Nicaragua's Sandinista government plans to institute Indian self-rule on the country's Atlantic coast, despite the opposition of influential Indian rebel leaders. The plan for Indian self-rule is being unilaterally undertaken by the government after negotiations between the Sandinistas and Indian rebel leader Brooklyn Rivera broke down.
Originally it appeared that the Sandinistas initiated discussions on Indian autonomy late last year in order to get Mr. Rivera and his followers to end their participation in the growing war between the government and rebels. But when Rivera refused to continue discussions a month ago, the Sandinistas went forward without him.
Most analysts here think the government program can be instituted even without Rivera's support. Some other Indian civilians who are not involved in anti-Sandinista warfare endorse the plan, and many feel that the concept of autonomy will be further embraced by Indians when it is fully explained to them.
Rivera now says he doubts the sincerity of the government in offering Indian autonomy. He says he will not return to the negotiating table unless the Sandinistas halt what he charges is stepped-up military activity against Indian civilians, including the bombing of several villages.
A unilateral government plan for autonomy, he adds, will threaten any opportunities for reconciliation between the government and Miskito rebels.
Another influential Indian rebel leader, Steadman Fagoth, who is closely allied with Honduras-based anti-Sandinista fighters known as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, has always opposed the plan. The stated aim of Mr. Fagoth's Indian rebel group, Misura, is to overthrow the Sandinista government. Fagoth has called Rivera a traitor for meeting at all with the Sandinistas.
Indian autonomy was the principal issue in December negotiations in Colombia between a high-level Sandinista delegation and Rivera, who heads the guerrilla Miskito organization known as Misurasa- ta. At the meeting, Rivera presented his own autonomy plan, and later a joint communiqu'e was signed that said both sides agreed to meet again in January.
But a month later, he refused to return to the negotiating table.
Rivera argues that any ``serious and sincere'' autonomy plan cannot be granted by the government but must be created with direct and strong participation of all Indians, including leaders of the Miskito rebels. Rivera says he leads a sizable branch of Miskito rebel fighters, whose overall number he puts at 3,000 to 4,000 fighters. Estimates of the overall size of rebel forces fighting the Sandinistas range from 6,000 to 10,000.
``It [the autonomy initiative] worries us,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``If they [Sandinistas] are sincere, why are they avoiding working directly with the real Indian leaders? It seems to us that they are doing it for propaganda for the international community.''
The Sandinistas have appointed a commission, which includes representatives from the Atlantic coast indigenous population, to draft an autonomy proposal which will be submitted to National Assembly.
``Brooklyn has been invited to come into the country and join the movement to establish an autonomous government,'' says Ray Hooker, a representative for the National Commission on Autonomy. ``Autonomy is so important that if Brooklyn doesn't participate, he is going to be left behind by the forces of history,'' he says.
Mr. Hooker, who is also a Sandinista delegate to Nicaragua's National Assembly, said the autonomy commission will draft a self-rule plan for submission to the National Assembly by the end of 1985, and that the program should be under way by early 1986.
He said the plan will likely include creation of two autonomous governments on the coast with regional assemblies and chief executives elected by local Creoles, and Miskito Sumu, and Rama Indians.
He said the governments will have power to administer their own economies and programs of cultural preservation. He said Indian territorial rights will also be included. ``No government could give more,'' he said. ``To give more would be to dismember the country.''
Hooker says that Rivera's help is welcome but that the Sandinistas will proceed with or without his participation. Seeming to view autonomy as a Sandinista initiative, he said, ``The revolution . . . has come to the conclusion that autonomy is the only way to carry out the revolution with the minorities on the Atlantic coast.''
The forced relocation of thousands of Miskito Indians from the Rio Coco border area into interior resettlement camps has provoked heavy criticism internationally.
Despite already surfacing differences, Rivera says he expects to meet with Sandinista representatives in March for more talks. He said he will argue for creation of a bilateral commission and said that if the Sandinistas continue with a ``unilateral'' approach, there is no chance he will join. Even with full agreement between the Sandinistas and Rivera, bringing peace to the battle-scarred Atlantic coast would be difficult, most analysts here say.