Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000



YATAMA: Rebellion with a Cause?

YATAMA’s week-long street protest against the CSE, ostensibly for blocking its participation in the Atlantic Coast elections, quickly led to the militarization of Puerto Cabezas. What was really at issue?

Judy Butler

Violent street demonstrations led by the indigenous group YATAMA in the Caribbean town of Puerto Cabezas began on October 29 and lasted nearly a week, threatening to disrupt the November 5 elections. As the days went on, the number of protestors grew to several thousand, police in full riot gear patrolled the streets and the army moved in to guard important public installations. Tensions were heightened by fears that YATAMA, which began life in 1988 as an armed organization, would unearth the weapons it is believed to still have stashed away. While that did not happen, seven police officers were wounded with sticks and stones, two of them seriously, and the police started using tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring several civilians. Dozens of YATAMA activists were detained and are now being judicially processed, and there was dispute about whether the case of a young Miskito sailor found beaten to death in the park was a related incident.

The protest was ostensibly sparked by an overnight Supreme Court decision on October 25 upholding the Supreme Electoral Council’s determination that YATAMA failed to qualify for participation in the region’s municipal elections. The coast, however, has given ample evidence over the years of housing an eternally smoldering ethnic rage that is only waiting to be ignited into an outburst. While this time tempers flared among YATAMA activists because they saw the CSE’s treatment of their organization as discretionary and racist, others joined the protest for reasons having little to do with support for or solidarity with YATAMA, or even any real interest in the municipal elections on the coast. Demonstrators included those who feel increasingly smothered by the silent tidal wave of immigration from the Pacific, steamrollered by the power of national political parties from the Pacific, robbed of their region’s natural wealth by outsiders, and tricked again and again by a succession of governments in Managua that care nothing for those living in the other half of the country.

Events in this polarized country tend to elicit simplistic and passionate defenses of one side or another. In this case, despite confusing media coverage of the complex judicial issues involved, sympathies tended to come down almost unilaterally on the side of YATAMA and against the CSE. This held true not only for officials of the Atlantic Coast’s Moravian Church and for civil society organizations such as the electoral watchdog coalition Ethics and Transparency and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), which is helping YATAMA sort through its legal case, but also for government institutions such as the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. Even Cardinal Obando, who has a close ally among the CSE magistrates, used his homily to call for flexibility. By extension, if public opinion blamed the CSE for YATAMA’s exclusion, many political observers sought—and found—separate political justifications to blame both the FSLN and the PLC In coast eyes, however, the CSE’s abusive behavior has less to do with the latest pact in the Pacific than with an age-long chain of discriminatory actions by those whom coast people still refer to as "the Spanish."
On the other side of the equation, the CSE remained impervious to multiple offerings of graceful legal ways out of a situation clearly in need of one. And Vice President Leopoldo Navarro, in a lightning visit to Puerto Cabezas to discuss the problem with other government and security officials, only fanned the flames by publicly threatening that "if the indigenous of YATAMA want violence, then violence they will get because the authorities will tolerate no disorder." The only relevant actor who steadfastly avoided proffering any judgment on the case was Santiago Murray, head of the Organization of American States’ team of electoral observers.

Given the excess of heat and dearth of light surrounding the judicial-political-ethnic aspects, it is worth taking a closer look to see where the CSE in fact behaved arbitrarily and where YATAMA left itself open to trouble.

YATAMA: Armed group, social
organization or political party?

YATAMA was the product of a successful US State Department effort to unify the three Miskito military organizations that had been warring with the Sandinista government on the coast for years: MISURASATA, MISURA and KISAN. Nonetheless, when Rivera and Stedman Fagoth, the respective leaders of the first two, returned to Puerto Cabezas in mid-1989 to negotiate YATAMA’s peaceful incorporation into civilian life, the Miskito population—over a hundred thousand people—almost unanimously embraced it as their representative socio-ethnic organization. They saw it as an unbroken continuation of their first contemporary organized expression, ALPROMISU, created in 1974 to combat the Somoza government’s moves to Hispanisize the ethnically heterogeneous coast and encroach on indigenous lands. With the arrival of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, ALPROMISU, which by then had been largely co-opted by Somoza, shed its name and fame to become MISURASATA, first pro, then anti-Sandinista.

When YATAMA went civilian, a provision in the electoral law allowing "popular subscription associations" to run for municipal office and for the new autonomous Regional Councils on the coast enabled it to participate in the 1990 elections. YATAMA demonstrated its command of the Miskito community by training its largely illiterate grassroots base to split its vote three ways: the UNO’s Violeta Chamorro for President, the Social Christian Party for National Assembly representative—since it had accepted YATAMA’s candidates—and YATAMA itself for Regional Council. In an 11-party race it won 22 of the 45 council seats in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN)—the FSLN won 21 and UNO 2—and 4 in the South (RAAS), which has a much smaller indigenous population. YATAMA ran again in the 1994 and 1998 regional elections, but its electoral draw has shrunk steadily in the RAAN due to Brooklyn Rivera’s uninspired leadership and to internal divisions. Fagoth split the organization in 1994 to run Miskito candidates on a YATAMA-PLC platform, then abandoned it altogether to run successfully on the PLC ticket for National Assembly representative in 1996. By 1998, YATAMA only got 8 Regional Council seats in the RAAN, while its activists in the RAAS, less caught up in the organization’s strife, upped its seats to 7.

This year’s new electoral law eliminated popular subscription associations across the country, but retained a provision exclusively for the autonomous regions that permits the creation of regional parties to run for regional or municipal office and also to put up regional candidates for National Assembly. The requisites for their formation are the same as for national parties, but proportioned to a regional scale. The law additionally grants that the natural form of organization and participation of indigenous parties will be respected.

YATAMA misses a trick

YATAMA initiated procedures with the CSE to change its legal status to a regional party in February 2000, only weeks after the new law was passed. By law, parties must have obtained their status at least six months before municipal elections (a year before general ones); in this case the deadline was May 5. Despite some dissention within YATAMA ranks about the political identity change, the decision to proceed was taken in an assembly in March and the CSE itself recognizes that all requisites were in its possession by mid-April.

It is at that point that the CSE, having just been turned over to the new bi-party magistrates hand-picked through the PLC-FSLN pact, played its trick card. The first paragraph of the CSE’s notification to YATAMA that it had been granted its new status states that the CSE reached its decision "...in session 244 of May 4, 2000," a day before the deadline. But the conclusions on the resolution’s third and last page clearly state that the date on which the new status would go into effect was May 17, the date the notification itself was issued.

A wary legal eye would have known to look for the effective date rather than be sucked in by the appealing one on which the unanimous resolution was decided, but YATAMA reportedly has no legal adviser. Rather than objecting right then that it had been unfairly denied participation in the elections due to the CSE’s failure to issue a decision it had in fact taken in time, YATAMA proceeded as if it were in the race and the CSE did not bother to advise it otherwise. Not until August 17, after YATAMA had made a number of poor political decisions that forced it into disputable legal turf, did the CSE disqualify it with a surfeit of legal interpretations that suggested political overkill. It would have been far more elegant and unassailable to simply cite the resolution’s relevant sentence regarding the effective date of YATAMA’s legal status.

Among YATAMA’s questionable political moves was the decision to run alone in the RAAN and in alliance with two other regional parties—the Multiethnic Indigenous Party (PIM) and the new Coast People’s Party (PPC)—in the RAAS. The PIM, which has built significant strength in the RAAS, pulled out early to run alone and the CSE, in an already classic exclusionary move, disqualified enough of the remaining alliance’s signatures to prevent it from registering its candidates.

Since the alliance had been in the PPC’s name, YATAMA then tried to run alone in the RAAS as well, but the CSE notified it on August 17 that its own candidates did not cover the 80% of municipalities required by law and its request to register as its own those formerly presented by the YATAMA-PPC alliance had been denied. While no clear legal basis could be found in the electoral law for that ruling, the sentence that followed boggled the minds of YATAMA leaders and CENIDH lawyers even more. "As a consequence the candidates presented in the North Atlantic by said Organization will not be registered, in view of the fact that it does not meet the time requirement consigned in the Electoral Law." A consequence of what? What time requirement? Legal sentences do not get much vaguer than that, but CENIDH’s lawyer assumes that the time reference is to the original deadline for registering as a party. In any case, the upshot was that YATAMA was prevented from running in both the RAAN and the RAAS. With CENIDH’s help, YATAMA filed a series of appeals, first to the CSE, then to the RAAN Court of Appeals and finally, in late October, to the Supreme Court, to no avail.

YATAMA’s protest
concludes with abstention

As YATAMA’s street protest mounted in late October, Rivera made several demands in exchange for calling it off, but was met with little other than intransigence. His first demand, immediate release of the arrested activists, was categorically denied.

Another demand was for a guarantee that the party would not run afoul of the electoral law article stating that a party automatically forfeits its legal status by failing to run in an election. The Council of Elders—traditionally village-based advisory structures within each Miskito community, but which in the past decade have built a regional superstructure and acquired significant authority—pushed more strongly than YATAMA for this one. While it got the Supreme Electoral Council to issue a written statement that YATAMA could run in 2001, CENIDH warned YATAMA not to fall for it as it reportedly cites no legal justification and the CSE could simply renege on it next year if some party challenges YATAMA’s right. What was never made clear to envío, however, was why there is even a question of YATAMA’s eligibility. It would seem elementary that since the CSE annulled the status under which YATAMA had run in previous elections and made its new status effective as of a date that was too late for the current ones, it cannot penalize YATAMA for not participating in them.

The third demand, backed by a wide array of individuals and organizations, was to postpone the elections in the three Miskito-dominant municipalities of the RAAN for a month so YATAMA could somehow participate. Daniel Ortega went so far as to rush a bill to the National Assembly to reform the electoral law to that effect, but it did not reach a vote because the Assembly refused to hold an emergency session. Numerous people saw the move as opportunistic grandstanding, since they believe that the FSLN wanted YATAMA out of the elections to give it a clear shot at winning the mayoral race in Puerto Cabezas, which it in fact did.

Rivera warned that his people were unearthing their arms caches in the two days before the elections, and in fact shots were fired at electoral officials at several points along the Río Coco. For all that, election day passed with relative calm, although most polling places in the Miskito zones registered abstention of 80% and higher and some did not open at all. This enormous abstention appeared to be the response to a call by YATAMA to boycott the elections, but may also have been laced with a fear of violence.

Abstention was also high—albeit not as high—in other parts of the coast. It hit at least 50% in the mining area and parts of the RAAS, where YATAMA has little influence. In addition to the reasons offered to explain this in other parts of the country, there are two other likelihoods. One is that the historic residents of the coast have never felt represented by parties based in the Pacific, and the other is a failure to take the municipal elections seriously. These are only the second such elections in the autonomous regions, since the demarcation of new municipalities—a task assigned to the regional governments by the 1987 autonomy law—was only completed in time for the 1996 elections. As with the autonomous regional governments, very few of those first directly elected municipal administrations inspired much enthusiasm among their constituencies.

Nonetheless, one of the few polls ever to be done on the Atlantic Coast showed some interesting results. It was carried out on September 8-13 by the Central American University’s polling center IDESO in the municipality of Puerto Cabezas—which less than two months later would register the highest abstention in the entire country (86%). Of those polled, 39% said they did not vote in 1990 and 31% did not in 1996, but 79% assured the pollsters that they planned to vote this time and 80% said they already had their voting cards. Since 64% also said they believed that the elections would be disorganized and fraudulent, one can surmise that there was some of the pollster’s classic nightmare in the answers: the desire of those being interviewed to say what they think the pollster wants to hear. Even if these figures are somewhat self-exaggerated, however, that alone cannot explain the abstention that ultimately occurred.

Did YATAMA emerge strengthened?

The CSE’s visible sins were a major lack of administrative ethics and minor arbitrary legal interpretations, while YATAMA’s were to be found in a series of unwise political choices, occasional bad timing and inattention to a key legal point. There are those who believe that Rivera forthed and backed around candidates and alliances because he feared that YATAMA would continue its downward slide in these elections. But by not paying closer attention to the CSE’s games and by getting caught up in a dubious alliance to cover up YATAMA’s weakness, Rivera ended up out of the game entirely, losing whatever influence his organization would have won in the new municipal governments. On the other hand, it must be recognized that even impeccably astute decision-making on Rivera’s part would not have helped if the CSE was more than just inept, if its puppeteers were indeed determined to squeeze YATAMA out of the race through the discretionary actions we have seen it apply in other cases.

In the political-social arena, the protest appeared at first glance to prove the axiom that diversity unites. But has YATAMA and its leader Brooklyn Rivera indeed emerged from the events stronger and more unified? The heated passions that gave YATAMA its veneer of strength at the moment of the outburst will cool back down to embers soon. Unless the organization can find a greater sense of future and finally design a social project that can unite and direct its base into purposeful activities in its own benefit, it will settle back into the infighting and opportunism among the leaders that have wracked the organization for the past decade.

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Nicaragua’s Municipal Elections: The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain


Disrespect for Political Pluralism Tainted the Elections

A Country Divided: Relative Defeats and Victories

Who Abstained and Why?

The Electorate: Continuing Trends and Transition

YATAMA: Rebellion with a Cause?

Jinotepe and Diriamba: Two Case Studies of a Defeat

Juigalpa: A Vote to Punish the PLC

The Banco de Café Scandal: A Cure that Nearly Killed the Patient

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