Miskito Indians of Nicaragua

Location: Atlantic seaboard of Nicaragua, Mosquita.
Population: 75,000-130,000
% of population: less than 5%
Religion: Moravian
Language: Creole, English, indigenous languages

The Miskito Indians of Nicaragua live mainly on the north-east coast of the country, paying scant regard to the established Honduran border, on the other side of which as many as 40,000 Miskitos may live. They have played an important role in the international indigenous movement of the 1980s and have, with the advent of counterrevolutionary movements, been in conflict with the revolutionary Sandinista government which came to power in 1979. Their chief aim is one of self-determination. No formal census of the Miskitos has ever been taken, as a result of which population figures tend to be misrepresented by both sides. There are also other smaller indigenous groups in the area; the Suma, Rama and Garifunos.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the western Caribbean formed a front between the competing Spanish and British forces. The effects on the native Miskito population was profound as they became party to, as well as victims of, the long-term European and, later, American battle for the region. A British protectorate was formed over Mosquita between 1824 and 1860, but during the 1860s and 1870s American interests, relying on the Monroe Doctrine, supported the unification of a Nicaraguan state in order to allow greater American access to the region. In 1860 the Treaty of Managua gave Nicaragua sovereignty over the “Mosquito Reserve”, while excluding nearly all the traditional Miskito areas — allowing them to fall under Nicaraguan rule — a state of affairs that could not have arisen had the Miskitos had a say.

The Moravian Church began missionary work in 1849 at the invitation of the Miskito King, a move initiated by Britain. Although the church was democratic in character, its effect on the cultural, social and economic structures of the Miskitos was profound. Once the process of conversion began (the Moravian missionaries apparently enjoyed no success for some 30 years), Christianity came to define social status. However, the acceptance of Christian values also seems to have made the Miskitos more susceptible to exploitation and the Moravians acted as mediators between them and the outside world — a state of affairs that continues to the present.

In 1894 the Mosquito Reserve was dissolved — “reincorporated” into the Nicaraguan state — which led to a local uprising that was eventually quelled by the US Marines. However the Atlantic Coast was never fully integrated into the state and tended to be exploited for its natural resources and labour. The national war of liberation from 1927 to 1933 offered the Miskitos an opportunity to shrug off American domination of their region and the nationalist leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino, found strong allies on the Atlantic Coast. The assassination of Sandino by Anastacio Somoza saw the installation of a dictatorship which lasted until 1979. It is often thought that the Miskitos and others on the Atlantic coast were not particularly oppressed during the Somocista era, and that they are therefore a sort of fifth column in the post-revolutionary Sandinista state, but it is doubtful that many would wish to see the return of dictatorship. It is also believed that more research into the Somocista era would reveal a greater level of repression than is generally agreed. During the 1960s the Miskitos began organizing defence against territorial encroachment from the regime. This culminated in the formation in 1972 of the Alliance for Progress of Miskitos and Sumus (ALPROMISU).

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power in July 1979 after a bitter guerrilla struggle and large-scale loss of life. The new government undoubtedly had good intentions towards the Atlantic Coast, though it seems very little study had been made of the indigenous question. Many of the programmes initiated were unrelated and often antagonistic to, the realities of the Atlantic Coast. Yet rights were recognized and, as a result, MISURASATA (Miskito, Sumo, Rama, and Sandinistas United), was formed. Among other things, it carried out literacy programmes. In 1980, a Ministry for the Atlantic coast was formed — INNICA. The Minister appointed to head it was not from the region and he spoke only Spanish; nor was MISURASATA consulted. INNICA was dissolved in 1982, but its research institute, CIDCA, which was similarly criticized, remained.

The reasons why Miskitos took up arms against the Sandinista government in 1981–82 was hotly debated. Following the exit from Nicaragua to Honduras of many of the MISURASATA leaders and their followers, counter-revolutionary forces attacked Miskito villages, causing the inhabitants to flee in all directions. 40,000 Miskitos took refuge in Honduras, by this time generally agreed to be under the influence of the Reagan administration, where they were accepted in refugee camps. Many were converted to the cause of the “Contra” counter-revolutionaries, who were fighting a covert war against the Sandinistas. The Nica-raguan government then made the controversial decision to evacuate the villages on the Honduran border. While tensions, fanned by international media coverage, ran high, by the end of 1983 it became clear to the Nicaraguan government that the vast majority of people from the region who had been implicated, had been manipulated or were simply aiding family members. At this point, the government declared an amnesty for most Miskitos imprisoned or in exile.

The leader of MISURASATA, Brooklyn Riviera, took advantage of the Nicaraguan government’s offer of talks in late 1984. He insisted on negotiating the terms of autonomy, but the Nicaraguan government refused to deal solely with MISURASATA, arguing that it did not represent all the Miskitos, or the other Indian groups. In spite of the slow pace of negotiations, many Miskitos returned from exile and began the process of reconstruction. Security concerns were overwhelmed by more pressing problems, such as the lack of food in the area. The process of repatriation was almost stopped by a US grant of $300,000 to armed Miskitos in Honduras for the purpose of attacking Nicaraguan security forces, but the cease-fire agreements held.

The autonomy law, passed in 1987, is an attempt to balance national unity with the multi-ethnic character of the country. It provides that three specific areas fundamental to the indigenous population’s demands lie within the control of the autonomous governments; promotion of cultures and languages, land, water, and forests. The administrative structure divides the Atlantic coast into two regional governments with administrative capitals at Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields. The Miskitos would prefer one autonomous government to two, but the government contends that the present structure takes account of transport and communication difficulties. Other problems are the means of election, which provides no built-in ethnic balance; the one-year residency qualification required to stand for office; and a perceived lack of effective power by Miskitos.

The autonomous regions are now in place and their future depends at least in part on political and economic developments outside the region, such as the ending of US support for Contra rebels and an improvement in the rapidly deteriorating Nicaraguan economy. In October 1988 the Atlantic Coast suffered a further setback as a result of massive devastation by Hurricane Joan.

(See also Maya of Guatemala; Mexico’s Indians)