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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 100 | Noviembre 1989



Institutionalizing Autonomy

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“[This autonomy law] is not a law for all time; it will have to be improved, grow, discover new horizons....

“We must...fight the bearers of racial discrimination; eradicate the residues of prejudice; persuade, patiently debate, deepen our theoretical knowledge about kinship, culture, the relations among the ethnic groups and, at the same time, find practical solutions for the problems which will surely come up in the applications of the law.

“We will have to investigate analogous experiences, take the pulse day by day of our own experience to amend the possible errors and raise the levels of efficiency to improve the law.... When some time has passed and we have discovered the possible, inevitable defects, we will enter into a new phase of ratification and rectification, seizing the opportunity as it occurs.”

—Tomás Borge, president of Nicaragua's Autonomy Commission, Puerto Cabezas, April 22, 1987.

This emphasis on process and patient learning was directed to 220 elected delegates from communities all over the Atlantic Coast who had gathered for an historic multiethnic assembly. Their task was to study, debate, modify if necessary and finally ratify the draft autonomy statute. In the assembly, which lasted three days, the draft was discussed article by article in small groups organized by language and geographic area. On the last day they all came together again and, with attempts to translate into all four languages of the coast, debated several points of difference, changed some wording, then sent the draft on its way to the National Assembly, where it was approved as law on September 2, 1987.

That was the culmination of one stage. Now, after two more years, the coast is preparing for the election of its first regional autonomous government on February 25, 1990, at the same time as the national elections for President, Vice President and legislative representatives. It would have taken place earlier had it not been for the destructive intervention of Hurricane Joan in October 1988.

The autonomy process: The way and the means

The stage that closed with the passage of the Autonomy Statute opened formally on December 4, 1984, with the naming of a five member National Autonomy Commission and the ratification of two, larger Regional Autonomy Commissions that had already formed spontaneously. But that stage, in turn, had itself been the fruit of an earlier, less public one. Ever since the outbreak of war on the coast in late 1981, in which Miskito Indians were the main, but not only coast people to take up arms against the new government, the Sandinistas had tried to understand why. It was not easy; as Comandante Borge admits, "Our cadre and officials in the Atlantic Coast were true wizards of anthropological ignorance—not out of bad will, of course, but for objective reasons. [They were] completely lost when it came to local issues." It was made even harder by the fact that the Reagan Administration was supporting the Indian fighters, thus muddying any distinctions between them and the counterrevolutionaries trying to bring down the revolution in other parts of the country.

The Sandinistas' answer came after three years of study, when they acknowledged that the coast peoples were struggling for full recognition of their identity, that this was a legitimate right and would henceforth be defended as a principle of the revolution, and that autonomy was the mechanism through which it would be guaranteed. It was such an astonishing answer, particularly in the middle of a war, that many people did not believe it.

It was accompanied by the equally astonishing admission of a fundamental theoretical error, which Commandante Borge synthesized in his presentation to that same multiethnic assembly:

“We are demonstrating to the world that we are capable of overcoming our own mistakes and learning lessons, that we have opened our eyes and have the modesty to enrich our knowledge of reality.... It has been demonstrated in practice that it is not scientifically correct to reduce social reality exclusively to class distinctions. Although there can be no doubt that class struggle determines social change, and that it is always present, explicitly or implicitly, it is obvious that in contemporary societies there still exist socio-cultural formations which are the basis for specific ethnic identities. Therefore, we recognize that social and ethnic diversity are among the moving forces of the revolution.

Interpreting demands or imposing from above?

The initial response of skeptics, both in the coast and abroad, was to view the autonomy project as nothing more than a tactical concession to pacify the conflictive region, which would be conveniently shelved once that immediate objective was accomplished. While the repeated postponement of elections fueled that position for a time, it is seldom voiced today.

The autonomy project has also been criticized as a top-down one, imposed on the coastal population by the government rather than resulting from the negotiation of a proposal initiated by the coastal peoples themselves. While there is an objective basis to that charge, it has little to do with the alleged totalitarian nature of the Sandinista government.

The coastal population does not have a long history, common to many other indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, of fighting a powerful and omnipresent central government and, in the process, coming to terms with what they are fighting for and articulating it in a strategic manner. Under several centuries of indirect British rule, the coast was dominated by the leaders of the Miskito people, who had been crowned—literally, through the creation of a Miskito "monarchy"—by the British as their local allies. Then in this century, the succession of Nicaraguan governments left the region to North American companies and missionary workers until the late 1960s; the Nicaraguan state was a negative but weak component of the coastal equation. Despite the ravaging of the coastal resources by the companies, the North Americans were seen by the majority of coast people as their new benefactors—providers of salaried work and imported foodstuffs on which to spend their salaries.

Although by the 1970s indigenous and other organizations began to emerge in response to the growing presence of the Somoza government in the coast, their demands were modest and piecemeal. The word "autonomy" (in its conceptual sense of self-government within a larger nation-state) did not even exist in either the Miskito or Sumu languages at that time.

The arrival of the revolution to the coast brought an end to that relative isolation from the rest of the country. The sudden influx of social and economic improvements, promises and expectations of more, and, at the same time, numerous cultural insensitivities on the part of the Sandinistas, unleashed pent-up energies that were soon converted by the new indigenous mass organization Misurasata into a kind of ethnic revivalist movement. In its short-lived period as a civilian organization, Misurasata did not play the strategic role it might have in helping to break down the age-old barriers of mutual ignorance and mistrust. Nor did it studiously develop a convincing and coherent project to be worked toward. The unprecedented space given by the new government spurred Misurasata's young and politically inexperienced leaders—several of whom were dangerous political opportunists in the bargain—into a rising spiral of inconsistent demands that soon alarmed the Sandinistas. Upping the ante to the house limit, many young Misurasata activists took up arms against the government within a year and a half of the revolution and soon fell in with the counterrevolutionaries.

Hazel Law, the only one of the three top leaders* of Misurasata who has consistently opposed this turn by the organization, recognizes that "there was no profound antagonism between the indigenous peoples and the government until late 1980" and blames "the polarization of positions and attitudes on both Misurasata and the government" for the spiraling dynamic of confrontation. Within her own organization she pinpoints "the lack of a mechanism of evaluation and discipline in the organization and the lack of a strong personality as coordinator [as] factors that permitted [Stedman] Fagoth to act freely and confuse the organization's plan of action."

*Stedman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera were the other two. Fagoth was elected general coordinator at the organization's founding assembly in late 1979, but that position was filled by Rivera in May 1980 when Fagoth moved to represent Misurasata on the Council of State. Law, as education coordinator, was in charge of Misurasata's role as co-coordinator of the Literacy Crusade in Native Languages on the coast in late 1980.

In the wake of that frenzied and confusing period, all that was coming from below was anger, complaints and disparate demands from different ethnic, class and religious interests on the coast. It thus fell to the Sandinistas themselves—self-acknowledged wizards of anthropological ignorance but clear on their own revolutionary project of creating a nation where none had been before—to evaluate the essence of the messages they were getting and try to find in them a way to respond to both the legitimate aspirations of the coastal peoples and the needs of nation-building. It was their confident vision of a solution that was first entrusted to the National Autonomy Commission in December 1984 to elaborate, then taken back again and again to the people for refining.

A futile search for useful models

The first six months of that three-year period was one of intense efforts to hammer out a theoretical framework and a basic set of principles and policy guidelines for the new autonomy law. The National Autonomy Commission carefully studied the autonomy models of other countries around the world—Spain, the USSR, Canada, Denmark, Panama, China. Many of these examples dealt with a sizable, economically developed and class-differentiated minority living in a definable region. They thus provided little inspiration to a small and poor third world country with five impoverished ethnic minorities—which together make up less than 5% of the national population—scattered through an underdeveloped area that encompasses half the national territory. Since a number of the examples they looked at were also in industrialized capitalist countries with a traditionally federated system of government, they offered little guidance for a country with a historically unitary system of government, which was now engaged in the awesome task of replacing the values and structures of a half-century dictatorship with those of a popular revolution.

The commission members next turned to what was clearly wrong in ethnic-state relations in other countries, in order to understand it better. And what finer examples were there than those surrounding them in North and South America? They discovered two traditional currents of government treatment of ethnic or other minorities within the context of a nation-state—marginalization or assimilation. Both of these grow out of the fear that any deviations from the imposed homogeneity of the dominant culture threaten national unity.

The uniquely Nicaraguan model that the Autonomy Commission finally designed challenges the basis for that fear. As Autonomy Commission coordinator Ray Hooker, himself a Creole from Bluefields, argues, "The greatest threat to national unity does not derive from the full recognition of the historical rights of the ethnic groups, but, on the contrary, from the lack of such recognition." Nicaragua’s logic is that people develop a stake only in a state that values their rights and guarantees their status as first-class citizens, respecting their diversity. To the degree that this genuinely occurs, national unity will not only be protected but also strengthened.

As a necessary precondition to this, there must be a revolution. Hazel Law, representative to the National Assembly from the coast and a member of the National Autonomy Commission, recognizes that "the task would be impossible if there did not exist as an overall framework a popular revolution that is definitively transforming the socioeconomic and political structures that made possible the juridical ordering of the anti-popular state." Speaking to an international symposium on autonomy in Managua in July 1986, Tomás Borge defined Nicaragua's traditionally ruling Liberal-Conservative oligarchies as those who "handed the Atlantic Coast over to the greed of foreign companies—and for a few dollars more they handed all national political power over to imperialism." And as for the imperialists themselves, he added, "supporting autonomy would be like putting a pistol to their own heads and pulling the trigger; they would be denying their own essence."

After a weeklong debate in June 1985, the elements of this general framework were ratified by the 80 members of the national and regional Autonomy Commissions in a basic working document titled "Principles and Policies for the Exercise of Autonomy by the Indigenous Peoples and Communities of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua."

Once that was in place, the Regional Autonomy Commissions took it to the people of the coast for their input. There followed two years of consultations—door-to-door, in community assemblies, in workplaces, with church and other local leaders, in assemblies of elected representatives from different communities, and even in the abovementioned symposium of Indian leaders, anthropologists and indigenous rights experts from around the world.

The harvest of ideas was rich, but the best discovery of all was that the project was on the right track. Or, as Comandante Borge put it to the Multiethnic Assembly that day in 1987, "What was important to discover was that we had more similarities than differences; that the conflicts came about through mutual incomprehension and not through antagonism." Indisputable proof of that, even for skeptics, has been the return of most of the indigenous fighters from the bush and most of the refugees from camps in neighboring countries. The autonomy process in its broadest sense has successfully challenged the efforts of the US government to keep the war alive on the Atlantic Coast.

It does not satisfy every demand, nor could it be expected to. It is, by definition, a result of compromise—not only between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but also among the different, and sometimes even tenser, interests within the coast itself. Least satisfied are the minority of Miskito radicals who, together with their international spokesperson Brooklyn Rivera, still harbor the dream of recovering Miskito hegemony on the coast. Needless to say, that dream is not shared by the Sumus and Ramas, who once had to pay tribute to the Miskito king and were subject to periodic raids by the better-armed Miskito warriors. It is also not shared by the generally better educated and more urbanized Creoles, who began to gain the upper hand at the end of last century, only to lose it to those sent from the Pacific after the expulsion of the British.

From the Abstract to the Concrete

Although elections have been postponed until next February, some other aspects of the autonomy law have already been put into effect. A growing number of the region's schools now teach their courses in Miskito or English up to the fourth grade, and in Sumu to third grade; government documents are being slowly translated into the languages of the coast for the first time in history; many communities have been given title to their traditional communal lands; and ad hoc commissions of government, economic enterprise and interested community representatives have formed to carry out provisional decisions on natural resource use and reopening trade with the Caribbean countries. The operative idea is: try it first, and if it works ratify it; if it doesn’t, keep experimenting.

As Borge stressed, the autonomy statute is not a master key that will open all doors. It is only a tool, a guide for action, a set of principles. As a set of principles, it is exemplary, and as a guide for action, it clearly shows the way. But as an effective tool, it is still iron-age. Although some of its precision grinding will only come with time and experience, the newly elected governments in the two autonomous regions are empowered to quickly approve regulations that will make the generalized language of the autonomy law operable.

To help the incoming governments in this task, nearly a dozen subcommittees have recently been formed by the Autonomy Commission in the northern autonomous region to draft detailed proposals for such issues as the official use of languages in the regions; the use, enjoyment and benefit of natural resources; commercial mechanisms for Caribbean trade; a tax plan; a regional financial policy; the creation of a special development fund for the coast; the definition of and calendar for transferring responsibility for national ministries such as health, education, transport, sports and culture to the coast; communal development; women's issues; the relationship between regional and municipal government; and the adapting of national norms of justice to the specificities of coastal customs.

While these subcommittees usually include relevant local government functionaries as well as interested civic leaders, they are headed up by members of the Regional Autonomy Commissions, who choose the other members. Similar committees have formed in Managua as well, made up of coast people living there and what Myrna Cunningham, an announced FSLN candidate in the northern coastal region, calls "friends of the coast." In late August representatives of the national service ministries—health, education, welfare and others—also visited the Regional Autonomy Commissions to work out a plan for decentralization.

In Puerto Cabezas Dr. Cunningham, a Miskito, is sponsoring weekly open seminars held at the local office of the Center for Research and Documentation on the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA) to discuss the subcommittees' proposals. "There's no point in installing an autonomous government if we don't have anything concrete," she explains. And she should know; a doctor, she put aside her practice five years ago to serve as the presidential delegate to the North Atlantic Autonomous Region.

In Bluefields, the process is somewhat different. There all the proposals are being prepared by the Regional Autonomy Commission itself; when they are ready for discussion, the commission plans to call a regional multiethnic assembly to discuss them all. Once the proposals have all been drawn up, the two Regional Commissions will meet to share the ideas that have emerged. Although the same autonomy law serves the two regions, it is not yet clear that all the regulations must as well.

The Autonomy Statute:
Its principles and its policies

The Autonomy Statute is constructed on the unprecedented acknowledgement, sanctified in Article 8 of Nicaragua’s new Political Constitution, that "the Nicaraguan people are multiethnic." It follows from that, as the Constitution states, that the recognition of the political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Atlantic Coast inhabitants is required for the building of "a new, multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual nation, based on democracy, pluralism, anti-imperialism and the elimination of social exploitation and oppression in all its forms."

Thus the vision of autonomy is not one of separate and isolated reservations—or "Bantustans," as a member of the Autonomy Commission once referred to them—of second-class people "allowed" to preserve their ethnic identity by forfeiting their right to an equal role in the life of the nation. Rather the idea is one of "equality in diversity," the strengthening of a new kind of national and territorial unity and a mutual enriching of the national culture and the regional ones.

The stress on building national unity through full respect for different identities runs throughout the first chapter of the Autonomy Statute, which defines basic principles. It begins with the definition of the Communities* of the coast as an "indissoluble part of the single and indivisible Nicaraguan State," whose members "enjoy all the rights and duties which pertain to them as Nicaraguans, in accordance with the Political Constitution." They are thus guaranteed full citizenship under the protection of the nation's Magna Charta, rather than treated as separate (and lesser) nations that can be dispensed with in easily breakable treaties—as the US experience of Native Americans has so amply demonstrated.

*There are three distinct Indian peoples on the Coast, one of which—the Ramas—only exists in Nicaragua while a minority of the other two—Miskitos and Sumus—live in neighboring Honduras. There are also communities of African-European mixed Creoles and of African-Carib Indian mixed Garífunas, as well as a large population of Spanish-speaking mestizos who have migrated over time from the Pacific. After long debate, it was decided to refer generically to all six in legal documents as "Communities," a term commonly used by coast people themselves, which avoids the wordy and deprecating distinction between indigenous peoples and ethnic groups.

While autonomous rule will allow the coastal populations the exercise of their historical and other rights, it is set forth as "a principle of the Revolution and of Autonomy to promote and preserve unity, fraternity and solidarity among the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast and the entire nation." This is in conscious contrast both to Nicaragua's colonial experience, in which competing powers—Spain and Britain—pitted the two sides of the country against each other for centuries, and to the current attempt of some Miskito radicals to reimpose Miskito hegemony on the coast and rekindle spiteful ethnocentrism.

Autonomy for people or place?

As the 1985 "Principles and Policies" document put forward, autonomy is for all the Communities of the coast, who, by their ethnic diversity and/or their common historical development, have political, economic, social and cultural expressions that differ from those of the mestizo population on the other side of the country. While it is autonomy for people and not for a geographic region per se, it can only be effectively exercised within a specific region.

The Autonomy Statute thus establishes two autonomous regions within the department known as Zelaya.* The "North Atlantic Autonomous Region" (referred to in common parlance now as "the RAAN") has its administrative seat in the city of Puerto Cabezas; its dominant populations, nearly evenly divided, are Miskito and mestizo. The "South Atlantic Autonomous Region" (or "RAAS") has its administrative seat in Bluefields. Its dominant population is mestizo, with a sizable minority of Creoles; the four other Communities number between 800 and a few thousand. The two autonomous regions correspond to what were previously known respectively as Special Zones I and II and include the islands off their shores. Areas currently under another administrative jurisdiction** will, according to Article 42, be incorporated into their respective autonomous region as circumstances permit, as "defined and determined by the respective Autonomous Region in coordination with the Central Government."

*Named for Liberal President José‚ Santos Zelaya, who militarily expelled the last British from the coast in 1894. In a debate in the National Assembly in August 1989, the Atlantic Coast representatives successfully argued to dissolve the department of Zelaya and make the two autonomous regions self-contained departments. The most heated aspect of the debate centered on doing away with the name Zelaya; many from the Pacific consider him a modernizer and something of an anti-imperialist, while those from the Atlantic view him as a racist interloper who destroyed their relative autonomy and privilege under the British. The coast people won.
**These areas remained undefined in the final draft of the statute. They presumably refer to the part of southern Zelaya excluded from what was designated in 1982 as Special Zone II due to lack of communications facilities and other administrative limitations. The Creole community argued strongly to include these lands immediately, but one of many problems is that they are inhabited solely by mestizo peasants who have migrated there from the Pacific in the past several decades and share none of the history, ethnic make-up or interest in autonomy that characterizes the populations closer to the Caribbean seaboard.

Guarantees of ethnic identity

Ethnic identity is understood not as a static folkloric concept, but rather as a dynamic which evolves historically through the interplay of political, economic, social and cultural life. That identity becomes defensive if perpetually attacked, and stagnant if isolated. The ideal is that different cultures meet each other as equals and, secure in their own identity, enrich each other. Both Nicaragua's Constitution and its Autonomy Statute thus have a dual task: 1) to protect and strengthen the cultures of the coast by guaranteeing the full exercise of their rights, and 2) to provide the opportunity, in conditions of equality, for that mutual cultural enrichment to occur.

Political Rights. In conformity with Article 181 of the Constitution, which guarantees that "the state shall implement, through law, autonomous governments in the regions inhabited by the Com­munities of the Atlantic Coast for the exercise of their rights," the Autonomy Statute sets out three tiers of government in the two regions of the Atlantic Coast: regional, municipal and communal.

Regional government. According to Article 16 of the statute, the Regional Council and Regional Coordinator "shall be, in their respective spheres, the highest authorities in their respective Autonomous Region." The distinction between the two is not precisely that between legislative and executive, but more like the traditional indigenous system of chosen councils of leaders who make decisions then delegate responsibility for carrying them out. While the Regional Council is empowered to pass regulations and ordinances within the framework of national laws and the Autonomy Statute itself, all laws properly speaking must be submitted to the National Assembly by the coastal representatives for debate and passage in that legislative body.

Regional Council. Each Regional Council will be made up of 45 members directly elected by the population of that region. In addition, the three representatives elected to the National Assembly from the northern region and the two elected from the south will be full voting members of their respective Regional Councils.

Article 19 additionally stipulates that all the Communities of the respective region (Creoles, mestizos, Miskitos and Sumus in the north and those four plus Garífunas and Ramas in the south) should be represented on the Regional Council, in accordance with the system determined by the Electoral Law. (The Electoral Law later divided each region into 15 electoral districts, with slightly greater attention to their relative ethnic homogeneity than to population equality. To guarantee that at least one representative of each Community is elected, four districts in the north and six in the south were designated in which candidates from specified ethnic communities must head any slate of candidates.)

Unlike the national executive and legislative branches, which are six-year terms, the Regional Council members and Coordinator serve for four years. Like candidates for the National Assembly, those for the Regional Council must be 21 years of age and in full enjoyment of their civil and political rights. Any ex-fighters who have signed a cease-fire accord or amnesty agreement with the government meet this last requirement.

Whereas National Assembly candidates are only required to be Nicaraguan nationals, those running for the Regional Council must also have been born on the coast or have at least one parent born there, and must have resided in the respective region for at least one year prior to the elections; candidates not originally from the coast must have resided in the region at least five consecutive years. This residency requirement excludes members of the armed Miskito organizations, such as Brooklyn Rivera and other top leaders of Yatama, who have not yet laid down their arms and returned from directly running for the Regional Council. The loophole is that since there is no residency requirement for the National Assembly, and Assembly representatives from the coast are voting members of their respective Regional Council, potential political aspirants such as Rivera need only return before the deadline for registering National Assembly candidates (provisionally set for September 29) and find a party interested in sponsoring their candidacy.

Slates of candidates for the Regional Council may be put forward in the different electoral districts either by parties or by "popular subscription." The latter requires getting signatures in the electoral district equal to 1% of the number that voted in the respective region in the 1984 elections (300 signatures in the north and 230 in the south). Parties in the Pacific have seldom paid any attention to the coast, and many coast people in turn consider political parties to be a phenomenon alien to their cultures. The only party with any real presence in either region is the FSLN.

All citizens born in the region or with one parent born there, and who fulfill the age and other requirements of the Constitution and Electoral Law, have the right to vote if they have resided in the region three months before the elections; those from other regions must have one-year residency.

It is in describing the faculties of the Regional Council that the language of the statute is least precise regarding final authority. In some cases, its authority is limited to preparing drafts—for example, one for the regional budget and another concerning the rational use and conservation of the region's natural resources. While it is specified that the budget will be drafted "in conjunction with the Ministry of Finance," it is not clear who has the final authority for these drafts or the mechanisms that will be used for their approval. Similarly, the Regional Council may "solicit reports from or question the delegates of ministries and state agencies operating in the region and regional officials," but it is given no specific authority to act based on its findings. On the other hand, the council is specifically authorized to draw up and pass resolutions and ordinances to regulate the affairs assigned to its jurisdiction (which the autonomy commission subcommittees are drafting at this moment), prepare a regional tax plan, resolve boundary disputes between communities, ensure the correct use of the special development fund, prepare and approve its own internal regulations and elect its Regional Coordinator.

Armando Rojas, a Miskito lawyer from Puerto Cabezas who heads the Regional Autonomy Commission there, says that the intent was to leave the Autonomy Law general in such areas where ideas for its implementation were not yet concrete, deferring the specific design to future regulatory laws. This, he explains, gives more flexibility to the incipient regional government, since any changes to the Autonomy Statute itself must go through the National Assembly, while the Regional Councils may amend or change their own regulatory laws. "This first autonomous government," says Rojas, who plans to run as a popular subscription candidate for the Regional Council, "will probably be inundated with technical nuts-and-bolts issues. It won't have much time to be very visionary."

Regional Coordinator. The Regional Council will elect the Regional Coordinator from among its members. The functions of the office are essentially executive, and include the implementation of both regional ordinances and policies and those of the national Executive Branch, administration of the special development fund to be set up and representation before national authorities.

An interesting debate arose in the 1987 Multiethnic Assembly regarding the relationship between the Regional Coordinator and the president's delegate to the region (who up to now has functioned as a sort of governor). Some argued that the same person should hold both posts so that the regional post could not be sidestepped. Others argued that they should be separate to assure that the Regional Coordinator would have an independent regional voice in any dispute between the two. Obviously both arguments respond to the fear that the central government will carry the greater weight.

The mechanical aspect of the debate was resolved constitutionally, in that it remains the faculty of the President of the Republic to select regional delegates. Thus, Article 31 of the Autonomy Statute states simply that "the office of Regional Coordinator is compatible with the office of representative of the Presidency of the Republic in the Region." It will be up to the President to determine whether the Regional Coordinator meets the criteria of presidential representative in each case. The Regional Autonomy Commission in the RAAS has submitted a proposal that the position of presidential delegate simply be done away with in the Atlantic Coast since it is stated in the Autonomy Statute that one of the Regional Coordinator's functions is to "implement and execute the policies, directives and dispositions of the Executive Branch, in accordance with the present Statute, laws and regulations."

Executive Board. The Regional Council will also elect from among its members a seven-person Board of Directors, whose tasks include coordinating with the Council, the Regional Coordinator and different branches of the central government in the region; calling Council meetings and preparing the agenda; naming permanent and special committees to analyze and decide on administrative matters; and "carry[ing] out all measures necessary to the interests, welfare and development of the Region."

The composition of this pivotal body demonstrates the genuine commitment of the Autonomy Statute's designers to Article 11.1: "The inhabitants of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast have the right to absolute equality of rights and duties, regardless of their demographic number and level of development." It would have been simple enough to comply with this in token fashion through the mechanism, detailed above, that guarantees the election of at least one representative of each Community to the Council itself; but there the voice of small groups would be lost amidst the better educated and demographically dominant representatives. To ensure that this not happen, it is stipulated that each Community of the respective Autonomous Region shall also be represented on the Board of Directors. In the north, with only four Communities, it is still theoretically possible for one to gain the absolute majority, but only if members of that group are chosen for all three remaining seats. In the south, there is only one free seat.

Municipal government. According to Article 7 of the Autonomy Statute, each Autonomous Region is to be divided for administrative purposes into municipalities, established insofar as possible in conformity with communal traditions.

The first direct municipal elections since the revolution will take place simultaneously with the presidential elections in the Pacific, but are being postponed in the Atlantic so that the Regional Council can "prepare the draft law for Municipal Demarcation and Organization for the respective Region, with reference to the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the Region." Once the National Assembly has passed that law, elections will be held on the coast, in conformity with the stipulations of the national Law of Municipalities.

The reason for changing the demarcations is that municipal structures in the past, as Myrna Cunningham explains, "were particularly adapted to the existence of the transnational corporations. In the north the municipality of Cape Gracias a Dios was designed around the banana companies; the municipality of Prinzapolka covers the mining towns of Rosita and Bonanza way upriver, but the seat was in Prinzapolka [at the mouth of the river, on the ocean] because the companies' interest was in the export of gold, not the welfare of the miners." Similarly, the municipality of Bluefields covers a territorial extension greater than some whole regions in the Pacific.

Administrative subdivisions of these new municipalities—basically the village communities, in rural municipalities—shall also be established and organized in accord with their traditions. The Regional Council will define these administrative subdivisions by resolutions.

Communal Authorities. Beyond the acknowledgement of "communal authorities" as one of the governmental institutions, there are no specific articles of the Autonomy Statute dealing with this level. Given the massive disruption, displacement and in many cases flight of whole communities due to the war, traditional communal structures are in disarray in many communities. Religious figures and elders still carry a lot of weight in the communities in the south, but in the north, new forces are also emerging, such as groups of ex-fighters who often have their own agenda and political aspirations.

Virtually every community in the north also now has a self-elected Peace and Autonomy Commission, begun in most instances in 1985-86 to encourage dialogue for peace between the fighters and the regional government. In the stronger, more cohesive and organized communities, these commissions have evolved into an incipient communal government structure, with specific members assigned to such concerns as health, education and communal development. The current regional government there works closely with these commissions, meeting with them every three months to discuss and try to resolve community problems.

In the rural areas, municipal councils are being elected provisionally from the communities in what are conceived of as the new municipalities. The 10-member Municipal Council on the Río Coco was among the first elected; it meets monthly with the currently appointed municipal mayor, and coordinates between him and the communities via the Peace and Autonomy Commissions. Where no mayor has been appointed, such as in the Rio Grande delta that divides the two autonomous regions, the elected community representatives choose their own coordinator. In the inner city of Bluefields, with its population of over 40,000, the council members are being elected from the five new electoral districts of the city and will coordinate with the mayor of the city. All this activity aims in part to strengthen local structures and to familiarize community members with the activities of government beyond the traditional horizon of the community itself. As Dr. Cunningham explains, the fact that regional government has only existed since 1982 and municipal government has never served community interests, the traditional political-administrative division that the population understands has always been the community itself.

The FSLN strategy, should it win the elections, is to continue bolstering community participation in municipal and regional government. The FSLN sees community health leaders playing an active oversight role vis-à-vis the regional health ministry, for example. The FSLN even proposed a formal responsibility for "town councils" in the draft Municipal Law at a national level, but the opposition parties, fearful of popular power, took the teeth out of it, favoring the more traditional form of representative democracy in municipal government.

Economic Rights. A key principle of the 1985 working document was that, in order to survive, cultures need a material base. In the case of indigenous cultures, that base is primarily land and natural resources. Thus, Article 89 of the Constitution recognizes the "communal forms of land ownership of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast." Equally, it recognizes their "enjoyment, use and benefit of the waters and forests of their communal lands." Article 180 further guarantees the communities "the benefits of their natural resources...."

Article 36 of the Autonomy Statute itself defines communal property as consisting "of the lands, waters and forests which have traditionally belonged to the Communities of the Atlantic Coast...subject to the following conditions: 1) Communal lands are inalienable; they may not be donated, sold, seized or taxed, and are imprescriptible [that is, personal ownership rights may not be claimed by virtue of an individual's historic use of a parcel of communal land]. 2) The inhabitants of the Communities have the right to work plots of communal land and to benefit from the goods produced by the work they have carried out."

The guaranteed inalienability of communal property is extremely important to land-based Indian cultures; one of the most effective ways to destroy their cohesiveness and their very survival has been through indebtedness, in which the members of communal lands have been forced to subdivide it and sell parts off to pay their debts.

Some Miskito farmers and others do have individual landholdings, however, and the statute recognizes these. Article 11.6 recognizes the right of the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast to "communal, collective or individual forms of property and of the transfer of said property." While individual properties may be sold, communal lands may only be assigned to families of the community to work and passed down through family inheritance.

Article 8 of the Autonomy Statute lists the following general economic faculties of the Autonomous Regions: a) to promote their own economic projects; b) to promote the rational use, enjoyment and benefit of communal waters, forests and lands, and the preservation of the ecological system; c) to foster the traditional commerce with the nations and peoples of the Caribbean, in conformity with the national laws and procedures established for this purpose; d) to promote the integration of internal markets within the regions as well as trade between different regions, thus contributing to the consolidation of a national market; and e) to establish regional taxes in conformity with the laws established for this purpose. These faculties are to be carried out through the regional administrative bodies.

It should be noted that communal property rights do not include subsoil rights. Strategic minerals are considered the patrimony of the nation as a whole and, as described in the April 1989 envío, grow out of the aspiration of the revolution to eventually redistribute the wealth of the country both regionally and by social class, rather than permitting the perpetuation of a situation such as in the United States, where a poor state such as Mississippi coexists alongside a wealthy California. As that issue of envío also pointed out, the context for a discussion of natural resources in Nicaragua is also very different than that of most countries, where the control of valuable resources is in the hands of large corporations whose interests are in exploitation and profits rather than in social welfare and ecological preservation.

Up to this point, there is little disagreement about the land issue in the coast. It emerges for some around the issue of where communal lands end and state lands begin. Indigenous militants argue that concessions made by past governments (and by the last Miskito kings at the end of last century) to foreign companies are not valid. When those lumbering, mining and fishing operations (some of which were joint ventures with Somoza) departed or were confiscated, their lands reverted to the state.

The concrete expression of the economic debate in the 1987 Multiethnic Assembly was around Article 9, which states that "communal property rights shall be recognized in the rational use of the mining, forest, fishing and other natural resources of the Autonomous Regions" and that the profits from such use "should benefit their inhabitants in equitable proportion, established by accords between the Regional Government and the Central Government." The debate was not so much about control over or participation in decisions about the exploitation of such resources as it was the desire to fix the exact proportion that would revert to the region. Those who argued that, with the economic crisis and the loss of export markets due to the US economic embargo, it was not advantageous to push for such exactitude in the Autonomy Statute itself won the day. Needless to say, this is an issue that will become more heated as specific policies are debated and the economy moves into an upswing once again. In May of this year the Regional Autonomy Commission in the south proposed that 50% be reinvested in the region, and suggested that the figure be reviewed annually.

It is not only the communities that require an economic base, however. If the regional government does not have its own financial base, it will never be autonomous. Three sources of financing are contemplated for the regional government. Article 32 specifies two of them: "regional taxes, in conformity with the Regional Tax Plan, which shall include taxes upon the profits of companies operating in the Region" and "Funds from the General Budget of the Republic" which will presumably be transferred to the region. The third source is outlined in Article 33: "There is hereby established a special fund for development and social advancement, drawn from internal and external funding and other extraordinary income not covered by the budget, which shall be invested in the Autonomous Region's own social, productive and cultural projects." There is already growing interest on the part of other governments, particularly the European Economic Community and Cuba, as well as of a number of nongovernmental organizations, in assisting the resettlement and development of the coast. Once the autonomous government is elected, the Regional Coordinator will administer these funds in accordance with the policy established by the Regional Council.

Socio-cultural Rights. Thirteen articles of the Constitution address directly or indirectly the rights of the peoples of the Atlantic Coast. With regard to their social or cultural rights, Article 27 guarantees that "all persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal protection under the law" with no discrimination for reasons of "birth, nationality, political belief, race, gender, language, religion, opinion, national origin, economic position or social condition." Article 11 guarantees that the languages of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast shall [together with Spanish] have official use in the cases established by law.

Article 33 guarantees that all detained persons have the right to be "informed in detail without delay of the reasons for their detention and the accusation against them, in a language they understand" and Article 34 further guarantees that those awaiting trial have the right to "the assistance of an interpreter free of charge if they do not understand or speak the language used by the court." Article 197 instructs that the Constitution itself shall be disseminated in the languages of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast.

Article 89 states that "the Communities of the Atlantic Coast have the right to preserve and develop their cultural identities within the framework of national unity, to be granted their own forms of social organization, and to administer their local affairs according to their traditions." Article 90 adds that "the Communities of the Atlantic Coast have the right to the free expression and preservation of their languages, art and culture. The development of their culture and their values enrich the national culture. The state shall create special programs to enhance the exercise of these rights." Article 91 obliges the state "to enact laws promoting and assuring that no Nicaraguan shall be the object of discrimination for reasons of language, culture or origin," and Article 121 guarantees that "the Communities of the Atlantic Coast have access in their region to education in their native language at the levels determined in accord with national plans and programs.”* Article 29 guarantees the right to profess a religion or not, and that no one may be obliged to declare their creed, ideology or beliefs.

*Law 571, passed in 1981, guarantees education in native languages on the coast through the fourth grade—essentially a "transition" form to tide a native-speaking child over until he or she dominates Spanish sufficiently to receive courses in that language. Growing sentiment on the coast, apparently supported by both current regional governments, is to carry bilingual education all the way through high school.

The Autonomy Statute itself assigns responsibility for these guarantees in greater detail. In addition to recognizing the right to religious freedom, it assigns the Autonomous Regions the responsibility to promote 1) "their own economic, social and cultural projects," 2) "the study, fostering, development, preservation and diffusion of the traditional cultures of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast, as well as their historical, artistic, linguistic and cultural heritage," and 3) "national culture."

Among the rights of the inhabitants of the coast are detailed the following five socio-cultural rights: 1) to preserve and develop their languages, religions and cultures; 2) to freely develop their social and productive organizations in conformity with their own values; 3) education in their native language and in Spanish, through programs which take in their historical heritage, their value systems, the traditions and characteristics of their environment, all in accordance with the national system of education; 4) the right to scientifically safeguard and preserve, in coordination with the national health system, the knowledge of natural medicine which has been accumulated throughout their history; and 5) the right to define and decide their own ethnic identity.

This last one merits further explanation. Very few people on the coast can claim an unbroken line of racial purity. Each of the three indigenous peoples, particularly the Miskitos, has mixed with each other, with those of African origin and with Europeans and North Americans. The Creole community is by definition an Anglo-African mix. The Ramas and Garífunas, and to a lesser extent the Sumus, have maintained the strongest practice against intermarriage, but it is far from absolute. Since there are no historical treaties, such as in Canada and the United States, that grant land rights to descendants of specific tribes or kinships, ethnic identity has always been by self-ascription and the acceptance of that decision by the Community itself. This has played havoc with demographic censuses at different political moments, when people conveniently identify themselves as members of the least disadvantaged group they can pass as. While loose interethnic caste discrimination has been an occasional byproduct of this mixing, it has never taken strong hold or been institutionalized as in some African and Asian subcontinent countries.

It will be the among the responsibilities of the Regional Council to participate in formulating, planning, executing and supervising the social and cultural policies and programs that affect or concern the region, while final responsibility for their implementation is assigned to the Regional Coordinator.

A rather remarkable socio-cultural responsibility of the Regional Council is "to promote the integration, development and participation of women in all aspects of the political, social, cultural and economic life of the Region." Women's role in the cultures of the coast has been limited mainly to the home, the fields and the church. Most indigenous women are monolingual and they have traditionally had a nonexistent, or at best marginal role in community affairs. The few exceptions to this are those women who have managed to get access to higher education. Curiously, the North Atlantic Autonomous Region now has a higher percentage of women in top-level ministry and political leadership than in any other region in the country, and includes women from all four ethnic communities of that region.

The military and economic situation in the region in the past seven years has thrust village women into a new position. Abandoned by their sons and husbands who went off to fight, the women have had to struggle to survive, compete for assistance from government and nongovernmental officials, respond to the consultation about autonomy, voice the political demands of their men, and above all fight for peace. They were initially among the majority in the peace and Autonomy Commissions formed to promote dialogue between the armed fighters and the government. But now that many men have returned, bringing with them their old ideas, the women are often shoved into the background again. With their newfound voice and the backing of the Autonomy Statute, women are beginning to form organizations to help protect and advance their role in production, in decision-making about communal development and other issues that are growing out of the transition to peace and self-government.

While some men support their struggle, many are threatened by it, as was amply revealed in a heated autonomy subcommittee discussion on the topic recently in Puerto Cabezas. Asked how the article ever made it into the Autonomy Statute, one female political leader winked and said, "We just waited until the men were exhausted from debating the other issues, then we pushed it through."

How Autonomous?

The Autonomy Statute does not specify the prerogatives that specifically remain those of the central government, although they can be found in the Constitution and in early drafts of the autonomy law. As envío pointed out in its April 1988 issue, autonomy is by definition a relative concept, insofar as it does not contemplate separation from the nation. In conformity with the philosophy that autonomy should strengthen rather than weaken both national unity and ethnic identity, Nicaragua’s central government, acting on behalf of and with the participation of the nation's population as a whole, will maintain responsibility for international relations and foreign policy, defense of the nation, maintenance of internal order and regulation of citizenship, foreign commerce and customs operations, global economic planning and national juridical norms. These will provide the overall framework within which the autonomous governments of the two regions will adapt their specific policies.

For example, with regard to national defense and internal order, Article 13 states that "the defense of the country, life, justice and peace for the integral development of the nation is a fundamental duty of the inhabitants of the Communities of the Atlantic Coast." And Article 14 states that "In the Autonomous Regions, the defense will be directed by the Sandinista People's Army and the internal order and security forces of the State." But given that in revolutionary Nicaragua, the defense of the nation rests on the organized power of the entire people, "the inhabitants of these Communities have priority in the defense of sovereignty in these regions." This has already led to two distinct but related phenomena. First, through a flexible draft policy, some 70-80% of the army and police personnel in the two regions, including officers, are now coast residents, which has ended many of the original tensions with troops from the Pacific. Second, cease-fire accords with numerous armed groups have led to the formation of Indigenous Self-Defense Militias, supplied and coordinated by the army.

To repeat Comandante Borge's words to the Multiethnic Assembly: "When some time has passed and we have discovered the possible, inevitable defects, we will enter into a new phase of ratification and rectification, seizing the opportunity as it occurs." He emphasized this message as well to the National Assembly when he presented the draft law on September 1, 1987. The openness is there, and so is the legal provision. Since the same law covers both Autonomous Regions, Article 38 states that "two thirds of both Regional Councils may jointly solicit reforms to the present Statute, in conformity with the procedures established by the Political Constitution of Nicaragua, the General Statute of the National Assembly and its Internal Regulations."

For now, though, the challenge is to put what exists into effect. Ray Hooker, in his address to the 1987 Multiethnic Assembly, laid out the essence of that challenge for the coastal peoples:

“The path of cultural survival and transformation is a difficult one, especially for cultures submitted to the implacable forces of historic oppression and identity deprivation....

“The quality of our response to this challenge will eloquently depict to the world whether we are capable of transforming the obsessive dream of autonomy into a more splendid reality; whether we have the capacity to endure in order to create a whole, more magnificent than its myriad diversity; whether we have the dedication to create a unified nation in which cultural diversity will nurture the growth and development of a novel national identity.”

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