Daniel Ortega’s successful bid for Nicaragua’s presidency last year received enthusiastic support from one of his party’s long-time foes: indigenous groups from the Atlantic coast. An indigenous political party known as Yatama, which has ruled the country’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) since 2002, backed the transition of power back to Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Yatama supporters rally in the RAAN.
To those who recall the political divisions of the armed conflict in the 1980s, an FSLN-Yatama alliance may sound strange. The indigenous party initially formed in 1988 from various factions among indigenous Contra fighters—the sworn enemies of the FSLN. Yatama members are predominately Miskitu, an indigenous nation with a history of separatist ideology since the Atlantic region became part of Nicaragua in 1894.
Yatama entered into the shaky alliance despite lingering mistrust of the FSLN. In Nicaragua’s fractious political landscape, it is unclear whether the alliance with the FSLN is actually helping the indigenous party address the demands of its Miskitu support base. Tensions between the two groups are once again heating up.
Yatama began to take shape during autonomy negotiations between ethnic groups in the north and south Atlantic regions of Nicaragua with the FSLN. The Autonomy Statute approved in 1987 originated partially as a means to promote post-conflict reconciliation and recognized the cultural and political rights of three indigenous (Miskitu, Mayangna, and Rama) and two Afro-Nicaraguan (Creole and Garifuna) groups living along the eastern coast of the country.
After the Sandinista-run National Assembly passed the autonomy statute, Yatama was elected and governed the RAAN from 1990 to 1996. After losing the region for six years to the right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) in 1996, Yatama joined forces with the regional branch of the FSLN to finally defeat the PLC in the 2002 governor’s race. Setting aside wartime hostilities, Yatama and FSLN officials maintained their alliance in the RAAN for the 2006 elections, which paved the way for a national-level alliance.
During his presidential campaign, Daniel Ortega signed a pact with Brooklyn Rivera, the head of Yatama. The FSLN leader agreed to strengthen regional autonomy in exchange for the party’s support. Although Nicaraguan politicians are notorious for making pacts with friends and enemies alike, and political parties place a lot of faith in the success of these agreements, the general population remains wary of such alliances—and in many cases, rightly so. Indeed, since his election, Ortega has paid little attention to the Autonomous Region.
Many RAAN residents remain skeptical about most state institutions and critical of political parties, and some groups in the region harbor particular mistrust for the FSLN due to wartime experiences during the 1980s. But in 2007, a number of issues increased tension between the RAAN and the Sandinista administration.
A mural celebrating the North Atlantic Autonomous Region Government.
One controversy erupted over a dispute concerning the demarcation of lands in the Mayangna multi-village territory known as Mayangna Sauni As. The previous administration had granted title to the communal land in 2005. (One of the few solid advances from a 2003 law that was supposed to finally lead to state demarcation of the vast multi-ethnic communal property covering the Atlantic region.) But under the 2005 demarcation, the title was technically ceded to the government rather than to the communities themselves. The Ortega administration moved in mid-2007 to correct the error by making the communities the official title-holders. Although some Mayangna supported the decision, others protested, arguing the Sandinistas could not be trusted to rectify the previous error.
The dispute showed the deep distrust of the FSLN within the RAAN’s multi-ethnic populations, who have been fighting for land and resource rights for decades. Although the 1987 Autonomy Statute broadly recognized these rights, the implementation of autonomy has been limited and divisive in the decades since.
Murmurs of dissatisfaction ignited to a new level by the discontent wrought by food and supply shortages following Hurricane Felix in September of 2007. The hurricane caused considerable damage and affected an estimated 188,000 people. Tensions increased as the World Food Program (WFP) warned of eminent famine in the RAAN.
The central and regional governments increasingly came under attack for what was perceived as insufficient response in terms of assistance to areas hit by Hurricane Felix. In October and November of 2007 there were a series of violent outbursts in Bilwi, the RAAN capital. Protestors demanded the central government provide money for roofing and additional food and medicine. They damaged a local government building and broke into a warehouse where material aid was stored. Since Yatama also heads the municipal government, party supporters clashed with the protesters, leaving eight people injured.
Although Yatama officials accused the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) party of instigating the protests, the Miskitu party increasingly came under attack. Yatama leaders were apparently experiencing the difficulty of being the ruling party amid a crisis. Despite budgetary shortfalls and political infighting, Yatama supporters still held the expectation that their leaders could defend indigenous peoples’ interests.
As an indigenous party, Yatama faces a difficult balancing act in the multi-ethnic RAAN. The 2005 national census registered the region’s population as 57 percent Miskitu and four percent Mayangna. Yet to gain and maintain power, particularly in the non-indigenous municipalities in the RAAN’s west, Yatama leaders joined forces with other parties, like the FSLN. In the process, they have alienated some formerly supportive indigenous populations and created antagonists out of the PLC and the ALN.
Yatama youth in traditional indigenous dress prepare for a dance recital.
Yatama was already unpopular among a few sectors of the Miskitu population, such as the regional Council of Elders, traditionalists, and those that desire total separation from Nicaragua. These groups are marginal in number, but the Elders are well respected and separatists can be quite vocal with their criticisms of state institutions.
Political conflict increased in April 2008 when the regional government requested permission to postpone the RAAN’s municipal elections. Originally scheduled for November, the date was delayed until the beginning of 2009 due to the continued state of disaster following Felix, including damage to voting rolls and stations and the loss of ID cards. After fleeing their homes, some homeless families remain dispersed across the region.
Critics argued that Yatama had requested the electoral delay over fear of losing votes because of hunger, lack of housing and high unemployment—all made worse by Hurricane Felix. Nevertheless, demonstrators also staged events in support of Yatama’s decision, claiming opposition forces were trying to take advantage of the crisis to sway voters against the party.
Although the National Assembly eventually approved the postponement of the RAAN municipal elections, the regional debate reverberated at a national level for over a month. Opposition parties used the opportunity to malign the Yatama-Sandinista Pact and joined forces to protest the delay of elections.
Meanwhile, the controversy over the RAAN’s municipal elections reached new heights after the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) barred two multi-ethnic parties from participating in the postponed elections. The CSE ruled the two small parties did not comply with the legal requirement of presenting candidates in at least 80 percent of all municipalities in the country’s two Autonomous Regions. This legal hurdle is impossibly high for small ethnic-based parties. The “80-percent rule” forces small parties to make alliances that often bring together parties in uneasy alliances that struggle to cooperate.
This was not the first time the CSE had suspended ethnic parties from running candidates. Although recognized by the CSE as a legal entity, Yatama was excluded from 2000 municipal elections, leading to a series of large protests. At the time, it was the administration of Arnoldo Alemán that sidelined an indigenous party. Although still a major political force in Nicaragua, and a PLC party leader, Alemán is currently serving time for embezzling millions of dollars during his presidency. It was his infamous pact with Daniel Ortega in 2000 that brought about the consolidation of political power through the CSE’s “80-percent rule.”
FSLN supporters helped Yatama forge the local alliance it needed to maintain power in the RAAN.
After the government ignored Yatama’s appeals, the party took its case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Yatama won the case in 2005. Yatama was not restricted from the upcoming municipal election, partially because the alliance with the FSLN helped it gain support in areas with few Miskitu. But the postponement of the municipal elections, which opponents say is an open violation of ethnic voting rights sanctioned by the FSLN, has fuelled hostility against Yatama from more radical Miskitu.
The current situation parallels an earlier split among Miskitu factions in the 1980s when Brooklyn Rivera signed peace accords with the Sandinistas. Some Miskitu led by Osorno Coleman (Comandante Blas) have once again labeled Rivera a traitor because he signed a pact with the FSLN and continues to back Ortega.
Nicaragua’s current complex and tension-filled political drama is reminiscent of the 1980s. Growing opposition to Yatama at the regional level and to the FSLN at the national level makes it harder for both parties to achieve their goals. Meanwhile, the exclusion of smaller political parties from municipal elections and continued foot-dragging on land demarcation in communal territories demonstrate ongoing racial inequality and the non-fulfillment of ethnic demands; all this, despite Yatama’s leadership in the RAAN and its regional and national pacts with the FSLN.
Mary Finley-Brook is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. She has been researching Central America since the mid-1990s and lived in eastern Nicaragua for two years. All photographs by the author.