The Miskito-Sandinista Conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • The Miskito-Sandinista Conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980sLa Cuestion Miskita en la Revolucion Nicaraguense. by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz; The UnknownWar: The Miskito Nation, Nicaragua, and the United States. by Bernard Nietschmann; LaMosquitia, Autonomia Regional: Lamento Indigena, Ocaso de una Raza Que se Resiste a Stedman Fagot Muller; El Desafio Indigena en Nicaragua: El Caso de los Miskitos. by JorgeJenkins Molieri; National Revoluton and Indigenous Identity: The ...Review by: Philip A. DennisLatin American Research Review, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1993), pp. 214-234Published by: The Latin American Studies AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 03:16

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact


    The Latin American Studies Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toLatin American Research Review.

    This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:16:17 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Copyright 1993 by Latin American Research Review


    Philip A. Dennis Texas Tech University

    LA CUESTION MISKITA EN LA REVOLUCION NICARAGUENSE. By Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz. (Mexico City: Editorial Linea, 1986. Pp. 196.)

    THE UNKNOWN WAR: THE MISKITO NATION, NICARAGUA, AND THE UNITED STATES. By Bernard Nietschmann. (New York: Freedom House, 1989. Pp. 111. $37.00 cloth, $15.50 paper.)

    LA MOSQUITIA, AUTONOMIA REGIONAL: LAMENTO INDIGENA, OCASO DE UNA RAZA QUE SE RESISTE A FALLECER. By Stedman Fagot Muller. (Tegucigalpa, Honduras: n.p., n.d. [1986?]. Pp. 180.)

    EL DESAFIO INDIGENA EN NICARAGUA: EL CASO DE LOS MISKITOS. By Jorge Jenkins Molieri. (Managua: Editorial Vanguardia, 1986. Pp. 473.)

    NATIONAL REVOLUTION AND INDIGENOUS IDENTITY: THE CONFLICT BE- TWEEN SANDINISTS AND MISKITO INDIANS ON NICARAGUA'S ATLANTIC COAST Edited by Klaudine Ohland and Robin Schneider. (Copen- hagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1983. Pp. 302.)

    ETHNIC GROUPS AND THE NATION STATE: THE CASE OF THE ATLANTIC COAST IN NICARAGUA. Edited by CIDCA/Development Study Unit. (Stockholm: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Stock- holm, 1987 Pp. 193.)

    DICCIONARIO ELEMENTAL DEL ULWA. Compiled by CODIUL/UYUT- MUBAL (Karawala, Region Autonoma Atlantico Sur), the Centro de Investigacion y Documentacion de la Costa Atlantica (CIDCA), and the Centro de Ciencia Cognitiva and the Massachusetts Institute of Tech- nology (CCS-MIT). (Cambridge, Mass.: CODIUL/UYUTMUBAL, CIDCA, and CCS-MIT, 1989. Pp. 165.)

    During the 1980s, the conflicts of Nicaragua's Sandinista govern- ment with the Miskito people of the Atlantic Coast attracted international attention. For many Latin Americanists, the Nicaraguan Revolution seemed to provide a ray of hope for the region. It was therefore frustrating and perplexing that a progressive, socialist government could become so em- broiled in conflict with a poor, marginalized ethnic minority group-pre- cisely the sort of group the Nicaraguan Revolution should have favored.


    This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:16:17 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    The Miskito Coast itself differs greatly from the Pacific region of Nicaragua. Isolated from the Pacific by miles of rain forest, rivers, and savannas, it is an area of difficult access even today. The major means of transportation continues to be by boat.1 Spanish colonization efforts on the coast were never successful, but English pirates and traders made early contact with indigenous peoples and developed strong ties with them. The Miskito people,2 by far the largest indigenous group in Nic- aragua today, probably originated as a small group of fishing, hunting, and gardening people who prospered through their trading contacts with the British.3 They spread up and down the coast and up the Rio Coco and developed a political system with authority vested in the Miskito kings. The last king was deposed by the government of Jose Santos Zelaya, which "reincorporated" the coast into Nicaragua in 1894. The indigenous groups of the interior, long dominated by the Miskito, are lumped together today under the generic name of "Sumu" and include speakers of the Ulwa and Twaka languages. Very small groups of Rama and Garifuna speakers are also found in a few coastal communities. The Miskito population inter- married with African slaves and European visitors, who were incorpo- rated racially and from whom useful cultural traits were adopted. By the nineteenth century, English-speaking Black Creoles from the Caribbean had formed a separate population, centered around Bluefields and Corn Island. An interesting flexible ethnic boundary continues to exist between the Creole and Miskito populations. In 1849 Moravian missionaries arrived on the coast. They learned the Miskito language and during the 1880s made many converts in a dramatic series of events called "the Great Awak- ening." By the 1980s, the Moravian Church had become an important institution in most Miskito communities and had introduced profound changes into the inhabitants' lives.

    When the Sandinista revolutionaries arrived on the coast in 1979, they found a local population that considered them "Spaniards" (the tra- ditional enemies of the Miskito). The Costefios were not particularly recep- tive to the revolutionary programs the Sandinistas had to offer. Within two years, relations went from lukewarm to bitter. In November 1979, the

    1. A rich literature of travel and exploration on the Miskito Coast gives many insights into the region and its peoples. Three of the best examples, spanning the seventeenth century to the present, are M. W., "The Mosqueto Indian and His Golden River," in A Collection of Voyages and Travels, edited by Awnsham Churchill, 6:285-98 (London: J. Walthoe, 1732); C. Napier Bell, Tangweera: Life and Adventures among Gentle Savages (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989 [first pub. 1899]); and Bernard Nietschmann, Caribbean Edge: The Coining of Modern Times to Isolated People and Wildlife (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979).

    2. Nicaraguan sources currently use the spelling "Miskitu," reflecting a recent linguistic conclusion that the Miskito language does not really have the vowel "o." I continue to use the spelling "Miskito" here simply because it is well established in the older literature.

    3. Mary W. Helms, Asang: Adaptations to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community (Gaines- ville: University of Florida Press, 1971), 14-22.


    This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:16:17 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Latin American Research Review

    Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) recognized an earlier Miskito organization named ALPROMISU (Alianza para el Progreso de los Miskito y Sumu), which was promptly reorganized as MISURASATA (Miskito, Sumu, Rama, Sandinista Asla Takanka).4 MISURASATA carried out the government-sponsored literacy campaign in the Miskito language and quickly became a strong political presence in the Miskito commu- nities. Faced with counterrevolutionary activities being financed by the United States, the Sandinista government became increasingly suspicious of the "separatist" attitudes of the Costefios, and a series of confrontations occurred. In late 1981, armed conflict began between the Sandinista mili- tary and MISURASATA, which soon splintered into rival factions. The FSLN forcibly relocated forty-two Miskito villages along the Rio Coco to an interior area, one ironically called Tasba Pri ("Free Land"). Fighting, punctuated by periods of negotiation, continued throughout most of the 1980s. Sandinista troops were quartered in some communities, where hostile local villagers viewed them as an army of occupation. The armed conflict yielded a tragic toll of death and suffering that involved human rights abuses on both sides.5 Destroying vehicles, bridges, and health clinics was a major part of insurgent strategy. In 1984 the government introduced a plan for regional autonomy, which took effect in 1987, after a period of review and consultation with Costenios. Among its provisions were a plan for self-governance and guarantees of land rights and cultural autonomy. Unfortunately, many of the health, education, and other social programs originally implemented by the government had suffered set- backs during the war years. In the 1990 elections, the candidates of YATAMA, a successor organization to MISURASATA, won important government posts. But the economic situation continues to be extremely difficult.

    The seven books under review are all products of the conflict years on the Miskito Coast. Numerous articles and newspaper accounts have also appeared on the subject.6 For the first time in their history, the Miskito

    4. Anthropologist Richard N. Adams was present at the organizational meeting of MIS- URASATA and describes the situation in two articles: "The Sandinistas and the Indians: The 'Problema' of the Indians in Nicaragua," Caribbean Review 10, no. 1 (1981):22-25, 55-56; and "The Dynamics of Societal Diversity: Notes from Nicaragua for a Sociology of Survival," American Ethnologist 8, no. 1 (1981):1-20.

    5. See "The Miskitos in Nicaragua, 1981-1984," Americas Watch Report (New York: Amer- icas Watch, 1984).

    6. One carefully researched account is Peace and Autonomy on the Atlantic Coast of Nic- aragua: A Report of the LASA Task Force on Human Rights and Academic Freedom, by Martin Diskin, Thomas Bossert, Salomon Nahmad S., and Stefano Varese (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Latin American Studies Association, 1986). A good journalistic account is Penny Lernoux, "Nic- aragua's Miskitos, Part I: Strangers in a Familiar Land," The Nation, 14 Sept. 1985, pp. 202-6; and "Part II: The Indians and the Comandantes," The Nation, 28 Sept. 1985, pp. 275-78. For the Sandinista perspective, see Trabil Nani: Historical Background and Current Situation on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (Managua: Center for Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast [CIDCA], n.d.). My early predictions of imminent conflict, based on my fieldwork


    This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:16:17 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    became known to the broader world. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying, "I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua."7 Several of the books to be discussed re- view the history of the coast and the events leading up to the conflict, but from quite different perspectives. As might be expected, they reveal a great deal about the ideological viewpoints of their authors. Scholarship cannot and probably should not try to be completely objective or neutral, and when it grows directly out of conflict, it may become especially pas- sionate and one-sided, as are several of these books. They raise a number of important issues, including class solidarity versus cultural identity, eth- nic chauvinism versus aboriginal rights, and national sovereignty versus local self-determination.

    At first reading, the most polar positions in the debate seem to be those taken by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Bernard Nietschmann. Dun- bar Ortiz's book is a Spanish translation of an earlier, more general book.8 La cuestion miskita en la Revolucion Nicaragiiense deals only with the Miskito case and adds some new material. In both her books, Dunbar Ortiz sets forth two causes: self-determination for Native American peoples (she is of Cheyenne background herself) and a socialist system to right the wrongs of exploitative capitalism. These two causes collided on the Miskito Coast in the 1980s, in the paradoxical situation in which the Indians were fight- ing against a socialist government and Indian leaders were denouncing human rights abuses by that government. Dunbar Ortiz's response to this dilemma is to deny that any abuses really took place and to blame the problems on the disinformation campaign orchestrated by the Reagan administration in the United States and also on efforts by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to encourage rebellion in Nicaragua's most vul- nerable region.

    U.S. support for counterrevolutionary actions undoubtedly was a major factor in the armed conflicts on the coast. The military response of the FSLN to Costenio "separatism" had much to do with the real threat posed by Contra and U.S. military forces and the emergency situation created by the U.S.-backed insurgency. These factors created the larger context in which the conflicts took place. Without the weapons supplied by the United States, the rebellious Miskito groups would have been pow- erless. For the Miskito, however, the struggle for self-determination was

    in 1978-79, turned out to be unfortunately accurate. See Dennis, "The Costenos and the Revolution in Nicaragua," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 23, no. 3 (1981):271-96.

    7. Cited in Martin Diskin, "The Manipulation of Indigenous Struggles," in Reagan versus the Sandinistas: The Undeclared War on Nicaragua, edited by Thomas W. Walker (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1987), 80. Diskin's essay summarizes the ways in which the Reagan admin- istration used the Miskito case as anti-Sandinista propaganda.

    8. Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination (London: Zed, 1984).


    This content downloaded from on Mon, 16 Jun 2014 03:16:17 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Latin American Research Review

    their own, and it was natural to look for allies among their longtime U.S. friends. By the mid-1980s, it had become apparent to the Miskito that they had been manipulated by the CIA and forces of the Frente Democratico Nicaragiuense (FDN), who cared nothing about Miskito goals like land rights, cultural autonomy, and local control over natural resources. Along with the autonomy plan, however, there seemed to evolve a grudging willingness t...