of Miskitu consciousness helps
explain why analyses of the conflict within the U.S. Left
became so divergent and bitter. Both those who dispar-
aged the Miskitu as pawns of the CIA and those who
celebrated them as Indian warriors struggling for national
sovereignty found evidence to back up their arguments.
Field research after peace negotiations were underway
left me convinced that the Miskitu people's explosive
anti-government mobilization was motivated both by
militant ethnic demands and by Anglo affinity. An under-
standing of this dual consciousness also helps make sense
of coast politics today, which contain portents of a tragic
paradox. The ethnic militancy that fueled the mobiliza-
tion of the 1980s and forced the Sandinistas to rethink
their policies is beginning to dissipate, just as autonomy
has finally come within reach.
two 45-member government councils, one in the
north and one in the south, that would form the basis of the
autonomous government. Sandinistas won a minority in
both councils-21 and 18 seats respectively-receiving a
mere 10% to 20% of the Miskitu vote. The vast majority
of Miskitu voters backed YATAMA, the Indian organiza-
tion that led the armed opposition to the Sandinistas. In the
north, where the Miskitu population is concentrated,
YATAMA captured the majority of council seats, and its
leaders, Leonel Pantin and Uriel Vanegas, took up the
reins of government. 3
Despite this formal autonomy, the coast is filled with
scenes that have the flavor of those times the Sandinistas
promised to vanquish. Autonomous government officials
are busy hosting delegations of shady North American
venture capitalists, who hope to acquire rights to the
region's rich natural resources. A North American by the
name of "Mr. Jack" has set up shop in one Rio Grande
community, selling townspeople imported beer and pro-
visions on credit, which they repay in lobster that he
exports at great profit to the United States. 4
To be sure, not all the recent changes are negative or
unsavory. Townspeople are profoundly grateful that the
war is over, relieved by the absence of various forms of
"pressure" they felt under Sandinista rule, and pleased
about their regained freedom of movement. Yet before
long the darker side of these new freedoms emerged.
President Violeta Chamorro' s policy toward the coast
is strategically ambivalent. Her administration has denied
the autonomous government legal recognition and in-
sisted on maintaining control over the region's principal
natural resources-marine, forest and mineral. While
some small-scale investors have managed to avoid
Managua and work directly through the autonomous
councils, all sizeable licenses and concessions must be
purchased from the central government. In late August,
for example, a major Taiwanese lumber company began
negotiating exclusive rights to a vast swath of the coast's
remaining virgin forests without even consulting the
autonomous government. [See sidebar page 26]
Managua officials also ordered the destruction of
allegedly "politicized" bilingual textbooks developed by
teams of coast educators in the Sandinista era. Under the
direction of U.S.AID, they substituted new glossy ones
that are pedagogically inferior and filled with Disney-
style characters in white middle-class scenes alien to most
Miskitu. Sometimes they are blatantly racist. One can
only imagine what young students will conclude, for
example, when they read on page 118 of the third-grade
text, the story of a robot whose gibberish prompts the
white-skinned child to comment: "iHabla como un indio!
Bueno pues, ya que hablas como un indio, ipor qui no
jugamos a los indios?" ("He talks like an Indian! Well, if
you talk like an Indian, why don't we play Indians?")s
Meanwhile, Managua authorities have denied the fledg-
ling autonomous councils financial support, leaving them
next to dysfunctional. Funding for bilingual education
(despite the textbook switch) is threatened, the healthcare
system is in shambles, and government-sponsored com-
munity development programs are almost non-existent.
As of August 1991, the autonomous council of the north
had not met in three months due to lack of funds.
The Institute for the Development of the Autonomous
Regions (INDERA) and its minister, Brooklyn Rivera,
have directly facilitated Managua's policy of malign
neglect. Undoubtedly the most popular Miskitu leader,
Rivera did not run as a candidate in the 1990 autonomy
elections. In the final weeks of the campaign, Rivera cut
a deal with Violeta Chamorro, pledging Miskitu support
for her candidacy in return for a vague promise of "true
autonomy." It later became clear that Rivera had also
negotiated a cabinet-level position for himself as minister
of the newly-formed INDERA. Formally subject to the
executive's authority and sustained by the federal budget,
INDERA has the broad, ambiguous mandate to act as the
central government's representative on the Atlantic Coast.
INDERA has set up offices on the coast, hired many of the
brightest young coast professionals, and generated a long
list of projects in search of international funds. Its princi-
pal impact thus far, however, has been to act as a buffer,
deflecting criticism from coast people that would other-
wise be directed squarely against the central government.
organized defenders of autonomy today are Sandi-
nistas. Despite their minority status in the autonomous
councils, Sandinistas have led efforts to denounce and
actively oppose the Chamorro administration's intransi-
gence. For example, forging alliances with non-Sandinista
councilors, they have sought to gain regional control over
the economically crucial fishing industry, and led the
outcry against unilateral central government grants of
concessions for lumber exploitation. Most urgently, they
are at work to imbue the autonomy law with concrete,
legally binding content (a process known as reglamenta-
Sandinista leaders have not, of course, been able to
raise the banner of autonomy without serious self-criti-
cism. Before the elections of 1990, this remained moder-
ate and gentle: "We arrived with no understanding of
coast people's culture," or, "We tried to impose models
from the Pacific." As Manuel Ortega Hegg, a Sandinista
anthropologist who played a key role in the conceptual
transition to autonomy, explained, "Beginning in 1982,
efforts centered on determining which demands were
legitimate and which were not. The autonomy project
emerged from this reflection." 6 Theoretically, autonomy
was to be a middle ground between two flawed extremes:
economicismo, the idea that ethnic demands would dis-
solve in the course of egalitarian economic development;
and etnicismo, the exclusive concern with ethnicity to the
neglect of class and national-level politics. 7
After the 1990 elections, these reflections broadened
to cover other problems. Because Sandinista leaders re-
tained the power to identify "legitimate" demands, and to
define the correct balance between economicismo and
etnicismo, it should be no suprise that many Miskitu
perceived autonomy as a "Sandinista project." Sandinistas
are now more willing to concede this point, admitting that
their limitations as a vanguard party were greatly magni-
fied in this ethnically diverse region where decisions and
orders "come down" from the culturally dominant center.
As a high-ranking Miskitu Sandinista candidly remarked,
"We [in the party] didn't allow people to be both Miskitu
and Sandinista; we made them choose between the two."
Sandinista nationalism was also problematic on the
coast. In one of the more penetrating analyses of the
Sandinista electoral defeat, historian James Dunkerley
suggested that the forging of an "unprecedented" national
identity and pride was the revolution's most enduring
achievement. 8 Yet Dunkerley and many others seem to
overlook the dilemma this achievement entailed. How-
ever effective for the mestizo majority as a call to unity,
pride and defiance of U.S. aggression, Sandinista nation-
alism sent an assimilationist message to Indian peoples
who had forged an identity in resistance to the mestizo
REPORT ON THE AMERICASThe post-1985 transition to autonomy did begin to
focus attention on this problem. In the 1984 electoral
campaign, for example, the Sandinista platform vowed to
"incorporate the Miskitu...into their real [Nicaraguan]
national identity."' After 1985, by contrast, the Sandinistas
pledged to proceed by the ubiquitous slogan, "We are a
multi-ethnic nation." Yet as of February 1990 it remained
unclear how the profoundly mestizo content of the "na-
tional project" would be rendered "multi-ethnic," and
whether the Miskitu (and other coast people) would have
the power to assure that the outcome was to their liking.
That basic uncertainty was built into the law itself. On
key issues-such as rights to land and natural resources,
and the formulation of development plans for the re-
gion-the law's wording is cautious and ambiguous.
Although this wording did have a strong dual rationale in
the political conditions of 1987, it now serves to strengthen
the hand of anti-autonomy forces within the Chamorro
administration."' The Sandinistas are therefore left in the
position of working-through reglamentaci6n-to elimi-
nate the hedges and ambiguities they created intention-
autonomous government, like Vanegas and Pantin,
have cooperated with the Sandinistas to defend autonomy,
but the alliance has not prospered. Denied power and
resources from Managua, Pantin has pursued extra-legal
means to keep the northern autonomous government
afloat. Money has changed hands, and contracts have
been signed, with little public accountability.'? As a
consequence, Miskitu townspeople have accused their
leaders of ineptitude and misuse of funds, obscuring Mannnoan' mali on n olert
"ana ua'smali nne-lect as the prime cause of the
northern autonomous
government's naralvsis.
Thus the Sandinistas,
rather than raising their
stature by defending au-
tonomy, have discredited
themselves by their asso-
ciation with Miskitu lead-
ers broadly perceived to be
using autonomy to fill their
own pockets.
Meanwhile, by virtue of
being public allies of the
Sandinistas, Pantin and his
followers cast doubt on
their own protestations of
innocence. Miskitu towns-
people have taken Daniel
Ortega's oath on the morn-
ing of the 1990 electoral
defeat, "We will govern
from below," and turned it
A home on the Atlantic coal
notions of citizens' rights h
among staunch Miskitu opp
st. The ironic legacy of a decade of war: Sandinista
ave become part of the prevailing common sense, even
0 A? ZI
into an explanation for their ills: Conditions are rotten on
the coast because the Sandinistas are still running the
government from below.
This unrelenting distrust of Sandinista motives is nur-
tured by a flood of bitter memories of the first five years
of the 1980s. In Boom Sirpi, a small town near Puerto
Cabezas, a family told in vivid detail how they had been
forcibly evacuated and the house where they now live was
turned into an army barracks. In Managua, a woman in her
late twenties described how in 1981 her father, a Moravian
pastor, was arrested and sent to prison in Managua. The
only family member with Spanish language skills, she
moved to Managua, visited her father at the prison twice
weekly for two years until he was released, endured the
fear and stigma of being labeled a "counter-revolution-
ary," and the anguish of believing that he would remain
there for his full 30-year sentence. Everyone has stories of
hardship, which evoke powerful emotions and serve to
reiterate how immensely popular the Miskitu anti-gov-
ernment mobilization turned out to be.
The Sandinistas do not contest this last point. "To a
great extent, the struggle of the Miskitu has been for the
just demands of the Atlantic Coast," Tombs Borge dra-
matically conceded in a 1986 speech. "The majority of the
men from here that rose up in arms, did so to struggle for
[their] rights,...rights with which we always have been in
agreement."" 3 Sandinistas do contest, however, the rela-
tive weight assigned to the first and second halves of the
decade: they ask people to temper memories of the con-
flict with the more recent experience of transition to
peace, reconciliation and autonomy.
Miskitu leaders associated with INDERA, not surpris-
ingly, ask the reverse. Their greatest political threat comes
27The First Nations
The First Nations
from the Sandinista-autonomous government alliance,
which considers INDERA illegal and insists that it be
disbanded or placed under autonomous government au-
thority. 1 4 To counter such threats, Brooklyn Rivera, the
former champion of "Indian nations' struggle for sover-
eignty," finds himself in the awkward position of defend-
ing central government prerogatives. He and his follow-
ersjustify such an unlikely stance by arguing that INDERA
is "not political" but rather concerned solely with devel-
opment, and that through INDERA, Miskitu leaders have
an unprecedented degree of power-they have the
president's ear and an effective conduit to acquire devel-
opment funds for the coast."
Such a rationale does not completely dispel doubts
raised by INDERA's role in obscuring Managua's failure
to comply with the autonomy law. To avoid the damaging
political consequences of this contradiction, Brooklynistas
have come to rely increasingly on their trump card: they
portray pro-autonomy forces as "Sandinista" and then
discredit them by evoking memories of the war. "All we
have to do is remind [people] of the war years," one Rivera
supporter explained. "Who destroyed your homes and
churches? Who picked up your kids and sent them to war?
Who tried to bring communism to Nicaragua?"
Although this tack has been successful in defusing
Sandinista-led opposition to INDERA, other dissenting
voices are beginning to emerge. Recently, one group of
Miskitu ex-combatants from YATAMA signed an agree-
ment with the Sandinistas, committing both sides to
cooperate "in defense of the full implementation of au-
tonomy." Their leader is Rodwell Stevenson (Comandante
"Tapu"), a slight Miskitu man in his late twenties.
Stevenson began his military career in the Sandinista
army, spent six months in Cuba learning to operate heavy
artillery, then defected in 1982 and spent the next seven
years as a commander of anti-Sandinista forces. Passed
over for a high post in the Chamorro government's Inte-
rior Ministry, and not rewarded for his years of sacrifice,
Stevenson turned to the Sandinistas.
From cramped quarters in a Bluefields rooming house,
as he anxiously awaits an office the Sandinistas promised
to provide, Stevenson dispatches underlings on "mis-
sions" to outlying communities in search of popular
support. He emphasizes his followers' unassailable cre-
dentials as former anti-Sandinista combatants, and ex-
plains his present alliance in an engaging way: "We
fought against the Sandinistas; from us they learned about
Miskitu rights; so now we understand each other." This
persistent ethnic militancy, and its gradual disassociation
from visceral anti-Sandinista bitterness, may well be
essential if autonomy is to survive.
formulated a strategy that encourages Miskitu lead-
ers like Stevenson to come forward. They are working
hard at the grassroots, seeking alliances based on common
interests and abandoning the old practice of making
incorporation into party discipline an acid test for political
reliability. It remains to be seen, however, whether per-
sisting centralist tendencies in the FSLN will limit their
success.' 6 "The Sandinistas could never gain the upper
hand here; their party is from Managua," YATAMA
leaders argue. Such challenges may draw Sandinista
costeiios closer to an idea that has been discussed quietly
for a number of years, and now appears to be gaining
strength: to direct political energy toward coast-wide
initiatives devoted exclusively to promoting autonomy,
rather than work through the national party. In many ways
such a strategy would be the logical outgrowth of their
renunciation of vanguardism and their promise to forge a
"multi-ethnic nation."
Even if that transition were achieved, autonomy would
still be at great risk as long as Miskitu ethnic militancy
continues to dissipate. Whether out of perplexity or disil-
lusionment, economic desperation or political exhaus-
tion, Miskitu townspeople are showing signs of disgust
and apathy. "Autonomy has turned to garbage," a secre-
tary in the northern autonomous government, who had
always expressed great enthusiasm for Miskitu rights,
said half-jokingly. "We Miskitu aren't capable of manag-
ing our own affairs. We're used to having a Spaniard
running things from Managua. Why not keep it that
Although the specific conditions are new, this despon-
dency is rooted in the premises of Anglo affinity: the
belief that having a Miskitu leader in a high central
government post would resolve local problems, a depen-
dence on external development aid, and an inclination
toward solutions from above and outside-especially
white North America-rather than from grassroots em-
powerment and self-determination." These have formed
part of Miskitu consciousness for decades, and were
particularly evident during the Somoza era. In the com-
munities of the Rio Grande, these premises could regain
prominence. Rumor has it that Mr. Bill wants to resume
his tourist business in Karawala, and people in town do not
seem to oppose the idea. "The tourists would create jobs,"
one man explained, "and when they return to the States,
they leave things behind for the people."
Butthe ironic legacy of the past decade is that Sandinista
notions of citizens' right to education, health care, decent
housing, and "popular power" have come to form part of
a prevailing common sense, even among people who
staunchly opposed the revolution. Indian townspeople
-combatants above all-appropriated these ideas early
on, used them to justify their own demands, and have not
forgotten them today. Economic desperation may force
people to settle for less, even to welcome the likes of Mr.
Bill. But they will probably be much less content with the
tourists' benevolent pickings than in Somoza's days.
People will not be able to look at the fenced-in tourist
compound without agnawing sense of dissonance evoked
by memories of their decision to stand up and teach the
Sandinistas the meaning of Indian rights.
Miskitu: Revolution in the Revolution
1. This article has benefitted from discussions with Carol Smith, Galio
Gurdidn, Carlos Castro and Jorge Matamoros, and from the institutional
support of the Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast
2. The term "coast people," or the Spanish equivalent costenos, refers to
members ofall sixethnic groups who live in the Atlantic (or Caribbean) coastal
region: Miskitu, Sumu and Rama Indians; Creole and Garifuna Afro-Nicara-
guans; and mestizos. Correspondingly, "Sandinista costehos" refers to coast
people from any of these six groups who are members, or strongly identified
with, the FSLN. Conclusions drawn here regarding the Miskitu should not be
taken to apply to coast people in general.
3. Pantin, a university-educated Miskitu formerly affiliated with Moravian
Church NGOs, now serves as regional "governor." Vanegas, an ex-com-
manderof YATAMA, is Council president. In addition, Steadman Fagoth, the
charismatic anti-Sandinista commander notorious for his authoritarian style
and close ties to the CIA, is a close adviser to Pantin on natural resources.
4. NPR reporter Cecilia Vaisman accompanied northern autonomous
government officials who were hosting a group of prospective investors,
including a man named "Fred... once a US intelligence agent in Southeast Asia.
Now suddenly retired, he's investigating the possibility offlying Miskitu coast
lobster and shrimp directly to the United States." (National Public Radio
broadcast transcript, Sept. 7, 1991) Others interested in gold mining visited in
August. They previously had worked in Bolivia, and reportedly had a fleet of
small airplanes on hand. Rumors circulated about their connections to the
Bolivian drug trade.
5. I am grateful to Hans Petter Bouvolen for bringing these details to my
attention. For more information, see his, "Siakni bara Pihini" (Barricada, July
5, 1991), andA. Cockburn, "The P.C. Crusade in Nicaragua" (The Nation,July
10, 1991).
6. Taken from an interview published in H. Difaz-Polanco and G. L6pez y
Rivas (eds.) Nicaragua: Autonomia y Revolucion (Mexico: Juan Pablos,
1986), p. 80.
7. H6ctorDiaz-Polanco, who wrote extensively on the ethnic question, and
served as a key advisor in the early phase of the autonomy process, was
influential in this formulation. See, for example, La cuestidn Stnico-nacional
(Mexico: Editorial Linea, 1985).
8. James Dunkerley, "Reflections on the Nicaraguan Election," New Left
Review, no. 182 (1990), pp. 33-51. Tomas Borge confirmed this point in a
recent speech, "Perspectivas de Liberaci6n Nacional en America Latina," in,
Heinz Dieterich Steffan (ed.), 1492-1992: La interminable Conquista (Mexico:
Planeta, 1991), pp. 191- 204,
9. Quoted in J. Jenkins, El Desafio lndigena en Nicaragua: el caso de los
miskitos (Managua: Editorial Vanguardia, 1986), p. 396.
10. The Sandinistas could not risk opening their vulnerable eastern flank
to U.S.-funded counter-revolution, which sought to separate the coast from the
rest of Nicaragua. In addition, the FSLN itself was far from unified on this
matter. Proponents of autonomy faced profound skepticism at every level
within the FSLN; a more radical version that explicitly spelled out autonomy
rights would never have won full FSLN backing.
11. For example, in the text of the law, property rights in the autonomous
regions are restricted to "communal property," and other forms "recognized by
the Constitution and the laws of the Republic" (Autonomy Statute, Art. 36 and
37). The proposed reglamentacion would define all territory within the
autonomous regions as patrimony of the autonomous government. The differ-
ence between these two legal definitions is enormous and fundamental: in the
former, the central government retains rights to vast portions of Atlantic Coast
lands and resources, which fall outside community boundaries; in the latter,
these rights pass exclusively to the autonomous government. Chamorro
administration officials vehemently oppose the proposed reglamentacidn, and
will no doubt argue that it goes against the original intent of the law.
12. The most notorious example of such extra-legal actions was Pantin's
signing of a contract with the U.S. company "Caribbean 2000," which
allegedly ceded exclusive rights to northern coast marine resources. It pro-
voked an enormous scandal and was quickly annulled. Pantin claims the
English-language version of the document he signed was altered without his
knowledge, and that he only intended to cede purchasing rights.
13. For more details on this transformation in Sandinista discourse, see
C.R. Hale, Contradictory Consciousness: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan
State in the Era of U.S. Hegemony (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
forthcoming), ch. 4.
14. This argument was put forth, for example, in a petition to President
ChamorrTo on Feb. 8, 1991, supported by the north and south regional councils.
15. See, for example, a recent interview with Rivera published in Wani
(Managua, enero/abril 1991), pp. 52-56.
16. The blanket approval of the original National Directorate at the FSLN
congress last July is the most frequently cited evidence of persisting centralism.
There are also strong forces within the party favoring democratization. During
the same July congress, for example, 60 new people won election to the 98-
member Sandinista Assembly-the highest decision-making body of the
FSLN-many of them from grassroots organizations. An unprecedented nine
Sandinista costenios were elected to the assembly.
17. I am indebted to Jorge Matamoros for bringing the full extent of these
parallels to my attention.

Tags: Miskitu, Nicaragua, indigenous politics, resistance, Sandinistas

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