Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua — Just before midnight, exhausted by a 15-hour debate, several hundred residents of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast bowed their heads in prayer. A Moravian Church pastor called for a blessing on the work that they had packed a school hall here last week to accomplish - an autonomy law granting the region's indigenous peoples a measure of self-rule.
Sandinista officials who had led the discussion were wreathed in smiles of relief and achievement. The autonomy law, they say, holds a promise of new and more harmonious relations between the government and this politically sensitive area that has long been a hotbed of dissent.
The draft law is also a bold experiment for the Americas, according to Mexican anthropologist H'ector D'iaz-Polanco, who attended the ``multi-ethnic assembly'' that closed here Friday. ``This regional autonomy is unique in Latin America,'' he says.
``It is important because for the first time, indigenous people will have their own government, and a code of their economic rights,'' he adds. ``In continental terms, that has extraordinary political significance.''
The draft law approved by the assembly is a cautious document, reserving considerable policymaking powers for the central government. But it does give coastal people far more say in local affairs than other Nicaraguans enjoy, and it decentralizes many administrative functions.
The law, yet to be approved by the National Assembly, foresees two elected regional councils for the northern and southern regions of the coast, which will each choose a coordinator to act as a governor. Ray Hooker, a National Assemblyman for the coast, expects the assembly to pass the law within four months.
These governments will administer health, education, and internal trade, and will decide on the use of the region's natural resources ``in accordance with national development plans.'' They will oversee the investment of special development funds, which coastal leaders hope to solicit from foreign governments, and will also have the power to launch and run short-term economic projects.
But longer-term ``strategic'' schemes to exploit the coast's mineral, fishing, and lumber wealth will remain in Managua's hands. The draft law offers the coast an ``equitable'' share in the profits from such projects, but leaves it up to the regional authorities to negotiate with the central government over just how big a share that will be.
More than 2,000 representatives of the six ethnic groups that live on the coast came to this port town for the conference, and 210 of them were chosen to take part in the discussions.
Observers were surprised by how few serious challenges the draft law provoked. Although a group of Creoles made repeated efforts to modify the document, the majority of Miskito Indians and mixed-race Mestizos appeared generally accepting of the government's proposals. This may have been because the Miskitos were ``somewhat cowed'' by the proceedings, suggested Charlie Hale, an American who has lived on the coast for two years studying the Miskito Indians.
At the same time, he said, the pressure of work meant that few speeches were translated from Spanish - which most speakers used - into Miskito, Sumu, or English, the coast's main languages. ``That definitely sealed the exclusion of a large number of people.''
Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez, however, closing the assembly Friday, insisted on the open nature of the discussions: ``If this was not democracy, what is?''
Numerous interviews with delegates and observers at the assembly suggested that delegates had been chosen by a variety of means. Some had been elected directly by their communities; others had been nominated by government officials. And though some seemed to have been chosen for their loyalty to the government, others were known as independent popular local leaders.
At the same time, Sandinista representatives on the coast such as National Assemblyman Hooker and local Miskito governor Myrna Cunningham, were clearly in control of the debate, steering the draft law past objections, and damping efforts to give autonomy more teeth.
Though burdened by lingering unpopularity on the coast, the Sandinistas ``had no alternative but to lead the autonomy process'' from the start, says Mr. D'iaz-Polanco, who has followed developments for the past three years. ``The alternative was war, and that would have meant extermination. Once they had understood the complexity of the ethnic problem, they recognized that national unity and homogeneity are not synonymous.''
Government officials and independent observers agree the draft autonomy law is far from perfect, and that it will need to be changed in the light of experience.
``The important thing, though,'' adds Diaz-Polanco, ``is that whether it's a good law or a bad one, the indigenous people decided it themselves.''
After six years of turmoil all that most of the coast Indians hope for is a return to normality, and a chance to get on with their lives.