The department of Zelaya, commonly referred
to in Nicaraguas as la costa atlantica-the Atlantic coast-encompasses nearly
half of the country's territory, yet contains only 10% of the population.
Its long-standing isolation from the rest of Nicaragua is the product of
its history as a British and than North American enclave, a reality enforced
by the Somoza dictatorship.
The Miskito I Indians were the dominant culture
in the northern Zelaya during the 18th and 19th centuries, their traditional
Moskitia domain staddling the Nicaraguan/Honduran border.
Along the southern part of the coast, British
settlements at Bluefields, Pearl Lagoon and Corn Island brought in African
slaves to work on plantations and in timber-cutting. These Africans gradually
mixed with the European and with the small mestizo, Indian and Chinese
populations to produce a black and mulatto group known as the Creoles.
Towards the end of the19th century, North American entrepreneurs entered
the area to export coconuts, bananas, and precious woods. To service this
growing business, two new groups of black workers were brought in from
Jamaica and New Orleans.
Creole culture developed as typically Afro-Caribbean,
English speaking and heavily influenced by the British. Both the creoles
and the Indians viewed outsiders the metstizo Nicaraguans from the Pacific
region as "Spaniards". This ethnic and cultural isolation of the coastal
enclave was compounded by its physical isolation. The only way to reach
the Pacific was to travel by boat up the Escondido River to Rama, with
only a rustic overland connection between Rama and Managua. The coastal
people thus developed a perspective which was focused both on indigenous
culture and across the ocean to British and America, but they did not relate
to the rest of Nicaragua.
Britain's Miskito Reserve was finally reincorporated
into Nicaraguan state by President Zelaya in 1895 and renamed in his honor.
A conservative revolt led by General Estrada overthrew President Zelaya
with U.S. assistance in 1912. The conservatives favored foreign ties and
thus left the Atlantic coast largely in the hands of U.S. business.
From 1912 to 1932, the U.S. companies dominated
the economic life of the Zelaya through banana exporting, lumbering and
mining. This not only created jobs, but most of the coastal population
purchased food, clothing and houswares from company commissaries, contributing
to the "pro-American" outlook.
Although the U.S. companies had exploited the
area and reinvested almost nothing to benefit the local economy, many costenos
still look back on that period as the "golden years" and view the U.S.
During the 1950's, Spanish-speaking mestizo peasants
began to move into the Zelaya in large numbers, forced off their small
plots in the fertile Pacific lowlands by Somoza's army to make way for
expanding cattle and cotton production. Today, the mestizos represent the
largest population in the region, numbering to about 120,000. Next insize
is the Miskito Indian population at 80,000, which is concentrated in the
northeastern Zelaya. Third are the Creoles, at about 26,000, found mainly
in the towns of Bluefields, Pearl Lagoon and Corn Island. The remainder
include the Sumu Indians in the northern interior highlands( 8,000); the
Garifuna living along the coast north of Bluefields( 1,500 ) and the Rama
Indians in villages south of Bluefields( 800).
Although the Sandinistas carried out almost no
organizing in the Zelaya before 1979, the FSLN declared that when it took
power it would end the the age-old isolation and backwardness of the region.
Its platform included call for ending the exploitation by foreign
monopolies in the area and doing away with the hateful discrimination which
the Indians and Creoles had long endured.
The Sandinistas initially held great hopes that
this tactical alliance would finally overcome the centuries old antagonism
between the Atlantic and Pacific halves of the country and produce benefits
for the impoverished peoples of the Zelaya. Literacy programs in English,
Miskito and Sumu were carried out, along with the development of private
cooperatives, housing and water systems, and the beginnings of small industries
under the auspices of the Nicaraguan Institute for the Atlantic Coast
( INNICA ). INNICA was to be headed by a tri-ethnic leadership consisting
of Comandante William Ramirez of the FSLN(a mestizo), Com. Lumberto Cambell(
a creole) and the number two Miskito Indian leader, Brooklyn Rivera-although
ultimately Rivera refused to participate.
These early initiaves of the Sandanistas, while
motivated by idealism, were marred by their failure to understand or take
seriously both the traditional animosities and the importance of cultural
differences between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
More than any one transgressions of the Sandinistas, the costenos
resented the arrogance of a revolutionary movement in which they had not
been involved but which now sought to come into their communities to improve
their way of life. In early 1981, it was learned that the MISURATA, a Sandinista
ally, planned to present a demand for outright control of 33% of all Nicaraguan
territory( 3/4 of the Zelaya). The Miskito proposal also antagonized some
creole communities which were told that when MISURATA controlled the region
that they would have to go elsewhere.
Against this backdrop of Sandinista errors and
Indian desires for autonomy, the stage was set for the Indian population
to be swept into the growing conflict between the Sandinistas and Somoza's
exiled guardsmen supported by the CIA. Initially many Creoles also were
suspicious of or hostile to the Sandinistas. But the appointment of Creole
leaders like Lumberto Campbell and support for the revolution by others,
such as the respected Ray Hooker gradually softened the opposition in the
to AFRO TROPICAL