Frustrated by the unfulfilled promises of autonomy, a group of indigenous Miskito elders are now opting for full independence.
The indigenous council of elders announced April 19 that the Caribbean coast has seceded from the rest of Nicaragua and is now the independent Nation of the Moskitia. The group said they are taking control of all local government apparatuses and territory on the Caribbean coast, including the CornIslands, the Miskito and Rama Keys, and SanAndresIsland, which is claimed by Colombia.
Though the self-proclaimed leaders of the Nation of Moskitia say they hope for a peaceful transition, they are also forming their own Indigenous Army of the Moskitia to defend their claims.
“Nicaragua is another country,” said separatist leader the Rev. Héctor Williams, known as the Wihta Tara, or The Great Judge.
“People have been waiting and waiting for this for 115 years,” Williams told The Nica Times in a phone interview from Bilwi.
“But everything has its moment.”
The Moskitia “government” announced that all land titles, concessions and contracts issued by the Nicaraguan government are now invalid and will have to be renegotiated with the new indigenous authorities.
Likewise, they say all local businesses should start paying taxes to the Moskitia government rather than the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), which they claim will soon be dissolved as part of the six-month transition.
Oscar Hodgson, the Moskitia government’s legal advisor and head of land issues, told The Nica Times that the separatists’ claims to the indigenous territories are backed by a series of historic treaties from the 19th century.
He said the group is going to present a documented appeal to the United Nations asking for official recognition of their independence. The Nation of the Moskitia, he said, will be divided into seven autonomous regions representing the different ethnic and indigenous groups that live on the Caribbean coast. The regional elections scheduled for next year have been canceled, he said.
The Moskitia leaders said their upstart nation will eventually develop its own flag and currency, but for now will use the U.S. dollar during the transition.
In Managua, the government of Daniel Ortega as of press time had yet to comment on the separatists’ claims, despite calls from opposition lawmakers to take the situation more seriously.
Elected leaders of the RAAN’s Regional Council, meanwhile, say the separatists are provoking authorities by violating the Constitution of Nicaragua, which establishes the country as one, indivisible nation.
Reynaldo Francis, governor of the RAAN, dismissed the separatist claims as a “poorly organized” effort by “a group of old men.”
“This is just a small group of elderly who are being manipulated and poorly organized,” Francis told The Nica Times. “There is certainly someone behind this manipulating of the old men for political and personal reasons.”
Francis assured The Nica Times that regional authorities have no intention of handing over the police, military or over government offices to the separatists, as they’ve been ordered to do.
“How are they going to take control of the police and military? Please! ” Francis said.
The separatist group made its first move to assert its independence April 23 by taking over the party headquarters of YATAMA, an indigenous political party that the separatists claim has sold out to political interests in Managua.
The party headquarters was reportedly taken over peacefully by the newly formed Indigenous Army of the Moskitia, made up of ex-YATAMA combatants lead by former Miskito rebel leader Norman Molina, known as Comandante Yul Wild (Wild Dog).
“The takeover was peaceful and massive,” separatist leader Hodgson told The Nica Times.
Hodgson said that YATAMA members at the party headquarters opted to join the separatist movement instead of resisting. He said that other groups of ex-combatants, such as YATAMA NO SANDINISTA, were also joining the independence movement.
“The ex-combatants of YATAMA are becoming the Indigenous Army of the Moskitia,” he said.
Other Miskito leaders are downplaying the movement.
YATAMA lawmaker Brooklyn Rivera said it “wasn’t necessarily true” that separatists had taken over his party’s headquarters. He said the ex-combatants and separatists were “discussing” their demands with YATAMA, and that his party supported them in their historic demands.
“Their demands are the same as ours, to cancel the upcoming elections on the coast, to comply with the (disarmament) accords and to remove the colonizers (west coast Nicaraguans) from our lands,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the separatist movement has created “confusion” on the CaribbeanCoast and warned of growing tensions. He said the Nicaraguan government would be making a mistake if it doesn’t take the situation more seriously.
“The situation will depend on how the government reacts. If the government takes the situation seriously and address the demands of the people, it could help to control the situation,” Rivera told The Nica Times.
However, he added, if the government ignores the situation or dismisses it, the movement could grow.
“There are lots of ex-combatants who are very unsatisfied with the government, they’ve been waiting for over two years for the government to comply with its promises,” he said.
The worst case scenario, Rivera said, would be if the government responded with force.
“If they did, there would be a situation like there was in the 1980s,” Rivera said, referring to the YATAMA uprising against the first Sandinista government.
Rivera said that if the indigenous excombatants join the separatist movement, the situation could become dangerous.
Separatist leaders, however, say that the ex-combatants have already joined the independence movement, and that others are also in the process of doing so.
“We already have 400 combatants, and many more in the communities,” Great Judge Williams said. The separatist leader said he estimates “95 percent” of the region’s population of 350,000 support the calls for an independent Nation of Moskitia.
Other Miskito leaders say the number of people supporting the separatists is much smaller, but still significant.
Former YATAMA military leader Osorno “Comandante Blas” denied rumors that his group, YATAMA NO SANDINISTA, was joining forces with the separatists, but said he thinks some 25 percent of the ex-combatants are already part of the movement.
“We don’t think now is the appropriate moment for independence,” Coleman told The Nica Times in a phone interview from Bilwi.
“This is a double-edged sword,” he warned. “If this isn’t managed well, it could end in violence.”
Both those who support the separatist claims and those who don’t agree on one thing: the process of autonomy in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (the RAAN and RAAS) is not working the way the law was intended.
The Law of Autonomy for the AtlanticCoast (Law 28) was passed in 1987 to give the ethnic and indigenous groups of the RAAN and RAAS autonomy over their natural resources and government. Twenty years later, however, most claim the process has never been implemented according to the spirit of the law, and that government in Managua has actually prevented the region from achieving autonomy (NT, Oct. 12, 2007).
“Autonomy has been a failure,” said Coleman. “So the separatists are looking for an alternative, for a light at the end of the tunnel. Their movement could gain force because people are frustrated with autonomy.”
While Miskito leaders Rivera and Francis are calling for “reforms to the Law of Autonomy,” the separatists insist the time for that is over.
“This is not autonomy, this is independence,” said the Great Judge Williams. “We are not puppets. We are men. And now we have the weight of a nation on our shoulders.”