This article provides an important perspective from the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua on the crisis, especially in light of the National Dialogue as different sectors search for possible “solutions” to the crisis. It was published in Oct 2018, before the current National Dialogue was resumed.
A Cry for Nicaragua, a cry from the Caribbean Coast
By Shakira Simmons
Regional Liaison for the Autonomous Region of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua for Global Communities
[Translation from document published in LASA Forum 49:4, see original at https://forum.lasaweb.org/files/vol49-issue4/Nicaragua-3.pdf]
Without a doubt it can be stated that there is a different Nicaragua before and after April 18 of this year. That day a series of protests began against polemical reforms to the social security system. Since then, they have grown until turning into a demand for the resignation of president Daniel Ortega and the demand for free, fair and transparent elections. As of today national and international human rights organizations have demonstrated the disproportionate use of force on the part of the police, the presence of para-police elements in different municipalities, as well as hundreds of cases of people killed, wounded, persecuted, disappeared and detained. The situation has created a national humanitarian and social and economic crisis.
In the Caribbean Coast, two Afro-descendent youth, Brandon Lovo and Glen Slate, were accused of the murder of the journalist Ángel Gahona, against what all the audiovisual evidence presented shows. The youth were arrested and transferred to a jail in Managua. The management of the case on the part of the prosecutor and the judge is riddled with systematic irregularities that have been denounced on several occasions. The behavior of the state entities have done nothing more than reveal, even more, the racism and classism with which we the populations of the Caribbean are treated.
In this article I analyze in a first moment how the participation of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast in the defense of democracy and justice is not limited to the current context, but that it has a long development over time; in a second moment I question how the autonomous regime of the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations of the region have been violated to favor the economic and power interests of some sectors. For this exercise I anchor myself in an intersectional and anti-racist perspective.
Key words: Autonomy, repression, violence, racism, rights.
The Southern Caribbean Coast, Present!
With the protests recently begun in Nicaragua against the government of Daniel Ortega, on April 21, 2018, members of civil society organizations, communications media and the citizenry in general of Bluefields called for and participated in a peaceful demonstration in protest over the reforms to the social security system imposed by presidential decree.
Bluefields is the municipal capital of the Southern Caribbean Coast. Many people, even the political parties, think that its population is politically apathetic. No one expected what happened that April 21st.
The activity took place normally, but at nightfall disturbances were generated that were repressed by the National Police, which left as a result material losses, people wounded and one fatality: the independent journalist Ángel Eduardo Gahona López, who at the moment of his death was transmitting live what was happening through the facebook page of his news program.
In the video, and dozens of other recordings made and disseminated through social media, it can be seen how Gahona, embedded in a police contingent, falls gunned down after a shot in the immediate area of the judicial complex of the city, and is transferred to a hospital by colleagues. At no moment was he assisted by any police official. The audiovisual proof show that the accused were not in the place when the shot occurred, and the family of the victim has denounced threats on the part of the National Police against Gahona for his investigations of cases of corruption.
The murder of Gahona showed that the State would have no limits in terms of repressing the people; it also showed that the Caribbean Coast was not on the margins of what was happening in the other half of Nicaragua, and attracted international attention to the crisis.
The Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast has the legal status of autonomy which should benefit the inhabitants of the two Autonomous Regions (North and South) into which it is divided. The RACCN and the RACCS were created in 1987, and their first regional governments were elected in 1990.
This status was part of the culmination of a long process in the search for peace, national unity and reconciliation among costal families and communities, through which an intense period marked by armed conflict, political confrontations and historical disagreements was ended.
Institutions and mechanisms were created that, in theory, should promote and ensure the respect, recognition and enforcement of the human rights of the multiethnic populations of both regions. Nevertheless, they have been used politically by the current government in power.
Historically the Caribbean Coast has been subjected to isolation, exclusion and marginalization in terms of the rest of the country. The region has suffered the exploitation and extraction of its natural resources, common, communal and even cultural assets, because successive governments have “folklorized” the customs, traditions and lifestyles of its populations.
The population has not been the subject of the so called social and/or productive investments. In contrast, it has been benefitted by assistance-based programs aimed at sympathizers of the party in power, without responding to the particularities of the communities.
This is attested to by several tourist campaigns that objectify the bodies of indigenous and Afro-descendent women and men, and the actions of the “fight against poverty”, where the ideas of modernization and development erase the practices and forms of community food and life, and that are promoted from an ethnocentric (mestizo) and geocentric view (Managua/Central Pacific), reproducing even more institutional racism, machism and classism.
The productive investments in the regions have responded to the interests of big capital, which has maintained close relations with the government-party-enterprise-family linked to the Ortega-Murillo, and that at no time has shown the intention of placing human beings at the center of development, much less nature or mother earth, as the cosmo-visions of the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations exclaim.
On the other hand, the macroeconomic indicators reveal also the historic and structural violence in the regions, because in 2005 the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program pointed out, “In synthesis, the human development index, HDI, 0.466 for the RAAN and 0.454 for the RAAS, both regions present conditions of low human development”, in spite of their wealth of natural, cultural and biodiversity resources.
The ongoing and systematic dispossession never stopped: it only changed its face and mechanism, leaving the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations in a deeper intensification of the conditions of economic, social and cultural insecurity and exploitation. The community leaders of the Caribbean Coast for years have been discussing and denouncing the principal needs, and social and economic problems of their populations, like for example:
- Unemployment, underemployment and/or insecure jobs
- Discrimination and exclusion
- Citizen insecurity
- Little or null access to quality health and education services
- Limited access to basic services
- High rates of early pregnancy
- High levels of domestic violence
- Housing deficit
- Invasion of land by settler/third parties
- Advance of the agricultural frontier
- Militarization of communities
- Environmental contamination of their territories
- Illegal concessions on communal and/or reserve lands
- Land conflicts
- Forced displacements or migrations
- Loss of maternal languages
It will not be possible to resolve any of these issues without first determining and assuming a different form of relationship between the central government and the regional governments of the Caribbean Coast. It is important to apply the existing legal framework that supports the economic, social, cultural, political and territorial rights of the populations of the autonomous regions and their communities. Nor will it be possible to achieve them in the heart of a dictatorial government and within an incipient, fragile institutional framework, and with decision makers (inside and outside the territory) that respond to the interests of a caudillo (strongman) and particular economic interests.
Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that for the communities of the Caribbean Coast the situation will not change only by the fact of changing the dictator; it is important to change the form of the relationship between the Central Government and the regions, and promote actions that would promote the change of the colonialist, capitalist, racist and sexist model that, since the time of the colony, during the republic, through the Somocista dictatorship and the revolutionary period, and in these new times, have looted and violated our communities. This would mean, also, that as an autonomous coastal Caribbean society we stress and question the meaning of citizenry in the Afro and indigenous populations, and we continue defending our rights before a national State.
Before these protests there already existed in the region groups fighting to reclaim human, autonomous, civil, political and ancestral rights in the face of a mestizo, racist, centralist and patronistic State, which has been dismantling the social, political and cultural network of Caribbean society. Many of these demands and protest agendas did not seem to have an echo in the civil society or social movements from the Pacific, being one more proof of the isolation and geocentric vision in regards to the populations of the Caribbean Coast.
The rebellion surfaced last April has been able to mobilize the Coastal population in the demand for a free, just, democratic and inclusive Nicaragua. But more importantly, it has been able to generate public opinion from different sectors of civil society on the different issues that interest and affect the regions and their communities, other voices have emerged and new leaders from a civic and peaceful struggle: men, women, youth and adolescents, organized and unorganized, from different ethnic origins, communications media, human rights activists, pastors of evangelical and Catholic churches, among others.
In addition, it has gotten sympathizers from different political parties with a presence in the region, for the first time in a long time, to work in a coordinated way for the same purpose and in a type of alliance with civil society. All the actions and demonstrations held have been with self-raised funds, individual contributions and donations from some local businesses.
The independent communications media with a presence in the regions have played a fundamental role, not just in the generation and dissemination of true, objective and contextualized information on what is happening in the country – that is not a small thing in a region where most of the communications media is coopted by the party in power, and those who are not, suffer attacks and threats from government institutions and/or sympathizers – but also in the active participation in the demonstrations and generation of public opinion in the demand for justice for the murder of the journalist Ángel Gahona, and the more than 448 fatalities of the governmental repression on the national level: as well as the victims of abduction, torture, illegal detention and forced disappearances. The radio and social networks have been the principal tools of information and communication, above all for the populations of rural communities.
In contrast, in more than 4 months of civic rebellion, the authorities of the only two universities with a presence in the region – the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaragua Caribbean Coast and the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University – have kept silent in the face of such brutality, and at the same time in complicity with the decisions, actions and omissions that the local, regional and national authorities have taken against civil society. Both universities are public and have a communitarian nature, and function with state funds from the national budget, defined by the Autonomy law for Higher Education Institutions. Many of the authorities are also coopted by the party in power and even take on some functions of representation outside the university framework. Their silence and inaction effectively demonstrate how profound is the political and patronistic embrace of the dictatorial regime in the Caribbean Coast, where its allies are not willing to break with the dictatorial mandate.
The loss of university autonomy had already been surfacing, given that for several years the law was not being fully applied, but the violent and armed attacks against the students within the university campuses of the country – like the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), the National Engineering University (UNI), the National Agrarian University (UNA) and the Politechnical University of Nicaragua (UPOLI) – and the massive firings of teachers and professors who openly supported the protests against the government, demonstrated it even more.
Certainly the rebellion has generated changes, crises and tension for Nicaraguans. The government has criminalized protest, and has begun a persecution of the citizenry that does not concord with the guidelines of the party; it has also generated more unemployment, forced migration, higher levels of crime and impunity and a deep drop in investment and national and international tourism. Public institutions have lost the confidence, credibility and legitimacy of most of the population.
Nevertheless, a type of citizen awakening has been generated, the strengthening and/or expansion of solidarity networks and a sense of a common objective. This has strengthened the determination to achieve profound and positive changes for the country, where the Caribbean Coast wants and should be an active participant in the decisions around the path that should be taken as a country in order to improve the conditions of the ENTIRE population, regardless of ethnic group, social class, geographic origins or political party banner.
In other words, regardless of these conditions, but responding to the racist, classist, sexist, and territorial mechanisms that produce and worsen the inequalities. I think that this will be the biggest challenge of all, but in addition we could start by questioning ourselves. Is it possible to think about a national State that would practice an intercultural relationship with integrity with the regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean? In the present and along the road to an alternative future, can the Caribbean Coast really live in true autonomy? How can the youth be integrated in their plurality of being, thinking and acting? Is it possible to achieve public political agendas and/or programs built in a participatory fashion by, for and with the populations, recognizing, assuming and respecting their particularities, thinking, feeling and realities? This latter point is applicable not just for state entities, but also non governmental organizations and universities.
I close saying that in spite of the brutal repression experienced in this period, it has been hopeful to see how a generation of young people have established a dialogue with adults; how other social actors have emerged in the search to transform the realities and propose the challenge of understanding what raising voices to the current Managua/Pacific centrism has meant, not just in the sphere of the State, but in broad social sectors represented in the “Dialogue Table”, a space where we have not felt represented either as people and/or movement from the Coast, because that representation has been chosen by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, without taking into account the civil society sectors of the region.
 Law 28, Autonomy Statute of the Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.
 Its original population is composed of indigenous peoples and ethnic communities with multilingual characteristics (Miskitus, Creoles, Mestizos, Mayangnas, Ramas and Garifunas) located in territories with a strong sense of belonging to their communal lands that they inhabit in the coastal areas and interior zones of high ecological and environmental vulnerability.
 United Nations Development Program, Informe de Desarrollo Humano 2005: Las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe (Managua: PNUD, 2005), 67 (not available in English).
 The Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua; the Autonomy Statute of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (Law 28); The Language Law (Law 162) and the Law of Communal Lands (Law 445) recognize the existence of indigenous peoples and ethnic communities.
 Between April 18 and July 25, according to the Report of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH). Elizabeth Romero, “Data of deaths from the repression in Nicaragua rises to 448 according to ANPDH”, La Prensa, July 27, 2018. https://www.laprensa.com.ni/2018/07/27/nacionales/2453364- cifra-de-muertos-por-la-represion-en-nicaragua-sube-a-448- segun-la-anpdh.