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Nicaragua's ethnic minorities in the revolution.

By the end of the fifth year, tensions with ethnic minorities had become an Achilles heel of the Nicaraguan revolution: 1) militarily, the Atlantic Coast region where the minorities lived had exploded into an arena of bitter fighting; 2) politically, accusations of human rights violations against the indigenous population had damaged the revolution's international image; and 3) morally, the inability to incorporate minorities--the most marginalized sector of Nicaraguan society--into a full participation in the revolutionary process had contradicted Sandinista political principles. Although the Nicaraguan government committed errors in its policies toward the coastal--costeno--population, the crisis can best be understood from a historical perspective, as the outcome of several hundred years of tension between ethnic minorities and the Mestizo national majority. In the final analysis, the responsibility for the conversion of these historic tensions into a fratricidal war lies with the United States, which armed, trained, and provided international legitimation for the counter-revolutionary (contra) forces, thereby preventing a peaceful solution from emerging based on dialogue and compromise.

Ethnic minorities at the time of the revolutionary triumph represented less than 5 percent of the national population and were all located in the Atlantic Coast province of Zelaya, the poorest, most isolated region in the nation. The Miskitu Amerindians numbering 67,000 were the largest minority group and lived, along with some 5,000 Sumu Amerindians, in the northeast near the Honduran border. Together they comprised 25 percent of their province's total population. The Creoles were the second largest minority group, an English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean population of just under 26,000 concentrated mostly in the southern coastal port of Bluefields. Also in South Zelaya were 1,500 Garifuna, a people of Afro-Amerindian descent, and some 600 Rama Amerindians. Finally Mestizos, the product of European, Amerindian, and some African admixture were the dominant ethnic group, both at the regional and national levels, constituting over 180,000 or 65 percent of the Atlantic Coast population.

From the outset, the revolution encountered problems on the coast. Prior to the triumph of the revolution there had been almost no fighting or clandestine organizing in Zelaya. Consequently, especially in the Miskitu-dominated North, there was no indigenous revolutionary leadership forged in struggle. The first major Sandinista/Amerindian tension arose when the Miskitu demanded the recognition of an ethnic-based mass organization. Although the Sandinistas initially thought the fundamental interests of minorities could be represented in the class-based mass organizations that operated at the national level, out of revolutionary principle, they acceded. MISURASATA, the new indigenous mass organization, was given political legitimacy, logistical support, and a seat on the National Council of State by the new government.

MISURASATA seized the democratic opening provided by the revolution in order to mobilize militantly throughout the northeast on a platform of indigenous rights devoid of class content.

Although the organization lobbied for concrete economic gains, its central thrust was to stress the dignity--and indeed, it turned out later, the superiority--of Amerindian identity. Furthermore, the Amerindian nationalist tone of the organization struck a responsive chord in most of the over 300 impoverished Miskitu agricultural communities. A full-fledged indigenous revitalization movement caught hold and MISURASATA emerged as a powerful force in Northern Zelaya to the point of challenging Sandinista political influence.

Relations between MISURASATA and the FSLN were confrontational from the outset. MISURASATA leaders lacked a class consciousness and FSLN cadre, most of whom were from the Pacific provinces, were unprepared to deal with the historical patterns of interethnic domination and tension that they encountered in the Atlantic. In practice, however, in response to minority demands during the first year and a half, the Nicaraguan government passed more legislation favorable to the indigenous population than has any government in the history of Central America. Most notably, a bilingual education law was passed in the Council of State and a literacy campaign was launched in Miskitu, Sumu, and English. The government also commissioned MISURASATA to prepare a study on indigenous land rights stating its willingness to grant communal land titles to the indigenous communities.

In South Zelaya, on the other hand, the ethnic organization purporting to represent the Afro-Caribbean population, known as the Southern Indigenous Creole Community (SICC), was not recognized by the FSLN as a mass organization since it was openly against the government from its inception, and it never emerged as a powerful movement. Tensions, however, exploded in the South in late September and early October of 1980 with street demonstrations and the paralyzation of economic activity in Bluefields. The crowd, which was multiethnic but largely Creole, was protesting the presence of "communist" Cuban primary school teachers and doctors in the town. Through a process of dialogue, compromise, and flexibility the FSLN sensitized itself to local concerns, and tensions in Bluefields were slowly dissipated. Nonetheless, although few Creoles took up arms and joined the contra, they tended to remain apathetic toward the revolutionary process.

In the Miskitu-dominated territory in the northeast, however, the process of confrontation, negotiation, and compromise did not defuse Sandinista/Amerindian tensions. February 1981 marked the turning point when the leadership of MISURASATA was detained (33 individuals) and accused of fomenting "separatism." All those arrested were released within two weeks with the exception of the main leader, Steadman Fagoth. The Ministry of Interior released documents found in the Somoza government's abandoned files demonstrating that Fagoth had been an informer in Somoza's secret service.

During the arrests in the community of Prinzapolka eight people, including four Sandinista soldiers, were killed when a MISURASATA leader was being detained for questioning. News of the arrests and the deaths, enhanced by grossly inaccurate rumors of mass assassinations, swept the isolated communities of the Coco River, and up to 3,000 young Miskitu men crossed the Coco River into Honduras, declaring themselves to be refugees. Blood had been spilled and the Miskitu movement assumed a millenarian mystique; rumors abounded that the young Miskitu men were arming to return, and that the United States was going to recognize "secret" nineteenth-century treaty provisions between the Miskitu King and the British Crown guaranteeing nationhood for the Miskitu people.

The costenos had not suffered repression from Somoza's National Guard, and consequently, to the surprise of the Sandinistas, the Miskitu were indifferent to the evidence of Fagoth's Somocista attachments. The Nicaraguan government was unprepared for the militance of the continued support for Fagoth, who had by this time become, in the eyes of many Miskitu, a revered leader ordained to bring them redemption. In response to Miskitu popular pressure, the government, evidently hoping that dialogue and compromise were still possible, granted Fagoth conditional release one month later. Fagoth, however, promptly crossed into Honduras to join with former National Guardsmen and Somoza supporters and began emitting tirades in Miskitu against the "sandino-communists" on the Somocista clandestine radio station "15 of September."

By August 1982 most of MISURASATA's leaders had joined Fagoth in Honduras, including Brooklyn Rivera, another principal leader. MISURASATA was renamed MISURA and integrated into the National Democratic Force (FDN) with economic, military, and logistical aid, as well as political legitimation and international media support from the United States' Central Intelligence Agency. Rivera later broke with Fagoth in 1982 to form a rival contra organization (which he called MISURASATA), affiliated with the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ARDE) based in Costa Rica. In a January 11, 1984, interview, Rivera accused Fagoth of having allied himself with "the dirtiest, most assassinating right wing elements of the Honduran army ... [choosing] ... the dirtiest Somocistas, expelled from the FDN for thievery and murder, as his protective godfathers."

MISURA's first major military offensive, "Red Christmas" began in November 1981 with attacks on the Miskitu border communities along the Coco River. Within less than two months 60 civilians and Sandinista military had been killed. Faced with this military crisis in January of 1982 the Nicaraguan government ordered the evacuation of the civilian population from the war zone to a region approximately 50 miles inland, in a new settlement called Tasba Pri. At this point the Sandinistas were responding essentially to military exigencies: 1) to defend the civilian population supportive of the revolution from contra reprisals; 2) to prevent the Somocista-MISURA alliance from establishing a civilian base of support along the Coco River; and 3) to prevent civilians from being caught in government-contra crossfire.

Less than half of the Coco River population, some 8,500 Miskitu and Sumu, were relocated to Tasba Pri; another 10,000 chose instead to cross into Honduras where they became refugees. The emergency evacuation under war conditions of such a large number of people on short notice was a profoundly traumatic experience for all involved. Human rights organizations, however, while critical of aspects of Sandinista policy toward the Miskitu, stated that there was no evidence of systematic abuse on the part of the FSLN.

Beginning in July 1982, simultaneously with the joint U.S. and Honduran military maneuvers underway in the Atlantic region only a few miles from the Nicaraguan border, there was a sharp intensification of Miskitu contra activity. Large numbers of government troops, most of whom were Mestizos from the Pacific, were sent to defend the zone. According to an investigation by the Center for Information and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA), an autonomous research institution affiliated with the National Council on Higher Education (CNES), there was a lack of sufficient control over the military commanders in Zelaya from July through September of 1982, resulting in cases of "reprehensible" behavior by government troops, ranging from "cultural disrespect--a function of historic racism" to actual "physical abuse" and "bodily harm." CIDCA noted that this resulted in cases of civilian loss of life.

The FSLN publicly condemned these excesses and over 44 soldiers, including officers, were prosecuted and given prison sentences. By 1984, 70 percent of local security forces were costenos, and Pacific Coast recruits received seminars before being assigned to Zelaya. In an attempt to restore lost trust, the Sandinistas granted a general amnesty to virtually all the Miskitu arrested for counter-revolutionary activity, releasing 307. Indeed in the introduction to an April 1984 report on Nicaragua, the Americas Watch, a U.S. based human rights organization, noted:

The most important improvement has taken place in relations with the Miskito Indians.

We have previously said that human rights violations in Nicaragua most severely victimized the Miskito population. Accordingly, the Americas Watch is very pleased by the positive developments affecting them.

Just as the human rights record of the Sandinistas improved from late 1982 through 1984, that of the Miskitu contra deteriorated. All "collaborators" of the "sandino-communist dictatorship" were considered fair military targets by the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. The result was the assassination of school teachers, literacy trainers, and even peasants trained as volunteer health workers in the government's new "barefoot doctor" program. It was against their fellow Amerindians, however, that the Miskitu contra were cruelest. For example, Myrna Cunningham, a Miskitu doctor (the only one that existed) and Regina Lewis, a Miskitu nurse, were kidnapped during Red Christmas in 1981 and gang-raped by a squad of Fagoth's men who were singing religious hymns.

Brooklyn Rivera, who described himself as having been "very intimate" with Fagoth--"closer than a brother"--claims that by 1982 Fagoth had become "psychopathic," with a "persecution trauma," and was "totally blinded and sick with power and personal ambition." He states that Fagoth tortured and killed young Miskitu men in the refugee camps when they refused to join MISURA. Indeed, by 1983 press reports began surfacing that MISURA was using force to conscript Miskitu refugees. Similarly, officials at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Honduras made private declarations that MISURA was the greatest security problem faced by refugees in Honduras.

Although somewhat more careful with their public image, Rivera's troops--like Fagoth's--also engaged in human rights abuses against the civilian population in 1983-84. The most dramatic of these documented cases was the kidnapping of Thomas Hunter, a Creole who headed an artesanal fishing cooperative in the coastal community of Tasbapaunie in southern Zelaya. Rivera's troops took Hunter to their camp in nearby Punta Fusil and after protracted torture finally killed him, but not before cutting off his ears and forcing him to eat them.

From 1982 to 1985 the heartland of Miskitu territory was a war zone. The goal of the contra was to declare a provisional government in the northeast, where they could subsequently "invite" a U.S. "peace-keeping force." Even though local FSLN cadre were showing greater sensibility to the complicated issues of racism and indigenous rights; there were no short-term perspectives for definitive reconciliation. As long as the United States continued to fund and train the contras, the situation remained fundamentally a military problem. Indeed the continuous deepening of the war had reduced the area within which civilians could live safely in North and Central Zelaya, resulting in further, smaller scale population relocations out of the war zones inside Nicaragua and an increase in the number of Amerindian refugees in Honduras. The exigencies of defense and the violent instability caused by guerrilla warfare hindered the emergence of a working relationship between the Amerindians and the Sandinistas based on dialogue, peaceful confrontation, and compromise. The question remains, however, as to why it was so easy for the Central Intelligence Agency to find thousands of young Miskitu men willing to engage in violent armed struggle? To grapple with this question, first the profound historical roots of the conflict must be examined. Historical Roots of the Conflict

There are historical reasons why militarist Amerindian nationalism would strike a responsive chord among so many Miskitu. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Miskitu became the first Amerindian people on the Central American litoral to obtain firearms through trade with the European buccaneers preying on spanish shipping in the Caribbean. With their superior fire power, the Miskitu not only resisted Spanish conquest, but also "conquered" almost 700 miles of the Atlantic seaboard from Trujillo, Honduras, through Chiriqui Lagoon in Panama.

Gradually, British "alliance" with the Miskitu became valuable to Britain's strategy of undermining Spanish power, as well as trade, on the Caribbean mainland. In 1687 the Governor of Jamaica formalized the alliance by crowning a Miskitu leader "King of the Mosquitia." Indeed the British systematically promoted the concepts of Miskitu national sovereignty and militarism in order to legitimize their own colonial expansion into the region: "[We] . . . mounted . . . [the fort] . . . with cannon, hoisted the Royal flag and kept garrison to show that this independent country of the Mosquito Shore was under the direct sovereignty and protection of Great Britain."

Ironically, therefore, the Miskitu have long been at the center of international power struggles. In the 1700s it was Spain versus Great Britain; in 1984 it was the United States versus Nicaragua. The manipulation of the Miskitu contra by the United States, therefore, is analogous to the Miskitu-British relationship noted by a historian in 1774:

[The Miskitu] . . . have always been, and still are, in the place of a standing army; which, without receiving any pay, or being in any shape burthensome to Great Britain, Maintains the English in firm and secure possession [of the region], protects their trade, and forms an impenetrable barrier against the Spanish, whom they keep in constant awe.

Modern-day Miskitu have mystified the former existence of an Amerindian king into a symbol of nationalist aspirations. For example, in the 1970s under Somoza there were repeated rumors that the Miskitu king had returned and was circulating throughout the lower Coco River preparing his people for secession. Similarly when MISURASATA was in its early formative stage in 1980, elderly Miskitu sometimes talked of "working for the return of the King." On a more neutral level, the Miskitu could still point out descendants of the "royal family"; they used to argue over the true location of the cache holding the defunct monarch's scepter and crown jewels. In this context, debates over whether or not the Miskitu are a national minority become academic. The Miskitu do not fulfill the objective requisites necessary to constitute a sovereign nation state; at the same time, however, Amerindian nationalist ideology is a part of their ethnic identity and the contra, especially Fagoth, succeeded in distorting these nationalist aspirations in order to provoke confrontation with the new Nicaraguan government.

The tensions between ethnic minorities and the Nicaraguan revolution were not limited to being merely a "Miskitu problem" and a "black problem," or even strictly an ethnic problem. Even the Mestizos from the coast were less enthusiastic about the revolution than those living in the Pacific provinces. Nicaragua, like almost all Central American nations, faced an Atlantic Coast region that had been integrated historically into a different social formation from that of the national mainstream. The entire Atlantic seaboard of Central America was penetrated by U.S. multinational corporations beginning in the late 1800s. Because of the physical isolation of these zones, the foreign companies established an unparalleled level of control. The classic example, of course, are the banana companies which established mini-nation-states on the Atlantic Coast of every single nation in Central America (except for El Salvador which only has a Pacific Coast).

In Nicaragua the most important North American companies extracted minerals, lumber, and bananas strictly for export to the United States. The coastal economy had no linkage with that of the rest of the country. There was more regular transport and commerce from Bluefields to the United States than to the interior of the country. Indeed, it was easier to get to the Atlantic Coast from New Orleans than from Managua.

This economic domination was reflected culturally and politically in the consciousness of the local population and even affected the actual ethnic composition of the region. For example, most of the Afro-Caribbean people in Central America arrived as migrants at the turn of the century seeking wage work in the bourgeoning North American companies. The extensive U.S. investments also repeatedly attracted U.S. Marines to protect them, and from 1912 through 1933 North American troops occupied the country with but a brief respite in 1925-26. The Marines spent a disproportionate amount of their time on the Atlantic Coast.

Out of this protracted period of economic and military domination by the United States there developed a profoundly anticommunist, pro-North American political ideology among the Creole, Miskitu, and to a lesser extent Mestizo costenos. This was exacerbated by the conservative and likewise fervently anticommunist and pro-North American tenor of the Moravian church, the strongest ideological influence on the Miskitu and Creole peoples. The rigidity of the ideological template of the local population--especially the older generation--resulted, for example, in complaints by elderly folk in Bluefields over the "spread of communism" when they mistook a group of visiting North American tourists for Soviet military advisers.

The FSLN was largely unaware of this stark contrast in political identity between the Pacific and Atlantic populations. In the first years the FSLN, for example, mechanically introduced the same political symbolism (slogans, songs, heroes, chants, etc.) which had been effective in the Pacific. In contrast, "Voice of America" and the contra radio stations were skillfully responsive to local ideological prejudices. This was exacerbated by the war emergency which focused revolutionary slogans more on nationalistic, patriotic themes such as defense of the homeland, rendering them less flexible or adaptable to local ways of thinking.

Another legacy of the North American enclave on the Atlantic Coast was a history of internal colonialism. The previous regimes had not bothered to administer or develop the region. There had been a minimal local presence of petty bureaucrats who contented themselves with minor taxes and kickbacks from the foreign corporations which were busily extracting the region's natural resources. Along with the Moravian church, North American corporations and aid agencies had provided the few social services available, confirming to the local populace the superiority of North America and its institutions.

Five years after the revolution, many costenos insisted that the Atlantic Coast still contributed more to the national economy than it received in government services and investments, despite the fact that the reverse was actually the case. Furthermore, with the massive expansion in government welfare services following the revolution, the local population was sensitive to overrepresentation of Pacific Coast functionaries in these new desirable jobs.

The ethnic composition of the FSLN prior to the revolutionary triumph reflected the marginality of the Atlantic Coast to national politics. There were no FSLN members of Sumu, Rama, or Garifuna descent, only a handful of Miskitu descent, a slightly larger number of Creole revolutionaries, and not many Mestizo costeno cadre. The Sandinistas, therefore, lacked representatives who spoke the same language as the ethnic minorities or who were familiar with the problems of the region. Once again South Zelaya had an advantage over the north since the commander and "delegate minister"--roughly equivalent to governor--of the zone was an English-speaking Creole and the majority of the FSLN's limited number of costeno cadre were from the Bluefields area. Significantly, in June 1984 a Miskitu woman was appointed "governor" for North Zelaya. Consequently, by the fifth year of the revolution, the two highest political administrative posts in the regions of ethnic minority concentration were held by minorities themselves.

Another legacy confronting the FSLN was the historically entrenched pattern of ethnic and class domination. Nicaragua's ethnic minorities, unlike the majority of workers and peasants in the rest of the country, suffered a dual form of domination: class exploitation and ethnic oppression. The Miskitu, Sumu, and Rama were at the bottom of this local class-ethnic hierarchy, performing the least desirable, most poorly paid jobs. In the gold mines in Bonanza, for example, the Miskitu and Sumu were usually relegated to the most dangerous, strenuous tasks in the pits, where they suffered from the highest rates of silicosis, a permanently debilitating lung disease.

Above the Amerindians but below the Creoles came the Mestizo population, many of whom were landless laborers, recent migrants from the Pacific provinces. Like the Miskitu, they engaged in poorly remunerated agricultural wage labor and had a high level of illiteracy and alcoholism.

The Creoles dominated the skilled jobs. Because of their superior education they tended to obtain white-collar employment in disproportionate numbers. Since the decline in activity of the foreign corporations in the region over the last 50 years, many Creoles had withdrawn from the local labor market, relying instead on income earned as seamen on foreign vessels or on cash remittances from family members in the United States. Above the Creoles there was a stratum of upper class Pacific-born Mestizos, usually of lighter complexion than the poorer Mestizos, who held administrative and political appointee positions. Finally, until the triumph of the revolution this ethnic-class hierarchy was capped by a miniscule layer of North American and European whites who owned or ran the few companies still operating on the coast, such as the gold mines or the lumber export firms.

This class hierarchy was accompanied by acute racial prejudice. Mestizos and Creoles presented the "inferiority" of the Miskitu and other Amerindians as a matter of common sense. In turn, the working-class and peasant Mestizos looked down upon the Creoles for their dark complexion while the Creoles--whether dark or light complexioned--insisted upon their superiority over the "Panias" (Spaniards).

It would be ahistorical to expect it to be possible to eradicate quickly these patterns of interethnic domination, so solidly rooted in local class inequalities. Indeed, these patterns of ethnic-class hierarchy existed with local variations throughout all the nations of the Central American Atlantic litoral. Racism was an integral part of the social formations spawned by the multinational enclaves.

By the end of the fifth year of the revolution, theoreticians within the revolutionary process were beginning to publish analyses of the dual nature of ethnic/class domination in Zelaya. For example a CIDCA document noted that there was an inherent tendency for class-conscious movements composed of the dominant ethnic group of a country to subordinate the struggle against ethnic oppression to that of economic exploitation. The document concludes that in the case of Nicaragua "class exploitation and ethnic oppression are inextricably interconnected both in history and in the present. Therefore, one form of domination cannot be successfully eradicated without a conscious, simultaneous struggle to eliminate the other." Ironically the contras, for all their indigenous rights rhetoric, had evidently not learned this lesson. In fact in mid-1984, a prominent member of ARDE resigned from the organization, citing racism against the Miskitu as one of his primary motives.

Perhaps the most explosive psychological legacy of this history of dual domination was the neurosis of internalized racism on the part of the Amerindians at the bottom of the hierarchy. This explains why so many Miskitu could be mobilized into a virtually suicidal war. The Miskitu contras appealed to these deeply ingrained sentiments of heartfelt injustice and humiliation. Through MISURASATA and later MISURA, Fagoth offered the Miskitu people, who had always been ridiculed and exploited by the surrounding ethnic groups, an illusion of racial superiority. For example, he advocated the expulsion of the Mestizo population from the northeast and the relegation of Creoles to the status of second-class citizens.

Such radical, ethnic-nationalist revival movements, often combined with a messianic and millenarian mystique, are a sociological phenomenon common to ethnic minorities suffering from social and economic discrimination throughout the world. Comparable examples of mass mobilization include the Ghost Dance movement among North American Indians in the 1870s and 1890s, the numerous cargo cults of the Melanesian islands, and the Mamachi religion of the Guaymi Amerindians in Panama during the 1960s. These movements unleash energies that have been distorted by decades or even centuries of oppression and alienation. The Atlantic Coast and the Sandinista Revolution

Ironically, it was the revolution itself which initially mobilized the Miskitu. The Sandinistas introduced not only a genuine democratic opening into Nicaraguan political and social life, but also an infectious sense of hope and omnipotence. Daily the radio urged everyone, including the Miskitu, to organize, to be proud of being poor, and above all, to demand their just rights. Rivera, a Miskitu contra leader who ironically recognized his debt to the Sandinistas, stated: "Of course the revolution made this whole movement possible. The fervor of the revolutionary triumph injected into the soul, heart and atmosphere that everybody could express themselves and participate. Before there was no incentive ... we were just asleep."

The original strategy of the revolution had been to integrate the ethnic minorities into the revolutionary process by providing concrete solutions to their material needs. Subsidies were established for farm implements and inputs; technical aid was dispensed free of charge; crops were purchased at guaranteed prices; credit was made accessible and cheap; electricity was brought to the countryside; and schools and health clinics were built in even the most remote communities. An all-weather road from the Pacific was completed in 1982 and telephone and television connections were extended. This campaign to reactivate the economy and build infrastructure, however, was offset by the initial disruption caused by the revolutionary transition and then later, more dramatically, by the contras' campaign of economic sabotage. Millions of dollars worth of economic infrastructure was destroyed. Constant ambush of transport routes resulted in food shortages in the isolated rural communities and prevented the delivery of social services, since nurses and agricultural extension agents were often targeted by the contras. Furthermore, the de facto economic embargo on the country by the United States further exacerbated the already tenuous economic situation, as precious fishing and transport craft as well as other productive machinery were paralyzed for lack of spare parts and foreign exchange.

Significantly, in the south, where the military situation was somewhat less critical, the rural communities received more of the benefits of the revolution: schools, health clinics, artesanal fishing cooperatives, subsidized river transport, among other things. These communities, many of which were largely Garifuna and Creole, were noticeably more appreciative of the revolutionary process.

However, the principal economic problems faced by the urban-based Creoles, especially in Bluefields, were not poverty and unemployment. The Creoles participated, to a certain extent, in a miniature consumer economy, receiving much of their income from cash remittances or savings from previous out-migrations.

The revolution's emphasis on meeting the needs of the poorest sectors therefore actually lowered their standard of living. The Central Bank was channeling scarce foreign currency to build schools in the countryside rather than to assure adequate supplies of toothpaste and toilet paper in urban centers.

While many Creoles were disaffected by their inability to purchase consumer goods, a significant sector of the Creole intelligentsia accepted jobs in the expanded local government ministries, and some became revolutionaries. This was not the case, however, with the Miskitu equivalent of the Creole intellectuals, namely, the dozen university-educated Miskitu and the more numerous community-level Miskitu Moravian ministers. The generally lower literacy level of the Amerindians, their limited skills in inter-ethnic interaction, and the more antagonistic status of Amerindian/Mestizo ethnic relations resulted in relatively few Miskitu being selected for employment in white-collar government jobs. In contrast to the Creoles, therefore, most of the educated Miskitu "elite" were not incorporated into the public service sector and instead became the backbone of the Miskitu contra movement. Although not wealthy by any standard, this Miskitu intelligentsia did not share the impoverished semiproletarian class position of the majority of their people. Consequently, they failed to appreciate the progressive economic changes being promoted by the revolution. Instead they reacted most strongly to the continued manifestations of ethnic oppression, since that is what affected them most directly on the personal level.

Ultimately, the factor which most obstructed reconciliation between the Sandinistas and alienated costenos was the war itself. The war disrupted more than just the economy; it reduced the space for politically acceptable dialogue. The Sandinista leadership repeatedly recognized the revolution's errors in the Atlantic Coast, and specifically cited heavy handedness and cultural insensitivity on the part of FSLN cadre. The war, however, forced military defense rather than flexibility and self-criticism into the foreground. U.S. Intervention

This takes us full circle to the core of the problem: U.S. Atlantic Coast, and specifically cited heavy-handedness and intervention. If Fagoth and the MISURASATA leaders had not been provided with sophisticated military hardware, intensive military training, and millions of dollars of spending money, they could not have engaged in protracted armed struggle. There would have been serious conflicts between the ethnic minorities and the Sandinistas, but it would not have escalated into a bloody war; it could have been resolved through a non-violent--albeit tensely charged--process of negotiation and accommodation.

Minorities suffering from ethnic oppression feel their injustice deeply and have a tremendous potential for militant mobilization. The FSLN leadership had not been aware of the complexity of the situation in the Atlantic Coast. Few Sandinistas had ever been to the region; no systematic analysis of the indigenous minority question existed. Tragically this was not the case for the United States. The Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have spent millions of dollars analyzing ethnic minorities throughout the third world. The manipulation of indigenous peoples with historical grievances has become a recurrent pattern in North American interventions. The most spectacular example of this strategy was the military mobilization of the Hmoung in Southeast Asia (the Thailand/Laos border) behind United States objectives.

In the particular case of Nicaragua, the real fear of the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department, therefore, was not that the Sandinistas might mistreat their ethnic minorities, but rather the reverse. The Sandinista attempt to dismantle in a democratic--although sometimes clumsy and insensitive--fashion the historical patterns of interethnic domination and class exploitation on the Atlantic Coast threatened to set a "subversive" precedent for other multiethnic nations. By promoting armed struggle and prolonging an agonized bloodbath, therefore, the United States hoped to prevent, or at least to retard, the emergence of that liberating example.
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Author:Bourgois, Philippe
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jan 1, 1985
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