On 18 February 1981 Nicaraguan security forces quickly arrested 33 leaders of MISURASATA, the official Indian organization representing approximately 185,000 Miskito. Sumu, and Rama Indians from the Atlantic Coast. In the coastal town of Prinzapolka, when the police moved to capture a local leader, 4 Miskitos and 4 police were killed. Shortly thereafter, about 3000 Miskitos fled across the border to Honduras. Within a month most of the prisoners were released. The refugees are returning gradually, but tensions still run high.

Accusations, counter accusations, and defenses have aggravated the problems. Security forces accused MISURASATA of preparing a separatist movement. With Miskito nation literacy campaign workers serving as a centralized network of instigators. MISURASATA, in turn, charged that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Nicaraguan Government of National Reconstruction (GRN). Nicaraguan Government of National Reconstruction (GRN) was turning the Atlantic Coast into an armed camp. After the violence at Prinzapolka, Indians claimed to have found a government document in which 83 literacy workers were named for assassination.

As these acrimonious, but usually unsubstantiated charges volleyed, international attention briefly focused on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, casting local incidents into a larger geopolitical arena. MISURASATA was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and collusion with exiled Somocista forces preparing for invasion. MISURASATA's officials, in turn, claimed that Cubans were calling all of the shots on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The Chilean and Guatemalan press cited the incidents to illustrate "repressive socialism" in Nicaragua. The U.S. State Department suggested that Nicaragua be criticized for human rights violations. Nicaragua's opposition press, La Prensa, rallied in support of MISURASATA; the FSLN newspaper, Barricada, denounced a MISURASATA official as an exagent of Somoza's security forces. And GRN security forces detained Miskitos returning from Honduras, fearful that they were guerrilla infiltrators.

Meanwhile, native people in the Americas and others throughout the world watched Nicaragua, where a popular revolution toppled a tyrant and promised social and economic equality. Until recently, political representation for MISURASATA, agricultural assistance on the Atlantic Coast, and a bilingual literacy campaign demonstrated concern for ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, conspiratorial charges and information gleaned from rumors, angry accusations, and propaganda have blurred the complex historical, geographical, and ethnic differences which gave rise to recent violence.

Cultural Survival is preparing a review of the Indian situation in Nicaragua. Meanwhile this article briefly considers several misunderstandings which have contributed to the Miskito Indians' perceived reluctance to embrace the Nicaraguan revolution. The critical problem for the Miskitos, however, is their fear that nationalization of land on the Atlantic Coast will alienate their base for subsistence and cash cropping.


Since July 1979, one of the goals of Nicaragua's National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) has been to increase agricultural production, particularly cash crops. A major effort has been underway to incorporate the isolated Atlantic Coast into the national economy. However, using terms heard throughout developing tropical lowland areas. INRA officials criticized Miskito farmers' lack of enthusiasm for expanded programs of rice and bean production. Miskito Indians, they said, lacked the initiative to produce surplus for the markets and were content with their small subsistence gardens. However, since the 16th century, the Miskitos have been involved actively in an international market economy, trading surplus agricultural products for manufactured goods. And since the turn of the century, Indians have been producing beans and rice for the national market. Why then didn't they welcome INRA's program?

Prior to 1979, most Miskito farmers depended on regional merchants for seeds and marketing outlets. In the early days of the revolution, many farmers continued to rely on these exploitative merchants rather than accept INRA's more profitable seed and marketing programs. Yet, they were not resisting change but rather, evaluating options. INRA, like most institutions on the Atlantic Coast, was staffed largely by non-Indians, many of whom had worked in similar positions under Somoza and had become "revolutionaries" after July 1979. Few Miskitos would embrace unhesitatingly any institution administered by such individuals.

Early INRA programs designed to distribute seed and collect produce also ran into considerable logistical problems. In settlements close to such urban areas as Puerto Cabezas, large quantities of seed were distributed easily and produce was quickly received. In more isolated communities farmers prepared large plots, but were unable to sow because seed failed to arrive. In some areas where seed was distributed, large harvests rotted while waiting for government boats to transport the produce to market. Meanwhile, local merchants often threatened to cut off sales and purchases from Miskitos who criticized them or attempted to circumvent them. Thus, when faced with the choice of buying seeds and marketing their produce through exploitative merchants, or planting potentially nonexistent seeds for potentially unapproachable markets, many Miskito farmers opted for the security provided by the traditional system. MISURASATA officials, however, stressed that such problems were not structural, but rather methodological. As such, initial hesitation could be remedied through improved coordination. Other problems cannot be eliminated so easily.


Miskitos complain of a large military presence on the Atlantic Coast, particularly in the area near Puerto Cabezas and along the Rio Coco border with Honduras. During Somoza's rule, there were relatively few guardian stationed in the area; now there are soldiers all along the river and military facilities near Puerto Cabezas have been expanded greatly. Several extraofficial incidents between soldiers and Miskitos have angered the local citizens.

For the Nicaraguan government, these events are the unfortunate side effects of an essential defense program. Counterrevolutionary troops are known to be training across the border in Honduras, and incursions into Nicaragua are common. Latin America Regional Reports (19 September 1980) writes that "The north is certainly the best known problem area for the Sandinistas, and was responsible for both army and air force units being placed on alert for several weeks in July and August (1980)."

Nor is the increased military presence an overreaction to a few guerrilla bands. Counterrevolutionary groups are reported to be numerous and supported by men and arms from Guatemala and Honduras. The so-called U.S. State Dept. "dissent channel document" distributed in late 1980 indicates that, passively or otherwise, counterrevolutionary support may be extensive.

U.S. intelligence has been in contact with Nicaraguan exile groups in Guatemala and in Miami and it is aware of their relationship with Cuban-exile terrorist groups in the U.S. Charges that the CIA has been promoting and encouraging these organizations have not been substantiated. However, no attempt has been made to restrict their mobility in and out of the U.S. or to interfere with their activities. Their mobility and their links with the U.S. - it seems reasonable to assume - could not be maintained without the passive consent (or practical incompetence) of at least 4 agencies: the Immigration and Naturalization Service, CIA, FBI, and U.S. Customs.

Until such threats diminish, Nicaragua undoubtedly will protect its northern border, half of which is populated by Miskito Indians. However, as one Indian explained, the best defense might well be an armed, loyal Miskito community. Before that can occur a large historical and cultural gap must be narrowed through trust, and actions which warrant such trust. Charges of racism and separatism will not help.


MISURASATA's efforts to obtain Indian land rights and a degree of local control have been interpreted, by non-Indian Nicaraguans, as evidence of some historical antipathy of the Miskitos toward Nicaragua's Spanish-speaking population. Miskitos are also said to have a strong admiration for English-speaking people. Such sentiments, supposedly imbedded in the early colonial period and persisting to the present day, are thus used to explain the Miskitos' difficult alliances with Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans and, conversely, their frequent collaboration with the English or North Americans.

In the early colonial period, the Spanish failed to take over the Atlantic Coast, but the Indians, nevertheless, were aware of the Spaniards' brutal treatment of Indians elsewhere. They saw British presence as far less threatening, and, later, merchants visited or set up temporary residence in coves along the coast. From there they traded manufactured goods to the Miskitos.

The most important of these new manufactured items was the musket, from which the Miskitos obtained their name. Mary Helms, an anthropologist, writes:

Armed with these new weapons, the Miskito, as a population, gradually extended their influence over their now less powerful neighbors, who either became culturally extinct or retreated to the headwaters of the numerous rivers crossing the coast. She later adds:

To give Britain a legal foothold on territory claimed by Spain, a Miskito Indian was taken to Jamaica about 1687 to place his country under British protection. He was given a piece of writing and a cocked hat, and duly proclaimed "king of Mosquitia" by the English authorities. This man was the first in a line of "kings," the last of whom ended his office in 1894.

Shortly after the arrest of MISURASATA officials, the Nicaraguan press claimed that the organization was trying to re-establish the "kingdom." But the Miskito monarchy was always more symbolic than political. Seen from outside the Mosquitia, the British-appointed king appears to have established a close imperial link between the British and the Miskitos, a subsequent distance between the Indians and the Spaniards, and a unified Miskito state. But for the British, the king simply allowed England to justify a protectorate in the eyes of other European nations. For a few Miskitos, the kingdom provided justification for attacks on neighbors or demands for tribute.

For the average Miskito, the king mattered little. Although appointed by the Crown, kings could not exercise authority without first consulting with a council of elders, and, Helms writes, "even then their directions were followed only if their constituents felt inclined to do so." She adds, "actual political decisions within Miskito society seem to have been made by village headmen and regional chiefs - a practice more in keeping with the traditional decentralized nature of the indigenous political organization."

Thus, strong links with the British developed not from their personal appeal, but from their trade goods. While such exchanges were undoubtedly lopsided in favor of those who provided the manufactured goods, the Miskito labor required to produce food for exchange did not force the Indians to alter their basic economic pattern. Nor did the trade relations threaten their land base. Although the Miskito maintained close contact with market economies and powerful nation states, they, unlike the peasants and Indians of Nicaragua's Pacific Coast, were subordinate to neither.

In 1894, when the Mosquitia was formally incorporated into the rest of Nicaragua, the economics of the Atlantic Coast shifted from trade to extraction of natural resources and, to a lesser extent, banana cultivation. Beginning at the turn of the century, gold and silver were mined regularly from deposits near the present day settlements of Siuna and Bonanza, and mahogany trees were felled throughout the coastal forests. Most of these new activities were in the hands of United States companies. By 1926, 3000 salaried employees worked for the Bragman's Bluff Lumber Company in Puerto Cabezas. However, both there and in the mines, most employees were either short-term laborers or adolescent males who traditionally travelled and worked outside the community for a period before settling down. Likewise, with few exceptions, bananas were produced in Miskito gardens rather than on the extensive land-gobbling plantations which dominated Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. None of these new salaried or contract economic activities precluded regular maintenance of garden plots. Subsistence farming, with the security and economic independence it provided, continued to dominate an economy which was also linked to capitalism and wage labor.

Following World War II the situation changed. The U.S. Nicaraga Longleaf Pine Lumber Company (NIPCO) opened large-scale lumbering activities on extensive pine forests in northeast Nicaragua. Although NIPCO is said to have developed a plan for reforestation, Somoza agreed to accept a higher export tax instead. As a result, the forests of northeastern Zelaya were denuded and Indians were removed from their land. Production declined in the early 1960's and NIPCO departed in 1966. At about the same time, to revive the industry Somoza initiated a massive reforestation project, directed by the Instituto de Fomento Nacional (INFONAC) and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Large tracts of land utilized by the Miskitos were "nationalized" and the Miskito were prohibited from extracting lumber. For the first time, the state and market economies were seen as a threat to the Miskitos' claim to land and natural resources. Shortly thereafter, in 1967, local Indian organizations developed along the Coco River. Four years later, Nicaragua's first national Indian organization, Alpromisu, was formed to protect rights to land and natural resources. Violence punctuated Alpromisu's early history. Somoza's guardian disrupted meetings and frequently jailed Alpromisu officials. The organization was charged regularly with attempting to encourage separatism, and regionalism, and associating with foreign enemies.

In 1979 with the end of a war which, for geographical reasons, incorporated few Miskitos and the installation of a regime which most Indians only partially understood, Miskitos were hesitant to give up their local organization. So they established MISURASATA which means Miskito, Sumu, Rama, and Sandinistas, working together. As the GRN began to provide the Miskitos with opportunities for bilingual education, agricultural assistance, and representation within the Council of State, MISURASATA cautiously embraced the Sandinistas. However, in August 1980, when plans were announced for nationalizing lands on the Atlantic Coast, MISURASATA quickly obtained the Council of State's approval to postpone any nationalization until Indian land claims were settled. In September MISURASATA requested and received funds from Cultural Survival for a study of Indian community land rights on the Atlantic Coast. The research was completed by January 1981 and is scheduled for presentation to INRA, the National Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA), the National Forestry Institute (CORFOB), and the Nicaraguan Institute of Mines (CONDEMINA), government organizations which will help determine the nature and extent of the Indian communities' rights to natural resources.

The Miskitos' reaction to proposed nationalization of land and resources along the Atlantic Coast was not prompted by some historical antipathy towards "Spaniards;" it was a response to a perceived threat against their subsistence security and their status as equals in relations with nation states. Prior to 1980 the only serious threat to such freedoms led to the formation of Alpromisu. As MISURASATA worked to assure rights to land and natural resources, its efforts produced familiar accusations of racism, separatism, and rumors of an incipient regional "revolt." Such accusations led to the arrests of February 1981, and, in turn, the movement of Miskitos across the Honduran border.

Some MISURASATA leaders have chosen permanent exile in Honduras, where they regularly transmit scathing accusations against the Sandinista regime. Others, such as MISURASATA officials in Nicaragua and Armstrong Wiggins, a MISURASATA member at the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, are working to create an understanding between the Sandinistas and the Indians. They state that, unlike regimes such as those which rule Guatemala, Nicaragua's GRN has been willing to accept criticism and admit its mistakes. There is therefore a basis for discussion, a possibility for resolution.

On 12 August 1981, the FSLN and the GRN produced a Declaration of Principles of the Sandinista Popular Revolution regarding Indian Communities of the Atlantic Coast. Article 5 of that statement says that "the Sandinista Popular Revolution guarantees and will legalize, through the adjudication of land titles, the ownership of lands where indigenous communities of the Atlantic Coast have historically lived, whether these be communal land holdings or cooperatives." Article 6 states that "the natural resources of our land are the property of the Nicaraguan people, represented by the Revolutionary State which is the only suitable entity for establishing the rational and efficient exploitation of resources, while recognizing the right of Indian communities to receive a share of the benefits derived from the exploitation of forestry resources and to subsequently invest these shares in municipal and communal development projects which are in agreement with national planning." While this document is extremely broad and contains statements regarding rational resource management which will be challenged by native people, the Declaration nevertheless can serve as a means for discussion when considered alongside more specific documents such as MISURASATA'S study of land and natural resource rights. If such discussions are successful, terms such as self-determination and local control need not be confused with racism and separatism.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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