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Indigenous Group Hopes to Win Elections

May 7, 2004

BIG CORN ISLAND, Nicaragua –Trading in their bandana masks and AK-47s for political party status, Yatama –Nicaragua’s once-armed and oft-misunderstood indigenous movement on the Atlantic coast – is preparing for its first participation in municipal elections next November.The vote is still six months away, but campaigning has already started in the think jungles of Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, where Yatama hopes to win five or six of the 13 mayoral seats up for grabs in the impoverished, Indian-populated North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).The regional party is not participating in the municipal elections in Nicaragua’s 15 other departments, where the Indian population is smaller.EVEN with a strong indigenous presence on the east coast, Yatama – the Miskito word for “The Organization of Peoples of Mother Earth” – has its work cut out as it prepares to go up against the well-bankrolled ruling Liberal Constitutional Party and the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front.The indigenous group admits it has virtually no resources to run a campaign, but leaders believe the party can win the Atlantic vote with its message of land titles and respect for indigenous rights.“WE can motivate the people to vote; voting is a right, and a vote for Yatama is a vote for indigenous interests,” said Brooklyn Rivera, Yatama’s high leader, during a recent interview with The Tico Times.Rivera, a former counter-revolutionary leader known by the nom de guerre “Comandante Aubia” – the Mosquito words for “Spirit of the Mountain” – was the driving force behind the near 90% voter abstention rate on the Atlantic coast in the 2000 elections, when he urged the Miskito, Sumo, Cacara, Brama Key, Creole, Garifuna and Mestizo populations to boycott the elections because of lack of representation.Yatama was not allowed to participate in the 2000 elections because of a controversial pact between Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and Liberal leader Arnoldo Alemán to exclude minority parties from the ballot.After fighting for the right to democratic participation, Yatama this year registered as a political party and helped to break the socalled “Pacto” that prevented minority parties from participating in Nicaragua’s first municipal elections in 2000.RIVERA, who held a rally on Big Corn Island last month to explain his newly founded party’s positions, said Yatama has always been a regional grassroots movement for indigenous rights on the Atlantic coast.Yatama – which Rivera likens to the Zapatista indigenous movement in southern Mexico and the Kurds of northern Iraq – has always been foremost a social movement, he said. But it has gone through several phases of the years: from militant to political.Evolving out of the 1974 “Miskito and Sumo Alliance for Progress,” Yatama was founded as an armed resistance movement to the Sandinista government in 1979, shortly after the revolutionaries rode into Managua after ousting the Somoza dictatorship.THE Yatama contra-revolutionaries later refused to join forces with the U.S.-backed Contra forces operating in southern Honduras, and instead sympathized with the anti-CIA southern front Contras led by Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora,” who fought out of northern Costa Rica during the mid 1980s.Even though there reportedly are still rearmed bands of fighters (known as “recontras,” “re-compas” and “revueltos”) that operate in the southern Atlantic region near the town of El Rama, Rivera insists that members of Yatama are not involved.The indigenous movement “does not want to return to the violence of the past,” he said, and is now opting for ballots rather than bullets.“WE have always been an ethnic-social movement, but to participate in the elections we had to become a regional political party,” Rivera explained. Asked how many people identify as Yatama, Rivera, a Miskito Indian, answered, “We indigenous don’t manage statistics.”However, he explained, Yatama represents a majority of the population in the RAAN and has enough support in the RAAS to win at least two of the seven mayoral posts up for grabs, including the Corn Islands.Rivera, a good-natured man who often interrupted the interview to chat in his native Miskito tongue with a fellow Yatama supporter, explained that at age 51, he will not run for mayor in his hometown of Puerto Cabezas, the largest port town on the north Atlantic.THE Yatama leader, who already holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Managua’s Central American University (UCA), is busy working on a Master’s degree in economics and doesn’t have time to be mayor, he explained.Despite Rivera’s insistence that Yatama is no longer an armed movement, other members did not rule it out.“All us Miskitos are militants,” said Nathan Joseph, a Corn Island fisherman and Yatama supporter.

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