Miskito Refugees in Costa Rica

During late July 1984, Theodore Macdonald, Jr., Cultural Survival's Projects Director, interviewed Nicaraguan Miskito Indians and Black Creoles at the Pueblo Nuevo refugee camp near Limon, Costa Rica. The brief narratives included here illustrate the sentiments which have led these people into armed conflict with Nicaraguan security forces since 1981.

Two themes consistently arose during the interviews. One was that the present Nicaraguan government had disrupted normal life to an unprecedented and unacceptable level. The other was the strong sense of community among people on the Atlantic Coast; so pervasive were these feelings that terms such as contra (counterrevolutionary) and Sandinista, which in other contexts carry a strong semantic load, served largely to establish we-they distinctions for what is perceived to be a series of local struggles, despite the acknowledged support and encouragement of Miskito activities by the US CIA. These accounts, thus, provide a subjective but nonetheless vital interpretation of events on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, particularly in light of the recent peace overtures extended between Miskito Indian leaders and the Nicaraguan government, also reviewed and evaluated here.

Before, you could go look for things. We used to use the little dory and go and catch shrimps and other things in the lagoon. When the Sandinistas come in they pressure you. They start to order you around and you can't catch nothing. Earlier you could go out in the river any hour you wanted. And then them start to pressure you and say you can't go out. You have to take out a license to go fishing and all that thing. Before, without any license, you could go out in the dory and get any amount of shrimp you want. And when you come in, if someone no have to eat they come and ask you. And you give them something.

The people they have to buy certain things and certain things we got and we not sell it between one another. If there's them that wants, others they give. You won't have to spend if you don't want to. Now, you can be a stranger and you can go into any one of the villages and you eat and you don't have to spend money. We live united. The reason why people feel hard up is because everything they have, they have to spend for. Even if they have money they feel hard up. The most people that buy, they are the Spaniards. They wants to be separate and all the time them have to buy. Some of them that have the money, they no teach their children for do nothing. So all the time their children have to buy. Between the Indians, all of them know something to live.

The Sandinistas they want to find out how we live. They want to give us a job, and want to know why we don't accept it. All of the time we dress. All of the time we have money. But we never work for them and them not see us work, and them would like to know how Blacks and Indians live because all the time they expect me to let them take my strength and let me work voluntary for them. They think I'm gonna work voluntary in a kind of work could make the next man win bread for his children. We go and work voluntary and then look around next Sunday and there's your children staring at you. That's wrong. You can't put me to work voluntary when everyone needs jobs to mind their children.

We respect the government and tell the government respect me too, because the town is where flu government take the law. The government can't give strict law to the town, saying that the town deserves it. Often the town is what support the government. Without the town the government can't live. All the law men livin' off the sweat of the town, but they're walkin' up and down sayin' "Keep this town in a cool way." Then they come up to me with a gun runnin'me from the place where I am talking to my friends. They don't let you do it. And if you do it, they grab you and put you in jail.

Such frustrations led many young men into the bush, to fight when offered the opportunity. Their communities and relatives, in turn, supported not a set of ideas or outside forces but rather their neighbors and kin, as illustrated by the following woman's account.

My comandante was Bruno Gabriel. He come from the north, looking for arms, and come to my town. He say that because of the situation we was into we have to look for a better answer. All he wants is the people to help him. They want to help him because nobody want to live the life we is leadin'. You can't go out. You can't go fishing. You can't do nothing. Sandinista is right there. You can't go to your farm and bring back a coconut; Sandinista is right there. So when Bruno come everybody agree to help. One boy from our town he carried some arms to where Bruno was hiding, and brought Bruno back to town.

Sandinistas used to hardly be in town; sometimes they would make a visit and go back. But you have people who is with the Sandinistas, we call them the oreja, and you have people is not with them. After Bruno come people decide to help. Afterwards Sandinistas come back and they talk, talked to everybody they seen. Later one boy from here livin in Bluefields now he said he was with the contra and then he make talk with the Sandinistas. He set a trap to catch the boys. Some militia men come in and say they are contras. They come here from Costa Rica, they say. They want to see the needs of the camp. They want to help the contra what is here; maybe they need clothes, shoes, arms, or bullets. So the people thought if was truth. And he want to know all the people what help and like that, he said. He had our confidence because the boy was from home. The other boys said, "No, he's not sellin' out our people. The boy is from here."

After he make that list, the boy went back to Bluefields. Then 2 boats with 21 men came. And they lined up on the wharf to see how much the people is with the contra. Everyone in town. From the littlest child, went down to the wharf. They shakin' their hand and makin' much of them. It was raining and after the rain pass they cold and trembling. So the people carry them hot coffee. They carry them biscuits and everything. After that they say they are goin' down to the contra camp and they take five boys. My husband he is one of them. After that, Bruno he die. Sandinista kill him. Then they was sayin everyone is contra. Then everyone run. The Sandinistas went in the town and they catch a pile of people, and they beat them and they carry them off to jail. I run to my mother's and I ham they catch one of my brothers. And they tell me that the one they wanna catch is me. My mother says I must run. I left and went to join the boys hiding in Rio Grande. I said if the Sandinista gonna kill me and I holding my gun I have to kill one of them. I just can't die, -because I didn't do nothing.

I was in the bush 3 months and then I got pregnant. So my husband says I can't be in the bush with him. And from there I come here. We travelled for four days in a dory, four of us. On the fourth day the sea was so rough and we didn't know where we were. So we came ashore and the dory crashed and sunk in the waves. A house was there and I went up and asked where we were. A woman said, "You are in Costa Rican territory. After you reach here you all safe.

The details of life and violence expressed by the Miskito Indians now living in refugee camps were, in many cases, easily disputed or refuted. Equally disturbing was their apparent unconcern for the fact that their problems and actions have been used by Nicaragua's enemies to undermine that newly reconstituted nation. Nevertheless, the Indians' sentiments and motivations are genuine and must be accepted as legitimate if the Nicaraguan government hopes to establish the sort of dialogue which can create the social and economic conditions necessary to end the resentment and fighting, and, subsequently, induce the repatriation of the approximately 20,000 Miskito Indian refugees.

Political efforts to end the fighting have begun already. On 20 July 1984 Brooklyn Rivera, general coordinator of Misurasata, the Nicaraguan national Indian organization in exile in Costa Rica, announced that Misurasata would halt its fighting with Nicaraguan security forces on the Atlantic Coast and work toward a negotiated political settlement to the dispute which had raged since 1981. The previous day, Eden Pastora, head of the Frente Revolucionario Sandinista (FRS), issued a similar statement. Since these two organizations lead many of the active opposition forces of the Alianza Revolutionaria Democratica (ARDE), it appeared that peace would be possible over much of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast.

But several days after Rivera's statement, Costa Rican papers announced that ARDE had decided to link itself with the highly publicized Honduras-based opposition group, the FDN, an organization led by many ex-Somoza government officials, supported openly by funds and equipment from the CIA, and dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. The apparent contradiction was due to the fact that ARDE had just split into two distinct factions - those who would link themselves with the individuals and ideas of the FDN and those who refused.

Since Misurasata was part of the latter group, they immediately lost access to funds, part of which were provided indirectly to support the US's covert actions in the area. This made it impossible to provide medical, subsistence, and military aid to the Indians who had been fighting with them, and thus produced a series of conflicts as Indian leaders either were seduced financially by the other, more well-heeled ARDE faction or became disgruntled with or suspicious of Misurasata's actions. Such political activities in San José their interpretations by actors and observers, and the resulting publicity often serve as the basis for attempting to understand the direction of events on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. This, however, results in misleading analysis.

As the narratives illustrate, the Miskito Indians did not revolt on orders from their leaders, nor under the stimulus of foreign agents. They reacted to a situation perceived as intolerable, and they harbor strong resentments. Until such feelings dissipate, and the activities and attitudes which precipitated them end, and the Indians then decide that the fighting will cease, political overtures between capital cities will be relatively ineffective.

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