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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 37 | Julio 1984



The Miskitu Question in Nicaragua

The author presents a brief description of Nicaragua’s Miskitu population and the problems arising from the attempt to incorporate the Miskitus into the new nation that is emerging through the revolutionary process.

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The Miskitus live in Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast region and constitute a racial and cultural minority that has not been assimilated into the rest of the country. From colonial times, they have remained apart from the “Whites” or “Spaniards,” although living under the control and dependence of the dominating groups that established themselves in the Pacific Coast region.

This report analyzes the problem from three angles: the historical background that has divided Nicaragua in two; the growth and reinforcement of the concept of nation, which will prompt the Miskitus to take an active part in different forms of power; and the manipulation of the Miskitu issue by counterrevolutionary forces.

The Miskitu question is that of joining a specific ethnic group to a nation in a context of great international tension. The problem had existed for a long time, but developments over the past five years have brought it to the forefront. Outside forces have manipulated the Miskitus in order to undermine the revolutionary state domestically and discredit it internationally. The weakening from within began on December 1981 with a series of border attacks along the banks of the Río Coco. These attacks were to serve as the spark for an attempt to invade Nicaragua from camps in Honduras. The international outcry reached its most crucial phase in January and February of 1982 when the Nicaraguan government moved more than 8,000 Miskitus from the banks of the Coco and relocated them temporarily in four camps near Rosita, a mining town in the Department of Zelaya. The government’s intention was to help them settle along the Kukalaya river.

Two fundamental questions must be asked: How is it that the Miskitus have been manipulated if they are among the poorest and most oppressed sectors of the Nicaraguan population and the Sandinista revolution is viewed as a movement of the exploited, especially of workers and peasants? How is it that there has been confrontation between the Miskitu population and the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) if the Miskitus’ fundamental interests and those of the revolution should theoretically coincide?

Historical factors

The first answer to these questions is historical. The Spanish colonized the Pacific region of Nicaragua, leaving the Atlantic for the English pirates, who were supported by the British Crown. In order to ingratiate themselves with the Miskitus and subjugate other tribes, the British even crowned a Miskitu king in 1687.

Once Nicaragua achieved independence from Spain and the possibility of building a canal cross the country began to stir up interest, England’s control over the Atlantic region was gradually transferred to the United States. In 1860, England signed a treaty in which it renounced its claims to Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. In 1877, the Miskitu king still rejected the proposal that the Mosquitia become a province of Nicaragua. In 1894, President Zelaya sent army troops to Bluefields where they occupied the zone militarily and deposed the Miskitu king, renaming the Mosquitia the Department of Zelaya.

The departure of the English paved the way for the entry of US capital in the last quarter of the 19th century. Foreign investment was primarily channeled toward gold extraction and the production of wood and bananas. The indigenous population began to become attached to the Americans the same way it had to the British. Although, objectively, the Americans exploited them, they also gave them jobs, supplied them with goods and elementary technology, bought some of their agricultural products, etc. It should be remembered that, at the time, it was easier to reach the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua from New Orleans than from Managua.

US control over the Atlantic Coast region even comprised a military occupation. Though Panama was finally chosen for the construction of a canal, US economic interests called for the landing of Marines on the Atlantic Coast in 1912.

In short, during colonial times, the Spanish dominated the Pacific Coast, and the English the Atlantic. When the colonial system ceased to function as a form of imperial domination, two forms of power emerged: national power in the Pacific region and US power in the Atlantic Coast region. This accounts for the fact that the Miskitus have always had stronger tries with the British or US empires than with the structures of national power. People from the Atlantic Coast still call anyone from the Pacific Coast a “Spaniard”.

The role of the revolution in consolidating the nation

One of the components of the Sandinista revolution is the consolidation of the Nicaraguan nation. This means that the revolutionary process is expanding its power not only horizontally over the country’s geographical space but also vertically into the lowest social sectors. This process involves the granting of power by the state and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to sectors that are both geographically and socially distant. This, in turn, should reinforce the state and the FSLN in their role as leaders and unifiers of the nation.

There is bound to be crisis in this dialectical process, for to grant power is to foster a greater degree of autonomy in decision-making and thereby increase the level of confrontation with the unifying and centralizing power, which necessarily restricts the autonomy it has conceded. In the case of the Miskitus, the crisis has become violent because it has occurred within the context of opposed external powers.

Power was granted in three phases. The first immediately followed the July 19, 1979, victory and consisted of the arrival of Sandinistas in the main Miskitu cities and communities, where they publicly announced the liberation from Somoza’s dictatorship and US imperialism. This concession of power, however, fell into a great vacuum and was looked upon suspiciously by the Miskitus, who were untrusting and considered the conflict between Somoza and the Sandinistas a power struggle among Spaniards that held no benefits for them. The Sandinista leaders were not Miskitus. In many cases, they arrived in the Miskitu communities with no knowledge of the language or culture (the people’s profound interests and their means of expressing them). The Miskitus spontaneously associated the Sandinistas with other Spaniards who had opportunistically made use of power changes in the past. This association was strengthened by the fact that some of the Sandinistas had actually been Somocistas. Thus, the Miskitus identified the Sandinistas with Spaniards, the same oppressors as in the old days. Moreover, certain local crises exacerbated the negative perception of the coast people with regard to the new rulers and vice versa.

The second phase of empowerment was broader and more profound in that it set the stage for repercussions on a national level. It began on November 11, 1979, with the founding of Misurasata (Miskitu Sumo Sandinista Aslatakanka: Sandinista Unity of Miskitus, Sumus, and Ramas). There had already existed an indigenous organization named Alpromisu (Alliance for the Progress of Miskitus and Sumus), founded with the aid of the regional Moravian Church in 1973. Somoza’s regime had bought off many of this organization’s leaders. On July 17, 1979, two days before the victory, some of them even attempted to pass a resolution in support of the dictatorship. During the following months, there was uncertainty as to whether this organization would survive, as some of its leaders had fled to Miami and Honduras.

Commander Daniel Ortega visited the town of Puerto Cabezas on November 11 and decided both to dissolve Alpromisu and support the founding of Misurasata as a mass organization of indigenous peoples on the ocsat. Although the rank and file of the previous organization remained, the leadership was changed, and a small nucleus of Miskitu students from the National University became the intermediaries between the new grassroots organization and the FSLN. One of these students was Stedman Fagoth, who was later elected as Misurasata’s representative to the Council of State (Nicaragua’s legislative body), where he would press for Miskitu demands.

The political positions of the new leaders were not completely clear at the time Misurasata was formed. Though some of them had made contacts with the Sandinistas in Costa Rica, none had fought in the insurrection. The extent of their support for the revolution was unknown, but the revolutionary government decided to give them a vote of confidence. The risk was high, as later became clear when it was discovered that Stedman Fagoth had collaborated with Somoza’s office of National Security (ONS).

Misurasata defended several indigenous demands: renegotiation with the Nicaraguan Institute of Fishing of shrimp and turtle prices for the fishing cooperatives, payment by the Institute of Natural Resources for wood stored on communal lands, presentation in the Council of State of a bilingual education bill; and participation in the preparation of materials for the literacy crusade in indigenous languages. All this provided the indigenous peoples, especially the Miskitus, a share of power they had never before possessed. Though perhaps their economic situation did not improve substantially, the Miskitus and others made qualitative gains within the revolution.

The third phase of empowerment was the literacy crusade in languages other than Spanish (including Miskitu), which began as the National Crusade was concluding in August 1980. Some Miskitu leaders at first resented the fact that the crusade in their language was only to begin once the Spanish crusade was almost finished, but once it was given the green light, it was taken up by Misurasata cadres with a lot of energy. The members of these crusade brigades were Miskitus who had been trained in their local communities in a way very different from that of the “brigadistas” (literacy teachers) who participated in the national Crusade, the majority of whom were urban youth who traveled to rural areas, sometimes very far from their homes.

The literacy crusade in the coast region had the effect of conceding more power than the National Crusade. Not only did it teach 12,000 people to read and write, but it also strengthened young leaders in the communities, as well as Misurasata itself, which had made the crusade possible.

The crusade had a consciousness-raising effect in that it brought several demands to the forefront. In the activities organized to celebrate the end of the crusade, the lists of these demands were presented as a political platform. One of the main demands was recognition of the Miskitus’ communal lands with limits extending far beyond what was necessary for their crop rotation. They claimed 45,000 square kilometers, or one-third of Nicaragua.

That was when relations came to a tragic breaking point. State Security ordered the arrest of the Miskitu leaders, considering their movement separatist. On February 21, 1981, there was a confrontation in a Moravian church in Prinzapolka when State Security personnel attempted to arrest one of the Miskitu leaders. The results were eight deaths (four members of State Security and four civilians) and ten people injured. The government arrested the Misurasata leaders, including Stedman Fagoth, whose record from the OSN files was then published in the newspaper. Certain defenders of the indigenous leaders claimed that Fagoth, rather than being a collaborator, had infiltrated the OSN.

It is difficult to say to what degree the movement was actually separatist or was only called so in order to disband an organization that was presenting demands never before voiced by the indigenous population. It does not seem that Misurasata was really a separatist organization because one of the aspirations of its leaders was that Fagoth be given a position in the governmental junta. Though such an intention reveals the desire to achieve a level of autonomy superior to that of any other grassroots or regional organization, it also implies recognition of the need to participate in the Nicaraguan government.

It is impossible to judge with any certainty the extent to which the organization had been infiltrated by the CIA and the counterrevolutionaries. In any case, as a result of this first conflict, many Miskitus fled to Honduras. Upon being provisionally released from prison, Fagoth also fled to Honduras, and his connections with both the counterrevolution and the CIA soon became obvious.

What should be stressed here is that the conflict originated from the revolution’s granting of power and its resulting antithesis.

International Relations

Ethnic groups, particularly those dwelling along rivers or coasts far removed from a nation’s center of power, are frequently manipulated by the power of the empire. In the case of Nicaragua, the Miskitus have received power from the imperialist interests that are promoting the counterrevolution via the Misurasata leaders who fled to Honduras. While the intentions of the Miskitu rank and file that have joined the counterrevolution are not clear, it appears that the Miskitu leaders would like to have a larger share of power within the regime to be set up following the overthrow of the FSLN. Moreover, it is clear that the US wants to destabilize the FSLN in an attempt to destroy the first Central American revolution and thereby assure its hegemony over the isthmus.

Thus it can be said that the attacks against Miskitu villages on the Nicaraguan side of the Río Coco by groups based in Honduras and composed partially of Miskitus are the result of manipulation by imperialist forces. Between November 1981 and January 1982, these groups killed 60 people, including Sandinista soldiers and indigenous civilians. On December 14, 1981, 12 border guards and their lieutenant were abducted and later murdered in Honduras.

Because of these attacks, the Nicaraguan government decided to relocate the entire Miskitu population living along the banks of the Río Coco to avoid the use of these people as a means of support for the counterrevolutionaries. The move was also intended to prevent the Miskitus who were not involved in the counterrevolution from being caught in the crossfire or simply murdered by other Miskitus trained in Honduras.

The Nicaraguan Bishop’s Conference fueled international criticism of this measure by releasing a communiqué on February 14, 1982. Its statement can be contested from different angles, the first being the truthfulness and exactness of certain points and the second being its overall interpretation of the events. On the first point, the bishops’ accusations were vague and, in certain aspects, inaccurate. For example, the bishops infer that several people (whose names they did not mention) succumbed during the relocation. However, it was clearly proven that the only person who died had been removed from the area in a speedboat because of illness and was kidnapped by the counterrevolutionaries from Honduras. No one died during the actual relocation.

The principal weakness of the denunciations is to be found in the bishops’ interpretations, which in no way address the causes of the relocation measure. One cannot deny that the move was a very drastic measure, that it was compulsory, that it was implemented “without prior notice or a consciousness-raising dialogue,” that it entailed “forced marches lasting several days” or that there was “destruction of homes, personal belongings and domestic animals” in the abandoned villages to avoid their being used to support the counterrevolutionaries based in Honduras. All this is true. However, the correct interpretation of these facts is that no other means could be found to isolate the Miskitu population from the manipulation the US was exercising from the Honduran side of the border. Ultimate responsibility for this measure lies with the counterrevolutionaries, who have used the Miskitus as cannon fodder. Therefore, one cannot talk of the violation of human rights that are “inalienable and cannot be infringed under any circumstances.” Instead, it is a question of the need to safeguard Nicaragua’s territorial integrity for the common good and the future of the revolution, the existence of which will, though not necessarily on a short-term basis, benefit the Miskitus and other indigenous peoples.

Conclusions: Prospects

What are the prospects for a solution to the problem? This analysis has touched on three aspects of the problem: the historical background that divided Nicaragua in two; the growth and reinforcement of the concept of nation by the revolution, which granted power to the Miskitus; and the international context through which the Miskitus have been manipulated as cannon fodder.

The first two points are, at least to some extent, in the hands of the Nicaraguans, who are reconquering history with the present and unifying the nation. The last point depends on outside forces and complicates the situation.

For this reason, the Sandinistas’ decision, although radical, was wise. It removed a good part of the border population—approximately one third of this population fled to Honduras—from the hands of imperialist manipulation. This isolation is a prior condition intended to enable the Sandinistas to make closer contact with the Miskitus presently living in the resettlement villages and win their confidence. This contact has already begun: the local Sandinista leaders are humble and sensitive to the problem of others; they have helped the Miskitus build their houses, care for their sick, organize a new life and distribute plots of land. The ice separating the “Spaniards” and “Indians” has begun to thaw, and from behind the stereotypes being to appear the human faces of brothers and sisters from both sides of the country, the faces of simple and poor people. It is thus possible to imagine that the violent antithesis will be followed by the seeds of a new synthesis in which Nicaraguans from the Pacific will discover the treasure of a different culture and those from the Atlantic will catch a glimpse of the new life that the revolution offers Nicaragua’s peoples.

Managua , March 11, 1982
This article was taken from the magazine ECA (March 1982, No. 401)

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The Miskitu Question in Nicaragua

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