Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 37 | Julio 1984



Concerning the Schlaefer Case

Envío team

The case of Salvador Schlaefer, Bishop of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, has once again focused world attention on that part of the country, on the Miskitu people and on the Catholic hierarchy. It is again necessary to go beyond the sensationalism of a news story and define correctly the Atlantic Coast situation and the counterrevolution’s activity there, in particular the circumstances of the attack against Francia Sirpi.

To this end, we present the testimony of two priests who understand the ecclesial and social reality of the coast very well: Father Francisco Solano, Vicar of South Zelaya and after Bishop Schlaefer the most important church official in the region, and Father Augustín Sambola, who was born and works in the region. The experience and the moral and spiritual authority of these two priests are recognized throughout the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. To the long interview that envío had with Fathers Solano and Sambola on December 26, we have added certain historical facts that help put their statements in context.

Father Francisco Solano, who was born in Indiana, is a member of the Capuchin order. He says with great pride that he has been a Nicaraguan citizen since December 1979. He has worked for 15 years in Nicaragua, in the Department of Zelaya, especially in the central region. In 1981 Bishop Schlaefer named him vicar of South Zelaya, which covers the southern and central parts of the department of Zelaya. Though not a bishop, he plays a similar role in South Zelaya, which is a quarter of Nicaragua’s territory. He knows Bishop Schlaefer and the problems of the Atlantic Coast well, especially thos regarding the mestizo peasant population, which makes up the majority of the region’s inhabitants. Though he has not done pastoral work with the Miskitu people on an ongoing basis, living in Bluefields for the last two years and meeting for many years with pastoral workers who live with the Miskitus and with their deacons and representatives, as well as other forms of contact, have given him a good of the Miskitu situation in all its complexity.

Father Augustin Sambola, like Father Solano and Bishop Schlaefer, is a Capuchin. He was born on the coast, near the Pearl |Lagoon. He is a member of the Garífona ethnic group, an Afro-indigenous people with their own language and culture. They form one of the groups descended from slaves who escaped from French colonies in the Caribbean. Father Sambola has been a priest for eight years, seven of them spent on the coast. From 1975 to 1979, he worked in the mountains of Siuna, a mining area. He has worked with the Miskitus in Waspan, Puerto Cabezas and the new settlements at Tasba Pri. He knows the Atlantic Coast well, both as a member of a dominated ethnic group and as a pastoral leader working within Zelaya’s ethnic mosaic.

Recent events have added another element to the many things the two priests have in common: they have both been threatened on occasion by the counterrevolutionary radio stations broadcasting from Honduras and recently have been targets of actual attacks. On November 2, while on a pastoral visit to the community of El Coco in South Zelaya, Father Solano was detained by three heavily armed contras probably belonging to the ARDE group. They interrogated him, tried to brainwash him regarding the “terrible religious persecution in Nicaragua” telling him, among other things, that Archbishop Obando was being held prisoner in Managua, and offered him a gun. When Father Solano refused to join the group, the leader called him a traitor and said three times in a threatening tone of voice: “Be very careful.”

On November 30, the car in which Father Sambola was driving from Rosita to Tasba Pri was ambushed and fired upon by a task force of some 30 contras. Only their poor marksmanship allowed Father Sambola to escape with his life.

The Atlantic Coast’s oppressed races

envío: We have to begin by defining the Atlantic Coast—so often talked about and so little understood—and the nature of its inhabitants.

Solano: Some people believe that the Miskitus live throughout all of Zelaya. This is one of many errors. It is important to distinguish the Department of Zelaya from what is called the Atlantic Coast. The department was an English possession until 1894, when President Zelaya reincorporated it into Nicaragua. Strictly speaking, the coast itself is a strip of land on the edge of Zelaya, running along the Río Coco and down the coast to the town of Bluefields and a bit further south. The coast also includes part of the mining zone. This is the coast, where there’s a mix of ethnic groups and where the whole Miskitu issue has unfolded. In other words, the coast is only a fraction of the whole area of Zelaya, which itself represents 56% of Nicaraguan territory. The greater part of Zelaya is inhabited by mestizo peasants, like those in the Pacific region, who have migrated from Matagalpa, Boaco and Chontales in search of land. We don’t have exact statistics, but there are around 250,000 mestizos, and around 60,000 Miskitus. Creoles, either black or Garífona, together make up 27,000 inhabitants of the region; Sumus, about 8,000. There are also between 500 and 1,000 Ramas.

The population density along the Atlantic Coast is 4.55 per square mile, compared to the Nicaraguan average of 33.7 per square mile. The different ethnic groups are located as follows:

The Distribution of the Miskitu People

The Miskitus are the region’s largest indigenous group. The roots of the Miskitu language link them with the Chibchas of South America. Some researchers believe that the Miskitu were originally a sub-tribe of the Sumus, and took on special characteristics through intermarriage with blacks, Europeans and other indigenous groups. The Miskitu culture is strongly linked to rivers. The Miskitus have traditionally lived in the coastal plains, where 90% of Nicaragua’s waterways are located. The Miskitu region also encompasses a large part of Honduran territory. Most of this territory belonged to Nicaragua until 1958, when Luis Somoza ceded it to Honduras, a decision ratified by the International Court at the Hague in 1960. The border is not part of Miskitu perception; they don’t recognize two separate countries.

Sambola: Each of these groups has special characteristics, but they have one important thing in common: they all belong to oppressed races. British colonialism and American exploitation robbed them of their identity. My ancestors were not allowed to speak Garífona, and they slowly lost their history and their roots along with their language. The coast peoples are races without identity. Their cultural framework was broken by the large companies that came to exploit the region, and that led the indigenous peoples to end up identifying themselves with their employers rather than with their own peoples. This is the drama: there has been no Nicaraguan national identity on the Atlantic Coast either, and the challenge is to develop such an identity. It’s a very slow process. Of all these races, the Miskitus are best known outside Nicaragua. Since 1980 the Miskitus have been an important concern for many people. Nothing is said about the mestizos, particularly the poor peasants. But the reality of the Atlantic Coast goes beyond the situation of the Miskitus and even their reality is more complicated than people think.

Ideologically, the coast belonged to the churches

envío: How has the Catholic Church developed in Zelaya, above all in the coastal strip?

Solano: In the immense under-populated parts of Zelaya, occupied by mestizo peasants, the Catholic Church traditionally worked through occasional missions in the relatively populated areas. Missionaries might visit once or twice a year. The Capuchin missionaries are the Church’s most important representatives in Zelaya and the Atlantic Coast.

The 1968 Latin American Bishop’s meeting at Medellín, Columbia, totally changed Zelaya’s pastoral structure. From that time on base communities began to develop. Above all, lay Church leadership was encouraged through the Delegates of the Word program. In 1969 Zelaya had only thirty-five priests. It was the Nicaraguan Church’s most ignored region. Today we are even fewer: between 20 and 25 priests and 18 nuns. But they lay structures created after Medellín are working well. There are now 1,700 Delegates of the Word in the department, the majority of them men. The role of peasant women has been most developed in Siuna, where some have become Delegates of the Word for their communities. There are 36 permanent deacons in Zelaya, both mestizos and Miskitus. We can say today 95% of Zelaya’s pastoral work (catechism, religious celebrations, administering of the sacraments, etc.) is done by lay leaders who emerged from the peasant communities.

envío: Does the Catholic Church in Zelaya have special characteristics that differentiate it from the Church in the Pacific region?

Solano: I think so. The massive participation of lay people is one factor. In the Pacific region there are no permanent deacons. These deacons are chosen by their communities. Their wives, parish priests and communities vouch for their work over a period of five years, and the bishop then ordains them. Another feature here is that, despite differences of opinion, greater unity has been maintained within the Church. This unity has been strengthened by the practice, established several years ago, of holding large meetings for dialogue and sharing among pastoral workers, priests and nuns in the region. There’s a clear desire for dialogue, a desire to deal with differences in a fraternal manner. This has been encouraged by the complex reality of the zone and by the personality of Bishop Schlaefer, who has been bishop of Bluefields since 1970.

Another special factor in Zelaya is ecumenism. Unlike the other parts of Nicaragua, in Zelaya the Catholic Church has worked alongside other churches: the Moravians, the Anglicans and the Baptists, though early on there was a competitive attitude between the churches. Since Vatican II there have been great efforts to change this attitude and develop more unity. There are now close relations, with dialogue, mutual respect, communication and no proselytizing. The Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches of Bluefields is a recent expression of this ecumenism. Thus despite all the racial and historical differences, there’s no religious rivalry on the coast, neither between Church leaders nor among the people.

Sambola: Before the revolution there were already two clear tendencies among the priests and nuns, and these were passed on to those with whom they worked, the Delegates of the Word. There was a more open tendency and a more conservative one. When I arrived at Waspam after having worked in Siuna—where there has been much renewal in the Church—I was surprised at the conservatism of the Church in Waspam. I came from a place where we had worked in communities, in popular organizations and with new lay ministries. But I found myself in Waspamin a Church reminiscent of the 16th-century Council of Trent.

These two tendencies led to two different responses by people to the resistance to the Somoza dictatorship and then to the changes brought on by the revolution. People’s current reactions to agricultural cooperatives, to the Miskitu resettlements and to so many other new things depend in large part upon which tendency has been present in their community.

envío: And what of the Moravian Church, the Atlantic Coast’s first Christian Church?

Sambola: The Catholic Church helped organize mestizo peasants in the 1960s, and even Miskitus, through the Río Coco Association of Farmer’s Clubs, probably the first Miskitu organization and the root of what was later to become Misurasata. But it is the Moravian Church that has been the only real basis of Miskitu nationhood. The Moravians arrived on the coast in 1849 and have always worked among Miskitus, with deacons and other forms of lay participation. The Moravian Church is an Protestant one, the “Unitas Fratrum” that the came from Germany to Nicaragua at the request of the British government, which then controlled the Miskitu area. Because of the Moravian evangelization, by the end of the 19th century all Miskitus identified themselves as Christians. At the beginning of this century, Sumus began to covert to the Moravian Church as well.

Thus, when the Catholic Church arrived on the coast, the Moravians already had a well- established pastoral structure. As the Miskitu people didn’t have their own national identity, the Moravian Church gave them such an identity through religion. Accordingly, it’s an ethnic religion, almost a national religion. This has given the Miskitu people a special ideological makeup. The Moravian Church is at the root of their identity as a people. Their history is in the Church. Even now, if one enters a Moravian church, one hears religious hymns brought over by the first European missionaries in the 19th century. The people’s mental structure finds security in repeating received tradition again and again. There is a fear of the new, and naturally also of the revolution. Medellín opened doors in the Catholic Church, but there has been no parallel renewal among the Moravians. So I would say that in Zelaya the Catholics are on average more open to the revolution are the Moravians, in general, more hesitant. The Anglican Church is a minority. It is centered in Bluefields and in the towns of Pearl Lagoon and around the mouth of the Río Grande de Matagalpa. The Baptist Church is also in Bluefields and Corn Island.

envío: Do religion and church institutions, whether Catholic or Moravian, have more influence on the coast than in the rest of Nicaragua?

Sambola:Economically, the coast bellowed to the big companies. Ideologically, it belonged to the churches. This is historical reality. And such a reality doesn’t change in a few years. Moreover for years the majority of Church representatives, whether hierarchy, missioners, priests, pastors or religious, have been foreigners, mostly Americans. This is true even today. The revolution’s anti-imperialist message is not as well received on the Atlantic Coast as on the Pacific. Many of the groups on the coast, especially the Miskitus, were 100% with the American companies. Why? Because they received not only work and wages from the companies, but also everything they wanted: salt, tools and many other exotic products they had never had before. Thus it was hard for them to understand the exploitative structures that lay behind the paternal image of these companies. They saw only the immediately visible aspects of the companies; they didn’t see how the wood and gold that left the coast made other people rich. They also had the experience that the missionaries and other foreigners, mostly Americans, had helped them, providing health care, education…

So the American domination of Nicaragua was experienced quite differently on the Atlantic Coast than in the Pacific region. Nor was Sandino understood, with his anti-imperialist struggle. This is a serious problem! Their only real historical roots are in religion, and the picture is further complicated by the fact that the Churches never questioned the companies or organized opposition against them. Further, they inculcated passivity over the years.

envío: Did the Catholic Church not develop certain programs of social formation?

Sambola: The Somoza dictatorship abandoned the coast to its own backwardness and to the greed of the American companies. The Church picked up whatever the Somoza government failed to do. Health care, education and agrarian organization should be the responsibilities of the state, but in Zelaya, these functions were basically undertaken by the Moravian and Catholic Churches, out of necessity and with a certain paternalistic attitude.

envío: What has the new government done with such Church projects?

Solano: In central Zelaya, for example, the Church launched an ambitious educational project in 1976. Since there were no schools in the mountains, pastoral workers trained rural teachers who would in turn teach in their own communities. Now education is one of the basic goals of the revolution; the Sandinista government recognized the project’s value and took it on, developing it further, providing more human and material resources than we ourselves could have provided. We continue to participate in the project. Some religious are fully involved, and their congregation receives funds for the work from the US. No religious, no Christian project, has been pushed aside.

In the health field, a welfare-type approach seemed to predominate. The Moravians ran a hospital in Bilwaskarma and the Catholics had one in Waspam. Health has been a point of conflict with the Miskitus. Several years ago, a health program was organized along the Río Coco, also with the support of Catholic community leaders. It was efficient, well structured and appreciated by the people. After the insurrection, this project was dismantled and another one established. The new one may have been better, but it was an error nevertheless.

The Miskitu communities were used to the old project and didn’t understand the change. Maybe those responsible thought the new project would be so much better that they didn’t consider the consequences of dismantling the old system. Maybe the religious who ran the former project were very protective of their “turf.” In any case, the Miskitus were upset. It is clear than there have been cases of enthusiastic government officials arriving on the coast and thinking they were starting from zero, without taking enough time to understand the previous history of things. In wanting to help the people, they many destroyed traditions that are important to the indigenous people. But problems are also caused at times because the Church doesn’t know how to let go of its projects. Health care and education should be public (not just denominational) concerns. Though the Somoza dictatorship didn’t assume these responsibilities, the new government does, and sometimes the Church doesn’t know how to adapt to its new role of participant or helper in government-run projects.

envío: Since you say the Churches were the ideological rulers of Zelaya and the Atlantic Coast, the revolutionary government must cooperate with them. Does this lead to manipulation? Many have accused the Nicaraguan government of using religious people for now but, later when it’s no longer necessary, they’ll be tossed aside. What has been your experience in this regard?

Solano: I personally see relations based upon sincerity, fraternity and a desire to cooperate so as to serve the people. This has been the pattern from the beginning. As many Christian values are also revolutionary values, there’s much that can be shared. We also have goals in common. But I think we have to ask what manipulation is. If there have been occasions in which the revolution has tried to manipulate the Church, there have also been occasions when the Church has tried to manipulate the revolution.

Sambola: I’ve had the same experience and found great sincerity in the majority of cases. I’ve often heard government officials say that if the Gospel were lived as Jesus taught, the revolution would be fulfilled. Their occasionally critical attitudes have encouraged us to purify our faith. This isn’t a hypocritical relationship, but one of collaboration that can help purify the Church. So I would answer the question in terms of purification rather than manipulation. There are also good relations with the Moravians. For example, the ongoing meetings between William Ramírez, the minister in charge of the zone, and the Moravian pastors who work with the Miskitus, have been important. William has been a brother to them. He’s a leader of much patience, the long-standing patience of the poor. He doesn’t try to change everything from one day to the next. For patience is needed on the coast, not just revolutionary enthusiasm.

Solano: The minister in charge in South Zelaya, Lumberto Campbell, has also been patient. He’s a black Creole. He shares the culture, the mentality and the life-style of the Creoles and understands how to work with his people. Thus errors and conflicts have been kept at a minimum. What remains then isn’t an ethnic or regional problem [vis-à-vis the Sandinista government on the Pacific Coast], but rather a local racial one. The blacks have a very visible participation in the new structures of revolutionary power. The aspirations of the black Creoles are being fulfilled. This isn’t true of the Miskitus.

The aspirations of the Miskitus are very modest

envío: How exactly would you define the “Miskitu problem”?

Sambola: It’s an historical problem. A social, cultural and economic problem. An ethnic problem. The counterrevolution has also turned it into a political and military problem.

At first the revolutionary government basically neither knew nor understood the Miskitu people. This isn’t so much an error as a limitation. The government thought: now we are all Nicaraguans, we’re all equal. And they wanted to establish the same organizational structures on the Atlantic Coast as on the Pacific. The Miskitus reacted. They didn’t understand the changes. Miskitu leaders such as Stedman Fagoth did understand the changes, but they took advantage of their leadership positions to encourage suspicion. There is where the Miskitu problem begins. In the last two years, many aspects of the problem have been overcome with the decentralization of government administration in the various regions of the country. Now, while goals are established at the national level, the specific means of applying those goals are worked out in Special Zone I (North Zelaya) itself. Regionalization has meant a qualitative leap forward in the resolution of the Miskitu problem. One must remember that the Miskitus don’t understand what the Guardia was, what Somocismo was, what the insurrection was, or what the revolution and the counterrevolution are. They have never been part of Nicaraguan national life. They have lived years upon years apart, used by the English, by the Americans, by Somoza. So the revolution comes to the Miskitus saying we’re all Nicaraguans and we’re equal and we’ll all participate together. The revolution could have said: We’ll leave this group alone, we don’t understand it. But to neglect a group in this way goes against the principles of the revolution. So the burden of the Miskitus had to be taken up. But it’s no easy matter to address the reality of such a special group, so different in its worldview…. And so this revolutionary commitment has had very serious consequences.

envío: What were the main mistakes made by the new government in its approach to the Miskitus?

Solano:Given the idiosyncrasies of the Miskitu worldview, certain concrete actions have taken on a highly symbolic and very negative meaning for the Miskitus. The military situation, the war in the border area of the Atlantic Coast can explain these errors, but… For example: some Miskitus have come to understand that it was necessary to move the villages along the Río Coco, and they can understand that the decision to evacuate the area saved many Miskitu lives. But they still ask why the evacuation came so suddenly and with such force. They understand the evacuation, but not its urgent and obligatory nature. For the Miskitus, movement itself is neither new nor bad. They are accustomed to moving. Throughout their history they have been a nomadic people. But with the sudden evacuation, houses were burned and cattle were killed. Three were reasons for doing this, to prevent the contras based in Honduras from using the houses or finding food in the evacuated area. This is understandable, but the negative symbol remains: the people saw their houses burned, they saw years of work destroyed in minutes. And they ask why there wasn’t time to save the zinc roofs. Some were allowed to, but most couldn’t return. For the people, the roofs symbolize wealth, and the same with the livestock. They still haven’t got cows in the new settlements. So the children don’t have milk and can’t have their cuajada [a milk product]. The fire that burned their homes, the destruction they themselves witnessed, the lack of milk for their children… these are powerful symbols that touch life itself. The Miskitus can’t understand all of this.

envío: Wasn’t there enough time to explain the reasons for the evacuation?

Sambola: I was in the zone at the time. No there really wasn’t time. The choice was between evacuating them or letting them die there. At that time the attacks were already very intense and the Miskitu people in those areas were sandwiched between the Somocistas and the Nicaraguan army. I figure that, given the way Miskitus are, it would have taken a year or two to convince them of the need for the move. And there really wasn’t that kind of time at all.

Solano:Military considerations also explain other problems with a high symbolic content. The Miskitus were not allowed to travel by river in their pipantes, their home-made canoes. For the Miskitus, traveling by river in their canoes is a vital part of life. It’s as if we were forbidden to walk on our two legs. The river is part of their life, as is fishing and traveling by river. The ban meant to keep contras from using some Miskitus to transport arms or food by river. I wonder if it might not have been better to accept that some of them would do this, because I think the widespread opposition to the ban is worse. Another measure with symbolic importance has been the occupation of chapels and churches. Occasionally, the military situation led the Nicaraguan army to base itself in Catholic and Moravian chapels. In the communities these are the largest and safest buildings, built with cement. Their usefulness is easy to understand. But the Miskitus are super religious in the sense of natural religion, and for them sacred things are untouchable. To find uniformed and armed people inside these sacred places is a tremendous shock. They see the occupation and don’t reflect on the reasons why. This has caused discontent and destroyed trust.

envío: What has the revolution given the Miskitus?

Sambola: The most important thing has been a feeling of identity as a people. Ten thousand Miskitus were born, along with the revolution. By this I mean, for example, they began to speak their own language. Many people used to avoid speaking Miskitu because they felt ashamed. Those who spoke Spanish enjoyed a higher social status, while those who spoke Miskitu were automatically at the bottom. Thousands of Miskitus were afraid to speak in their own tongue outside their community lest they be taken for thieves or sorcerers. And now they speak Miskitu with pride in their race. Miskitu is openly spoken on the buses now, and in Managua one can hear Miskitus speaking their own language when they meet, even if strangers are present. This is the most important thing: dignity. On the basis of this dignity, a Miskitu identity is being born. The revolution removed obstacles to this and so it developed. First came dignity, through the use of language, and then organization. This is where the counterrevolution entered the picture, taking advantage of the political space that the revolution was opening up.

With the triumph in 1979 a space was created so that certain community organizations that already existed could flourish. Stedman Fagoth and others took advantage of this situation and took the structures in another direction. For example Misurasata, under Fagoth’s direction, was responsible for the literacy campaign in the area. Many people learned to read, but we believe that even during the campaign seeds of distrust toward the revolution were already being planted among the Miskitus. The fact that Fagoth was able to direct everything is a sign of how the revolution works. The fact that he had been a security agent under Somoza was known, but nevertheless he was given this great responsibility. I don’t think this was owing to either naiveté or revolutionary euphoria, but rather that it is a principle of this revolution that everyone can participate . The revolution has faith in people and, because of this, people are given opportunities. The Miskitus have also been given opportunities through health care, education, new roads and cooperatives. But remember that for the Miskitus owning something isn’t important. Miskitu aspirations are very modest, unlike those of the mestizo peasants, who do want to own land. The Miskitus don’t want to own anything; they only want to live as they please, to have freedom of movement. In the mountains of Siuna, I’ve seen peasants cut up to 17 acres of hillside a year for wood. The Miskitus cut only what is absolutely necessary. Their goal is simply to live, while the goal of the peasant is to have. The challenge of this revolution is to join living and having in order to learn how to share.

Sandino and the Atlantic Coast

Augusto Cesar Sandino, in an interview with José Roman in March 1933 in the Río Coco cooperatives, at the end of the war against the US Marines, said the following: “There are thousands upon thousands of Sumus, Zambos, Miskitus and Caribs living along the Atlantic Coast and along the coastal rivers. Of course there is no official census, but with the help of Colonel Rivera I have arrived at an estimate of over 100,000 people. During my war I have had to come here and become aware of our reality, because this too is part of Nicaragua. And I made the firm resolution that as soon as the war of independence is over, instead of accepting pleasant invitations to go to Paris, Buenos Aires or Mexico, where I would only be on display like a movie star, tango singer, politician or showcase ambassador, I would live here along Río Coco, the most savage and most beautiful part of our country. To liberate it from the barbarism to which it is subjected, first by feudal colonial exploitation and now by capitalism. Would that I could make at least a good start in this direction, so that future generations and governments could deal with the problem, which is fundamental for the economic and moral development of Nicaragua. To do everything possible to improve the lives of these poor Indians who are the marrow of our race. This virginal region makes up over half of Nicaragua’s national territory and only by developing it can Nicaragua earn dignity and respect as a country”.

A people used to war

envío: There are many Miskitus among the Somocistas and counterrevolutionary mercenaries of the FDN. How do you explain that phenomenon?

Sambola: Various factors have allowed sympathy for the counterrevolution to become almost a part of the Miskitu identity. There are great limitations on the part of the revolution in dealing with the Miskitu question, certain errors on the part of the government and, above all, manipulation by the US government, working through leaders such as Fagoth. After the evacuation from the Río Coco to Tasba Pri, 10,000 Miskitus left for Honduras. One cannot interpret this simplistically as their fleeing from “repressive Nicaragua” to “free Honduras.” There is a historical reality behind the flight of the Miskitus. The Miskitus have never recognized the border. They have always crossed the border in both directions looking for an easier situation. Why did they go? There are problems here? Let’s go where there aren’t any. When they heard there was going to be an evacuation they crossed the river, and they are still over there. A Miskitu who goes from Nicaragua to Honduras is not strictly a refugee. The Miskitu region covers parts of both countries. But once there, many were recruited in the contra camps prepared beforehand by the Somocistas.

envío: How many?
Solano: It’s hard to know. Nicaraguan authorities estimate that there are 5,000 Miskitus who have taken up arms and are now operating in either Honduras or Nicaragua. No doubt there are camps where they are being well trained militarily and well armed. And we know that the US government, via the government of Honduras, is supporting this war which is mainly counterrevolutionary, but also Miskitu in nature.

envío: What leads the Miskitus to get involved in the counterrevolutionary war? What do they hope to gain?

Solano: The Miskitus’ only aspiration is to return to their lands. Throughout their individual and communal history, they have gone up and down the rivers, fishing, doing as they wished. This is what they long for and is what they’re fighting for. Radio Miskut incites them to fight with its propaganda, telling them that in this way they’ll be able to return to their rivers. This is the heart of their lives. They don’t want money; they don’t want to be rich. They only want to do what they did before. The radio station also makes use of religious motivations and biblical themes: the history of the exodus, of the exile. This affects them greatly because they are a religious people.

Miskitu attacks in alliance with English pirates

The name of the Miskitus is linked with war. Trading with English pirates, the Miskitus acquired muskets. The work “musket” is presumed to be the root of the name the English gave to these people. The Miskitu dominated the Sumus and Ramas militarily, and their commercial links with the English evolved into a military alliance against the Spanish, whom the Miskitus saw as enemies. The following are the main attacks in which the Miskitus participated during the 17th and 18th centuries:

1617: Attack on Teotecacinte
1643: Sacking of Matagalpa
1654: Sacking of Nueva Segovia
1707: Incursions into Rivas
1709: Attack on Río San Juan
1710: Incursion into Chontales
1743: Attack on Jinotega
1749: Attack on Boaco and Camoapa
1774: Attack on Lóvago
1782: Attack on Juigalpa

envío: Would they see this as a “holy war”?
Sambola: To a certain point, but they see it more as an ethnic war. All of the counterrevolutionary arguments focus on the ethnic question, because the Miskitus don’t see beyond their own territory. Their river, their canoe, their land… God is calling them to recover this. This is the argument that’s being used. And they are being promised that victory is near, almost immediate.

Solano: One should add that the Miskitu culture is accustomed to war. English pirates used the Miskitus as mercenaries in their attacks on the Spanish cities of the Pacific coast. A historical tradition makes them “men of war.” The counterrevolution plays upon this tradition, for example by using the names of Miskitu warriors of the past. This historical reality is used to express their nationhood, their race. Such arguments work to mobilize the Miskitus.

The open veins of the Atlantic Coast

envío: While the Miskitus struggle to return to the rivers of their ancestors, Miskitu leaders outside Nicaragua are talking of “independence” for the Atlantic Coast and an autonomous Miskitu nation. What do you think of this proposal?

Solano: It is an idea which lies totally outside the historical context of the coast and of Zelaya. This zones lacks the resources to maintain itself as and independent nation. It lacks the basic products, the means of production, and the human resources. With what’s here no nation can be created. To put it simply, to exist as a nominally independent nation, the Miskitus would have to become totally independent on the American empire. Dependence upon the government in Managua would be exchanged for dependence on the government in Washington. The Coast would return to what it was before, to what it has always been…

envío: And when was the coast and the department of Zelaya in the hands, first of the British empire and then the Americans?

Solano: Zelaya became a totally dependent region and then was abandoned as a disaster area. Its wood, bananas and gold were exploited. It appeared to be a prosperous region with happy people, but this was an illusion. The people were taught to consume only foreign products, and nothing remained in the region. When the possibilities of further exploitation were exhausted, the companies took off and left even greater dependence behind. Guadalupe along the Rama river, Muelle Real along the Sikia river, la Cruz del Rio Grande, la Barra del rio Grande: these are all ghost towns now. Whatever concern the US government now claims to have for the welfare of the coast isn’t sincere: they just see the coast as a way of dividing Nicaragua. And they continue to think as they always have, about an alternative canal through Central America, should problems arise in Panama because of the new treaties. In addition, they can control the Caribbean from the Atlantic Coast. So the US government isn’t concerned about the rights of the Miskitus, it’s looking after its own interests.

Sambola: What did the US companies leave on the Coast? Hundreds of Miskitus exploited in the mines, victimized with diseased lungs, thousands of acres of land without trees, old machinery, not even a good airport for access to the mines. And they also left behind a chronically ill population. The saddest thing is that thousands of Miskitus don’t know that their lungs were wasted in making other people rich and that their gold was used to develop another country. So this is what the US presence bequeathed the revolution on the Atlantic Coast. How can the counterrevolution be concerned for the well-being of the Miskitus, when those who really control the counterrevolution have never cared about them?

The Bishop Schlaefer case: An American plot

envío: It’s important to know your opinions concerning the case of Bishop Schlaefer. You both know him well, you know the region and you know the Miskitus. In Nicaragua there was talk of a kidnapping of the community of the Francia Sirpi, and several Miskitus who fled declared that the bishop had been forced to leave with the contras. But then he gave a press conference in Tegucigalpa saying he had left the community voluntarily.

Solano: One must define the word “kidnap” carefully. To kidnap is to take someone where they don’t want to go, using physical or psychological force, or intimidation. It’s absolutely certain that there were Miskitus in Francia Sirpi who didn’t want to leave, but in the end, everyone left. Why? Because of their relatives in Honduras, but also because of fear and confusion, threats that were made against the community before the initial volleys fired over the community to scare it, the fact that the road to Puerto Cabezas had been mined. All these factors need to be taken into account when speaking of “kidnapping.” People can think they’re free, and not be aware of the pressures that are at work on them.

envío: And the Bishop? Did he go freely, or was he forced?

Solano: The circumstances I just mentioned make it hard to believe be went totally freely. We have to dismiss the possibility that this is a case of people leaving in search of freedom. In no way was that the case. It seems symbolically important that Schlaefer did not walk at the head of the group, leading them towards freedom. Rather, he was the last to leave the community, and followed the group. He wasn’t leading an exodus but identifying himself with the feelings of those who wished to leave. Obviously some did want to go.

The Miskitu community in Francia Sirpi

For reasons ranging from the Second World War to a banana blight, American banana companies pulled out of Nicaragua, the last one leaving in 1960. There then began a massive and indiscriminate exploitation of the northeast coastal pine forests. The lumber companies, with the consent of the Somoza government, occupied communal Miskitu lands and even forbade the Miskitus to use wood for their houses. Towards the end of the 1960s, the Miskitu settlement of Tasba Raya was created as part of a northern project sponsored by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Between four and five thousand Miskitus were moved from their small communities scattered throughout the plains because they were getting in the way of the forestry work. They were relocated in five new communities: Santa Clara, Wisconsin, la Esperanza, Tasba Pine, and Francia Sirpi—or “Little France,” so named because of French aid to the project. Francia Sirpi was founded in 1968, the first of these communities along the lower Río Coco. By December 1983, it had 1,200 inhabitants.

In 1981, at the time of the events surrounding the so-called “Red Christmas,” which later led to the evacuation of Miskitus from the Río Coco to Tasba Pri, many Miskitus from the five Tasba Raya communities were among the estimated 10,000 Miskitus who left for Honduras. Families began to be separated. This led Miskitus in Nicaragua to begin to sympathize and collaborate with the contra groups based in Honduras, as these groups attracted many of their relatives who had left Nicaragua.

In 1982 and 1983, all of the Tasba Raya communities except Francia Sirpi were taken by the contras to Honduras. Some left because of family links, others were coerced. After the kidnappings in La Esperanza, those who had not left for Honduras were resettled in Francia Sirpi.

Since that time, a “kidnapping” in Francia Sirpi had to be expected. Such a kidnapping always begins with contacts, messages or incursions into the community to convince the people they should leave. Though military authorities were expecting such an occurrence there was no military defense in the community. Francia Sirpi is flanked by dense clusters of mountains that run from the coast to the highlands of Jinotega. Since the contras mined the road to Puero Cabezas and destroyed the bridges, the community’s departure could lead only in one direction: to the Honduran border.

envío:The Nicaraguan government issued a communiqué on the “unconfirmed” death of the bishop. Why do you think this was done?

Solano: Daniel Ortega explained this very clearly and I think his version is acceptable. The announcement was necessary to prevent whatever might happen. For it had become clear, early on in the event, that the US government was carrying out a plot against Nicaragua. There were reports—and we received such information in Puerto Cabezas—saying that the bishop might have been killed. It was always unconfirmed, but it had to be taken into account. Certainly the Miskitu mentality would never ever have considered killing the Bishop. But given that the US government was involved—a government that has never put any ethical limits on the criminal acts it might do—such a murder was a real possibility. It quickly became evident that the US was pursuing a very well prepared plan at the level of the mass media… they were saying that the Sandinistas were bombing the fleeing Miskitus and around world people heard and believed these lies. If they were later to have killed the bishop, or if he had died during the journey, everyone would have believed that the Sandinistas had killed him. So it was necessary to anticipate and prevent this possibility.

envío:You spoke of an “American plot,” using the attack on Francia Sirpi and the department of the Miskitus as the basis of a major American propaganda initiative. Do you think this was the case?

Solano: Yes, I do. The role of the US in the counterrevolution and in exacerbating the Miskitu problem has been known for a long time. It’s even clearer in this case. No one who has seen or heard the facts could doubt it, for it sheds new light on how the US is actively and directly involved.

Sambola:We could hardly have more proof. The kidnapping was the last blow. As the Nicaraguans say: “More loudly the cock cannot crow.” It was all pretty clear thanks to the information we Capuchins had received from US government officials (when the details were still not publicly known), Fagoth’s declarations and the earliest international reports. The State Department was directing everything. They had all their actors in place: Ambassador Quainton here in Managua, Stedman Fagoth and Ambassador Negroponte in Honduras, Mrs. Kirkpatrick in Washington… These people all knew very early on what had “happened” and they knew much more: what was going to happen. Everything was being run by them.

envío: And the bishop? Did he know it was a plot?

Solano: All the evidence suggests to me that he didn’t know he was going to be used. He happened to be in Francia Sirpi, but from the first moment he was being used. For a plot like this the figure of the bBishop was very important.

envío:Besides damaging the revolution in the very sensitive areas of religion and the Miskitus, was the US government pursuing some more concrete objective in this plot?

Solano: It seems to have been designed to frustrate the reconciliation and repatriation of the Miskitus, which the recent decree of December 4th was making possible. The CIA planned it for that reason. The ironic point is that Bishop Schlaefer is the only bishop in Nicaragua who fought for this decree. I believe that if he had known that his actions would create an obstacle to repatriation be wouldn’t have acted the same way. He didn’t foresee the plot. Others planned it and he was a key piece in the game. The reunification of the Miskitu people was a deep desire of his. He reacted positively to both the December 1st decree giving the Miskitus total amnesty and the December 4th decree facilitating their repatriation. I recall that a few days after these decrees were issued he called for other Miskitus who were still imprisoned in Bluefields to be set free. They were all released on December 21, while he was heading to Honduras. Maybe he didn’t know this had been achieved.

Sambola: I also think this American scheme was aimed at preventing Miskitu reunification. The repatriation decree was a great opportunity, and we saw that many Miskitus were going to return from both Honduras and Costa Rica. But the case of the bishop might reduce this possibility quite a bit. The plot seems to have been well designed to attain this objective.

envío: How do you understand Bishop Schlaefer’s statements in Honduras, where he said he left freely? He didn’t mention counterrevolutionary violence.

Sambola: In Honduras Bishop Schlaefer had the opportunity to define his position. It was the crucial moment to either fan the flames or put them out. Perhaps he didn’t feel free in Tegucigalpa, perhaps he was pressured. But a bishop has nothing to lose, neither children nor property. The only thing he has to do is be an example to the world. In a way, what was at stake was the life not only of the Miskitu people, but of Nicaragua and all Central America. And he didn’t say anything about this. It’s sad, very sad.

Solano: I would point out an important aspect for understanding his position. The bishop has become so identified with the Miskitu people that this limits his sense of the national and broader aspects of the problem. Out of my own experience I can say that to meet a group of Miskitus and listen to them describe their reality as they experience it is very moving. Bishop Schlaefer is very sensitive to people’s personal problems and much affected by what he hears.

Sambola: But compassion for the Miskitus shouldn’t overwhelm a broader perspective. We have to have compassion for the Miskitus in Nicaragua and Honduras, for all the peoples on the Atlantic Coast, and also for the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. The figure and the words of a bishop have an important impact at the international level, as everyone knows. I don’t believe that Bishop Schlaefer is politically naïve. He reads a lot. His words have an impact; no one can ignore the fact. And because of this impact, he should see beyond his personal feelings. When I speak publicly, as I’m doing now, I know that this will have consequences and effects. He knows it too. We expected a little more from him. All of Nicaragua followed his case with concern, with hope, and there was great solidarity for him among all the people. We were hoping that he would return to Nicaragua, before going to the US, to express his thanks for all that solidarity, to support the people who showed such concern for him, to say: You were with me, and now I am with you… but he didn’t do it. That’s very sad. I’m afraid the counterrevolution has gained some ground on this occasion.

envío: In his statements the bishop mentioned the “Miskitu army” and said they were his friends. It’s the first time the counterrevolutionary forces have been referred to this way. What do you think?

Sambola: The expression clearly suggests the manipulation by the CIA in this event. It’s clear that the more they can create an image of a Miskitu people that has risen up and has “its own” army, the greater the possibility of an invasion in which other armies come to support this indigenous army.

Solano: In his statements in Honduras the bishop sought to protect certain personal and institutional interests that would allow him to maintain his identification with the Miskitus as an indigenous people. There are contradictory elements in his present position. Whenever someone has insinuated that he was taking a counterrevolutionary position, the bishop has reacted strongly and denied it. He has insisted vigorously that war should never he the way of resolving problems. In principle he doesn’t approve of the counterrevolution, but in concrete terms it seems to me that he sometimes adopts opinions, perhaps mistaken ones, that can lead others to follow paths opposed to the revolution.

envío: In his Tegucigalpa press conference Bishop Schlaefer once again referred to the three occasions when he had trouble entering his diocese and there was talk of a pattern of difficulties with the revolutionary government. Is this true?

Solano: There have been small incidents that can’t really be called conflicts. On one occasion he had a problem with the Ministry of Immigration because he was coming back from the US and hadn’t renewed his residency visa before leaving for the coast. That is, he was technically in the country illegally so he was told to go to Managua to get his papers in order. I don’t remember the other two times he talks about, though he never forgets them. Nor does he forget when they searched his house during the evacuation of Waspam. Perhaps the search wasn’t conducted with sufficient maturity, given that a bishop was involved, but one could say it was necessary, as they were moving everything to Puerto Cabezas and had to know what was going on there.

Sambola: The authorities have made various mistakes, but Bishop Schlaefer has better and closer relations with the authorities than does any other bishop. What sometimes happens is that he has known some of the officials since they were in school and he continues to see them as kids. So I think there has to be understanding and mutual respect not only for the individual but for the position he holds, both on his part and on the part of the civil authorities. Really, the mistakes that have been made are relatively insignificant.

envío: The issue of human rights is always connected to the Miskitu people. Bishop Schlaefer referred to the defense of these rights as his main task in the region. Recently, an American geographer, Bernard Nietschmann, who has worked with the Miskitus before and after the revolution, published a report denouncing serious violations of the rights of the Miskitus by the revolutionary government. This report has been presented to various international institutions. What do you think of it?

Solano:Some parts of the report are simply lies; other parts are greatly exaggerated; others somewhat exaggerated, and there are some accusations that are true. I think about 15% of the report is accurate. I would also say that Nietschmann has been used by the counterrevolution. His case might be some what like that of the bishop: an emotional identification with the Miskitus that leads him to accept everything he hears as truth, without judging carefully and putting things in perspective. He has let himself be manipulated. This shows that he’s not so competent professionally speaking. It also shows clearly that he has never been able to understand the Miskitu mentality. The Miskitus, perhaps more than other peoples, make reality something relative and accommodate it—spontaneously and in good faith—to their own opinions or to the opinions of those with whom they are talking. If Nietschmann, as a professional, hasn’t been able to grasp this, it’s because he hasn’t become familiar enough with the indigenous mentality.

Smaller than a four-year-old child

envío: To conclude, what do you think is the greatest challenge the Miskitu people present to the revolution?

Sambola: One of the main challenges is to seek greater participation of the Miskitus and other coastal peoples in the overall development of the area and the country. This involves moving slowly, at the grassroots level. That’s where we are. I think a great help has been the fact that some Miskitus can go to study in the Pacific region and in other countries. This helps expand their viewpoint, so they see reality differently when they return, and can go beyond a merely local perspective. This isn’t a matter of insolated cases, but of an entire project. This will help encourage participation.

Solano: An important goal is to train officials in all areas so that administrative dependence on the Pacific can be overcome. The participation of coast inhabitants is almost 100% in local governments; the same in education. But not in health. The only health care workers from the region are auxiliary nurses and a few doctors. The judges are also “imported” and this is a sensitive area because, as a judge, one should be immersed in the mentality of the people. Most military officials are also “imported.”

Church leaders are also from outside the region. Not lay leaders, they are almost all locals. I would like to point out that the dynamic of participation is very important and that the government’s behavior is not paternalistic. It seeks to respond to the people’s own participation, further it and strengthen it. This aspect of initiative, participation and ongoing, deepening awareness is critical. I know that all of this is easier in times of peace. Clearly the war has slowed the development on the coast…

Sambola: Everything was already difficult there. With the war, it’s even more so. On the coast everything remains to be done. Even to have a key made in Bluefields, one has to go to Managua. And Bluefields is the most developed place on the coast. There are many great challenges. If the revolution in the Pacific region is a “four-year-old child,” on the Atlantic Coast it’s a child that has yet to be born. But together we will help it be born.

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The Miskitu Question in Nicaragua

A Divided People A Manipulated Banner?

The Miskitus and the Atlantic Coast


A Policy of Genocide?

Concerning the Schlaefer Case
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