Miskito Indians Need Help From the People

By , Bill Distler, a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, was in Nicaragua in 1983 and El Salvador in 1989.

AN oft-repeated charge against the Nicaraguan government concerns abuses by Sandinista soldiers against the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. There is no doubt some of these abuses took place. The Sandinistas even admit to them. The Reagan administration classified Sandinista persecution of the Miskito people as ``genocide.'' It seems absurd for a president of the United States to assume the role of righteous defender of the Indians of Nicaragua after examining the US government's conduct toward native people in Central America.

In 1932 the Salvadoran military, after suppressing an uprising of Indians and farmworkers, murdered 30,000 more Indians to ensure against future uprisings. Because communists were among the leaders of the uprising, all Indians were also considered ``red.'' The US sent three warships to El Salvador during that uprising, offering assistance which the Salvadoran generals declined. No US assistance was offered to the Indians during the six weeks of slaughter that followed.

In 1983 a Salvadoran army unit killed 73 Indians at the village of Las Hojas. President Duarte promised to bring this case to justice when he was elected in 1984. No one was ever charged, although the responsible officers have been identified. El Salvador now receives more US aid than any country in the Western Hemisphere.

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The Indians killed at Las Hojas were members of the National Association of Indigenous Salvadorans (ANIS). Last March, the leader of ANIS, Adrian Esquina Lizco, told members of the Caravan to El Salvador, which I was part of, that ANIS members continue to demand their rights, to trust in God, and to count on support from North Americans. The Salvadoran government, he says, still treats them as subversives.

Five million Guatemalans - over 55 percent of the country's population - are Mayan Indians. With Israeli weapons and US economic support, the Guatemalan military has destroyed over 400 Indian villages and massacred the inhabitants in this decade. Over one million Indians have been forced into ``model villages'' under military control.

In the early 1980s, with the massacre at its peak, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, an outspoken supporter of the Nicaraguan contras, repeatedly testified before Congress that the human rights situation in Guatemala was improving.

Amnesty International documented the rights violations of Sandinista soldiers against Miskito Indians. It points out a significant difference in the way the governments of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the El Salvador have responded to these abuses.

Nicaragua imprisoned many soldiers for crimes against the Miskitos. Bill Means of the American Indian Movement says the autonomy project now being worked out between the Sandinistas and the Miskitos could be a model for relations between governments and native people. But Amnesty reports the US-supported Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments have not punished a single member of the military for crimes against their own citizens.

The Reagan and Bush administrations use a peculiar formula for separating the good Indians from the bad Indians. Nicaraguan Indians willing to work with former Somoza National Guards are called ``freedom fighters.'' Salvadoran and Guatemalan Indians asking for land and justice are called either communists, subversives, or ``guerrilla front groups.''

The Miskito Indians are probably the most familiar group of indigenous Latin Americans to North Americans. This name recognition is a sign of the success of the Reagan and Bush administrations in limiting the debate on Central America.

This success should cause the US media to question their role as transmitters of government information. If the US media feel a responsibility to foster democracy then they must recognize that information provided by citizens is as valid as, and perhaps less biased than, that provided by governments.

Many Americans seem to need to believe that our government doesn't do anything wrong. That's how we avoid learning from our mistakes.

The Marines have landed in Nicaragua 14 times, according to ``One Hundred and Eighty Landings of US Marines,'' an official Marine Corps history book on the subject. The current US intervention in Nicaragua started in 1927 with six years of Marine occupation, then 45 years of support for the Somoza dictatorship, and now the contra war. US intervention in El Salvador and Guatemala also is not new.

Of all those with a stake in our government, the people are the least involved. That should change. US Citizens should be the most involved. If we want justice, humanity, and decency in government, we'll have to work for it.

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