Nicaragua and the Indian Revolution by Professor Bernard Q. Nietschmann
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N I C A R A G U A
A N D T H E I N D I A N R E V O L U T I O N
Copyright 1986 Center For World Indigenous Studies
[Ed. Note: This article may be reproduced for electronic transfer and
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Nicaragua is more complex than a simple two-side conflict
between Contras end Sandinistas. A third side is fighting a little
known war against the Sandinistas and some day may have to fight
against the Contras.
The only Indian army in the Americas is in the fifth year
of bitter war with Central America's largest army over the
invasion of Indian lands and communities. The Miskito, Sumo and
Rama combatants are the acknowledged best fighters with unmatched
military successes against the Sandinistas despite their being
poorly armed. The Indian forces have advantages of widespread
civilian support, home terrain, and a gutsy resolve to defend for
a projected 20 to 30 years against the invasion. They are not
included in any regional peace plans. Sandinista Nicaragua is
mired in a war they are unlikely to win, and the Contras appear
quite ready to continue the military annexation of Indian land if
they should take power in Managua.
Two wars are being fought: one between the Cuban - and
Soviet-backed FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and the
U.S.-backed FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) which is over
control of the Nicaraguan Government. The other war is between
FSLN occupation forces and the Misurasata and KISAN Indian
resistance and is over who will control Indian land and resources.
While the Contras and the Indians share a common Sandinista
enemy, they each have different goals and means. The much better
funded Contras seek to topple and replace the FSLN and to
"economically integrate" the Caribbean coast which really means
they plan to maintain exploitation of Indian land, resources and
labor. At the same time the Indian resistance seeks an end to
Managua's military occupation and economic domination by
establishing an autonomous self-ruled region that would resist
totalitarian regimes and cooperate with democratic governments in
Centuries ego the Miskito Nation stopped and pushed back
the Spanish Conquest; today it is leading an Indian revolution
against the Nicaraguan State. Referred to as Indian Lukanka by the
Miskitos, their struggle is for self-determination of Wan Tasbaia,
their nation. The Miskitos have defended their homeland for 500
years against colonialists, imperialists, capitalists, and now
With a population of 150,000 (almost the size of Belize),
the 400-mile-long Miskito Nation has a strategic location
southwest of Cuba along coastal lowlands and waters claimed by
Honduras and Nicaragua. To the west is the 12,000-member Sumo
Nation, and south of Bluefields is located the much smaller Rama
Nation with less than 1000 people.
Nicaragua asserts that these peoples are minorities who
have no distinct ownership rights to Nicaraguan land and
resources. The Indian revolution rejects the apartheid labels of
minority and ethnic group that attempt to classify unconsenting
nation peoples as second-class citizens of a state in order to
acquire their land and resources. Instead, the Indians say they
are the true historical owners of their lands and waters, and that
the Nicaraguan state has no bill of sale, no treaty with Indian
peoples, no military victory, nor any vote that relinquishes
Indian sovereignty and territory to Managua.
There are only two ways to be on Indian land: by invitation
or by invasion. To the Indians, Nicaragua has invaded under a
cartographic delusion that Indian lands "belong" to Managua and
the Ladino people. What is ironic and contradictory is that the
Sandinista state then turns around and accuses the United States
of the same thing it is doing to the Miskito, Sumo and Rama
nations - the use of military force to deny self-determination and
a popular revolution.
In 1979, after the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship,
the Sandinistas sent military units to Indian lands to secure and
consolidate territory while making promises. Soon the FSLN and the
Indians were on a collision course as the state expropriated
indigenous lands and resources while the grassroots Misurasata
organization worked to protect Indian lands and to promote Indian
economic and cultural development. Major land disputes led to an
August 1980 agreement with the FSLN that Misurasata would map
Indian lands. But when the dimensions of the indigenous
territories took cartographic shape, the FSLN made February 1981
mass arrests of the entire Misurasata leadership end many
supporters. They were accused of being "separatists" (for claiming
and mapping territory expropriated by the state), end "contras"
(for not adhering to the invader's ideology).
The Indians took up arms to reclaim and defend their lands.
At first they fought with arms recovered from ambushed Sandinista
patrols and overrun garrisons. By 1982 out of economic end
military necessity the new Misura organization sought help from
the Honduras-based remnants of the Somoza government, while
Misurasata did the same in Costa Rica with Eden Pastora and the
original Sandinistas in ARDE (Revolutionary Democratic Alliance).
The weapons received were always few in number and of poor quality
and small caliber. Nevertheless, the underarmed Indians were the
first to shoot down a helicopter, blow up T-55 tanks, destroy a
major fuel depot, make frogman raids, amphibious assaults, and
carry out hundreds of ambushes as well as major toe-to-toe battles
that often lasted several days.
In 1981 the FSLN began to systematically retaliate against
unarmed Indian communities: half of the villages were burned to
the ground, up to 20,000 Miskitos and Sumos were forced into state
relocation camps and 35,000 fled to become refugees in Honduras
and Costa Rica; remaining civilians were arbitrarily arrested,
imprisoned and tortured; village-occupying FSLN army and security
units were allowed free rein to rape, and to steal and destroy
property; food and medicines were rationed and withheld; and
military conscription was imposed.
But the Indians were hurting the Sandinistas in the ground
war and in international opinion. In December 1984 the FSLN and
Misurasata met in Bogota for the first of four futile rounds of
negotiations that ended in May 1985. Unable to get the Indian
leadership to agree to a cease fire without land rights, the FSLN
Minister of Interior Tomas Borge began a "hearts and minds"
campaign aimed at Indian civilians and fighters. In exchange for
closing down some of the strategic hamlet-like relocation camps,
Borge made cease fire agreements with individual Miskito
commanders (whose men were desperately low on ammunition).
Meanwhile, the United States and the Contras pushed for an
"or else" unification of all anti-Sandinista Groups into one FDN-
dominated organization, the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO).
Counterproductive, this plan has led to fragmentation, not
unification. Eden Pastora was pushed out and the Indians became
further divided over closer ties with the Contras who are as
racist and against autonomous Indian territories as are the
Both the Sandinista and the Contras are trying to
incorporate the third-side Indians without dealing with their
fundamental demand for political and territorial autonomy.
Even though fighting each other, the Contras and the
Sandinistas agree on the suppression of Indian rights. ARDE's
original Sandinistas in their Article 16, the FSLN marxists in
Article 210 of the new constitution, end the "freedom fighters" on
page 17 of UNO's 1986 "National Democratic Project" have made the
same indistinguishable and interchangeable statement on Indian
rights: indigenous peoples may keep their folklore and language,
but their territory and resources belong to the Nicaraguan state.
The only items of dispute is who will rule the state:
The Sandinistas want to sidetrack the Indian revolution and
make a final solution later, and the Contras want to put the
Indian revolution on the front linea in order to deal with it now.
Rather than supporting the second war against the
Sandinistas, the United States and the Contras are trying to
eradicate it. They are doing the Sandinistas' work for them.
Indians are not about to fight for goals which are against Indian
From the one hundred million dollars of U.S. aid, KISAN
must receive funds through the anti-Indian UNO and FDN Contras,
while the still independent Misurasata is boxed in and won't be
able to use the five million dollars promised to it for military
operations from Costa Rica which are forbidden by the Arias
government. And Misurasata ia forbidden from going to Honduras to
unite with the bulk of the Indian fighters because the Contras and
the CIA cannot control the Indian revolution.
Unless the Indians ere able to fight their own war for
their own goals - without imposed Contra commanders and Cuban-
American and Mexican-American CIA advisors, many of the fighters
might just sit this one out and wait to take on the weakened
victor of the FSLN-FDN war. Or they might declare their nations to
be neutral territories and request international peace-keeping
forces. Another alternative would be to open up Honduras for the
unification or parallel operation of the two Indian forces.
Right now, the U.S. Department of State and the CIA are
faced with deciding to support the second war for Indian self-
determination or just the Contra war for business as usual.
Autonomous Indian nations should not be looked on as a threat but
as a democratic regional counterweight to Managua's revolving door
of totalitarian regimes.
Without land the only future Indian peoples have in Central
America ia to be cheap labor. Demands for autonomy are demands for
a geographical democracy, where rights are tied to land which
guarantee what no central government can: the survival of
Worldwide, the self-determination genie is out of the bottle
and can't be restrained by state-sanctifying rules that shut out
Fourth World indigenous nations. In Central America, but seven
states claim sovereign control over some 50 indigenous nations and
their six million people and 40 percent of the region's area.
Internationally, 168 states assert hegemony over some 3000
nations. State invasion of indigenous nations accounts for 32 of
the world's 50 hot wars, the majority of the refugees, and almost
all of the genocide.
These state-nation wars over territory are very tenacious,
something the contending Nicaraguan sides should consider. The
Karen have been fighting against Burma for 38 years, the Eritreans
against an Ethiopian monarchy and marxists for 25 years, and the
West Papuans against Indonesia for 24 years. The Miskito have the
determination and plans to carry on their struggle for a similar
period if necessary. Without a territorial solution to Indian land
rights, there will be no peace with Nicaragua, regardless of the
outcome of the Contra-Sandinista war.
Bernard Nietschmann is professor of Geography at the University of
California, Berkeley. He has worked with the Miskito Nation for 18
years and was the first outsider to accompany Indian combatants on
a 500-mile round trip by sea canoe to their besieged nation. Since
1983 he has been an advisor to Misurasata. Currently, he is
working on a book titled, "States and Nations: The Roots of
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