Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 107 | Junio 1990



Yatama Takes the Cake

Envío team

Two months after the multiethnic population of the two Atlantic Coast regions elected their first autonomous governments, envío attended the inauguration of the new government in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region on May 4. It was the first opportunity to see how the key actors may take up their new roles. Among the open questions were the following: Will the Miskito organization Yatama, which gained a plurality on the Regional Council, make peace with the second largest party, the FSLN, or continue its pre-election alliance with UNO? Will it moderate or continue radicalizing its push for more independence from the central government? Is the UNO government in Managua prepared to take on its predecessor's commitment to autonomy? Will Yatama strive for economic productivity to rebuild the communities after the war or join UNO in urging a return of the transnational corporations that ravaged the region's resources in the past? And what of the remaining Miskito fighters? Do they intend to disarm or do they still have cards up their sleeve as do the contras in the Pacific? And finally, what has the electoral loss, nationally as well as regionally, meant for the future of the FSLN on the coast?

A false alarm

Yatama won 23 of the new Regional Council's 48 seats in the North Atlantic and its ally UNO 3. The FSLN won the remaining 22, but mainly from mining districts far from the regional capital of Puerto Cabezas.

The period following the elections was tense. Death threats abounded against Sandinistas and even foreigners working in the region. So did rumors that Yatama fighters would attack Puerto Cabezas on April 25, after UNO took office in Managua. The Sandinistas were to turn over the regional government nine days later but Yatama was reportedly impatient. Although the attack on Puerto Cabezas never happened, one ex-fighter of Kisan por la Paz, a rival Miskito organization, was shot dead in his Puerto Cabezas home toward the end of March and a second wounded a few days later in the open marketplace; Kisan por la Paz accused Yatama. Few expected the installation of the Regional Council on May 4 to be uneventful.

In fact, the event went off almost without a hitch. Two hundred invited guests of the FSLN, UNO and Yatama politely assembled at 9 am in Puerto Cabezas' palm-bedecked basketball court to witness the formalities. While some were disgruntled that President Chamorro had not attended this historic occasion, the president of Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council lent the proceedings an august flavor by presiding over the election of the Council's seven-member executive board. The board's new president, former Yatama comandante Uriel Vanegas, then took over to accept nominations for regional coordinator who, like the board itself, is elected from among the council members. The council and coordinator are the region's maximum authorities, but the board plays a pivotal role; it calls the meetings, sets the agenda, names special administrative committees and is the interlocutor between council, coordinator and regional branches of the central government.

Unlike the acrimonious process ten days earlier in the National Assembly, the nominations in the North Atlantic had been previously negotiated and were approved unanimously. The executive board's president, first vice president, first secretary and first speaker went to Yatama; second vice president, second secretary and second speaker went to the FSLN. Leonel Panting, the most moderate and experienced member of the Yatama bench, was elected coordinator.

In the South Atlantic, this process was less cordial. There the FSLN, which won 19 seats to UNO's 24 and Yatama's 4, was offered only two low-level seats on the board, even though most UNO councilors—put on the slate with no expectation that UNO would win—lack skills and experience. (In Puerto Cabezas the Yatama secretary has delegated all written work to the FSLN second secretary). The FSLN councilors in Bluefields refused the two positions and abstained from voting for the UNO board members in the inaugural session. UNO's Alvin Guthrie, who was elected to the National Assembly from the south and is thus a full member of the Regional Council, was elected coordinator. Guthrie is also national head of the rightwing Confederation of Trade Union Unity (CUS).

A rift with the center

Exceeding the faculty granted in the autonomy law, Leonel Panting announced his appointment of 16 regional ministerial delegates in his inaugural speech. In a few cases he even overrode new central government ministers' reconfirmations of Sandinistas already in the regional post. One of Panting’s appointees immediately resigned, arguing that he had not been consulted and had no desire to replace the person already doing a competent job. Panting will now have to negotiate his choices with the relevant ministers in Managua.

While this negotiation will test the UNO government's commitment to regional autonomy, it will not be the first test. Relations with the new central government got off to a shaky start even before the Regional Councils were installed. In April, President Chamorro unilaterally created a ministry-level Institute for Atlantic Coast Development, based in Managua and named Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera to head it. FSLN National Assembly representative Ray Hooker, in his speech at the Regional Council inauguration in Bluefields, called Chamorro's failure to consult the regional governments a violation of the spirit of autonomy. A letter signed by 11 members of the south's Regional Council in early April warns that “we had [such a ministry] under Somocismo and we had one with the revolutionary government, and the results have been negative for the coast people.”

A similar view exists in the Miskito-dominant north, but there the principle is diluted by the fact that Rivera is a Miskito leader. In Puerto Cabezas he topped the list of “honorables” welcomed from the podium; in Bluefields he was not even mentioned by name. Yet while Rivera's appointment has fed Miskito pride, it has also fed old jealousies among other Yatama leaders. Wycliffe Diego, once head of his own armed Miskito organization, Kisan, reportedly shouted at Rivera in the Managua airport the morning of the inauguration that the new ministerial post rightfully should have been his.

Before departing for Bluefields, Rivera defended his appointment by assuring thousands of bused-in Yatama supporters in Puerto Cabezas' plaza that “with a costeño at its head, [the new institute] will work to solve the region's huge problems caused by war and natural disasters.” It satisfied that crowd, but his strongest opposition is among Creoles in Bluefields. A week after the inauguration over 100 citizens from Bluefields signed a letter to President Chamorro protesting the creation of the ministry.

A paternalized past

Rivera also promised the throng in Puerto Cabezas that his institute would develop programs to increase production, but stressed that people cannot wait for donations from other countries. Stedman Fagoth, who returned with Rivera last September after eight years as head of the armed organization Misura, had already struck the self-reliance theme even harder in a bizarre speech on the municipal radio station in Puerto Cabezas the previous week. Having just illegally confiscated the station, he went on the air to rail against a recent upsurge of robberies in the city. “The Sandinistas were too generous,” he began, in what is unquestionably the mildest criticism of the Sandinistas he has ever made. “For ten years they gave everything away to the people, and if they caught you stealing, they threw you in jail for three days. But God gave you arms to produce, not to steal. Any more robberies and you'll spend thirty years in prison!”

Fagoth did have a point: if Sandinista subsidies were paternalistic and unproductive in the country as a whole, they were even more so in the North Atlantic. But he failed to mention several factors. One is the reparation that Miskitos demanded from the Sandinista government for evacuating them from the Río Coco and destroying their villages in early 1982. Another is the war Fagoth himself declared, which displaced tens of thousands of Miskitos and prevented those remaining from going out into their fields to plant. A third and perhaps most important factor is that the charity trap actually began much earlier, with donations from Alliance for Progress and the churches, particularly the Moravian Church. “Nonfat,” the largest word on the old Alliance for Progress boxes of powdered milk, has entered the Miskito lexicon as the generic word for handouts. Time will tell whether Rivera's gentle cajoling and Fagoth's authoritarian threats can break this deep-seated syndrome of paternalism-dependency.

A contra accord

As the Regional Council was sworn in in Puerto Cabezas, President Chamorro was meeting with contra leaders in Managua. Two mornings later, a Sunday, the Council held its second session under the drone of ONUCA’s white helicopters making their rounds between Puerto Cabezas and contra security zones in the region. ONUCA, the United Nation's peacekeeping force for Central America, is currently on assignment in Nicaragua to receive the weapons of contras who voluntarily disarm.

In late April, 260 Miskito fighters had turned over their weapons to ONUCA in Honduras, but Yatama still claims a troop strength of roughly 1,800 men. The fighters had agreed on April 19 to enter two security zones in the North Atlantic and begin disarming on May 18. The roughly 230-square-kilometer security zones and adjacent demilitarized zones—one along the lower Róo Coco extending upriver to the town of Bilwaskarma and the other reaching from the seaport town of Prinzapolka west to Alamikamba and south to the Rio Grande de Matagalpa, the dividing line with the south—are little more than a formalization of zones they have controlled for some time. Some of the smaller commands in the area signed an accord with the Sandinista army several years ago, but most have not.

As of May 29, eight days after the disarming process actually began, only 8 Yatama fighters had turned in their arms in the Alamikamba zone and 134 in Bilwaskarma—102 of them on the first day. Yatama is carrying on its own negotiations with the government, independent of the contras under Comandante Franklyn's control in the Pacific, but the process does not seem to be moving any faster.

On a more encouraging note, the UN High Commission on Refugees says that over 500 Miskito civilians have returned from Honduras so far this year, the majority of them in April, and that 2,000 more have registered to return. Even more heartening, families of contra members are now among them.

A Yatama discord

The return to civilian life of the last Yatama fighters, if it actually occurs, may be more of a blessing for the population than for Fagoth and Rivera. Osorno Coleman (Comandante “Blas”), who commands the Yatama fighters, is said to consider his troops the true defenders of Miskito liberation, those who held out till the end. He reportedly wants a quota of the power Yatama won in the elections. Blas is now negotiating to include his security zone as one of the internationally financed “development poles.” If this happens, effectively creating a new municipality, it could produce additional conflict with the Regional Council, superceding its authority to designate and oversee new municipalities.

There is also competition with Kisan por la Paz, which has its own force of several hundred combatants and is based in the savannah southwest of Puerto Cabezas. Kisan por la Paz leaders largely support the existing autonomy law and see Yatama as pushing for Miskito domination of the region. In contrast to Blas, these leaders view the accord they signed with the government five years ago as the step that paved the way for autonomy. According to that agreement, many of them were allowed to keep their weapons and form an indigenous militia, in coordination with the army, to defend their communities. They appear willing to hand over their weapons to ONUCA now, if Yatama does, but it is common knowledge that all Miskito factions have hidden arms stores.

In addition to all these frictions, there is also longstanding tension between Fagoth and Rivera, each of whom has his coterie of loyal supporters. Wycliffe Diego, Fagoth's former right hand in Misura before becoming head of the warring faction of Kisan, was appointed by Panting to coordinate communal affairs for the regional government. He could become yet another force in the current struggle for power.

Jealousies around Rivera's new appointment seem to have shifted support to Fagoth. Knowledgeable observers say his people predominate in the new regional government. Fagoth himself was named coordinator of natural resources for the government and is Yatama's new director. With Rivera off seeking project financing for his institute, Fagoth might be able to parley himself back into the strongman role he had as head of the indigenous organization Misurasata in 1980. His star fell precipitously in 1985 when he was expelled from Misura and thrown out of Honduras, accused of executing a number of Miskito fighters for petty crimes. Many Miskito community members still fear him; others direly predict that his ambition will be his downfall.

A Frente dilemma

Meanwhile the FSLN is faced with choices not unlike those in the Pacific. Does it try to work with the more reasonable Yatama elements in the Regional Council, those promoting multiethnic equality rather than Miskito hegemony? Does it actively oppose Yatama efforts to bring back the rapacious transnational corporations and reimpose old caciques? Or does it stand aloof and watch the people learn hard lessons about UNO and some of their own unscrupulous leaders?

As in the Pacific, the FSLN is opting for the first choice in the North Atlantic, at least for now. Out of power, the FSLN might also be able to reflect on what it has learned in its eleven years on the coast. When it arrived as the new revolutionary government, it made policy with no knowledge of the region or its peoples; soon engulfed in war followed by economic crisis, it had no time to carry out methodical study independent of the need to take actions.

The FSLN is also democratizing its own internal structures; in the first open elections for the party's Regional Committee, Sandinista members in the North Atlantic elected an all-ethnic directorate. These local leaders, many of them Miskitos, will stay and fight for the social base they have gained since the autonomy project was initiated five years ago. (In the Regional Council elections, the FSLN won 40% of the region as a whole and nearly 24% in the predominantly indigenous communities and towns.) They will have to fight hard and well; Fagoth is already mobilizing religious leaders in the communities to create communal committees parallel to the Peace and Autonomy Commissions sponsored by the Sandinistas five years ago.

The major focus of struggle in the future, however, may be between Miskitos for local power and with the central government for regional power. US interest can be expected to essentially revert back to those seeking easy economic gain in the region. The Miskito cause as exploitable propaganda for the US is already fading into the background from which it erupted so violently nine years ago.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Playing with Fire

Yatama Takes the Cake


UNO's Balance of Power—On a Tight Rope

Municipal Autonomy in Nicaragua

Contra Accords

The Last Word - Tomás Borge

The New Players*
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development