Ethnic Conflicts in Nicaragua

John Vandermeer and David Bradford

WITH LITTLE INTERNATIONAL notice, the winds of war are picking up on the eastern seaboard of Nicaragua. This time, however, it will not be a clear class-warfare case with a popular revolution struggling against an imperial behemoth. Rather, the Croat-Serb-Muslim model may be a better metaphor.

Over the past decade we have watched the situation change from the hopeful vision of a multiethnic autonomous society to today’s mixture of ethnic typecasting and cynical manipulations by the neoliberal crooks in Managua.

The half of Nicarauga that lies on its eastern seaboard has always been distinct. Its original English occupiers planted the seeds that gave rise to today’s complex situation. To control the local natives, the English brought together different villages and changed what was likely a culturally rich and diverse situation into a manageable “kingdom” along with their own version of royalty.

Thus was born the Miskito kingdom along with the Miskito “king.” The ethnic group today recognized as the Miskito thus has its origins originally as a diffuse network of Native Americans, but with a modern manifestation resulting from the needs of English organization.

The native population was not abundant enough (especially in the southern part of the region) to meet English labor needs, so black slaves were imported, mainly from Jamaica. This is the origin of today’s Creole ethnic group.

Adding to these two ethnic groups, Spanish-speaking immigrants from the western side of Nicaragua gradually took up residence in the region. They form the third main ethnic group, the Mestizos. The vast majority of the population, and the bulk of the political maneuvering, concerns the three main ethnic groups—Miskito, Creole, and Mestizo.

Three other ethnic groups, the Garifuna, the Sumu-Mayagna, and the Rama, complete the spectrum of this multiethnic society. All ethnic groups conceive of themselves as Coast people (Costeños), even as they invariably identify as one or the other ethnicity. Nicaraguans from the Pacific side are frequently referred to as “Spaniards.”

The Caribbean Coast is a resource-rich region. Its humid tropical climate is home to vast extensions of tropical rain forest, and its tropical seas harbor lobster, shrimp and other marine resources in great abundance. The still significant gold deposits attract both individual prospecters and modern investors.

Despite the abundant natural resources, the Coast is the least developed region of Nicaragua, in many ways the Third World of this poor Third World nation. All relevant statistics reveal the Coast as on par with Haiti. It is certainly one of the poorest regions in the hemisphere.

The modern history of the Coast can be thought of as beginning with the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. Not realizing that the Revolution was in fact an event of Spanish Nicaragua, the Sandinistas rode into the Coast thinking of themselves as knights on white horses. The Coast people thought of them as invaders.

After many blunders in the early 1980s, the Sandinistas dramatically changed course and began treating the Coast as a special zone requiring special considerations. After much local and national debate, a constitutional amendment generated by the Coast people and supported by the Sandinista administration was passed and autonomy for the Coast became part of Nicaraguan law.

Autonomy and Frustration

At the same time that autonomy became the law of the land, the Sandinistas lost their hold on power. When the Sandinistas lost the elections in 1990, the Coast people effectively lost their influence in high places. Despite the formal recognition of two autonomous zones, one in the north with its capital Bilwi (formerly known as Puerto Cabezas) and one in the south with its capital Bluefields, the elected regional councils have been extremely weak since their establishment in 1990.

Now with the growing hegemony of the PLC (Consitutional Liberal Party—currently holding the National presidency in the persona of Arnoldo Aleman) prospects for the autonomy dream seem ever more fading.

Yet at the core of all politics on the Coast is still the question of autonomy. While the Coast has always been autonomous at heart, the political realities have always been otherwise.

Formalizing the state of autonomy in 1990 was viewed by most as the beginning of a new era in which the dignity of local people would be recognized and their power acknowledged through the ballot box. Their continual frustration has led to new, and ominous, political sentiments.

Autonomy is anathema to the political party currently in power nationally—the PLC. Seeing the riches of the Coast’s resources, the national administration is not likely to relinquish its control over the region. Logging concessions are sold in defiance of the will of the regional council, fishing companies routinely overfish the marine banks, and new migrants from the Pacific side cut rain forests to make their small farms. The PLC is not likely to grant true autonomy, which would limit its ability to exploit all the logs, lobsters and land it wants.

The neoliberal model imposed on the nation in the early 1990s, and enthusiastically adopted by the current PLC administration, has been devastating. Privatizing lands in the populous western half of the country has made it difficult if not impossible for small-scale farmers to make ends meet.

Losing their land in record numbers, many migrate to Managua to contribute to the swelling shanty towns there, but many also see the Caribbean coast as a new opportunity. In this way the neoliberal model is pushing newly landless peasants eastward.

Much of the land available on the Coast is traditional communal lands held by Indigenous and Creole populations. Since the new migrants are culturally Mestizos, not surprisingly deforestation along the new agricultural frontier is attributed to them.

Furthermore, since the Mestizos are the largest and fastest growing of the ethnic groups, the agricultural frontier has also become a cultural frontier which represents another threat to costeos.

While most people distinguish between newly arriving migrants and those with a long history on the Coast, this distinction is sometimes blurred. And in recent times that blurring has become more common. It is easy to see how Indigenous and Creole people could come to see the Mestizos as their enemy.

Growing Ethnic Hostilities

It is convenient for the PLC to play up this new ethnic division. Their base of support is in the mestizo population, especially among the new migrants. As the flood of migrants turns into a rip tide (as seems to be happening now), support for the PLC grows, especially if the Mestizos see their position on the coast as threatened by the other ethnic groups.

Interviews with Mestizos in the first few months of this year revealed a new fear on their part. Repeatedly we hear people claim that if autonomy ever became a reality, the Creoles and Miskitos would throw all the Mestizos out of the Coast, that the Creoles and Miskitos don’t want autonomy, but rather independence.

Yet interviews with Miskitos and Creoles indicated similar antipathy towards the Mestizos, who are seen as bolstering the hegemony of the central government by voting for the PLC and destroying the forests and fishing with their unsustainable agricultural practices.

Furthermore, Creoles and Miskitos seem to be reinventing old rivalries as their shifting political alliances become ever more identified with ethnicity rather than autonomy. In short, ethnic rivalries among the three main ethnic groups seem to be taking the place of the previous politics of autonomy. “My enemy is in a different ethnic group” seems to be replacing the notion that “my enemy is in Managua.”

The recent elections (March 1, 1998) were revealing. The PLC gained an absolute majority in the North, with the FSLN (Sandinistas) a clear second and YATAMA (mainly representing Miskitos) a distant third.

The PLC gained the most votes in the South, but not enough for a majority. While the FSLN was second, a strong showing was made by a new third party, the PIM (Indigenous Multiethnic Party).

Only two months old, the PIM’s platform seems to be nothing more than opposition to the two main national parties (PLC and FSLN). Its strong showing, mainly among Creoles and Miskitos, is evidence of both anti-central government feelings and growing antipathy towards at least the newly arriving Mestizos.

Another new party, the Coast Alliance, mainly representing Creoles, also made a respectable showing. But most telling of all was the abstentions. In a region where over 90% participation in elections is common, only 49% of the electorate took the time to come out and vote. Most local political analysts read this fact as frustration with the normal political process with its cronyism and corruption.

Coast intellectuals well recognize the growing ethnic tensions and cynicism with traditional politics and are warning of the early signs of ethnic conflicts. Researchers at CIDCA (Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast) are emphasizing the importance of identifying as Costeños rather than as an ethnic group, and of the need for the national government to recognize growing ethnic tensions as an outgrowth of its anti-autonomy position.

Workers at CEDEHCA (Center for Human, Civil and Autonomous Rights) continue pushing for a coast identity independent of ethnic group, with autonomy as a central rallying cry. Responsible leaders are trying to reinvigorate the autonomy process as the only way to unify Coast people—multiethnic to be sure, but a unified Coast for autonomy.

An Uncertain Prognosis

What this means for the future is hard to predict. Ethnic warfare is certainly not inevitable. But it is not at this point out of the question, as it seems to have been in the 1980s.

While ethnic identity seems much more important now, Coast political leaders not affiliated with the PLC continue emphasizing autonomy. When we asked a Miskito leader what he thought of the Zapatistas in Mexico and how they might relate to the Nicaraguan Coast situation, he told us that the Zapatistas in Chiapas are currently involved in the struggle for formal recognition of autonomy, while the Coast of Nicaragua has gone beyond that stage and is now in the process of consolidating its autonomy.

[Editors’ Note: Readers interested in the autonomy struggle in Chiapas can find detailed coverage in an introductory article by Dan La Botz and analysis by Hector Díaz-Polanco in ATC 74, May-June 1998.]

We had our war, this Miskito leader said, we now can proceed on a peaceful political path towards a true autonomy. Hopefully he is right. But if the current Central Government persists in its plan of divide and conquer and its national neoliberal agenda, we have our doubts.

ATC 77, November-December 1998