Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Fernando Montero

Two days into my stay on the Afro-indigenous Miskitu Coast of Nicaragua, a shootout between mestizo settlers and local indigenous residents in a small Miskitu village shocked the region and brought sustained national media attention to the coast for the first time in years. Tensions between non-indigenous settlers and Miskitu residents are a longstanding issue on the Caribbean coast of Central America, where a bloody 1980s war between the revolutionary Sandinista government and an indigenous insurgency set the stage for the establishment of the first Afro-indigenous autonomy regime in Latin America. Most Miskitu see themselves as the rightful defenders of regional autonomy, widely seen as a Miskitu victory after a half decade of war. Today, the increasing penetration of the Nicaraguan government and the continuing settlement of indigenous land by peasants and wood cutters from the country’s Pacific side have brought regional tensions to violent levels. Following the widely publicized incident that captivated Nicaraguan newspapers, radio, and television during my first days in the country, inter-ethnic clashes have continued to erupt. The political consequences have been enormous.

Photo: a recently militarized Miskito village.

Photo: a recently militarized Miskito village.

One of the overarching questions of my ongoing research is whether these outbreaks of violence, and the political and economic context that makes them possible, simply reproduce the ancient divide between Pacific and Atlantic Nicaragua noted by historians since colonial times. Are these violent incidents simply another chapter in the litany of clashes between dominant mestizo groups and marginalized indigenous peoples, between the private property regime of the western side of the country and the communal property regime of the east? So far, my research suggests that we are witnessing a genuinely new moment in Central American indigenous history, one that signals a changing relationship between indigenous peoples and the state, between regional autonomy demands and entrenched forms of nationalism, between the urgent political and economic claims of Afro-indigenous peoples and the lofty ideals of multiculturalism. The balance is mixed, but the times do not bode well for the indigenous and Afro-Creole groups that inhabit the region.

The government’s response to the series of shootouts between mestizo settlers and indigenous residents has been politically astute. The government turned a deaf ear to indigenous demands for settler removal, a state obligation according to a 2003 Nicaraguan law on communal property passed in response to a 2002 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Instead, senators from the ruling party accused Brooklyn Rivera, the country’s first Miskitu senator and leader of the Miskitu uprising in the 1980s, of orchestrating illegal land sales in indigenous communal territories. Rivera was removed from office and is facing charges of violating the 2003 communal property law he so ardently defends in public forums. In a startling series of events, the government presented itself as guardian of indigenous communal land while dealing a serious blow to the foremost indigenous political party in the country, YATAMA, founded and headed by Rivera.

Photo: Miskito victims of mestizo settler violence at an indigenous congress in February 2016.

Photo: Miskito victims of mestizo settler violence at an indigenous congress in February 2016.

The use of indigenous rights laws by governments to undermine indigenous leaders is not a new practice in Nicaragua—or any other country with indigenous citizens. Two things, however, seem to be new in the Nicaraguan context: Firstly, support for YATAMA is at an all-time low in the region. The accusation against Brooklyn Rivera went largely unopposed in what is otherwise an assertive region where strikes are held on a regular basis. Secondly, the ruling Sandinista party has been effective at incorporating Afro-indigenous leaders into the party structure, sharply diving the region into government and YATAMA supporters. Widespread Miskitu support for Sandinistas, their foes in the 1980s, would have been unthinkable until very recently, but the current government seems to be turning the tide. The government has taken some limited steps to charm Afro-indigenous minds and hearts, starting the construction of urgently needed roads between the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the country, supporting LGBT groups, and appointing a reputed Afro-Miskitu woman to the presidency of the UN Indigenous People’s Forum. In my conversations with Afro-indigenous residents, I have not yet figured out if there is a majority opinion on these actions. Some tell me they are not enough, others call them window dressing, others a cynical means for gaining votes, and yet others satisfying gestures of good faith.

YATAMA is responding by doing what it does best: mustering international support, organizing an international indigenous rights assembly in the Miskitu capital of Bilwi for late February 2016 where indigenous leaders and academics from all over the Western Hemisphere will meet to discuss recent events and future strategy. The stakes have recently been raised by the government’s establishment of military bases in many Miskitu villages –allegedly in response to cocaine trafficking– as well as the concession to a Chinese company of the rights to build a transoceanic canal, which will require the expropriation of vast expanses of indigenous communal land. While many commentators expected these interventions to turn indigenous peoples against the state — and, indeed, many have — the government has been effective at muddling the terrain.

Author: Fernando Montero is an anthropologist at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, pursuing his doctorate in the Anthropology department.

Photos provided by author.

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