It is unusual for a media outlet on the Pacific side of the country to publish a long interview of a community leader from the Atlantic Coast. Her experience on the Coast places in a larger perspective the largely student led uprising of April 2018, as well as recent news stories of attacks on indigenous communities.
Susana Marley: “In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jail, just lead”
By Ana Cruz, in La Prensa, February 22, 2020
The Miskita leader is recognized in the North Caribbean as “Mama Grande” because of her closeness to the communities of the Río Coco and her hard work of denouncing human rights violations.
Susana Marley Cunningham, sociologist and teacher by profession, has dedicated nearly two decades of her 62 years of age to defending and denouncing violations of the rights of the Mískita communities of the Northern Caribbean of Nicaragua. She was born in Waspam and began her humanitarian work after Hurricane Mitch in communities bordering the Río Coco, through the Civil Foundation for the Unity and Reconstruction of the Atlantic Coast (FURCA).
The work of Marley has left a mark on the Mískita population. The children who she once taught and defended call her “Mama Grande”. But she has not just won affection. Threats as well. In August 2019 she had to leave her native Northern Caribbean to a more urban area of the Pacific for her safety.
In this interview, Marley denounces the increase of violence in the Caribbean, the advance of invasions, the hunger that the communities are experiencing, the fear of the children to go to school, the corruption of communal governments, and the lack of respect for their forms of organization and elections.
When did the situation of insecurity for the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants begin to get worse?
The situation of violence and human rights violations I have felt personally since all those actions in the year of the 80s began, with the famous Red Christmas, when our people were taken away or murdered in the forest. I was at the point of dying during that so called Red Christmas, they put me in a line, thanks to God that He used one of those soldiers, I saved myself only because one of them made himself pass as if he were my husband and got me out of there.
Who started that wave of violence in the 80s?
The Sandinista Army and Police. We began to live in an environment of a lot of terror, insecurity and fear. You could not go into the countryside alone, so, since the 1980s the defense of life has gotten worse. Life and human rights are not respected. They have treated us as if we were animals that should be hunted, so they could exploit the land, the minerals, the resources of our territories.
What consequences did the protests of April 2018 have on the Caribbean of Nicaragua?
Our resistance has been historic, and we always denounced that they were killing us, so, after the situation that erupted in April 2018, people began to understand that the same thing that they were doing to us, they were using against the youth, who were unarmed, defenseless and they killed them and they continue killing them. In the Caribbean they do not prescribe jailing, there it is only lead [bullets] , but the situation is pretty similar. It is a terrible, lamentable situation, that has separated families.
In these last weeks, several acts of violence have been registered against indigenous families. What is the current situation of the communities?
December and January are the months for the preparation of the land to harvest rice and beans, but they have not planted this year, because of the violence and the invasion. Famine will be a reality now in our communities. We are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Classes started and the children go with fear. They are watchful of the forest because now it is not known when someone armed will come out of the forest. The children are psychologically affected in the face of the insecurity, because it is not just what happened this past February 16th, where a girl was wounded. So, in the face of this situation, we think that we are experiencing a serious situation of insecurity, there is no economic stability, there is a lot of poverty and latent lack of respect for our rights.
How did that attack on February 16th happen, where they wounded a minor in the cheek?
That Sunday, around 5:00pm, in the community of Santa Clara, close to a place where there is a creek of the Santa Clara river, the people went to bathe, and while coming a girl resulted wounded. We could not see who were shooting, and it was difficult to be able to get transportation to leave the community. The ambulance was requested at 5:00 pm, and it did not arrive until 11:00pm. It seems that they (the paramilitaries or settlers) were watching those who were bathing, they were stalking them, and at least they did not shoot the girl in the head, but in the cheek. It is not fair that the children also are victims of this type of human rights violations. Minors also suffer this persecution.
How far has the invasion of settlers advanced?
Too far. I want to confide in you that if something happens to me, I hold these murderers responsible, because we are just denouncing this, and we do not have weapons of war. The situation is very bad, and in every testimony we hear, that fear is noticeable, that insecurity. A little while ago a peasant from the community of Santa Clara, who had to leave that territory, commented to me that between the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya and the Li Auhbra territory, that is on the shores of the Río Coco- in between these two – is the Mocó mountain, where there are dozens of settlers or paramilitaries who created a community which is called Araguas. They have large extensions of pastureland and homes, so the advance of the invasion is nearly countless.
What consequences does this invasion of settlers have on the communities?
The encroachment that these people make in our lands has caused the displacement of our people to the Honduran side. Our people are displaced, even people from the community of Santa Clara, located in our Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory, they migrated from the countryside to the city, and others have been displaced toward Waspam, because they can no longer plant. The leaders of Santa Clara and other communities bordering on the Wangki Twi Tasba Raya territory have had to suffer the deaths of their leaders, so, hunger and insecurity are prompting the forced displacement of our community members.
What is happening with justice in the case of the murders of the leaders?
The murders have been left unpunished. Every time this type of situation happens, we have wanted to denounce it, but we do not have that support, or that contact to denounce each one of these situations of the violation of our human rights. What we are demanding is that the laws that protect us be respected, like Law 28, the Autonomy Law, but these people are organized and willing to continue causing damage.
Some of the communities that you have mentioned are beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. Do you think that the State is observing those measures?
No. The State is not protecting these communities. The State should fully comply, but it is not doing so. Recently, the community of Santa Clara – one of those protected by precautionary measures – received threats from settlers or paramilitaries who told them that they have 200 men, and they will go burn the houses, and they are going to kill them, and we have seen how the threats are being carried out.
How has the Army of Nicaragua behaved with the Mískito Indigenous peoples?
There is no protection, because in years past which have had atrocious murders of peasants and indigenous close to their posts, they did not do anything. They know about it, and are direct accomplices in this type of violations, and they fill their mouths with words saying that they are protecting, but in practice they do not do any enforcement at all.
Do you feel unprotected?
Yes, they have left us completely unprotected. The precautionary measures are not observed, and all the authorities are accomplices of everything that is happening to us. The threats in the zone are constant, the same with the attacks, and they do not do anything to stop them, so the situation is very tense, and the indigenous and Afro-descendent populations are unprotected. The theft of cattle, kidnapping of women and labor exploitation are a reality in our communities.
This lack of protection has been in all governments, or it is something that has intensified with the regime of Daniel Ortega?
Our struggle and our resistance are historic. It is sad to say, but each government that has come to power in the country looks on our land for the purposes of exploitation. This is what we have observed.
How many attacks are registered in the course of this year?
The threat is ongoing. They (the paramilitaries) leave nailed on the stalks of the trees threats to the communities. The terror is constant. Just this year the kidnapping of two boys fishing from Santa Clara, the attack on the community of Alal, and now this attack on an adolescent girl.
What is the feeling of these communities who are constantly threatened?
There is a lot of tension. The people are terrorized after receiving the threats, but they are organized. The men have been out on guard, but they have informed me that the big problem is that now they cannot peacefully go out to gather the harvest in the fields, they tell me that they are experiencing hunger. Some only maintain themselves with fruit or dry coconut. A lot of people cannot even sleep, the children have no peace in order to study. Since the 1980s to now they continue murdering us, and it continues intensifying, we demand that they quit killing us.
And what is happening with the regional councils? They are also part of the territorial governments that should be looking for policies to protect the indigenous.
Living in the territories one realizes that the person in the Government building belongs to the government, so, they work in strict coordination with the Government, and only do what they are ordered to do. They do not work in favor of the communities.
And the local council members [síndicos], do they have the same reputation or are they watching out for the well-being of the communities?
The communal council members work hand in hand with the communal leaders. The people choose their communal council members and leaders, but the problem is that, parallel to this, the ruling party chooses their council members, so the Regional Council only accredits the council members that they elect, but the ones elected by the communities, generally, are not accredited, like what happened in Kamla last year. Just so as to not accredit the council person elected by the people, they ordered the people beaten, wounded and threatened. The denouncements about these cases were made, but since they themselves are the ones, there is no justice for the community members who were victims of these abuses.
What is the role of a community council member [síndico]? Why does the Government see them as an obstacle and prefers not to accredit them?
The community council member who remains is a representative of the communities, and can coordinate the use of resources, always in consultation with the communities, but they leave the councilperson elected by the communities without voice nor vote, so it is only the one elected by them that is accredited, and presents papers as the highest authority. In the end, the reality is that that council person that they put there, only does what the Government wants and not what the communities need. For example, the large extensions of land that are taken and through which the paramilitaries come in, they are the ones that give them passage so that they can register those properties. This invasion and land takeovers are done by those people themselves, and that is where the community members have to go to demand their lands. The council members that Orteguism puts in place do not have land, but they order the invaders to be placed there. Government officials promote the invasion in the communities.
Is this something seen since the 1980s or is it something that non -Sandinista governments have also promoted?
This (invasion and violence) started more forcefully since 2009, even though in the 1980s there was displacement and massacre against the Mïskito people through the so called Red Christmas. In the 80s the people sought to displace themselves into Honduras because of the persecution, but in the 90s – when they returned because of the change in Government – they even found tigers in the communities, and little by little they raised up their houses. It was in 2003 that they approved Law 445, which included titling, we did not appreciate that later these titles would be used by corrupt politicians of our region as well, so , they provided the title to people who were not members of the community, and they negotiated our lands, in addition to the fact that they allied with the council members and they allied in order to invade our lands little by little.
Concerning the legislative work that some are doing in supposed representation of the Caribbean, do you feel represented by these people who are officials within the Assembly? Are they promoting projects to improve the situation of the indigenous, Mískitos and Afro-descendants?
Years back, like in 2016, the corrupt political representation of the region was expelled from the Assembly for the illegal sale of our indigenous lands, so how is it that he returned once again to the National Assembly? Is it real that they are allies then? We do not feel that they represent us, and with this I am referring to the Yatama party. They cannot provide for the freedom of our territories from invasion, when they are the very ones who have been pointed out as promoting the invasion with the provision of titles to people from outside the community members. If they were part of the problem, they are never going to be part of the solution.
How do you assess the coalition building process that the members of the National Unity and the Civic Alliance are working on?
Look, when this situation happened in the Pacific in April 2018, many young people gave their lives to see a free Nicaragua, and many politicians holed themselves up, and now, for money and to give an opportunity to this murderer, are uniting. You have to be realistic, because these old and corrupt politicians are not an opposition. There is no sincerity, they must be more sincere, so, I think that there is a lot of falsehood in these traditional politicians. We as Mískitos demand that there be transparency, that there be unity, that they in truth defend the rights of indigenous peoples, peasants, youth, students. They have to give an opportunity to the new generations, because the corrupt politicians are advanced in age, let them go rest with their millions, let them leave the path open to the youth so that Nicaragua might be free and democratic again. If we truly love Nicaragua, let us leave Nicaragua in the hands of the youth, so that this [country] might be led in peace.
Susana Marley, known as “Mama Grande”, was born May 24, 1957 in the community Cabo Gracias a Dios in Waspam, Northern Caribbean.
She graduated as a teacher in 1970 from the Teacher School in Waspam, but a large part of her childhood she lived in the community of Santa Martha, located close to the Wawa River.
The Mískita leader is also a sociologist. She finished her studies in 1997 in the Central American University (UCA).
She is the daughter of Eduardo Marley (deceased), known in Waspam as a Moravian pastor and one of the first teachers in that municipality, and Benicia Cunningham, 95 years of age, popular for being one of the first midwives of her community.
“Mama Grande” had five children, but she had none of them in a hospital. Her births were assisted solely and exclusively by her mother.
In 1981 during the so called Red Christmas, she was at the point of dying, but she states that her beauty and the favor of God saved her.