Miskitu: Revolution in the Revolution

September 25, 2007

WHEN I FIRST VISITED THE INDIAN COM- 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 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS c 0I 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. I N FEBRUARY 1990, COAST PEOPLE ELECTED 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. THE MOST VOCAL, ARTICULATE, AND WELL- 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- cidn). 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 nation-state. 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- ally."' M ISKITU LEADERS ASSOCIATED WITH THE 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 ionents. VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) 0 a) 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. S ANDINISTAS ON THE COAST HAVE WISELY 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 way?" 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 (CIDCA). 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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