Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Jan 26 09:18:45 MST 2000

At first blush, it would seem that the Sandinistas and the Miskitus would
be natural allies. One of the central Sandinista 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 Miskitu 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, Miskitus 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 Miskitu:

"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 Miskitus did not
fit into the Sandinista schema of a society composed of capitalists and
workers. The clear implication was that Miskitus 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 Miskitus 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

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
Miskitu, who subsisted on the basis of part-time wage labor and hunting
wild boar, deer and armadillos? The Miskitu 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 Miskitu 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 Miskitus, whom Ronald Reagan then
manipulated into becoming contras. Unless we get past these clichés and
begin to understand the true nature of Miskitu 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-Miskitu conflict without
prejudice is a necessary first step in preventing misunderstandings in the

The best presentation of the Miskitu case comes from Charles R. Hale, an
American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he
spent with Miskitu people, the more he came to realize that the government
in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book "Resistance
and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987" is
essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskitu 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
Miskitu land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some
large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitus resented,
including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction
interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitus faced
challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitus 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 Miskitu 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 Miskitus, 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 Miskitus 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 Miskitu
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 Miskitus. When Cuban technicians showed up in
Bluefields in 1980, the brainwashing had the desired effect. The other
anti-Communist bulwark of Miskitu 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
Miskitus 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 "Miskitu 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 Miskitu 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 Miskitus exchanged a
few pounds of beans for salt, clothing, etc. How could they progress in
that way? The merchants profited and left the Miskitu 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 Miskitu have the same pawanka?
After all, the riches of the Coast belong to the Miskitu, 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 Miskitus 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 Miskitus 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 Miskitus began their
guerrilla war. When the Sandinistas decided to resettle the Miskitus away
from the combat, an army spokesman revealed the sort of prejudice that had
heightened tensions initially:

"The life of a Miskitu 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 Miskitu. Such prejudices were at the heart of the war against the
North American Indian and the attempt to "civilize" them on reservations.

The Miskitus 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 Miskitu 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 Miskitus 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 Miskitus. After two years of senseless fighting,
peace came to the poverty-stricken nations. If the Sandinistas had come to
terms with the Miskitu challenge before they had taken power, the could
have saved themselves two painful years.

Tomas Borge was in charge of the negotiations with the Miskitus 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

Louis Proyect

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