From Thu Jan 4 13:55:27 2001
Date: Wed, 3 Jan 2001 23:12:38 -0600 (CST)
Organization: The Soylent Green Party
From: Clore Daniel C <>
Subject: [smygo] The Autonomy Tale (Nicaragua)
Article: 112313
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The Autonomy Tale

By Mark Pitsche and Robert Ritzenthaler, Resource Center of the Americas [3 January 2001]

On Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, ethnic minorities voted for peace a decade ago, believing they had won control of their natural resources. They know better now.

BLUEFIELDS, NICARAGUA (Resource Center of the Americas)—Clutching a mahogany cane in one hand and adjusting his straw hat with the other, Bruce Hodgson hobbles through Cotton Tree, a Creole neighborhood in this Atlantic coast city of 60,000 people. Hodgson, 40, has lived with trench foot since his days commanding a unit of U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary guerrillas.

He's bitter about the 10 years since war-weary Nicaraguan voters, including a majority here on the coast, ousted the Sandinista National Liberation Front. He and other contras, as the guerrillas were known, can take credit for destabilizing the socialist government before the 1990 election, but the last decade suggests their fight may have been in vain.

Thousands fought and struggled hard, and can't find jobs, he says, passing a row of one-story cinderblock homes. Sometimes we eat once a day. The government promised a lot—a house, a farm—but we get nothing. Now you have to find a way to survive.

Here and elsewhere along the Atlantic, where the country's Creole and indigenous populations are concentrated, hardship persists as national and foreign companies exploit the area's forests, minerals and sea life. The government wants, as long as possible, to maintain the Atlantic coast as a colony in which everyone but us benefits from our resources, says Hugo Sujo, director of the Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

The ethnic minorities have tried to improve their lot through the political process, only to realize the coast's regional governments fall short of their autonomous billing. I fought for a democracy, Hodgson says. Since I left the jungle, no one looks to give me help. No one looks to give me a dime.

Frustrated, some of Hodgson's old comrades and a growing number of indigenous people along the Atlantic coast are taking up arms, heading back to the jungle and preparing for another fight.


Since the end of Nicaragua's revolutionary experiment, U.S.-led lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have stepped in with credit tied to structural-adjustment programs, prying open the economy for transnational corporations (see Fool's Gold, April). The agencies have found willing partners in Violeta Chamorro, elected president in 1990, and her successor, Arnoldo Alemàn, elected in 1996.

Privatization, part of the economic shock therapy, is hitting the Atlantic coast hard. In the city of Puerto Cabezas, the Alemàn administration is trying to lease out the public wharf, which locals use for fishing, docking boats and selling goods.

Despite indigenous land rights guaranteed by an autonomy law and Nicaragua's constitution, the government sold islands near Pearl Lagoon, north of Bluefields, to Texas-based businessman Peter Tsokos. The islands had long been considered indigenous property.

Another sort of privatization is threatening the tiny community of Monkey Point, 30 miles south of Bluefields. The government is proposing a railway known as a dry canal that would stretch from Monkey Point to the Pacific. The $1.3 billion project would cut through the heart of land on which indigenous Rama people have hunted, fished and farmed for centuries. The area is one of the last places where they speak their own language.

For years, without consulting the Rama or their Creole neighbors, the Alemàn administration has been negotiating with a consortium of European and Asian companies to finance and build the railway. So far, no deals have been cut.

The companies say they're going to buy the land, but all the land south of Bluefields is communal, says Pearl Marie Watson, a Monkey Point community leader. We, the black people, have 180 years on Monkey Point, and the Rama people have been there forever. They tell us we have no rights to this land because we have no papers. I tell them that we are the living documents.

The government, meanwhile, is mapping indigenous territory along the coast. Gilberto Rodrìguez, who oversees land reform in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, says the purpose is to issue titles. But many indigenous folks say the government is planning to force them out and sell parcels to the highest bidders.

The Rama already face claims for their territory that date back to when President José Santos Zelaya issued specious land titles a century ago in a failed attempt to build a railway that would have competed with the Panama Canal. With Alemàn proposing a similar project, some residents have dusted off the old papers, and government-appointed judges have upheld their legality.

Bluefields attorney Marìa Luisa Acosta has filed suit against Alemàn, saying his railway negotiations violate the constitution. The struggle for indigenous lands is not new. They've been trying to protect their land forever, says Acosta, whose case has reached the nation's supreme court. But now it's crucial because we're using our own laws, our own constitution, to protect indigenous lands.

The railway plan comes amid rapid migration toward the Atlantic. Unlike the Rama, who cultivate subsistence plots in harmony with the forest, the new arrivals tend to slash and burn. They farm or let their cattle graze and, within a few years, move on. Since 1990, the expanding agriculture frontier has consumed roughly half of Rama territory.

Some Monkey Point residents link the railway to a lack of public services in the area, saying the government is trying to make life miserable so they leave. The town got its first school two years ago, but the one-room cinderblock building still has no teacher.

The government constructed a health center four years ago, but didn't assign anyone to staff it until this March. I had to beg them for three years, says Watson, the community leader. Then I asked them what (equipment and supplies) I was going to have there and they told me, ‘Nothing.’ I have to use my hands.

The government attitude toward the Atlantic coast seems to have Washington's approval. Last year U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger praised the Alemàn administration for addressing the basic needs of the people—education, health care, rule of law.


Under Nicaragua's U.S.-led economic transformation, unemployment has soared to more than 50 percent, according to most credible estimates. The problem is especially intense on the Atlantic coast, where poverty persists despite abundant natural resources, including a wide array of harvestable sea creatures, large deposits of gold and silver, and lush forests of pine, rosewood and mahogany. We are living in the richest region in Nicaragua, notes Sujo, the foundation director. But the people are poor.

The primary industry here has long been fishing. Local independent fishers still account for about 60 percent of the region's catch. But transnational operations, encouraged by the Alemàn administration, have been making inroads. The foreign fleets routinely enter a three-mile zone that national law reserves for the locals. The big companies also use long lines that scoop up immature fish, and they often ignore the veda, a hands-off season the government set up to allow species to regenerate after heavy fishing.

Julian Sambola, vice president of the Federation of Artisan Fishermen, says his organization's requests for enforcement of the three-mile zone and the veda have been futile. We have been crying, we have been begging, he says.

The government has assigned only two officials to handle the south Atlantic region's entire fishing industry. One of them, inspector Ernesto Moraga Cruz, says the Alemàn administration assigns fishing licenses without consulting him or regional leaders. He says he lacks a budget for inspecting fleets or enforcing the three-mile zone. We need more personnel to protect and guard the resources, he says. We don't have the required conditions to do a complete job.

Randolph Hodgson, the region's governor, notes that local people receive few benefits from the foreign operations. Practically every year you have between $60 million and $100 million exported in seafood such as lobster, yellowtail and shrimp, he says. What stays here are a few jobs at a very low salary.

The story is similar in the forestry and mining industries. It's all in the hands of national and foreign investors, Hodgson says. There's no agreement with the national government that the benefits stay on the Atlantic coast.


Last year President Clinton commended the Nicaraguan government for its commitment to democracy. To many people on the Atlantic coast, such praise rings hollow.

The only Bluefields newspaper, a monthly called the Sunrise, went out of business in 1997 after intruders ruined its printing press.

In a more subtle effort to silence dissent, the Alemàn government is pushing legislation requiring all newspapers to pay their journalists $500 per month, a lavish salary by Nicaraguan standards. Small and medium-sized media outlets, especially along the Atlantic, could not dream of complying with the measure, and new publications could never get off the ground, even where there's no competition, as in Bluefields.

The Sandinistas, once a fierce opposition, agreed last year to share power with Alemàn's Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). The National Assembly amended the constitution this January, consolidating the power of the two parties.

James Webster, a Bluefields business owner who ran for vice president in 1996, says his Democratic Action Party may disintegrate under a new law requiring parties to obtain 70,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Signatories must have a national ID card. The only people with identification, he adds, are aligned with the PLC and the (Sandinistas).

Many folks here are questioning whether Nicaragua's political system is truly democratic. It's a far more dangerous form of government than a totalitarian system, says Rayfield Hodgson, a minister who served as Bluefields mayor during the Sandinista era and as regional governor in the mid-1990s. (The Hodgson name, shared by others cited in this report, is common among Creoles due to the expansive holdings of a British colonial family.)

You hurt the people and still can (claim to the rest of the world) that you're doing good, he says. If I was a country supporting Nicaragua, it would be very difficult for me not to say something.

We started having trouble in 1998 after the PLC took the country nationally, he adds. Then came this corruption in which everyone tries to take a shortcut to wealth. Now, if you talk to the people on the street, there's this general hopelessness again, this sense of deception and betrayal. People feel like they're not really participating in this country.


Back in Cotton Tree, Hodgson, the veteran, pauses in front of a rickety wooden home and leans on his cane. He recalls a day last year when some of his former comrades tried to recruit him to return to the jungle and take up arms.

He turned them down, he says. We can fight, but not with weapons.

Up and down the coast, armed struggle is a hot topic. One Miskito leader claims that 5,000 coastal people have rearmed. Elsewhere in Nicaragua, former contras and Sandinistas are rearming (though in some instances they appear more interested in banditry than politics).

Camilo Turcios, the commander of a group of rearmed Sandinista soldiers called the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC), perished in a hail of bullets on the road to the central Nicaragua town of Boaco on March 16. His predecessor, known as Tito Fuentes, was assassinated last year.

Many Nicaraguans suspect that the Alemàn administration was behind the killings. It's obvious that the policy of this government is to get rid of all the leaders that disagree with their policies, says Brooklyn Rivera, a leader of Yatama, a Miskito group with political and military wings. As social leaders, we feel unsafe in this country.

A Miskito group called Swara is mobilizing in the jungle north of Puerto Cabezas. Comandante Fuego, as one of the group's nine military leaders is known, says the government has failed to comply with promises that convinced Miskitos to disarm in the early 1990s. He says his group is preparing to defend Miskito land and natural resources.

We have been violated, marginalized and oppressed for years, says Fuego, his right shoulder carrying a battered AK-47. We are ready to give our lives and our blood for our rights. And if they kill me, I have six sons ready to go into the mountains and fight the government.

From Pirates to the IMF, Foreign Powers Vie for Control

The Nicaragua most familiar to Minnesotans is a land of volcanoes, lakes, arid mountains and cities such as León and the capital, Managua. That's the Pacific side, home to about 90 percent of the country's 4.7 million inhabitants. The population there consists mainly of mestizos—people with both Spanish and indigenous ancestry. The dominant religion is Catholicism. The language is Spanish.

But there's another Nicaragua on the Atlantic coast, where a vast network of rivers and streams cuts through low-lying tropical forests, and where the population is multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual. English-speaking African descendants known as Creoles mix with Miskito, Rama and Sumu indigenous peoples and, increasingly, with mestizos. Most people live in small communities near inland rivers or lagoons. And national law deems their regional governments autonomous from Managua.

The southern port of Bluefields, the coast's second-largest city, owes its name to Abraham Blauveldt, a 17th-century Dutch pirate in the area. Back then, the Atlantic was a battleground for a half-dozen European powers. While the Spaniards conquered western Nicaragua, the English laid claim to the east. London crowned an indigenous monarch; the Miskito kingdom included a surrogate military that protected plantations.

The British shipped in Africans to work as slaves, giving rise to the coast's Creole population. In 1841, when London outlawed slavery here, Bluefields attracted people from elsewhere in the Caribbean. They included Garìfunas (an Afro-indigenous people) and former U.S. slaves.

The Creoles replaced the British as the coast's most powerful merchants and civic leaders. After Moravian missionaries began arriving in 1849 from Germany and, later, from the United States, many Creoles began practicing this Protestant faith, further distinguishing the region from the Pacific. The church in many ways served as the Bluefields government, setting up schools and providing health care.

In the 1880s, U.S. businesses interested in bananas, minerals and timber established themselves along the coast. They employed mestizos, who came from western Nicaragua, and Miskitos, who relinquished their subsistence lifestyle. The jobs also attracted African descendents from the Caribbean and the United States.

In 1894, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya sent his military to take over the Miskito kingdom. From Managua, the base of mestizo power, Zelaya then sent in legions of Spanish speakers and ordered all schools to use the language. Many Moravian schools and others lacking Spanish-speaking teachers had to close. Creoles and indigenous peoples viewed Nicaragua's unification as the latest manifestation of colonialism.

After a series of U.S. invasions, Anastasio Somoza Garìa took power in 1936. The Somoza family, backed by Washington, ruled for more than four decades. Under the dictatorship, U.S. businesses exploited workers and resources on the Atlantic coast with little interference from Managua.

The 1979 Sandinista Revolution ousted the Somozas and ended most of the transnational exploitation. But land reform and nationalization efforts soon ran afoul of some Atlantic coast indigenous peoples. Miskitos took up arms in 1981 and demanded independence.

The Miskito fight was distinct from the counterrevolutionary warfare of Somoza loyalists. The indigenous struggle led the Sandinistas to include provisions in the 1984 constitution that guaranteed indigenous people their land. And a 1987 law created two autonomous Atlantic regions, one seated in Bluefields and the other in Puerto Cabezas. In each region, elected councils were supposed to enable local people to manage their natural resources.

In the 1990s, the councils became tools of Managua-based political parties. And structural adjustment has reopened the door to transnational exploitation of resources.