A Council of Elders of the Miskito indigenous people on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, citing the central government’s opening of the region to corporate exploitation with little return to local residents, have announced their secession from the country and declaration of a “Communitarian Nation of Mosquitia.” But the ruling Sandinista government are charging that the US embassy has fomented the move.
Upon declaring independence on April 19, Miskito Elders and their supporters seized the headquarters of the ruling party of the autonomous region, Yatama, or “Sons of Mother Earth,” in Puerto Cabezas. No move was taken to remove them, but National Police seized the locally caught green sea turtle meat they planned to consume at their celebratory feast, on the grounds that it is an endangered species. The occupiers were finally ousted from the party headquarters this past weekend by Yatama adherents.
Yatama said the eviction was peaceful. “We’re not going to fight between Miskito and Miskito,” Reynaldo Francis, the regional governor, said before this weekend’s action. “It’s not that we’re afraid of that movement.” But Miskito Elders said they were armed. The National Police apparently did not get involved.
The separatists are still maintaining that they are no longer part of Nicaragua, and have appointed Héctor Williams as their wihta tara, or great judge. Speaking to the New York Times, Williams cited lack of central government response to devastating hurricanes, a rat plague, and a mysterious hysteria-causing disease known as grisi siknis. (Ignorantly, the Times refers to the central government as the “federal government” despite the fact that Nicaragua does not have a federal system.)
“We have the right to autonomy and self-government,” Wycleff Diego, the separatist movement’s ambassador abroad, told the Times, holding up a copy of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Even the government’s allies concede that the separatists have valid grievances. “We haven’t been the best administrators of public things, but that doesn’t mean we should spill blood,” said Steadman Fagoth, a former Miskito guerilla leader who has recently allied himself with Sandinista President Daniel Ortega.
Two major drilling concessions have been granted off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, but officials fear the separatist movement could scare off investors. “It’s going to send the signal that you can’t do business in Nicaragua,” said Stan Ross, chief executive at Infinity Energy, a Denver-based company. (A maritime border dispute with Honduras and Colombia has also been an obstacle to offshore oil development.)
Puerto Cabezas has twice been rocked by violent protests in recent years: in 2007, over the central government’s slow response after a devastating hurricane, and in 2008, when Ortega’s government postponed municipal elections.
Separatist leader Williams, who has enlisted the support of hundreds of Miskito lobster divers who are protesting a drop in pay as lobster prices plunge, said he had to discourage the divers from attacking the party offices after they were re-taken. The separatists say they are seeking financing to train and equip an army of 1,500. “We’ll defend our natural resources,” vowed Guillermo Espinoza, the movement’s defense minister, who was known as Comandante Black Cat during the 1980s war. If no guns can be procured, he said, the separatists will make weapons themselves.
A top Sandinista leader, Gustavo Porras, accused Robert Callahan, the US ambassador to Nicaragua, of conspiring with the separatist movement in Cold War-era fashion. Callahan—who worked in the US embassy in Honduras when it was the command center for the Reagan administration’s Contra war in Nicaragua—denies involvement. “The question regarding any contentious issues that may exist between parts of the Miskito community and the government of Nicaragua is a matter for the Nicaraguans, and one that they themselves must resolve,” he said in a statement. (NYT, June 9)
Sandinista-aligned Miskito leader Steadman Fagoth—president of Nicaragua’s Fishing Institute—said he witnessed Ambassador Callahan and US State Department officials meeting with separatist leaders in Puerto Cabezas last month. He said local leaders of the right-opposition Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) were also present at the meeting. (Inside Costa Rica, May 14)
The US this week canceled more than $60 million in assistance to Nicaragua, citing concerns about democracy, rule of law and a free market economy. The board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US-funded operation set up by former President George W. Bush to fight poverty in developing nations, said it had cut $62 million from a $175 million program for Nicaragua.
“This decision is made with deep disappointment, as our partnership with Nicaragua has yielded tremendous progress over the past years in reducing poverty through innovative economic growth projects,” said Rodney Bent, the corporation’s chief executive. The cut in aid follows a suspension in new US assistance announced last November after the contested municipal elections. Ortega accused the US of punishing the poor with the suspension and defended the local elections, in which his Sandinistas won a majority of municipalities.
“Given the lack of meaningful reforms or progress in these areas by the government of Nicaragua, the board has agreed to terminate these projects,” Brent said. The canceled projects include a property regularization project and improvement of a road in León department. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who chairs the MCC board and participated in the decision, said US assistance must be “as effective and transparent as it is generous.” (AP, June 10; Nuevo Diario, Managua, Dec. 13, 2008)