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 


                        Bernard Nietschmann

        Copyright 1986 Center For World Indigenous Studies

[Ed. Note: This article may be reproduced for electronic transfer and 
posting on computer bulletin boards in part or full, provided that no 
profit is made by such transfer and that full credit  is given to the 
author, the Center For World Indigenous Studies  and The Fourth World 
Documentation Project.]

       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 
indigenous peoples. 

      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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