Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast is a huge, sparsely populated enclave with a history, culture and geography markedly distinct from the Spanish-speaking Central area and Pacific Coast. Traditionally marginalised and neglected, the peoples of the Atlantic Coast, Miskitos, Sumos, English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans and several smaller ethnic groups, were at first misunderstood and clumsily treated by the Sandinista government after the 1979 revolution. Their disillusionment, divisions and cultural differences were ably exploited by the opposition to the Sandinistas and then by the US government which backed, funded and to a large extent directed the Contras—a coalition of armed guerrilla forces attempting to damage or overthrow the Sandinista government and operating across the borders from Honduras and Costa Rica. The Contra war lasted from 1981-1985.
The Sandinistas learned their lesson and by 1987, after extensive negotiations, passed an Autonomy Law. This divided the former Atlantic Coast department of Zelaya into a Northern (RAAN) and Southern (RAAS) autonomous Region, centred respectively on Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields, with their own regional councils, municipal authorities and full recognition for local languages.
The wounds of the Contra war were slow to heal, and support for the FSLN remained lower in the Atlantic Coast than elsewhere in the country. Recently, however, there are signs of growing support, particularly after experience of the corruption of the government of Adolfo Alemán (1997-2002). However, as throughout Central America, the shadow of narcotráfico threatens to corrupt local institutions, to divide and damage communities and to co-opt unemployed and alienated young people.
Michael Campbell, of OXFAM partner CEDEHCA based in Bluefields, explained some of the hopes and dangers to David McKnight of WalesNicaragua. The interview was recorded in September, before the Nicaraguan presidential and congressional elections.
David McKnight (DM): What work has CEDEHCA been doing on the Coast and what changes have happened on the Coast in the past five years?
Michael Campbell (MC): CEDEHCA is the Centre for Human, Civil and Autonomous Rights, we are a community development NGO that focuses on education, human and autonomy rights. We only work on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and in the framework of the autonomy process. I believe that in the last five years, the situation, economic and political, social and cultural situation of indigenous people and people of African descent has improved a lot, in part because this government understands the importance of the autonomy process, and has visualised the autonomy process as a development strategy for the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. And therefore has been able to come up with a human development plan for the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua which takes into account things like land demarcation, the importance of the education system, the justice administration system, and the health system of the indigenous people and the people of African descent. That’s in part.
Also because civil society organisations such as CEDEHCA, FADCANIC, URACCAN and BICU, have also developed the necessary skills to strengthen the communities, so while five years ago you would have a communal government, already elected, but without a clear understanding of what their priorities, their problems, and their needs are, now because of the work that our organisations have been doing these people are clear – they know exactly what they want and that’s why when the government was doing the consultation process for the human development plan for the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, everything was already in place. This has allowed the government to make some of its social programmes come towards the region in a way that communities can really take advantage of them. For example – artisanal fishery, credit for artisanal fishery and also the technical assistance that they need to carry that out has improved vastly especially in the case of Rama Cay, El Bluff is more commerce but also they have become involved in that, the Pearl Lagoon Basin, Karawala, Sandy Bay here in the south and also to a certain extent in Puerto Cabezas and a little bit above there, close to the coast with Honduras.
The government has also improved the region with its Zero Hunger programme here so agricultural producers here on the Caribbean Coast have benefitted a lot. Before, those programmes were only limited to the mestizo population but now the Miskitu population, the Mayagnas, and even the Afro-descendant – the Creoles and the Garifunas – have begun to develop the agricultural production in their own communities and this is very important because now the way that these programmes are starting is that agricultural production is limited not only to subsistence, it’s also that they are producing enough to export to the nearby semi-urban areas, and also some communities are even learning how to export out of Nicaragua, towards the Caribbean, and in the framework of CAFTA or also exporting to Venezuela and the other ALBA countries. This is something that’s important because the basis for generating income based on your own culture, your own tradition and your best practices is generating a boom here in the region and you can see that development has become plausible to a certain extent.
DM: The international English language media focusses on what they call the ‘white lobster’ or cocaine and portray the coast as a place where there’s only drugs. What is CEDEHCA’s experience?
MC: First of all, one of the most important things that we have to take into account when we want to put in place a strategy for combating drug trafficking and organised crime is that we have to fight the myths that exist. Nicaragua and Central America, the Caribbean Coast of central america are actually victims in the drug trade, we have to make this clear. The drugs are produced in the South and they are sold in the market in the north. We are just the channel through where the drugs pass through. Therefore you cannot identify these communities necessarily as problems in the drug trafficking or people that are really benefiting from the drug trafficking. It’s important to understand that these communities have been historically marginalised, you have had very little presence of the state, there is very few opportunities for income generation. Education, culture and recreation is also very small here. If there is any type of development presence there in these communities it is only through the presence of the work that CEDEHCA and other civil society organisations do there. Maybe another serious problem is that all the effort that the government of Nicaragua and that other governments have done is to increase the spending, increase the budget for coercion – you give more funding to the police, you give more funding to the navy or to the army in general. These communities have never had good relations or there has never been a presence of these institutions in these communities so you cannot expect these communities to cooperate with a coercive institutions, institutions of order so quickly. Nicaragua’s best strategy to help in combating drugs and organised crime is to develop these communities, these marginalised coastal communities. So in the case of CEDEHCA we think that the strategy has to be aimed at eliminating vulnerabilities with regard to drug trafficking and organised crime. This means that first, any strategy has to focus on the traditional, political and social order within the community. You have to strengthen the communal governance first, increase their capacity to plan, help them get the necessary resources in place to help them get their development plans going – these kinds of things. That has to be step 1. Increased governance within these communities. Now with Law 445, with the Autonomy Law, these communities have actually began to use electoral processes. It’s not only the elders in the communities that participate, now you have women participating and young people, and now the elections are carried out periodically. So that’s one – you have to increase the communal government’s capacity to function.
Second, in the drug trafficking process, young people, young adults, are the ones to a certain extent help the drug traffickers passing by because this is their only means of surviving so they know that by helping these drug traffickers, providing them with safe haven at some point and also maybe with fuel, they gain a lot of income and this income in turn is used within the community so that’s why some of these communities have parks and maybe good houses and things like that, the basics. And the other ones are the women. Women don’t necessarily participate in drug trafficking, international drug trafficking but they are the ones who set up the in-house drug trafficking, the places where they sell drugs. The second point of the strategy has to be to get women and young people involved in any activity that will help them generate income. Because they are getting involved in this not because there is a culture of the ‘white lobster’ or a culture of drugs here on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. They are doing it because they make a conscious decision to survive. They are not worried about who is consuming it in the United States or in Mexico or who is producing it in the south. All they know is that they need to generate income and that they need to survive and to provide for their families.
The third thing, and I think this is starting to become a more pressing issue. It’s that, because of the drug trafficking and even drug consumption, the values within the communities are beginning to deteriorate. So a strong and conscious effort has to be put in place to target cultural identity, strengthening cultural identity and strengthening the moral fabric within the communities. The elders don’t participate in the drug trafficking, it’s always the young and women. They are the ones that have the traditional values and the traditional cultures that shouldn’t be lost. These are the source of identity for these communities and it’s very important to keep those things when they are coming to plan for the future. So strengthening generational links, promoting culture and recreation for young people is the third thing that you have to take into account. But it’s a question of eliminating vulnerabilities. It’s not a question of trying to combat drugs directly. These communities would not be engaged in drug trafficking if they were not poor, marginalised communities.
DM: CEDEHCA will be doing some work in relation to the presidential elections – observation, monitoring, can you tell me a little bit about this work?
MC: CEDEHCA has been doing electoral observation on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua since 1996. We carry out electoral observation with over four hundred observers. Usually we cover about 60% of all the voting stations in the region. CEDEHCA’s priority in the election is to try to guarantee, first of all the education of the community about the importance of voting – you have to go out and vote. And the second one is that the necessary lobbying about the priorities of the indigenous people, people of African descent and mestizoz on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua are incorporated within the political campaigns of all the different political parties. This is how we have managed to get the autonomy process running. With regards to this election – as you know, things are a little bit complicated – but CEDEHCA will stick to the strategy that it’s always done. We limit ourselves to just comment and criticise the technical aspects of the election. We believe that the electoral observation requires you to be completely and totally impartial. And these communities trust CEDEHCA because of the work we’ve done because of the confidence we’ve generated because of the legitimacy with which we work. So we don’t comment on the political agendas, or even the ideologies of any of the political parties. We leave that decision to the people.
What we try to measure more than anything is the tendency of the votes of indigenous and Afro-descendant people. We try to measure the tendency of how women and young people vote. And the technical aspects have to do with ‘are the voting stations in place to guarantee as much access for the people as possible, are the people treated well, is the electoral list complete. We try to measure the level of abstentionism. Basically these kind of things. Our reports our presented, after the Supreme Electoral Council presents their report, we present it to them and then they have a moment to criticise it and after that we present it to the media and make it and make it available to the country and every else who needs it. In the case of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, electoral observation is fundamental. We have more elections here in this region than in any other part of the country. We have communal elections, we have municipal elections then we have elections for the Regional Council, then we have national elections in which you elect the two representatives of the region – well, there are five, 3 in the north and 2 in the south. We elect all the national congressmen and we elect our congressmen to the Central American Parliament. So it means that the indigenous and Afro-descendant people of the region have to require organisations such as CEDEHCA to provide education about how the elections are going to be conducted, and they also trust us to make sure that elections are conducted in a transparent and impartial way.