Native Rebellion and US Intervention in Central America

Author

The Implication of the Kuna Case for the Miskito

Although historical parallels can never be more than partial and suggestive, the remarkably strong similarities between the revolution of the San Blas Kuna of Panama and the struggle going on today involving the Miskito of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast can inform and illuminate as well as divert. When San Blas and Miskitia were cut off geographically from the national metropolis, both formed frontier zones, which were not effectively incorporated into the nation until about the turn of the century, and which until recently, were dominated by English-speaking powers at the expense of local Hispanic authorities. In addition, the two indigenous cultures were strongly shaped by the colonial experience; in the past, both the Kuna and Miskito have allied themselves with English-speakers - it was the British crown who confirmed the Miskito leaders known as King, General and Admiral. Finally, both peoples are numerous, aggressive and politically sophisticated, with well-remembered warrior pasts.

Differences, of course, exist as well. The Miskito are interspersed with non-Indian peoples with whom they are at peace; Kuna lifeways are more obviously and colorfully distinctive, making the cultural nature of the Panamanian government's efforts to incorporate them more apparent. Perhaps most important, the Kuna have acted more stand-offish, forbidding intermarriage and excluding outsiders at least since the 18th century.

One evening in 1923, while walking on the outskirts of the town of Yaviza, in the Darién region of eastern Panama, Richard O. Marsh, searching on behalf of Ford and Firestone for lands on which to plant rubber, was startled to encounter three Indian girls with white skins. Tying this experience to reports that a US army aviator had seen a village of white Indians further into the Darién, Marsh decided that there was a lost white race waiting to be discovered, a task that could be fruitfully combined with searching for rubber lands.

Lost white tribes form part of the colonial mythology of the Americas, claimed for regions as far apart as Paraguay and the North American Great Plains. In this case however, they were real: the Kuna of Panama, who inhabit both the Darién interior and the north coast of San Blas, have the world's highest rate of albinism, roughly one-tenth of one percent. As early as the 18th century, pirates and missionaries had reported white Indians in the Darién.

Expedition Searches for Lost White Tribe

Marsh returned to Panama City, where his offer to buy up several million acres, a large part of the Darién, produced no concrete results. He then returned to the US, where he circulated a manuscript at the Smithsonian and elsewhere to arouse interest in an expedition, with greater success.

The Smithsonian sent a temporary employee, John L. Baer, as the expedition's anthropologist, with a contract giving the institution all of the artifacts collected by the expedition. The American Museum of Natural History sent a biologist, Charles Breder, and the University of Rochester sent a geologist, Herman Fairchild. A writer representing the Gannett newspaper chain and a newsreel photographer from Pathé were added. In Panama, a topographer from the Canal administration, a retired military man who was an amateur naturalist, two lieutenants from the US Army, an agronomist representing President Belisario Porras of Panama and some Puerto Rican enlisted men joined the North American contingent. The enlisted men, along with local Indians and Blacks, of course did all the physical labor.

Arriving in Panama in January 1924, Marsh first did an aerial survey of the Darién. In early February the expedition took a launch along the Pacific coast and upriver to Yaviza, where Marsh had encountered the three white Indian girls, but they had already left.

The local branch of the Kuna in the Tuyra River valley were friendly to Marsh but claimed that all the white Indians lived far up the Chucunaque among the unpacified "Bravos" Kuna - a lie designed to put off snoopy foreigners. Though an albino woman was spotted running out of a house into the forest, there were clearly no white tribes or villages on the Tuyra.

Expedition Faces Difficult Going

At the end of March the expedition, minus some of its older members, started upstream. The distances to be covered were moderate, but since it was the end of the dry season, they found the upper Chucunaque choked with huge logs, which they laboriously chopped through and blew up with dynamite. Strange whistles, rustlings in the undergrowth at night and warning signs of arrows and feathers left on sand bars magnified their fears of Indian attacks.

Two mutinies broke out, first by the Black canoemen, then by one of the lieutenants, but Marsh successfully faced both down. Then two expedition members fell sick, the Panamanian agronomist, Raoul Brin, and the Smithsonian anthropologist, John Baer. Marsh was a bit skeptical and not very sympathetic about their illnesses but sent Brin back downstream. Later they learned that he died of malaria on reaching Panama. Baer, an obese man with chronic kidney problems (not, one would have thought, a good candidate for jungle travel) had contracted a serious infection from a botfly bite, but he stayed with the expedition.

The group continued upriver with great difficulty to the mouth of an effluent of the Chucunaque, the Sukkupti. Here they made contact with the supposedly fierce, unpacified Kuna, who turned out to be weakened by epidemics and no serious threat, but not white.

At the beginning of the rainy season things began to fall seriously apart. The group was almost washed away by a flash flood and some of the Blacks deserted. Baer's condition worsened and others in the party began to sicken too. Marsh, it would later turn out, had malaria, and the biologist Breder had malaria and typhoid simultaneously.

The expedition's original plan was to continue to the headwaters and then down the Bayano River. Instead they turned north and crossed over the cordillera to the Caribbean coast in the San Blas region, carrying Baer in a hammock slung from poles. Once on the north coast, Baer died and was buried on shore. Others began deserting, and Marsh, who had yet to see any white Indians, was left with a shattered expedition. Plenty of ordinary Kuna, many more than in the interior, were at hand, however, and Marsh began talking with their leaders.

Panama's Incorporation of San Blas

The Kuna of this region, whose population has since increased to about 35,000, probably numbered about 10,000 then. Until the mid-19th century they had lived along the small rivers flowing north into the Caribbean. Then, in an era of relative peace, they began moving out onto islands along the shore away from mosquitos, illness and snakes, and toward the coastal trade in turtle-shell, forest products and coconuts. Establishing themselves in an unusual adaptive niche, they lived on the islands but kept their farms on the mainland.

Throughout the 19th century the Kuna gave token allegiance to Colombia, which, for the most part left them alone. With Panama's independence in 1903, however, their situation changed drastically. They occupied a strategically sensitive location at the Colombian border, and some Kuna villages remained loyal to Colombia until 1918. At the same time, coastal Black populations to the west and east of San Blas began to encroach more insistently on Kuna territory in search of turtles and forest products.

Panama soon began a campaign to establish administrative control of San Blas and incorporate it into the new nation. In 1904 a number of villages were convinced to accept the Panamanian flag. In 1906, 17 students were taken to the city to be educated at government expense. In 1907 a priest salaried by the government entered San Blas, and when some Kuna objected violently to his presence, his Indian supporters were armed. In 1908 the most receptive village leader was named chief of the Atlantic coast. In 1909 a border post was established which a special frontier police force manned. In 1912 a Liberal administration cut off funds for the priest, and in 1913 a Protestant missionary moved onto the island where he had worked. In 1915 the government established a headquarters at the western end of San Blas, along with small police outposts on a handful of islands. In 1917 the Kuna educated in the city, now fanatic proponents of "progress," began returning home, where, along with the frontier police, they began a program of rapid and coercive culture change.

Other Kuna islands resisted this program tenaciously. When President Carlos Mendoza, a Liberal Black and an enemy of Marsh when the latter was First Secretary of the US Legation in Panama in 1910, toured San Blas the same year, he received a chilly reception. Five years later, when President Porras toured the region, he was turned away at several villages and told in strong terms that he was no president of theirs.

The government's campaign, moreover, was severely hampered by a weak police force and a lack of funds. The intendente of San Blas sent frequent letters to his superiors complaining, for instance, that a tour to pacify the region after a violent incident was cut short when their launch began sinking, that prisoners had to be put up with the police for lack of a jail, that the headquarters was running out of fresh water because it had no boat to send to the river, and that things would be very tricky if the Indians discovered how few bullets they had for their guns. The administration realized that it lacked the resources to pacify the region by force alone, and that in effect it had to "civilize" the Kuna to control them.

Government Tries to Eradicate Kuna Culture

Throughout the government program - which included colonization, commerce, public health, censuses and civil registries - the amount of energy devoted to eradicating Kuna culture, both as a means to an end and through genuine commitment, is striking. The police and administrators were especially offended by aspects of Kuna custom that paralleled features of their own culture or organization. Thus, though they generally tolerated and worked through village chiefs, they were adamantly opposed to village policemen, who were uncomfortably like themselves.

Of all the customs the government tried to change, two deserve special emphasis: dress and drink. As has since become widely recognized, Kuna women wear vivid costumes with brightly colored headcloths and skirts framing hand-sewn blouses called molas. Today, mola designs appear on placemats, gas station walls and ashtrays throughout Panama. But in those days, the administration of San Blas was deeply offended by native dress, especially by the nose rings Kuna women wore and the beads they wrapped around their arms and legs.

This reaction to the wrappings, which tightly bind women's limbs and, over time, permanently distort them, strongly resembled Western reaction to foot binding in China: the practice represented in an exaggerated way the obstacle to progress and development that agents of acculturation saw in traditionalism. The government's emphasis on dress was intuitively perceptive because, to the Kuna, the female costume was and is a key symbol of their ethnic identity and separation.

Beginning in 1921, police and modernists were able to force wholesale conversions to Panamanian dress on a few islands, and as their control spread during the early 1920s, so did the conversions. Each one brought letters of commendation from the police's and modernists' superiors - including President Porras himself - as well as Kuna cries of outrage.

Drinking and dancing were also targets for suppression, which is ironic, since, in contrast to many Indians of Latin America, the Kuna are quite abstemious. They use no drugs and prohibit alcohol consumption except at village-wide festivals, which occur several times a year in honor of a pubescent girl's coming of age. These highly complex events, which can last as long as three or four days, involve chanting, dancing, various rituals and heavy drinking by both men and women. The police and the young educated Kuna modernists forbade the puberty ceremonies, or chichas, as they were called, on the islands where they held sway. When they heard of chichas on nearby islands, they sometimes sent raiding parties to smash the pots in which the alcoholic drink was brewing.

As with women's dress, the police and administrators intuitively recognized the ceremonies as a key symbol of Kuna ethnicity. At the same time, they were genuinely appalled by the drinking. Moreover, they feared disorder and insurrection during sprees. There are indications that they were influenced by Prohibition (the Canal Zone was dry during the 1920s) and even perhaps by US government policy concerning alcohol on North American reservations.

Clubs Lead to Carnival

On the islands where the police suppressed the chichas and gained control, they invariably set up a club where, once a week, young adults were forced to attend and dance to the accompaniment of wind-up gramophones. (Drinking, though forbidden by the higher administration, often occurred.) Why did emphasis fall on such seeming trivia, on recreation rather than faith or government? It has been suggested that the dances reflect a pattern in the frontier Black culture of northern South America, but the policemen, whom Marsh portrayed as Blacks, were in fact mostly Mestizo interioranos.

I would suggest that the police were obviously trying to replace the chicha, much as early missionaries built churches on the ruins of pagan temples. The models the police emulated were the social and political clubs then prevalent in Panama City. Much more important, however, was what the club dances prefigured and led to - carnival.

Panama's carnival, though not so famous abroad as Rio de Janeiro's or New Orleans', has not only been a high point of the country's social year but a core symbol of national identity throughout the 20th century. The club dances were, in effect, miniature versions of the same symbol, as well as preparations for the real thing; the first carnival on a Kuna island in 1919 or 1920 was a landmark event.

Once again, in its attempt to replace Kuna identity with national identity, the government chose a prime target. The Kuna reacted strongly against the clubs. Dancing while touching, let along cheek-to-cheek, was interpreted as a highly offensive sexual encroachment on Kuna women. When men tried to keep their wives and daughters from going to the dances, they were thrown in jail or put in stocks. Even today, "club" is still a dirty word in San Blas.

The National Context

In some ways what was happening to the Kuna prior to Marsh's search for the white Indians typifies the experiences of indigenous people all over the world. At the same time, the Panamanian government's acculturative program had its own peculiarities - secular authorities are not always as concerned with cultural matters as are missionaries - and these peculiarities were conditioned by Panama's singular situation. Panama, after all, had yet to consolidate its sovereignty and sense of itself. The possibility of US annexation was frequently discussed during the first decades of Panama's independence, and many doubted Panama's validity as a national unit. In addition, Panama was a multi-ethnic society with several racial and national groups often at odds with one another.

In the context of trying to unify a country and create a national identity - a Latin identity it should be emphasized - Kuna claims to ethnic autonomy and a distinctly non-Latin culture were harder to stomach than they might have been in different circumstances. Quiet, implicit separation by unorganized "savages" like the Choco, who went about their business without paying attention to national borders or controls, could be overlooked. But the Kuna, who were only "semi-savage," and who bluntly told Panama in their stiff-necked way to mind its own business, were intolerable and could not be overlooked.

The US presence, much more heavy-handed in those days, of course intensified Panamanian concerns about national sovereignty. In addition to the Canal Zone itself and the well-known treaty clause legitimizing US intervention, it should be remembered that the US pressured Panama first to disband its army and then to largely disarm its police, that the US would not let Panama have any radio stations, that the US impeded construction of a vital cross-Isthmian highway, that an American comptroller oversaw the government's budget, and that the US could, and did, seize Panamanian lands, even those not contiguous with the Canal Zone, often without prior notification. Until 1930 the US right to intervene in domestic conflict was interpreted to mean that coups d'etat would not be tolerated. Consequently, political maneuvering often degenerated into attempts to provoke or discourage US intervention.

National Sovereignty vs. Indigenous Autonomy

The Kuna thus poked Panama in a sore spot. A rebellious or autonomous San Blas was all too uncomfortably similar to the Canal Zone, an internal enclave embedding an external threat to sovereignty into the very body of the nation. The government reaction to Kuna attempts to exclude non-Indian turtlers and rubber-gatherers exemplified this particularly well. The administration of San Blas was not entirely unsympathetic to Kuna interests: when it imposed a tax on turtling, Indians were exempted, and for a while non-Indian turtlers were excluded altogether. What it could not abide was Indians trying to control access to the "national forests" and territorial waters, something the administration insisted only sovereign governments could properly do.

The Kuna were especially threatening because of their ties to those forces that most put sovereignty in question. Initially, the danger was Colombia, to whom some Kuna had remained loyal, but the real threat, of course, was the United States. San Blas, like much of the Caribbean coast of Central America, had long been a frontier area between English- and Spanish-speaking spheres of influence. In the past the Kuna had allied themselves with pirates and more recently had shipped out as sailors on US-owned ships. Many Kuna, whose language is full of English borrowings, showed a strong preference for English and for anglophilic culture.

More significantly, an English Protestant, Miss Anna Coope, who was generally perceived as North American, supplanted the original Catholic missionaries to a considerable extent. Just as Coope was not an American, most of the priests were not Panamanian. But missionary memoirs and documents make clear that both Catholics and Protestants pushed rival cultures and national allegiances as well as rival faiths (a bias that has become more apparent in recent years with the great spread of Protestantism in Latin America). The administration overlooked Kuna resistance to English-speaking as well as Spanish-speaking encroachers; both exaggerated Coope's influence and forgot that she, too, hated chichas and noserings, because to them, she represented the convergence of rebels and external threats.

The Kuna Seek Marsh's Help

From 1919 to 1924 the acculturation program rapidly accelerated and Kuna-government relations further deteriorated. Non-Indians, who increasingly entered San Blas in armed groups, increased pressure on local resources, and two banana plantations began operating at opposite ends of the region. Indian efforts to resist the increasing suppression through the political and legal system with lawyers and land-buying schemes ultimately failed, and a series of violent small-scale clashes with police occurred.

It is important to note that in comparison with the mistreatment of other indigenous peoples in the hemisphere, including of course, the genocide, forced relocation and other injustices North American Indians suffered in the 19th century, Panama's acculturative program pales. In San Blas directives to use persuasion rather than force were frequently issued, and police who mistreated Indians were sometimes arrested and punished. On the village level, however, these directives were frequently ignored, and the program was often harshly coercive. The administration showed interest in Indian welfare, though only as it saw it.

Marsh arrived just as the crisis deepened still further. In 1924 the police expanded to five new villages and rapidly imposed their program. Banana disease elsewhere in Panama promoted the rapid expansion of the plantations in San Blas, attracting a large influx of West Indian workers. The Kuna in the larger of the two blocks of as-yet unoccupied villages felt that the moment to fight back had arrived.

Having sought external allies for some time, the Kuna seized on the opportunity presented by Marsh. Initially, he wanted to take a delegation to Panama to present the Indian case to the government and US authorities and then continue through the Darién. But the Kuna, knowing of Marsh's frustrated search, presented him with some of the white Indians they had been hiding from him, and Marsh changed the delegation's destination to the US.

Three albino Kuna children and adolescents along with five ordinary adult Kuna left for the US with Marsh in June 1924. In New York they were received with considerable publicity, met by photographers on the boat and given a banquet at their hotel. (Marsh's son still remembers the thrill of shooting blowgun darts into the mahogany doors of their suite in the Waldorf.) A scientific debate about the nature of the Indians' whiteness - whether it was a skin disease, a result of European admixture, an indication of a separate race or some form of albinism - was highly publicized; between 1923 and 1925 the New York Times alone carried 27 stories and six editorials about the Indians and the expedition.

Marsh soon took the party to a summer retreat at the Canadian border, where a delegation of scientists including Julian Huxley came down from the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto to examine the white Indians. In the fall they moved to Washington, DC, where Marsh set them up in a house on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase across from the golf course. Marsh and some of the Indians spoke on the radio, and studies were conducted by Smithsonian scientists - J.P. Harrington on the Kuna language, Frances Densmore on their music, Herbert Krieger on their material culture and Ales Hrdlicka on their physical anthropology.

Meanwhile, Marsh lobbied the government and the Washington establishment on behalf of the Kuna. Although evidence concerning this aspect of the trip is thin, it seems that President Coolidge and Secretary of State Hughes denied Marsh interviews, and that he left Washington without official assurances of support.

The Kuna Successfully Rebel

In January 1925 Marsh returned to Panana, accompanied by the biologist Reginald Harris and Harris's wife. Their small party slipped into San Blas, where they stayed during a month of rising tension. On carnival day, the 23rd of February, revolution broke out on all the occupied islands. Over the next few days a total of about 30 police, collaborators and mixed-race children were killed, while others fled to Colon. An independent republic was proclaimed, and a 25-page declaration of independence, which Marsh composed, was sent to US and Panamanian authorities.

For a few days the Kuna held the field while they prepared for the Panamanian and American reaction. With few military resources, Panama asked the US to help capture Marsh, and it sent a force of police to San Blas on a boat loaned by one of the banana plantations. The US Minister, John Glover South, put together a mixed Panamanian and North American party on the USS Cleveland, a cruiser of the "Special Service [i.e., intervention] Squadron" and sailed for San Blas.

With the main Kuna force dug in on an island and the USS Cleveland and police vessel a few hundred yards away, the situation was a stand-off. After interviewing the Indian leaders and coming to sympathize with their plight. Minister South flew back to Panama in a seaplane to fetch the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.J. Alfaro, whom he considered the most open-minded member of the cabinet. With South as mediator and witness, the Kuna and the Panamanian government rapidly came to a peace agreement, under which the Indians renewed their allegiance to Panama while the police withdrew. Because the Indians denied Marsh's role in the rebellion, Panama contented itself with expelling him from the country rather than requesting extradition, and he left through the Canal Zone.

From an account of his adventures Marsh published 10 years later, one might gather the impression that much of this was rigged from the start. State Department records and his own diaries suggest otherwise. The diaries show that Marsh hoped that the US would intervene but worried that it would not. A memo from Secretary of State Hughes on February 22 instructs the US Legation in Panama to inform Marsh that he would be allowed neither to "foment disorder" nor to receive protection from Panamanian retribution. As for the Kuna, "It is believed that the presence of a United States war vessel will be sufficient to deter the natives from further resistance." In fact, it was only as the Indians convinced Minister South of the injustice they had suffered and the inevitability of their rebellion regardless of Marsh that South decided to intervene on their behalf.

The most remarkable aspect of this story is that the treaty held. Further agreements were reached in the early 1930s, and in 1938 an official reservation was created, which remains today. San Blas is, of course, firmly incorporated into the Panamanian nation, but the Kuna enjoy a large measure of self-management. Currently the regional judge, the local national guard commandant, the three high chiefs of the reserve, most police and even the intendente of San Blas are all Kuna. Moreover, the Kuna and the Panamanian government have a healthy working relationship, characterized by occasional friction and even conflict but also by a great deal of cooperation and accommodation. The Kuna are economically healthy, play an active and positive role in national politics and still drink chicha and wear molas.

An Historical Parallel With the Miskito Case

Like the Kuna before 1925, the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua found themselves caught up during the 1980s in conflicts strongly conditioned by cultural difference. After the overthrow of Somoza, the Sandinistas and the Miskito of the organization MISURASATA began negotiations concerning the status of indigenous peoples and their lands. Despite initial hopes for an accord, relations rapidly deteriorated, leading to a breakdown of negotiations, with mutual recriminations, arrests, violence and ultimately guerrilla war. Since then Miskitia has become a principal theater in the Sandinista-Contra struggle.

Clearly, Sandinista incomprehension and intolerance contributed to the initial breakdown of relations with the Miskito. Even by their own accounts, the Sandinistas botched the job of communicating with the Miskito; whatever they said publicly, they were decidedly unsettled and even offended by claims to cultural separation and difference, as was evident in the often-quoted phrase, "We are all Mestizos." In both the Panamanian and Nicaraguan cases, experience compounded insensitivity: Latins hardly knew their country's Caribbean coast, and unlike Mexican or Peruvian nationals, they had little recent practice in dealing with indigenous minorities of any sort.

In the Miskito case, even more than in the Kuna, external threats to sovereignty unequivocally conditioned reactions to an internal enclave. Like the Panamanians 60 or 70 years before, Nicaraguans found it difficult to accept claims for indigenous autonomy and a separate identity, especially claims from a region historically tied to encroaching powers, with an English Creole as its lingua franca, while struggling themselves to establish national autonomy and identity. When the US stepped up its anti-Sandinista campaign and provided aid to Miskito as well as Latin contras, the identity between internal and external threat naturally seemed confirmed.

Another similarity between the Miskito and Kuna concerns land, which in both cases mattered symbolically as well as materially. Just as the Panamanian government was quite willing to leave the Kuna their village sites and farms but took umbrage at attempts to control "the national forests," when relations broke off between the Sandinistas and MISURASATA, the Indian organization was about to ask for a large block of land, but the government was offering only an archipelago of small territorial islands within a region dedicated to a national development scheme. In both conflicts, each side demanded a large, unbroken and uncompromised territory as a sign of its own autonomy and integrity.

The Kuna revolution was ultimately a success for Panama as well as for the Kuna. The conflict between the Sandinistas and the Miskito contras, however, at least so far, has been dreadful for all concerned. Why these disparate results?

US Role Differs with Miskito

Kuna-Miskito differences are not irrelevant. More patient, the Kuna waited over a decade and exhausted other avenues before rebelling. They were also more astute politically, and their meticulously planned actions created an instant stalemate, ideal for intervention and negotiation. In the years since 1925 they have further refined this pattern several times, using a brief, controlled episode of violence to highlight a problem and impel its resolution.

The crucial differences, however, lie not in Kuna or Miskito actions but in those of the US government. In the case of the Kuna revolution, the US played a remarkably benign role. As noted above, the available evidence belies the claim that the United States helped promote Indian rebellion, or even that the State Department and the US Legation in Panama initially trusted Marsh or took the Kuna seriously. When the US did intervene, it was partly in response to a Panamanian request for help. Throughout, it is clear that a genuine concern for Indian welfare, which happily coincided with US policy of controlling conflict in the interests of the Canal, motivated the American minister. Afterward, moreover, the legation distanced itself from the situation and resisted Kuna invitations to intervene again. Although Marsh is remembered in Panama as a villain, the legation's efforts do not seem to have been resented at the time.

In every respect this could not be more different from the Reagan Administration's role in the current Central American conflict. The Miskito, far from arousing genuine concern or support from the Administration, have been cynically manipulated in the anti-Sandinista campaign. Like other indigenous peoples who have been used as proxies in such wars, they will undoubtedly be abandoned when no longer needed.

In the early decades of this century, when the US intervened frequently in the Caribbean basin (the USS Cleveland was well-known in Nicaragua), it usually supported the status quo. Although the motivation and results were usually deplorable, current US policy in Central America shows how much worse intervention is when it is aimed at disruption and destabilization. In effect, the Reagan Administration makes the status quo look good.

Toward Negotiated Solutions

The Kuna, it must be stressed, achieved their goals not through armed struggle alone, but through a combination of violence and negotiation. Negotiation would not have occurred without violence, and probably not without the stand-off that resulted, in which neither side had the means to rapidly defeat the other and both, a great deal to lose in a protracted struggle. Violence succeeded, however, only as an impetus to negotiation.

The accord Minister South fostered ended the fighting and removed the policemen but achieved little else. No one involved - not South, not Marsh, not the Indians, not the government - trusted the agreement or thought it settled matters. The situation remained unresolved for five years, until in 1930 the principal Kuna leader of the time, Nele Kantule, came to town to talk with the government and the political parties. The Kuna had learned they couldn't go it alone, the government recognized its past errors and both sides saw benefit in regularizing relations. The agreements they reached during the 1930s led to further accords in 1945 and 1953 in a process of negotiation that has continued to the present.

In Nicaragua, unhappily, the conditions favoring negotiation have taken much longer to arrive and the cost has been high. Both sides are now hurting badly: the Sandinistas have lost more international support over the Miskito conflict than from almost anything else and the Miskito have suffered terribly. Neither side has been able to defeat the other, and both now have more to gain from compromise than from continuing violence.

Indeed, signs of at least incipient negotiation have begun to appear. Brooklyn Rivera, the head of MISURASATA and the Miskito leader with the most credibility and support, has met several times in the last year with Sandinista leaders. Despite great mistrust on both sides, contact has been made. A de facto cease-fire holds on some parts of the East Coast; Miskito fighters and Sandinistas now jointly guard some installations and routes; and an exodus has occurred, away from the relocation camps and back to the evacuated border areas.

In the face of determined opposition from the Reagan Administration and the contras, who have exploited Miskito factionalism and are currently busy setting up "indigenous" organizations to justify intransigence, much more negotiation is needed in order to achieve peace. The process has begun, however, and one can only hope that the Miskito and Nicaragua are as successful as Panama and the Kuna.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.