Managua acts to mollify volatile east coast
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''