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Nicaragua Table of Contents




Miskito boy harvesting coconuts in eastern Nicaragua
Courtesy Nicaraguan Tourism Institute

The Sandinista administration, which enjoyed broad popular support in the Pacific region and central highlands during the early 1980s, was a political failure in the Caribbean lowlands from the beginning. In retrospect, this was hardly remarkable. Costeños, who were barely reconciled to their incorporation into Nicaragua, were unlikely to respond enthusiastically to bold new initiatives from the west. The Somoza regime had presented a low profile in the Caribbean region, physically limited to a few National Guard outposts, customs offices in the ports, and scattered health and educational facilities; the government allowed designated village leaders to serve as official community contacts. Despite some development policies that threatened local interests, the Somoza government was never despised on the coast the way it was in the west. Accordingly, costeño participation in the 1979 Sandinista revolution was minimal.

In the early 1980s, the Caribbean region was feeling the effects of long-term economic decline, especially in the north. The foreign-dominated extractive industries, such as lumber and mining, were shrinking, largely as a result of overexploitation of resources. A few foreign firms departed in the wake of the Sandinista victory or were expropriated by the new government. Subsistence agriculture, the traditional economic refuge of the Miskito when wage work was unavailable, became less secure as a result of growing land pressures. Increasing population, land competition with westerners on the agricultural frontier, and an adverse International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision settling a border dispute with Honduras all reduced the land available to indigenous cultivators in the east. These circumstances left costeños convinced that the region's best times had passed.

The Sandinista revolution arrived in the east with a mestizo face. Few costeños and, in particular, few indigenous people filled government and party positions on the Caribbean lowlands. The Sandinista cadres sent to the region were generally ignorant of the area's cultures and languages and were unconsciously discriminatory in their attitudes toward costeños. Even well-intentioned government initiatives could clash with local sensitivities. For example, the expansion of government-supported social services threatened the Moravian Church's long-established authority in these areas.

Sandinista ideology appealed to class interests and antiAmerican nationalism, sentiments that had less appeal in the east than on the western side of the country. Although poor mestizos in the west could identify with the "exploited classes," costeños were, for very good reasons, more likely to perceive themselves as members of oppressed ethnic communities. Views that the Sandinistas described as "anti-imperialist" made little sense to costeños, who historically had depended on the United States and Britain to protect them from Nicaragua, felt an affinity with Anglo-American culture, and appreciated foreign investment, which they identified with the region's most prosperous eras. These attitudes were reinforced by the anticommunist, pro-United States orientation of the Moravian Church.

In early October 1980, Creoles in the southern port city of Bluefields staged large-scale anti-Sandinista protests. A more serious challenge to Sandinista power, however, was brewing in the northeast among the Miskito. Between 1982 and 1984, large numbers of Miskito were in open revolt against the government. Like other Contra forces, the Miskito rebels were armed and encouraged by the United States. As the Sandinistas later acknowledged, however, their own ethnocentric, heavy-handed, and, on occasion, brutal exercise of power on the Caribbean coast fueled the anger that drove the rebellion. Beyond these contemporary circumstances, the Miskito revolt reflected the costenos' resentment of "Spanish" rule, of their own subordination within the ethnic hierarchy of the Caribbean region, and of the economic decline of the region.

By 1985 the Sandinista leadership had altered its policies toward the Caribbean region. Negotiations with rebel groups produced a tense but enduring peace in the region. Broader discussions with costeño representatives led to an accord dividing the area into two autonomous regions. The accord also granted the peoples of the region limited rights of self-rule, cultural guarantees, and influence over the use of the region's natural resources, including land. The accord was written into the 1987 Constitution and subsequent enabling legislation. How the autonomy framework would function in practice remained to be determined. Historically, the ruling elites of the west have sought to enlarge rather than temper their power over the Caribbean region. However, the Sandinista experience reinforced ethnic consciousness and political militancy among costeños. The peoples of the Caribbean region would in all likelihood be quicker to assert their rights in the future.

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The Nicaraguan revolution inspired a sudden outpouring of writing about a society that had been largely ignored by students of Latin America. Although these works were overtaken by events, even as they were being published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many are still worth consulting. Useful overviews include David Close's Nicaragua: Politics, Economics and Society, Dennis Gilbert's Sandinistas: The Party and the Revolution, Kent Norsworthy's Nicaragua: A Country Guide, Carlos Maria Vilas's The Sandinista Revolution, Thomas W. Walker's Nicaragua: The Land of Sandino, and the collections edited by Walker, especially Nicaragua: The First Five Years and Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua.

Rural society and agrarian reform are covered in Eduardo Baumeister's "Agrarian Reform," Laura Enriquez's Harvesting Change: Labor and Agrarian Reform, and Joseph Collins's Nicaragua: What Difference Could a Revolution Make? Food and Farming in the New Nicaragua. The religious foment of the 1970s and 1980s is the subject of Michael Dodson and Laura Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy's Nicaragua's Other Revolution, Religious Faith and Political Struggle, Giulio Giraldi's Faith and Revolution in Nicaragua, Roger N. Lancaster's Thanks to God and the Revolution: Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua, and David Stoll's Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth. On health and education, see John M. Donahue's The Nicaraguan Revolution in Health, Richard Garfield and Glen Williams's Health and Revolution, and Robert F. Arnove's Education and Revolution in Nicaragua. The lives of Nicaraguan women are examined in Women and Revolution in Nicaragua, edited by Helen Collinson and Lucinda Broadbent, and Patricia M. Chuchryk's "Women in the Revolution." The Caribbean region and its peoples and conflicts are described in Carlos Vilas's State, Class, and Ethnicity in Nicaragua. On the physical and human geography of Nicaragua, see Robert West and John P. Augelli's Middle America. Nicaraguan population trends are recorded in the United Nation's Boletín Demográfico. For short, fact-laden updates on varied aspects of Nicaragua society, see the English-language monthly Envío.

For further reading suggestions, see the exhaustive annotated bibliography, Sandinista Nicaragua, by Neil Snarr, particularly the chapters on the social sector, religion, the Caribbean coast, and the economy. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of December 1993

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Nicaragua Table of Contents