Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua — Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders call it a historic moment for indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. But some government critics brand it an ill-advised step taken with undue haste. Thousands of Miskito Indians, meanwhile, along with other ethnic groups, have been waiting until now to decide what they think.
At issue is a government move to give the Atlantic coast and its inhabitants a measure of autonomy from central rule. Some 3,000 people from the coast are scheduled to meet in this port town today for the unveiling of an autonomy law that has been under discussion for years.
The autonomy effort has been the main pillar in the Sandinistas' bid to win the confidence, if not the support, of this politically volatile area. This week's three-day assembly marks the culmination of the government's 30-month drive to recoup its earlier disastrous failures in dealing with an unfamiliar area.
``Autonomy is the only instrument the Sandinistas have to gain the peoples' trust after the mistakes they have made,'' says Norman Bent, a Moravian Church leader.
The Atlantic coast region - stretching from thick lowland jungle in the south through swamps, to the pine-studded savanna of the Miskito Indian homeland in the north - covers half of Nicaragua's territory. Only 10 percent of the population, however, lives there. (See Page 32.)
For Nicaraguan contra rebels fighting the Sandinistas, that makes the region a potentially prime battleground, rebel leaders and officials here say.
The indigenous population had never played a significant role in national politics, and played no role in the 1979 Sandinista revolution. Though the new revolutionary government initially encouraged Indian leaders to press for indigenous rights, the experiment soon broke down in a welter of mutual recrimination.
Two of the Miskitos' most prominent leaders, Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth, fled abroad to raise rebel armies, prompting a harsh Sandinista reaction. In 1982, that included the forced removal of some 10,000 Miskitos from their homes into emergency camps - a move that spurred another 20,000 Indians to flee to neighboring Honduras.
(About 18 months ago, the Sandinista government began resettling people from the camps in Nicaragua to their original homes. And refugees who had fled into Honduras started returning.)
Against this background of ill will, the Sandinistas began in late 1984 to devise ways of responding to what it called the coast's ``historic demand'' for autonomy. Prominent figures from the coast formed autonomy commissions, led by Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez; pollsters canvassed opinions door to door; Indian leaders from North and South America were consulted; village councils debated; and several groups of Miskito guerrillas were persuaded to lay down their arms and join the discussions.
This process has clearly generated considerable confusion among the coast's 300,000 residents as to what exactly autonomy should or will mean. ``This is all very complicated,'' says Myrna Cunningham, the Miskito governor of northern Zelaya Province. ``We are talking about it without really understanding it, and everyone has his own idea.''
For people who simply want to live in peace, autonomy is the relative calm that the Sandinista Army has been able to impose in the region, says Governor Cunningham. For those with relatives in Honduran refugee camps, autonomy would bring reunification. For some, she says, autonomy would help secure a state bank loan for the pickup truck their community wants to buy. For others, autonomy would mean being able to buy the food that is often scarce.
``The autonomy process has aroused a lot of expectations,'' Ms. Cunningham says, but ``it is not all going to work out overnight.''
The confusion over just what autonomy will mean for the coast has prompted some regional leaders to counsel caution. ``I don't think the government should declare autonomy unless everyone on the coast supports it,'' Mr. Bent says.
But government supporters say that is unrealistic. ``You are not going to have 100 percent clarity on the project, but the quicker it is put into practice,'' the quicker doubts will be resolved, insists Ray Hooker, a Creole deputy in the National Assembly for the official state party. ``We've done too much talking.''
The autonomy statute was being revised up until the last moment before today's unveiling.
In general, the law is understood to create two regional assemblies for two autonomous regions in north and south Zelaya Province, which will have among their powers the authority to raise taxes and to name administrative officials. Local communities will own the land they have traditionally occupied and used. The autonomous governments will be responsible for certain projects to develop the region's natural resources, such as timber and fisheries.
``Strategic projects,'' however, will be run by the central government, Mr. Borge told reporters recently. A certain proportion of the profits, yet to be decided, will be reinvested in the autonomous regions. Defense and law and order, he added, will ``logically be directed centrally. Here we have only one Army, only one police force, only one security service.''
Whether the autonomy statute will satisfy the coast's inhabitants remains questionable. But the project's ambitions seem bound to come up against concrete problems. Earlier this month, for example, food shortages meant the government had to suspend traditional flour rations.
When that sort of thing happens, says Oscar Palmer - a member of the local autonomy commission who says he is ``100 percent'' pro-government - ``people stop to think. Why are they talking to us about autonomy, when even what we want to eat will be unavailable? Under these circumstances, what is autonomy going to mean?''
The people of the Mosquito Coast
Some 3,000 indigenous inhabitants of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast begin a three-day assembly with the Sandinistas today to review an autonomy law.
Accessible by road only during the six-month dry season, the coast has historically had little in common with the rest of the country. For centuries, the area was a British protectorate, and it was incorporated into Nicaragua only in 1894, by President Jos'e Santos Zelaya, whose name the region now bears.
The Miskito Indians; the black Creoles and Gar'ifunas descended from African slaves; and two other tribes of Indians, the Sumus and the Ramas, have long mistrusted people from the Pacific side of Nicaragua, scornfully referring to them as espanoles, or Spaniards. The Mosquito people have never played a significant role in national politics, and they played no role in the 1979 Sandinista revolution, either.