BILWI, PUERTO CABEZAS – A political showdown between indigenous separatists and the Sandinista government appears to be steaming toward a larger-scale confrontation in this sultry Caribbean port town, following several weeks of mounting tensions and spats of violence, including unconfirmed reports of six people being shot.
The Sandinista-run mayor’s office is accusing separatist leaders of working with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to agitate a labor dispute between lobster divers and fishing companies in attempts to destabilize the regional government.
The separatists, however, argue the government is using the strike as an excuse to squelch their historic claim to the Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia, which announced its rebirth April 19 (NT, May 1).
Both sides say tensions are heating quickly. “Patience is running out and we can’t continue to allow this,” Puerto Cabezas Mayor Guillermo Espinoza told The Nica Times. Espinoza said the government of Daniel Ortega, which has still not responded to the Moskitia’s independence claim, has been too lenient with the separatists, thinking the issue would go away on its own.
However, the mayor said, the movement has gained momentum and become increasingly disruptive.
Now, he says, the Moskitia movement “has to be stopped.”
Espinoza said the municipal government is organizing protests against the separatists and collecting signatures to demand its leaders be brought to justice.
“They have been organizing in an illegal manner,” the non-indigenous mayor said. “If I were president, I would issue a capture order for them, but as mayor I can’t.”
Independence leaders, meanwhile, say it’s the municipal government that’s violating the law by limiting indigenous people’s rights to self-determination. Independence leader Rev. Héctor Williams, known as the Wihta-Tara, or “Great Judge” of the Moskitia Nation, says his movement is still committed to a peaceful transition to power.
The separatists have given the municipal government six months – until October – to hand over the state machinery.
However, he warned, if push comes to shove, the separatists have got the numbers to run the Sandinistas authorities out of town whenever they want.
“We have more people than the government does, and if we go on the radio and tell people to come, we could fill the streets,” the Wihta-Tara told The Nica Times in an exclusive interview last week in Bilwi.
He stressed the independence movement doesn’t want violence, but will defend itself if attacked.
“If it’s going to get violent, we could take over the mayor’s office tomorrow or the next day, but that’s what we want to avoid,” he said. “We don’t want violence, we don’t want death and we don’t want more bloodshed. Our young people spilled their blood in the 1980s, and we don’t want that to happen again.”
With the exception of a few brief altercations back in April, until earlier this month there existed a relatively workable coexistence between the regional government of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the self-proclaimed Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia.
That situation changed on June 1 when the lobster season started and hundreds of Miskito men prepared to return to sea in what is the region’s most important economic activity.
But when the lobster companies announced a nearly 60 percent pay cut, allegedly due to falling product demand in the United States, the divers went on strike. Even at last year’s pay of $3.50 per pound, lobster divers said it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. But at $1.50 offered this year, divers said they’d lose money just by stepping on the boat, which charges them for meals, lodging and everything else consumed during their 11 days at sea.
“Why are we going to work if it’s only for the company?” demands lobster diver Carlos Muller.
Earlier this month, several of the lobster divers approached the separatist leaders to seek help mediating a solution. But when the Wihta-Tara got involved, it created a power struggle with regional authorities.
The Sandinista government accuses the separatists of inciting unrest, vandalism and property destruction. The mayor has already led two protest marches on Bilwi, chanting “Down with the Wihta-Tara!”
Tensions escalated to new levels June 13 when separatists marched on the mayor’s office and accused him and other government officials of lying to the lobster divers and acting in cahoots with the fishing companies. When the mayor went out into the street to talk to the protesters, the group took him captive and brought him to a nearby Moravian church where he was held for more than 12 hours as lobster divers tried to force his support for their demands.
With the help of riot police, Mayor Espinoza was eventually able to escape unharmed. But the separatists claim at least six protesters were shot by police in the hours that followed, resulting in one death. Espinoza says the victims were probably shot by gang members, not the police.
Vilma Reyes, spokeswoman for the National Police in Managua, told The Nica Times this week that the incident was being investigated but no official information has been made available.
Despite being blamed for inciting unrest, the Wihta-Tara claims the separatist leaders have kept the situation from spiraling out of control.
“If it weren’t for us, the divers would have sunk all the lobster boats and more people would be dead,” Rev. Williams said. “We called for peace and they listened.”
Generations of Exploitation
For independence leaders, the issue of lobster divers risking their lives by going to unsafe depths with faulty equipment, no training, inadequate safety conditions and for miserable pay is indicative of the exploitation on the Caribbean coast.
Oscar Hodgson, a lawyer who some consider the real leader of the independence movement, said the fight for the rights of lobster divers is the first battle in the indigenous struggle to vindicate their claim to the region’s natural resources. When the lobster issue is resolved, he said, they are going to focus on other issues, such as contracts issued to mining companies in the municipality of Siuna, where seven miners died last week due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
The separatists are also eyeing logging and oil interests on the northern Caribbean coast. For now, the issue is fair pay and labor conditions for the divers, including the 120-plus former lobstermen who have been crippled with the bends and are now unable to walk or work. The separatists have already helped negotiate a pay increase from $1.50 to $2.50, but they say that’s not nearly enough.
Anthony Medoxa-Krussas, the Miskito Nation’s bespectacled Minister of Economy and Finance, says divers are only making enough to cover 50 percent of their own living costs at $2.50 per pound.
Flipping through a clutter of loose-leaf documents filled with meticulous, hand-written calculations that he carries around with him in a plastic waterproof folder, Medoxa-Krussas says divers would break even at $4 or $5 per pound, and could only hope to save a little bit if paid at least $6.
The lobster companies insist that even by paying $1.50 per pound, they will be losing money this season.
But Medoxa-Krussas says the companies always cry poor, even during times of economic prosperity.
The economist claims the company’s financial statements are riddled with fuzzy math that inflates operational costs and hides earnings – all to justify the miserable wages paid to divers.
Separatists claim they will continue to support the strike and call for a pay increase of $5 per pound.
They warned that any boats that break strike and return to work will be captured and torched on the high seas.
Yet in a municipality with 90 percent unemployment, many divers have decided they can’t afford to strike any longer. Many boats returned to sea this week, even though it meant the divers would earn 30 percent less pay than last year.
Standing on the municipal wharf and watching the lobster boats load up, one diver shrugged and said he had no choice.
“We’ve been on strike for 15 days already,” he said. “I’ve already lost one paycheck.” For some, independence will have to wait. While for others, it can’t.
“I spent ten years fighting in the mountains and was the last one to leave the war,” said former indigenous combatant and separatist supporter Juhn Naar Gonzalez, 86, lifting his shirt to reveal a series of bullet scars from the 1980s.
He adds, “I am old, but I could still return to the mountains to fight. Because this is too much. It’s too much and we won’t stand for it anymore.”