Nicaraguan Indians join rebels - but fight for self-rule

Brooklyn Rivera, one of two rival leaders of Nicaragua's largest minority, the Miskito Indians, uses the same arguments - at times even the same words - as his allies fighting the Sandinista government in Managua.

The Sandinistas, he says, have betrayed the principles that united Nicaraguans against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.

The Miskitos, like other anti-Sandinistas, have taken up arms against the Sandinista government. Sometimes they fight side by side with non-Indian rebels, at other times simply in coordination with them. The Miskitos often announce victories over government forces in the Atlantic zone of Nicaragua, the jungle and swamp region that has served for centuries as the Indians' home.

But there are wide differences between the Indian and non-Indian rebels - differences in history, in lifestyle, and in goals.

''We're not fighting just for the overthrow of the government, we're fighting for our aboriginal rights, including regional autonomy,'' says Rivera, who leads Misurasata, an umbrella group for Nicaragua's Miskito, Sumo, and Rama Indians.

Some call the goal of Indian autonomy a pipedream. And Rivera admits there is considerable resistance to the idea even from his current allies. But, he says it is the one goal for which the Miskitos are willing to fight.

''The only guarantee (of autonomy) is with arms in our hands. While any other situation exists, no one is going to recognize us,'' says Rivera.

The Atlantic (Caribbean) coast, where the Miskitos live, has a long history of isolation from the rest of Nicaragua. It was only in 1894 that the eastern region was integrated into independent Nicaragua. Only about 10 percent of the nation's people live there, and the predominant religion is Moravian Protestant, while in the rest of the country it is Roman Catholic.

The region saw little of the fighting that led to the overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. But the Miskitos hoped the revolution would bring change. Under Somoza, the Miskitos were largely neglected. But neglect also brought a certain autonomy. Their lifestyle followed traditional patterns.

Under the Sandinistas, the Indians say their situation has not improved. The Sandinistas saw the Miskito lands as a weak link in their security system and set out to integrate the Miskitos into the rest of the country. It was the Indians' first experience with a strong central government.

And for the Sandinistas, the attempt to integrate the Miskitos with mainstream Nicaragua brought them into contact with a culture they didn't understand.

''We had serious problems with the Miskitos,'' admits a government official. ''There was mutual incomprehension.''

Conflicts followed almost immediately.

Rivera dates the Miskito armed resistance to the Sandinista government to February 1981. At first the Miskitos fought with hunting rifles, machetes, and bows and arrows. In January 1982, after rebel incursions from Honduras, Nicaragua decided to evacuate the Indian population from their ancestral homelands around the volatile border.

About 10,000 Miskitos were moved to ''settlements'' near Rosita, a mining town near the Honduran border. About 6,000 Indians fled to Honduras.

Rivera charges that the Sandinistas have killed 1,000 Indians, jailed 600, put 15,000 in settlements, and destroyed 60 Indian communities.

As the rebel groups expand their war, the Indians are playing a greater military role. The Miskitos fight in the eastern province of Zelaya, where they have lived. Some coordinate their battles with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, a group supported by the CIA. In the north, Steadman Fagoth Muller, a Miskito who was once served as adviser to the Sandinistas, leads a well-armed group estimated at 2,000 men. Despite Honduran denials, the Indians say they trained in Honduras.

Rivera's Indian soldiers are affiliated with the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, which operates mainly in the south of Nicaragua. In the south, Rivera reported the Miskitos recently formed an Atlantic front separate from ARDE commander Eden Pastora Gomez. Rivera said his troops, who take orders from Pastora, will not launch an offensive before July.

Rivera's key military problem, he says, is the same as Pastora's - lack of arms. ''We cannot understand how the United States can have confidence in the FDN and not us. We've been asking for a long time. And they've been promising for a long time. But so far only promises,'' Rivera says.

How steadfast the Indians will prove to be as counterrevolutionary allies remains to be seen. While some skepticism has been voiced about their abilities as soldiers, their familiarity with the difficult terrain is said to make them the best candidates for military operations in the east.

The irony may be that resorting to armed conflict as a way to realize their dreams of autonomy may have finally integrated this isolated group into the mainstream of the country.

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