Miskitos and Sandinistas
At first blush, it would seem that the Sandinistas and the
Miskitos would be natural allies. One of the central Sandinsta leaders was Ernesto
Cardenal. This priest and poet thought that pre-Columbian civilizations could provide the
basis for a new, egalitarian Nicaraguan nationalism. His epic poem "Lost Cities"
contains these lines:
"Their priests had no earthly power and their pyramids were built without forced labor The peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire And they had no colonies. They did not know the arrow."
Jaime Wheelock, another Sandinista leader, had written a book called "Indigenous Roots of Anti-colonial Struggle in Nicaragua." His goal was to show that Indians had resisted the Spaniard invasion for centuries. The passive native was a racist myth.
There is a problem, however. Cardenal and Wheelock were writing about Nicaragua's past, not the present. They regarded the violent assimilation of Indians into white society as a regrettable historic fact. The modern day Spanish-speaking Mestizo was the end-product of this antagonistic social process. He had distant Indian roots, but that was all. The Sandinista goal was to raise the social, economic and cultural level of the Mestizo through government action. The Mestizo was a peasant or a worker, whom the capitalist system had absorbed. The only sort of liberation that made sense to the Marxist Sandinistas was one that raised the subjects of capitalist society to a higher level, namely socialism.
The Sandinistas largely ignored the Atlantic Coast Indians when they put together a strategy for revolution. It is most telling that in Humberto Ortega's "50 Years of Sandinista Struggle," written in 1976, there is absolutely no reference to the Miskito Indians. What conclusion do all these writings support? There was only one way that the Atlantic Coast Indians could become authentic revolutionaries. They had to take part in the Sandinista struggle on the same terms as the Mestizos who lived in on the Pacific Coast and Central region of the country. Their struggle as Indians did not matter.
After the Sandinistas took power, Miskitos demands came to their attention in a most forceful manner. The Sandinistas were ill-prepared to respond in the proper fashion. Their ethnocentrism prevented this from happening. More importantly, there were important gaps in Marxist theory that prevented them from understanding the special oppression of Indian people. Dogmatic Marxism tends to view Indians as a relic of precapitalist society. For the sake of "progress," they should enter the working-class as rapidly as possible. Assimilation is the only worthwhile goal. The Sandinistas gave concessions to this view and it cost them dearly.
Carlos Vilas is an Argentinean sociologist who has written many perceptive articles and books on the Sandinista revolution. In the paper "Revolutionary Change and Multi-Ethnic Regions," he characterizes the Sandinista attitude toward the Miskito:
"In colonial and neo-colonial situations there also appeared as a specific task the building of a nation-state which could express its popular sovereignty in the face of imperialism. It was not difficult, in this context, to view groups which were the product of precapitalist situations, or which had not been formed completely in accordance with the antagonistic polarization of the capitalist social structure, as the result and the symbol of backwardness; in any case, as *temporary* social formations which the inevitable process of social differentiation would convert either into the proletariat or into the bourgeoisie. To the extent that the project of revolutionary transformation blocked the possibility of a conversion into a bourgeoisie, there remained only the possibility of an evolution--slow perhaps, but sure--toward the proletariat. At the same time, the economic reductionism which took hold of a good part of Marxist thought in the 1920s and tinged its later development gave a privileged place to factors related to production in its characterization of social agents."
All this is rather a long-winded way of saying that the Miskitos did not fit into the Sandinista schema of a society composed of capitalists and workers. The clear implication was that Miskitos were some sort of dinosaur-like relic that modernization--either of a capitalist or socialist nature--would sweep away sooner or later, and the sooner the better.
This must have been the message they intended to project upon their arrival to the Atlantic Coast shortly after the overthrow of Somoza. They erected billboards everywhere that stated, "The Atlantic Coast: A giant awakens!" The Miskitos took one look at this and must have said among themselves, "I didn't realize we were asleep, did you?" Had the Sandinistas come to the Atlantic Coast to civilize the savages? This must have been the way it appeared.
The ethnocentrism of the Sandinista movement had deep roots. There were many members who had attended college and studied sociology and anthropology, but they were only studying the Mestizo worker and peasant, whose families they often belonged to. But what did they know of the Miskito, who subsisted on the basis of part-time wage labor and hunting wild boar, deer and armadillos? The Miskito spoke a different language, worshipped in Moravian not Catholic churches and, for all practical purposes, lived in a different country. Carlos Vilas suggests that at some deeper level, the jungles of the Atlantic Coast were as foreboding to the Sandinistas as they were to the original conquistadors. Sandinista guerrillas went through some kind of purification ceremony in Nicaragua's mountains where, as Omar Cabezas put it, there was a "great crucible in which the best cadres were forged." The jungle, on the other hand, was mysterious, unknown and treacherous.
Many supporters of the Sandinista cause, including myself, had very little understanding of the origins of the Miskito struggle. It seemed to appear overnight. All we knew is that there were some idealistic but inexperienced revolutionaries in Managua who had made some mistakes in places like Bluefields. These mistakes enraged the Miskitos, whom Ronald Reagan then manipulated into becoming contras. Unless we get past these clichés and begin to understand the true nature of Miskito concerns in 1980, we will never be able to understand one of the failures of the Sandinista revolution. There is every likelihood that socialists will once again face indigenous movements in places like Mexico or Guatemala either as friend or unnecessarily as foe. Studying the Sandinista-Miskito conflict without prejudice is a necessary first step in preventing misunderstandings in the future.
The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book "Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987" is essential reading.
Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.
These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.
But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The "trickle down" theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan's America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.
It is quite understandable that the Miskitos began to fight for their rights within the context of an indigenist political outlook. Marxism of the Sandinista variety either paid no attention to them at best, or viewed them with hostility.
There were two types of outside attempts to influence the Miskito grass-roots struggle. The first came from NGO's that had US sponsorship. This included USAID and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). There is little doubt that these groups worked hard to foster anti-Communism among the Miskitos. When Cuban technicians showed up in Bluefields in 1980, the brainwashing had the desired effect. The other anti-Communist bulwark of Miskito society was the Moravian church, which encouraged docility.
Working against these institutions, with a goal of promoting political awareness, was the Catholic church, whose lower-level priests identified with liberation theology. They conducted educational programs among the Miskitos that challenged all forms of paternalism and exhorted them to improve the material conditions of their lives. They used biblical references to draw parallels between the "Miskito nation" and the tribes of Israel. These pedagogical techniques were the same that radical priests used to inspire peasant militancy in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. Now the same sorts of priests were preaching to the Atlantic Coast Indians.
This ferment led to the formation of ALPROMISU in 1974, a Miskito rights organization. Lina Spark was the first president of the group. She announced the aims:
"Pawanka [a verb or noun meaning develop] was our goal...We pressured the government to provide scholarships for our children. With more education they could become nurses, doctors...We pushed for all kinds of projects...We wanted to build a market in Waspam...the Miskitos exchanged a few pounds of beans for salt, clothing, etc. How could they progress in that way? The merchants profited and left the Miskito empty-handed, impoverished. Those merchants were real exploiters...Our living conditions were dismal...when you look at the coast, you see Spaniards or Creoles whose pawanka is much better. Why can't the Miskito have the same pawanka? After all, the riches of the Coast belong to the Miskito, but when you go to the Coast, there's nothing. Only the Pacific seems to benefit from our gold and all the rest. We want to get some of those riches back, so we can educate our kids. Education was the key to everything."
Other leaders of ALPROMISU were Steadman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera, who became leaders of armed anti-Sandinista groups. ALPROMISU eventually became MISURATA, which was initially sympathetic to the Sandinista revolution. It was an official body on the national legislature in 1980. The Sandinistas promised substantial aid to the Atlantic Coast and the Miskitos seemed open at first to working with them.
So what went wrong?
Flaws in the Sandinista theoretical understanding of Indian rights would naturally lead to mistakes on the practical level. And such mistakes did take place from the very beginning. They were a function of the belief that the Miskitos were a "lesser" people. In an atmosphere of distrust, it is possible for flare-ups to turn into major conflagrations. This is what happened in 1980 when a violent confrontation in a Moravian Church led to casualties on both sides. In a matter of days, the Miskitos began their guerrilla war. When the Sandinistas decided to resettle the Miskitos away from the combat, an army spokesman revealed the sort of prejudice that had heightened tensions initially:
"The life of a Miskito family can be summarized in the following manner: they build a house out of bamboo, with a palm roof, and no walls or floor...At daybreak they get into the dugout canoe with their wife, child, and dog, and head upriver. They fish, or hunt a bird, eat, then in the afternoon they return home again."
The strong implication was that resettlement could make better citizens out of the Miskito. Such prejudices were at the heart of the war against the North American Indian and the attempt to "civilize" them on reservations.
The Miskitos unfortunately made the mistake of believing that the enemy of their enemy was a friend. Linking up with the CIA undercut their cause and lost them friends internationally. After all, the CIA was the professional killing-machine of US capitalism, whose genocide against the American Indian should have been common knowledge to the MISURATA leaders.
The biggest problem, however, is that the Miskito leaders saw political conflict in terms of indigenous values versus non-indigenous. For example, their manifesto states:
"We declare that, as national indigenous peoples, we have a system of land use based on social, not individual factors, in profound agreement with all the Biblical teachings in the Old and New Testament on the possession and use of the land. Thus the possibility is eradicated of the domination of some people over others based on the individual exploitation of the means of production.
"All production, fruits of labor or the use of natural resources (the entire economy) is based on the subsistence needs of the people, not on profit. We produce in order to live and we do not work for profit, thus living in a subsistence economy (not a get-rich one)."
This is an inadequate guide to survival in a world run by capitalists, however. Capitalism is much more powerful than indigenous peoples. The coal, oil and uranium companies have the money and the guns to take advantage of any tribe. The real distinction is not between "social" and "individual." It is rather between capitalist and socialist. There is every evidence that capitalist inequality can appear even among members of the same tribe. American corporations have no compunction against making some Indians millionaires as long as they defend their interests in mineral-rich ancestral lands.
The only hope for the Miskitos would have been to work for their demands as allies of the Sandinista government. This is how things turned out eventually as the Sandinistas realized their mistakes. The Sandinistas established an autonomy commission, which produced an ambitious program of self-government for the Miskitos. After two years of senseless fighting, peace came to the poverty-stricken nations. If the Sandinistas had come to terms with the Miskito challenge before they had taken power, the could have saved themselves two painful years.
Tomas Borge was in charge of the negotiations with the Miskitos and said the following at their successful conclusion:
"We are capable of demonstrating to the world that we are capable of overcoming our own mistakes...that we have the modesty to enrich our knowledge of reality. Practice has shown us that it is scientifically incorrect to reduce social reality to class distinctions...We therefore recognize that...ethnic diversity is among the moving forces of the revolution."
In my next posts, I will discuss the history of the Incan empire and its relation to the ideas of José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian Marxist who believed that Incan communes (ayllus) could form the basis for a new society. In following posts, I will discuss the Guatemalan and Chiapas revolutionary movements, which have been made up of Mayan and other Indian peoples.