BLUEFIELDS – From the dark interior lobby of a budget hotel next to the MoravianChurch in Bluefields, local activist Gilberto Joseph quietly sells revolutionary T-shirts that demand “Autonomy Now for the NicaraguanCaribbeanCoast.”
Two hours north by boat, in the remote fishing outpost of Pearl Lagoon, a local Creole DJ talks about the importance of selfdetermination to anyone who tunes in to FM 91.1, “Radio Caribbean Pearl, The Vanguard of Autonomy.”
And in the northern indigenous communities that hug the regional capital of Bilwi, Miskito indigenous leaders meet to organize against the central government’s Logging Moratorium Law, which they call the latest offense of the “Pacific coast government.”
The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is home to roughly 15% of the country’s population, but represents 46% of the national territory, divided into the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions, RAAN and RAAS, respectively. This section of the country has long been removed geographically, linguistically and culturally from the rest of Nicaragua, and many of the people here still refer to Pacific-coast Nicaraguans as the “Spanish.”
In recent years, however, the ethnic makeup of the coast has changed, as an increasing number of Spanish-speaking mestizos migrate to the Caribbean side. Mestizos now represent the majority of the population on the Caribbean coast, further complicating the meaning and implementation of the Law of Autonomy for the Atlantic Coast (Law 28), which became law 20 years ago this month.
From the Creole, Rama and Garifuna communities in the RAAS, to the Miskitos and Sumo-Mayangas of the RAAN, autonomy has taken different forms, and has done so at different speeds.
While Miskito groups, molded by years of violent oppression, have been bold in organizing armed, political and social movements to fight for autonomy, the Creole population has been slower to organize, but has nonetheless asserted its identity strongly though culture, cuisine and music.
“Not all of the peoples of the Caribbean coast fought for autonomy rights, so in the mid-1980s different communities had diverging expectations of what autonomy would be,” said Miguel González, co-author of the new book on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, “Ethnicity and Nation.” He added, “After 1990, however, indigenous peoples, mestizos and afro-descendants found out the critical importance of autonomy as a platform for rights.”
In recent years, the concept of autonomy has become a buzzword for all the peoples of the Caribbean coast.
And with this year’s anniversary of the autonomy law, coupled with the Sandinistas’ return to power, many have given pause for reflection on what has been achieved and what remains to be done.
Many people claim that the previous three conservative governments viewed the Law of Autonomy as a “Sandinista invention,” and now that the Sandinistas are back in office they hope the law will be given teeth.
“The FSLN (Sandinista Front) government has shown its genuine interest in promoting the consolidation of the autonomy regime,” González told The Nica Times.
He said the proof of this commitment is the Sandinistas’ alliance with the regional Miskito movement YATAMA, the appointment of Caribbean representatives to key government posts related to the sectors of fisheries and forestry, and the government’s commitment to the long-term reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Felix.
On the coast, some local leaders agree that the return of the Sandinista government represents their best chance to give substance to the autonomy law.
“Violeta, Arnoldo, Bolaños – none of these other governments took into account the Caribbean region,” said Michael Campbell, a black youth organizer from Bluefields, referring to the previous three Presidents. “But the current government is making a heart-felt effort toward the coast. A framework is being built for a new reality between the central government and the Caribbean.”
Yet some indigenous leaders, especially those in the north, are suspicious of the new government’s intentions.
“The Sandinistas never had the Law of Autonomy in their hearts; they only did it because they were pressured to do so and needed to calm the situation on the coast,” said former Miskito combatant Osorno “Comandante Blas” Coleman, referring to the Sandinistas forced relocation of Miskito communities and the subsequent indigenous uprising of the early 1980s.
Coleman, who helped lead the Miskitos’ insurgency, said there is already resistance brewing in the indigenous communities to the new government’s efforts to impose “direct democracy” through the creation of the Councils of Citizen Power (CCPs), which many view as an infiltration of Sandinista party apparatus.
“These councils are an outside imposition that disrespect our traditional structures –the councils of elders and the regional councils,” Coleman told The Nica Times.
The preamble to the 1987 Law of Autonomy states: “The process of autonomy enriches our national culture, recognizes and strengthens ethnic identity, respects the specific cultures and communities of the Atlantic coast, rescues their histories, recognizes the right to property on communal lands, rejects any type of discrimination, recognizes religious freedom and recognizes different identities that together form national unity.”
The law, therefore, officially recognizes that Nicaragua is a multiethnic nation and that the inhabitants of the Caribbean coast have a right to live according to their traditions and with domain over their natural resources.
While there is disagreement over the Sandinistas’ original motives for creating the law, there is almost universal agreement that the legislation – as it is written – is a major achievement for the peoples of the coast. But not everyone thinks the central government is interested in implementing the law as it was intended.
Miskitos who have tried to turn a profit from logging their forests claim the government’s 2006 logging moratorium violates their autonomy and sovereign right to their natural resources. The reinforcement of the logging ban in the wake of the Sept. 4 Hurricane Felix, which destroyed 477,000 hectares of forest and damaged an additional 1 million hectares, has some indigenous communities complaining the government regulation will keep them from getting back on their feet.
President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo have promised to “revitalize and reconstruct” the hurricane affected zones with “absolute respect for autonomy, the authorities, the cultures, traditions and cosmovisions of the indigenous communities of Nicaragua.”
But many in the indigenous communities are already grumbling that relief efforts have been inefficient, uncoordinated and – in the case of the ban on the sale of fallen timber –in grave violation of their rights to the forest.
RAAN vs. RAAS
The expressions of autonomy that have developed in the RAAN and the RAAS are quite different.
In the north, Miskito communities formed themselves into movements of armed resistance that later evolved into a political group known today as Yabti Tasba Masraka Nanih Asla Takanka (The Children of Mother Earth), or YATAMA.
The former anti-Sandinista resistance fighters, under the military leadership of Comandante Blas and the political leadership of Brooklyn Rivera, battled the Sandinistas for years.
Other indigenous leaders, such as Steadman Fagoth, allied with the U.S.-backed Contras in Honduras.
Twenty years later, in an era of alleged “national reconciliation,” Rivera is a national lawmaker representing YATAMA and Fagoth has been named director of the National Fisheries Institute (INPESCA).
Rivera, one of the fiercest defenders of Miskito autonomy in the 1980s, has been criticized recently for siding with his former enemy.However, he defends his alliance with the Sandinistas as one of pragmatic politics.
While admitting that he still doesn’t entirely trust the Sandinistas, he says his political post in Managua will help to bring the Caribbean agenda to the national level.
Rivera recently told The Nica Times that he thinks the Caribbean coast is better represented in government than it ever has been in the past, and that now more than ever the Law of Autonomy has a chance to be improved and implemented profoundly.
Critics such as Coleman, however, think that Rivera, Fagoth and other Caribbean coast natives who make it into Pacific-coast politics do so by being sellouts.
“They are just government officials who obey the executive power,” Coleman charged. The RAAS, meanwhile, is represented in the National Assembly by three lawmakers, but only one, Conservative Party congressman Stanford Cash, is Creole.
Cash says he thinks the Miskitos to the north have done a much better job organizing than the Creoles in the south.
“We can’t get serious; every meeting is a fight,” he said, referring to the Regional Council of the RAAS. “The Indians are more determined; the Creole, they are more… I don’t know. There is something we have to inject into the Creoles to get them to be more like the north.”
On a national level, Cash – like Rivera – says he is going to use his seat in the National Assembly to try to reform the Law of Autonomy to limit Caribbean regional elections to regional political parties – YATAMA, the Indigenous Multiethnic Party (PIM) and an emerging black party known as Coast Power.
Cash also wants to change the economic relationship between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, which he claims is based on sucking money and resources out of the Caribbean and sending back very little government funding in exchange.
Though slower to organize politically, the Creole population has long asserted itself through music and dance.
Philip Montalban, a famed Bluefields reggae singer whose lyrics stress the need for liberation, was recently awarded the government’s top cultural award – the first black man to ever receive such honors. Still, Montalban says he has been frustrated that the recognition has not translated into more support for Caribbean culture and arts.
“When we have problems, our people turn to music,”Montalban says, while strumming a guitar, occasionally breaking into song, which seems to help his flow of thought.
“The message brings joy to your heart, makes you forget your problems. Music transcends, it keeps the people going.”
The black population has also traditionally turned to religion to help them through tough times.
But for some, religion has become a crutch that has kept the black community from standing up straight.
“In the past, our people were too pacified by religion and a leave-it-to-God attitude,” said Joseph, the vendor of revolutionary Tshirts in Bluefields.
Joseph, despite his advanced age of 73, would rather take a more combative approach to demanding autonomy, as his Tshirt’s message implies. He reads off the back of his shirt:
“Autonomy, for our people, is freedom and self-determination. For the government, that’s a no-no and so they try to break us up, take the pieces and try to RAAN it up our RAAS. That is provoking. People Fite Fu les than Dat!”