Ethnic Minorities Expect Little From Nicaragua’s New Leaders : Politics: East coast Creoles and Indians gained some power in the elections. But they say autonomy is far off.


The Revolution finally came to this lush Creole fishing village one recent Sunday, drawing an expectant crowd down a gently sloping bluff to a dockside celebration with speeches and prayers.

The Revolution was a dazzling sight: a 150-seat, double-decker ferry, long promised by the Sandinista government to link the backwater communities of this remote jungle region.

“It was a pretty boat, so cool and clean,” recalls schoolteacher Irma de Sosa. “You can dress up to ride it.”

But to many of the 1,900 villagers, who live on broad, grassy streets overlooking a splendidly protected bay and pass much of their time waiting for boats, the ferry was an illusion--a reminder to Atlantic Nicaragua’s Creoles and Indians that, despite a constitutional right to self-rule, their lives are at the mercy of outsiders.


After breaking a bottle of rum against the ferry’s gleaming hull and taking villagers on a ceremonial spin around the bay, a visiting Sandinista official named Ray Hooker announced that it was leaving. It had no schedule yet, he said, but would call again that Thursday. Friday night the village was still waiting.

“Ray Hooker, he show people that boat and then he take it away,” said Linton Fox, a fisherman who was dismayed to learn that the ferry was not for the village’s exclusive use, as many thought was promised. “It seem like Pearl Lagoon won’t have that boat.”

Out of such frustrations, large and small, piled over a decade of guerrilla war and economic loss, the Atlantic coast’s ethnic minorities joined other Nicaraguans in ousting the Sandinistas in national elections Feb. 25. While doing so, they elected two multi-ethnic councils that, for the first time, will wield some authority in the eastern half of Nicaragua.

Yet despite the powerful effect of their votes, costenos interviewed here and elsewhere say the dream of autonomy is a long way off. Creoles and Indians do not always agree on what they want, and both predict as much resistance from President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and her National Opposition Union (UNO) as they received from the Sandinistas.


“Honestly, we cannot be sure that things will go as we hope, because there is a natural tendency for the party in power to marginalize us, regardless of its ideology,” said Brooklyn Rivera, a Miskito Indian leader who endorsed Chamorro’s candidacy. “I don’t believe her government will be an exception. Many in UNO don’t understand autonomy or accept it.”

A British protectorate until 1894, the Atlantic region remains separated from the Latino west by a mangrove swamp and a huge cultural gap. Its 300,000 people, one-tenth of Nicaragua’s population, include Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians with their separate languages; English-speaking black Creoles and Garifonas, and Spanish-speaking mestizos.

The Sandinistas, who fought their way to power on the Pacific side in 1979, quickly angered the costenos by replacing local authorities with Latinos, drafting local boys into the army, bringing in Cuban teachers and nationalizing small businesses. When Miskitos rose up in arms, the government killed scores of their supporters and herded thousands into inland resettlement camps.

Faced with armed costenos in league with U.S.-backed Contras, the government embraced the idea of autonomy in 1984 and began peace talks with Rivera’s Miskito forces. That led three years later to a Sandinista-made autonomy law giving coastal people the right to study in their own tongue, preserve native folklore and elect regional councils to administer health care, education and petty commerce.

But control of the armed forces and sovereignty over coastal lands and their timber, fishing and mineral wealth remained with the central government.

Defenders of the autonomy program, including scores of talented costenos who joined the Sandinista Front, say it brought pride to the region, defused the insurgency and brought thousands of Miskito refugees home.

“The coast people used to be ‘shamed at themselves,” said Johnny Hodgson, a Sandinista Creole leader in Bluefields. “Rama man ‘shamed to be Rama. Miskito man ‘shamed to be Miskito. Black man ‘shamed to be black man. The constitution did not even recognize that we exist.

"(It was) not until after the revolution,” he added, “that the Atlantic coast could have something as simple as a baseball team in the national league.”


Sandinistas say they have exceeded a legal mandate to give the coast an “equitable share” of returns from its natural wealth. All taxes on timber production and foreign fishing fleets, they say, are reinvested in the region, and food prices are subsidized by Managua.

“This is one of the most constructive attempts by any country so far to deal with the nationalities question,” said Hooker, a coastal Creole who joined the Sandinistas in 1980 and was elected to the National Assembly. “This is a problem tearing the Soviet Union apart, while we are stepping in the right direction.”

That assessment appears debatable, however. Although the Sandinistas’ policy turned a war into a bloodless political battle, voters in parts of the coast clearly rejected that policy in favor of the more radical autonomy espoused by Rivera’s Miskito-led Yatama movement.

With Yatama and the major Creole leaders backing her, Chamorro won 61% of the vote in the southern Atlantic region and outpolled President Daniel Ortega 48% to 38% in the more closely contested north.

Yatama, an alliance of former guerrillas running separately from UNO, won 26 seats on the 48-member northern regional council, based in Puerto Cabezas. The Sandinistas won 19 and UNO 3.

On the southern regional council in Bluefields, UNO won 23 of 47 seats to 20 for the Sandinistas and 4 for Yatama.

Under a districting formula that assures each ethnic group a voice, Miskitos won 27 seats on both councils, to 23 for Creoles and 36 for mestizos. The tiny Sumo, Rama and Garifona tribes won 4, 3 and 2 seats, respectively. Each council will convene May 4 to elect a coordinator, the top official in each region.

Yatama’s majority in the north makes Rivera, 36, the wild card of political leaders in postrevolutionary Nicaragua. He demands the “indigenous rights” of Indians to total sovereignty over their communal homelands in what Miskitos call “the nations of Yapti Tasba,” or Mother Earth. The concept is viewed by some Creoles and mestizos as a separatist scheme to restore Miskito hegemony over the entire coast, once ruled by Miskito kings.


The Sandinista government rejected Rivera’s demands, and Chamorro has agreed only to study them as a “guide.”

“I am sure UNO is not going to accept this formula for racism in reverse,” said Hooker, who was wounded and briefly held prisoner by Rivera’s guerrillas near Pearl Lagoon in 1985. “My prediction is that the marriage of convenience between Yatama and UNO won’t be a long-lasting one.”

Chamorro can ill afford a conflict with Yatama, however. The group has declined to disarm its approximately 1,000 guerrillas unless the Sandinista army abandons the coastal region--a demand she has not endorsed.

“The Sandinistas created the expectation among coastal people that they could get some control over their lives,” said Steve Tullberg, who studies Nicaragua from the Indian Law Research Center in Washington. “They unleashed forces that cannot be put back in the bottle. If UNO doesn’t make a true accommodation with the Atlantic coast, it is going to pay a heavy price.”

The task of reconciling Rivera’s program with Chamorro’s has fallen to Alvin Guthrie, 42, a Creole labor leader elected on the UNO slate to the National Assembly from Bluefields. Guthrie says Rivera’s talk about sovereign homelands “is a little radical. . . . It scares the hell out of those guys” in UNO.

“We have to handle this step by step,” he added.

Both Guthrie and Rivera want the Sandinistas to withdraw their army from the region and leave the police in the hands of costenos. But they differ on the UNO goal of putting state-owned companies in private hands. Guthrie supports it; Rivera insists that they be held by individual communities.

The Sandinistas also vow to resist privatization, especially in the Bonanza, Siuna and Rosita gold mines of the north Atlantic, where their candidates won.

“The Sandinistas and Yatama could be natural allies against UNO on some issues,” said Judy Butler, a coastal specialist at the Central American Historical Institute in Managua.

In Pearl Lagoon, friction between Creoles and Miskitos surfaces in tales of wartime hardship. While Miskitos battled Sandinista militiamen for political control of the surrounding marshland, Creoles in the town cursed both armies for ruining their livelihoods. They call Miskito fighters “bushmen.”

“We had some bushmen and they was a-harming, and we had the militia and they was a-harming,” Leslie Hansack, a Creole farmer and boat maker, recalled. “We couldn’t work any plantation. We was too afraid of the gun people.”

The Sandinistas put a health clinic in Pearl Lagoon and brought electricity. But a decade of war and neglect ruined the rice mill, halted mail boat service and shut off foreign markets for the shrimp in its bay, one of the richest breeding grounds in the Americas.

Pearl Lagoon survived in languid isolation, but the Sandinistas paid. Chamorro trounced Ortega 1,151 votes to 214 in balloting at the local schoolhouse.

Thinking of how to revive the village, fisherman Fox recalled the ferry that came and went. Now, as an elected member of the autonomous regional council in Bluefields, he will push for his definition of autonomy: a big boat just for Pearl Lagoon.

“This place has plenty fish,” he reasoned. “They send a boat from Bluefields to buy the fish, but they come every 20 days, one month. We have our nets out, and we can’t do nothing with these fish. If we get Pearl Lagoon boat, it will mean more income, not for Managua or Bluefields, but to build up our little town.

“If Dona Violeta gets that boat for us,” he said, “we put her name on it.”