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NICARAGUA
For a true autonomy for the Afro-descendant population
Carmen Herrera
8/11/2016
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Creoles, Garifunas and indigenous people of the Caribbean Coast are demanding respect for their territory, languages and customs.

“For me, the autonomy process of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua never went farther than being an illusion for the population of the region. In theory this process was to make other things possible: bigger and better planning of programs and projects directed to and from the ethnic communities; the right and power to administer [financial and natural] resources; autonomy and diligence in managing the budget allocated to the autonomous regions; power to propose laws and their amendments to the National Assembly; greater independence in public administration; the possibility of a regional vision. But none of this has been possible. It has all been the complete opposite,” black feminist activist Shakira Simmons said to Latinamerica Press.

To speak in Nicaragua about the black population for a country of a Spanish-speaking, mestizo and Catholic majority, is a reminder that there is a presence in over half of its territory, in the Caribbean, of other populations who, along with Afro-descendants, were colonized by the British and not by the Spaniards, as is the case of the Pacific Coast, and also that it was a territory annexed by the liberal government of President José Santos Zelaya (1893-1909) in 1894 through a process known as the “reincorporation of the Mosquitia” — territory of the Miskito indigenous people — without taking into account the cultural, economic and linguistic diversity of the populations, which were imposed Spanish as the official language and a governance structure based on the western scheme left by the Spanish colony and which took their resources to be administered by the state.

Furthermore, one cannot make reference to the black, or Creole population, as it is also identified, without separating it from the indigenous populations like the Mayagna, Miskito, Garifuna, Rama indigenous peoples and coastal Mestizos, with whom they not only share a history, but also a “coastal” identity despite the enormous differences that separate them from one another. They do not speak the same language, share cultural expressions or social organization, but what they do have in common is a strength as populations to confront the systematic measures of the mestizo Pacific state and its racist practices, full of prejudices, the product of ignorance and lack of information from a formal education imposed by governments since its “reincorporation” in the late 19th century, a situation that led them in the 80s to fight for the approval of Law 28, the “Statute of Autonomy for the Atlantic Coast Regions of Nicaragua.”

Very little has been “reincorporated” since the “reincorporation of the Mosquitia,” according to coinciding opinions of inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast, with a land area of 60,366 square kilometers, accounting for more than half of the national territory of about 125,000 square kilometers.

Failed inclusion
In 1987, during the Sandinista Popular Revolution (1979-1989), the population of the Caribbean Coast demanded a true political and economic inclusion with the rest of the country, with autonomy and respect for their differences. Faced with the rejection of the way the revolution had tried to annex that region of the country, which was based on the principles of a process and a struggle created mostly by mestizos from the Pacific region and center of the country, the revolutionary government, with the support of the coastal population in general and the systematic drive of the creoles in particular, approved the “Statute of Autonomy for the Atlantic Coast Regions of Nicaragua.”

Since the adoption of this law, in what at the time was the department of Zelaya — name the Mosquitia received after its “reincorporation” —, a geographical division took place and the old department was split in two; they were designated special areas known until today as the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). It should be noted that to date, the coastal population has pushed for these names to be changed using Caribbean, instead of Atlantic, given that these regions are part of that basin.

In recital VII, Law 28 states that “the new constitutional order of Nicaragua establishes that the Nicaraguan people are multi-ethnic; it recognizes the rights of the communities of the Atlantic Coast to preserve their languages, religions, art and culture; the enjoyment, use and benefit of waters, forests and communal lands; the creation of special programs that contribute to its development and guarantees the right of these communities to organize themselves and live in a way corresponding to their legitimate traditions.”

However, at nearly 30 years since its enactment, can be observed that the Caribbean population has preserved their languages, religions, art and culture, but is not the case for their resources, which are managed to this day by the central government.

“Since the Caribbean coast was annexed to the Republic of Nicaragua in 1894, it has been a real ‘colony’ of the Pacific. Their natural resources (gold, fishing, timber, among others) have been extracted, but without sufficient resources having been channeled for the benefit of the Atlantic territory,” the Episcopal Conference said in a statement published in May 2014 referring to the problems occurring in the Caribbean territory following the invasion of Pacific settlers into indigenous lands.

The black population of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua is known as Creole, a term coined by historians to refer to Afro-descendants who were not slaves and went on to mix with other ethnic groups, mainly with their British conquerors. They live mainly in the RAAS, in the cities of Bluefields, Rama Cay and Corn Island. Their main language is Standard English, known as Kriol, and they speak Spanish as a second language. They are perceived as people who are proud of their identity, culture and language.

Divisions and protagonisms
Although it is one of the smallest populations, the Creole lead the RAAS politically and culturally and represent the most educated of the six groups that inhabit the region, reaching schooling levels similar to those of the mestizo majority and they were once the most militant in the process that led to the adoption of Law 28 during the 80s.

“The Afro-descendant population of that time believed in the illusion on the autonomy law and the benefits it would bring to them. But, the state has everything at their disposal, and I am talking about a state that has historically excluded the populations in both regions, a state that uses members of other ethnic populations to work in their favor,” reflects Simmons. “It is possible that the Afro-descendant population is in everyone’s mind at this time in regards to decision making, but there are still indigenous and ‘coastal mestizo’ populations who have gone along with the power games and the interests of the government to give the illusion that autonomy is a reality.”

Some Afro-descendants who were consulted agree that another element that makes it difficult to achieve autonomy is the hierarchy of the ethnic groups, which has always existed, in which there are groups that believe to be more valuable than others. They claim that internalized racism, discrimination and inequality, even done unconsciously, of the populations sometimes give way to divisions and grandstanding that are causing so much damage to the region.

An Afro-descendant, who asked not to be named, told Latinamerica Press that many Creoles who promoted the enforcement of the autonomy law during the neoliberal governments (1990-2006), are the same ones who currently hold positions of power alongside the current Sandinista government presided by Daniel Ortega since 2007.

“They have stopped defending, have changed their rhetoric, have stopped questioning and even stopped proposing changes, now they are more noticeable because of their silence or simply for echoing the government rhetoric,” he said.

Although the Nicaraguan state has very good laws and has signed and ratified international declarations and instruments in recognition and respect for “minority” populations, including those of African descent, Simmons believes the government has done little or nothing to adhere to and enforce them.

“The economic interests have prevailed over the ancestral rights and human rights of the Creole and Garifuna indigenous population. The right to the land, enjoyment and management of the natural resources in their territories, the preservation of the language and customs, access to health services and quality education, the right to a life free of violence, the right to employment and a decent life are just some examples of the rights that remain violated on a daily basis in the region. Not to mention those associated with political participation. Personally I feel that instead of living in the autonomy process, as it was conceived for the people of African descent, we live under a racist, adultist, misogynist, expeller and capitalist state apparatus,” she said.

Regardless, as it is clear from documented information made available by Margarita Antonio, an anthropologist and communicator of the Caribbean Coast, to Latinamerica Press, some of the achievements that stand out from the autonomy process for the populations of the Caribbean Coast are: intercultural bilingual education at the primary and secondary level; the establishment and operation of Caribbean universities; the recognition of the territorial rights of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in the Caribbean made possible by the allocation of title for collective ownership of  22 territories; and the significant growth in regards to the presence of men and women from the Caribbean coast in the national government.

According to the document “Costa Caribe, pueblos y territorios” (Caribbean Coast, towns and territories) of Antonio, the legal recognition of territories, strengthening of the Indigenous Territorial Governments, controlling deforestation, greater real autonomy in decision-making related to the Caribbean Coast issues, promotion of genuine intercultural dialogue and denominate the territory of Bluefields as Creole Black Government, plus three complementary areas, are still pending. —Latinamerica Press.


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For Shakira Simmons, a social worker and feminist activist, the Afro-descendant population lives under a racist state apparatus. / Personal archive
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