Nicaragua-Atlantic Coast Unrest

September 25, 2007

In early October, a potentially, explosive week-long protest in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast city of Bluefields was defused by the government. The demonstrators, who at one point numbered 2,500 (government sources cite a figure of 1,000 while the opposition claims there were more than 5,000), were met by a restrained but firm military presence, and a government which subsequently proved open to legitimate com- plaints. Regional Isolation Most people in Bluefields have had more ties with the neighboring Caribbean nations, with Costa Rica and with the United States than with their compatriots on the Pacific Coast. The Atlantic Coast region, isolated from the rest of the country by vast roadless jungle, is rich in mineral deposits, abundant forest reserves and fer- tile fishing grounds, all of which were controlled by the Somoza dynasty, often in joint ventures with U.S. firms. Until the new government remedied the situa- tion earlier-this year, there had never even been telephone lines, or radio or television relays linking the two parts of the nation. Bluefields, the largest and most important city on the coast, is still accessible only by plane or boat. Like the rest of the coastal region, Bluefields was detached from the most important event of recent Nicaraguan history. Blufileijos ex- perienced neither the destruction suffered by many Pacific Coast cities during the war of liberation, nor the jubilation of victorious bat- tle. After the compas (the San- dinista fighters) had captured the barracks in Estel( land Somoza's bunker in Managua, the National Guard in Bluefields quietly placed their weapons in a pile and sur- rendered or escaped in the Guard's motorboats to Honduras. Bluefields Under Siege Many of the Bluefields demonstrators were protesting the presence of Cuban doctors, teachers and technicians working in the area, but others publicly ex- pressed their discontent with government policies and their distrust and suspicion of the leadership in Managua. The demonstrations were well Center of Bluefields, looking toward Atlantic. cu co NovlDec 1980 41update*update update update organized and orchestrated. A general strike closed all the stores and stopped the boats and planes. However, in the first two days of the protests, most people ap- peared unaware of the gravity of their actions and the atmosphere was often less than serious. For some, the demonstration seemed merely a diversion. Adding to the confusion, the streets were filled with people celebrating the religious festivities in honor of San Jer6nimo. Gigan- tonas-young masked men wear- ing women's dresses with large pillows in their backsides-were chasing people through the streets, hitting them with rolled-up newspapers, while people in the crowd struck back at them. All around, huge firecrackers were being set off. It seemed apparent that the anti-government demonstration and the festival were planned to overlap. On Tuesday, the third day of protests, a late afternoon demonstration coincided with the peak of the San Jer6nimo festivities. The noise of the firecrackers blended with the sound of shots: the Sandinista military was firing into the air to prevent demonstrators from enter- ing the military barracks. In the resulting confusion some people ran, laughing, toward the shots. But when a man bleeding profuse- ly from a head wound was led away, the atmosphere turned serious. (Reports that the man later died are generally believed to be false.) On Wednesday, the demonstrators mounted one final march. With the report that several weapons had been stolen during the night, the security forces were directed to take a stronger stand. The 75 soldiers 42 and militia members flown in from Managua the previous day asked the marchers to disperse, then fired into the air when they refus- ed. In a few minutes, the demonstrators scattered and 70 persons were arrested. There were continued military patrols the rest of the week, but no more demonstrations. By Friday, stores were open and the boats were run- ning. FSLN Evaluates Role In the self-criticism that follow- ed the events in Bluefields, FSLN leaders commented that the arm- ed forces "did not use tact" in confronting the situation. But after seeing the entire week of military actions, I was most impressed by their patience. In the face of pro- vocateurs shouting threats and slogans such as, "Things were better under Somoza," and, "You are the same as the National Guard," the security forces acted with amazing restraint. This was the first time the Sandinista army and police had confronted such a situation. The people in the street were well aware that the San- dinistas would go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation, and ap- peared surprised when the military would not back down. Reactionary Agitation Nicaragua's opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and the foreign press spotlighted the anti- Cuban aspects of the protests. Cubans had been working for several months on the Atlantic Coast, mainly in the remote areas where there is an acute shortage of medical personnel and teachers. In the weeks preceding the Bluefields incident, rumors about the Cubans had begun to circulate. Rumors in Bluefields are an important source of informa- tion-or misinformation. Stories spread that Cubans were taking jobs from Nicaraguans, that gold from the Atlantic Coast mines was being sent to Cuba, that Cuban doctors were making all important decisions at the local hospital and that Cuban ships were unloading arms just off the coast. In a variant of the old saw, " taking coals to Newcastle," the current sugar shortage was rumored to exist because Nicaraguan sugar was being supplied to Cuba! According to early reports from the Sandinistas, this Cuban scapegoating had been stirred up in part by radio broadcasts coming from Costa Rica, Colombia and the local Voice of America. Playing on the frustrations and fears of the residents, reactionary leaders were able to create strong popular sentiment around the issue of the Cubans. After years of hearing about "godless com- munism" from the Somoza media, reinforced by the anti-communist rhetoric of some of their fun- damentalist missionaries, the Blufilehfos could be moved to believe the rumors. But there are reports that strong-arm tactics were also used by the instigators, including threats to burn down shops that did not close. During the week of the demonstrations, the Junta went on television to explain actions being taken, and stated that counter- revolutionary actions such as those in Bluefields would not be tolerated. A week later, the government produced one of the leaders of the Bluefields incident, Hernan Wesley Savery Harrison, who confessed to being involved in a secessionist plot to take over the Atlantic Coast, and another to kill the entire FSLN leadership. NACLA Reportupdate*update update update Reflections on the Problem Within days after calm had been restored, Comandante Jaime Wheelock visited Bluefields to meet with townspeople and local officials for a firsthand account of what had transpired. The residents of Bluefields had many complaints. Workers in the fishing industry-the largest employer in Bluefields and primari- ly state-run-were concerned over a proposed change in pay- ment from a percentage of the catch to straight salary. Some peo- ple were upset over a delay in the start of the literacy campaign in the region (which must be bilingual to meet the needs of the English- speaking, predominantly Black populations of the port cities such as Bluefields, and the Indian populations of the Miskito, Sumu and Rama who predominate in the inland and coastal regions to the north). Finally, others were dis- turbed that there were fewer ships coming to Bluefields now, and consequently less opportunities for work on the docks and fewer imports to purchase. In appreciation of the irony that the demonstrators were exercis- ing a political freedom that only came to the coast with the San- dinista victory, Bluefields residents explained that this had been the ci- ty's first political demonstration in 50 years. Shortly after their meeting with the Blufilerios, Com- andante William Ramirez, the government official in charge of the development of the region, ex- plained to a meeting of FSLN militants, "The movement that took place in Bluefields was not counter-revolutionary although its leadership had a reactionary character and was opposed to the revolution." The problems of the Atlantic NovlDec 1980 Coast and the strains between its people and the government in Managua will not be alleviated overnight. Of the 170,000 persons living in the region, the vast majori- ty are Miskito, whose ancestors allied with the British throughout the colonial period to fight off the Spanish colonizers. The tradition of enmity between the costeiios and what they still call the "Spanish," combined with the regional isolation, racism, cultural denigration and ruthless extrac- tion of the region's wealth by the Somozas, have left deep wounds. Even before the Bluefields inci- dent the government understood that the long process of integrating the region into the revolution re- quired first the construction of badly needed infrastructure (roads, medical facilities, develop- ment projects). In the 17 months since the Sandinista victory, more projects to aid the region have begun than were attempted in the previous half century. But these projects have also brought more contact between the two regions and thus, more potential for con- flict. The meetings that occurred after Bluefields have provided a new basis for mutual understan- ding. The government now recognizes that its blueprints for the rest of the country must be modified for the Atlantic Coast, and that it is vitally important to have indigenous forms of organiz- ed participation in the revolu- tionary process. The revolutionary structures and programs transplanted from the Pacific Coast will not easily take root in the Atlantic region. As Jaime Wheelock commented, "The political line has to be more creative. There is a history here, a culture, a reality for the revolution." On the other hand, Bluefields residents are now aware that the FSLN is firm in its convictions to defend the gains of the revolution.

Tags: Nicaragua, Atlantic Coast, protests, Sandinista army

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