In Nicaragua, a Sandinista’s view on autonomy
By Johnny Hodgson
The following is a presentation given by Johnny Hodgson, Sandinista National Liberation Front’s Political Secretary for the Autonomous Region of the South Caribbean (RACCS), on Oct. 6, 2021 in Managua, Nicaragua, to a U.S. delegation comprised of Coleen Littlejohn, Sara Flounders, Monica Moorehead, Joav Elinevsky and Stan Smith. The transcript is slightly edited.
A colonial history
My idea is to tell you who we are, the people of the Caribbean coast, where we are right now and where we’re trying to get. We have six different peoples, six different ethnic groups on the Caribbean coast ‒ Miskitu, Mayangna, Rama, Garifuna, Creole, Mestizo. Originally, we had eight different groups of people living on the Caribbean coast when the Europeans first came. In 1502 we had Europeans and Africans coming to what we call the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua today. The Europeans came because they wanted to. The Africans came against their will.
Nicaragua historically has been a divided country, divided by the colonial powers. What we know as the Pacific Coast today was a Spanish colony. What we call the Caribbean coast today was a British protectorate. So due to these circumstances, the presence of the Europeans, they were curious to have an alliance between the British and the Natives, an alliance to fight against the Spanish. The Spanish were on the Pacific coast, the British on the Caribbean coast. The British made an alliance with the Natives to fight against the Spanish.
So from the very first days of colonial time on the Caribbean coast in Nicaragua, we had the Spanish teaching the Indigenous people from the Pacific coast to fight against the Indigenous from the Caribbean coast, telling them they are your enemies. And the same thing, the British on the Caribbean coast telling our Indigenous people that their enemies are the Indigenous from the Pacific. So we had this historical division and as a result of that alliance between the British and the Natives, this territory known then as the Miskitu shore and today as the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, became a British protectorate, that’s the legal status that it had. It established a monarchic government so we began to crown kings in 1635.
Divided by colonization
This kingdom went on doing business and commercial exchange with the Europeans until 1783. In 1783, in France, they signed a treaty to try to put a stop to the war between the British and the Spanish. They called it the Paris Treaty. To try to put a stop to the war, they shared territories. So in that sharing, they decided to put our territory in the hands of the Spanish and Belize in the hands of the British. The Miskitu shore was supposed to become part of the Spanish crown.
But the British there on the Caribbean coast said, “No, we don’t want anything to do with that document that was signed there. We are happy here. We are doing good here. We have everything we need here. We have all we need to repair our ships. When we throw our nets, we catch so much fish that the nets are tearing. We have enough honey to sweeten our drinks.” They even mentioned, “We have all we need to satisfy our sexual appetite.” Yes, they mentioned that! So they say we’re not going anywhere. But the Spanish have a document saying that they are the owners of that territory, and they’re claiming it. So in 1786, they had what they call the London Convention, where they ratified the Treaty of Paris, saying that this territory belongs to Spain. But they didn’t only ratify it. They put the timetable establishing that if the British didn’t get out of the Miskitu shore before the 10th of April of 1787, they will become subjects of the Spanish crown. They will have to obey their enemies. But even with that, the British waited until the last minute to move out. So practically they had to come and move them all out. They had to come from England to move all these British and take them to Belize.
And in rushing to get out before the deadline, a lot of the Black enslaved people were able to stay behind. And those enslaved people who stayed behind mixed with the Indigenous people and began calling themselves Creoles from 1787 until today. So we had Indigenous people and now we have a new set of people called Creole, a mixture of African and Indigenous.
Then 10 years after that, in 1797, the Garifunas were kicked out of Saint Vincent and came and settled here in Central America, in Roatán and, after that, to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. So we had the Indigenous and the African descendants living on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, trying to make headway. But in 1894, we pressed formally, officially, to be part of Nicaragua. But it wasn’t a deal. It wasn’t an agreement. It was by force of arms that the Caribbean coast, the Miskitu shore, became part of Nicaragua.
‘We were invisible’
When we became part of Nicaragua, it was a tough time. We called it the ‘Time of Imposition’ because Nicaragua began to impose authority, to impose new laws, etc. It was a real rough thing, a horrible thing for the people of the Caribbean coast that historically exercised a different level of self-government. Even though it was a British protectorate we exercised a different level of self-government, we had our own kings, our own laws, et cetera. So the territory was incorporated into Nicaragua, but not the people. Nicaragua said, ‘That territory is mine. Those resources are mine, they’re Nicaraguan.’ But the people? We were never recognized as Nicaraguan. The Nicaraguan Constitution established a mono-ethnic country, a country with one language. The official language of Nicaragua is Spanish. So we were living there, but we were invisible. We weren’t in the Constitution. We were excluded from everything economically and socially.
I came to Managua to study in 1972. In the 1970s, it was very difficult for someone to come from the Caribbean coast to study here. We didn’t have any university on the Caribbean coast so you had to come to Managua. So that year that I came, two of us were able to come to study at the agricultural university. And when we got a break, we used to speak Creole. Some of the guys would come and say, ‘Hey, you can’t be talking that thing here.’ And I used to fight back and say, ‘No, I am a Nicaraguan, I have rights and I can speak my own language.’
‘I read the Constitution from A to Z’
And one day one of the guys came to me and he gave me a copy of the Nicaraguan Constitution. And they told me to show him in the Constitution where it says that I am a Nicaraguan, that Black people are Nicaraguan, that Miskitu are Nicaraguan and where it says I have a right to speak ‘that thing.’
And if I could, then he would give me a thousand córdobas. In 1972, 1,000 córdobas was plenty for a student, you know? So I made a list of what I was going to buy with 1,000 córdobas. Yeah, I was going to buy new sneakers, a new jersey, I had it made. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with 1,000 córdobas.
So I took the Constitution and I began to read it and I read it from A to Z. And I didn’t find not one word saying that I am Nicaraguan or that the language that I speak had any value or anything like this. And I thought that maybe I had read it too fast, so I went over it again. I read it two times, and when I realized that I wasn’t in the Constitution, I cried.
I was brought up to be tough. I was brought up in a school where they said, “Men don’t cry,” you know? But I cried because I couldn’t believe that I had to come to the university to find out that I wasn’t even in the Constitution. In Spanish, they have a phrase that translated into English that says, “There is no evil that can last a hundred years, and there is nobody that can’t resist it.” So that was 1972, and in 1979 we had the triumph of the revolution.
‘We became visible’
The Sandinista revolution established the mission to create a new nation, a new Nicaraguan nationality, a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual country, where the Indigenous and Afro-descendant would have the possibility of participating on an equal basis in the construction of this new Nicaraguan nation.
We reached the conclusion that for the well-being of the Caribbean coast people, what we call the buen vivir in Spanish or good living, we needed autonomy. The people from the Caribbean coast needed to have an autonomous status. And we began to figure out how we are going to build this autonomy.
Three is a triangle; three bases, three posts, we have to set up one. One will be national unity. One will be the recognition of the historical rights of the people. And one will be the constitutional principle. Those were the three bases to build this autonomy on. And so once we had that clear, we were able to begin to work on the constitutional principles.
We have to make sure that those principles are clear. One of the principles in the Constitution established in Nicaragua is a multiethnic country. In Nicaragua, you have Indigenous and Afro-descendant people, and these Indigenous and Afro-descendent people have rights. They have their own languages. They have their own culture. They have a right to own property, et cetera. So we began to be visible.
Indigenous and Afro-descendant people came into the Constitution, and we began to discuss the topic of national unity.
Everybody said national unity is important. But when we began to talk about national unity, some people were saying yes, but if we are to build national unity, why is it that you all in the Caribbean coast want to speak your own language? Why do you want to have your own team, you know? And so we reached the understanding to build national unity based on the recognition of diversity.
Unity in diversity means that that I as a Black man can participate on an equal basis with the Mestizo man or the Miskitu man or woman, but that I don’t have to stop being who I am to be able to participate on an equal basis — that I could participate and preserve my identity and not only preserve my identity, but create the condition where I could become proud, to become proud of being a Creole, of being proud of being a Mestizo. So those are the things that we were defining.
Then we could define our autonomy as the recognition and effective exercise of the historical rights of the Indigenous and the Afro-descendant people in the context of national unity and the constitutional principles. The recognition — but not only recognition. The recognition and effective exercise of the historical rights of the Indigenous people and ethnic communities of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua in the context of national unity and constitutional principles.
We got our autonomy law approved in 1987 to make the changes. Autonomy is the revolution on the Caribbean coast, that is the instrument to make the revolution, to do all the changes that we need to to make on the Caribbean coast for the people to have that well being.
So we had our autonomy law approved 34 years ago. The idea was to start to implement that autonomy law in 1990 that recognized all our rights.
But in 1990 when we tried to implement the autonomy law, that’s when we began to face reality. We elected our own government, but the national government did not agree with the autonomy law.
Something that hurt me so much was to hear people from the government saying, ‘It is a mistake to put practically 50% of the national territory in the hands of Black and Indian uncivilized people.’ That’s the way they referred to us. So we knew that there wasn’t going to be a way to make much headway in the implementation of those rights that were recognized for us. We couldn’t even get what we call a regulation of the law. So we had autonomy, but autonomy was in the air. We couldn’t implement it.
Sandinistas regained power
In 2007, Sandinistas came back to government, and that’s when we were able to sit on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua with the national government and agree upon how we’re going to implement this autonomy. So we were able to approve what we call a “human development strategy” for the well-being of the coastal people and the implementation of autonomy. In 2007 when we came up with that strategy, which all of us here were working on, what we did was establish indicators of where we were in 2007. So I will just mention some of these statistics.
In 2007 in education, the entire country had 30% illiteracy. But on the Caribbean coast, we had 58%, twice the amount of illiterate people. In maternal mortality, 86 of each 100,000 women die during childbirth, but on the Caribbean coast, 243 of each 100,000, three times more maternal mortality. In infant mortality in the country, 35 in 1,000 children died at birth in the whole country; and in the Caribbean coast, 49 of each 1,000 children died.
Seventy-three percent of the people had access to water, where they can turn on the tap and water will come out, even if it’s not 24 hours a day and even if it’s not high-quality water. On the Caribbean coast only 4% had access to water. And that access was like one hour or two hours a day, and the water was saltwater. In the sewage system in the country, 31% of the people had access to sewage, and in the Caribbean coast, zero.
In paved roads, Nicaragua had 2,000 kilometers [1,240 miles] of paved roads. Some of the roads were good and weren’t in optimum condition, but they were paved. And on the Caribbean coast, that is the other half of the country, we had 140 kilometers of paved roads. Fifty-four percent of the people were connected to some electrical energy service, even if it’s just a few hours during the day, but they had that connection to something. On the Caribbean coast, only 25% of the people were connected to maybe a generator that worked from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the community.
I share these numbers, because 2007 is when we got the possibility of implementing autonomy and having a strategy for the human development of the Caribbean coast.
I’m proud of Nicaragua, that is the whole idea of autonomy. It’s not to divide the country; it’s not to separate from the rest of the country; it is to build unity, genuine unity. Unity, peace and the recognition of diversity, that is our dream. That is our plan. That is what we’re trying to do on the Caribbean coast. And we are, with difficulty, making some good headway. We are seeing things on the Caribbean coast that we used to only dream of today, the things that my parents and grandparents were fighting for.
‘Unity, diversity, interculturality’
In 1934, Dr. Hudson from the Caribbean coast was able to represent us in the National Congress. When he got a chance to talk in the Congress, he questioned: “Why is it that in the rest of the country, they have roads; they have a seaport; they have electrical energy; they have water. Why is it that we don’t have these things on the Caribbean coast?” This was like 87 years ago. We can tell him that he can rest in peace now, because those things that he was speaking out for, we are getting them.
In my region — the South Caribbean coast of Nicaragua — we have 12 municipalities, and in 2007 three of these municipalities had roads and paved roads. And today 10 of the municipalities have roads. Nine of these highways are paved, and one is not paved. So two municipalities don’t have any roads.
Twenty-five percent of the people had access to electrical energy. And now actually 75% of people have access to electrical energy on the Caribbean coast. But we’re not going to stop there; we are aiming at everybody. The type of development that we’re talking about is a development where no one stays behind. We can’t say we are developing; we’re happier; we have well-being, if the Rama people don’t have the possibility of producing their food and having access to water and to electrical energy, et cetera. So that is the key thing. Desarrollo donde nadie se quede atrás. (Development where no one stays behind.) And that’s why the model is Christian Socialist solidarity.
Atención Primaria de Salud (primary health care) is what we got. This includes identifying a person that is suffering from some disease or finding a person that’s pregnant, helping them to see how the evolution of their pregnancy is going, providing gynecology care. It includes health centers, health posts, maternal homes, brigades. It includes blood banks. It includes milk banks on the Caribbean coast. We have three milk banks all over Nicaragua and on the Caribbean coast.
So it’s a huge network of human resources and infrastructure that’s dedicated to help, and that’s why we were so effective also in dealing with COVID-19. Nicaragua currently has 77 hospitals. This is twice the amount of hospitals than in Costa Rica. They also go hand in hand with the number of doctors that are specialized in internal medicine, in gynecology. So these things are part of an enormous democratic effort to make sure that, as Dr. Hudson was saying, that nobody is left behind. Nobody should be left behind in this development process, in this stage of the revolution.
Development under the Sandinista government
In explaining the electoral process, in 2007 when we made this development strategy, it was a great thing. This electoral strategy formulated a proposal and was submitted to consultation with different groups of people, different sectors.
But on the Caribbean coast — even though Daniel Ortega was in government here in the Pacific — in the country and the Caribbean coast, the neoliberals were still in government, and the people from the Caribbean coast voted for the Sandinista government in 2014, massively.
To give you an idea, we have a regional council made up of 45 members. That’s our regional parliament. In the voting of 2014, the Sandinistas got 30 members of the 45 seats. Then after the troubles [in 2018], we had elections in 2019, and the Sandinistas passed from 30 seats in the Congress to 32. So we grew. And then we go into election next month [Nov. 7] in Nicaragua, and definitely the things that we’re talking about are not just things that the people see.
And I tell you, our parents always dreamed that someday we would have a road. And all kinds of governments pass, and we never get that road. You know what they used to tell us? That it is impossible to build a road to Bluefields, where I come from.
Our parents tried to build that road on their own, trying to do sales and things to collect money to build a road, because the government said, “No, I am not going to help you build that road, because it’s impossible.” And all our parents tried to do it. Today we have that road. You actually come to Bluefields.
Our people always aspired to have electrical energy. This is a fight. I mean, this is a thing that when our people had the opportunity to mention or to talk out or to denounce, they say, “Why is it that we can’t have the right to enjoy electrical energy?” Today, more than 75% of the people living on the Caribbean coast have electrical energy. And the other 25%, most of them are very, very close to getting it. They see the work being done. And access to water — I mean, 4% of the people had access to water, and 10 times that amount of people have access to water today.
So people see these things, and people are willing to support the Sandinistas for these things, material things, but also for what I was telling you about convivencia comunitaria [community coexistence]. People appreciate that a lot that the Sandinistas are trying to implement what we need so much, unity and diversity, this interculturality — we have it in us. But it’s so nice to have a government promoting that, pushing for that, striving for this interculturality.
Diversity used to be seen as an obstacle. The government said, “We will not be able to advance or develop, if we’re talking different languages.” You know, their idea was uniformity. And so people appreciate this, and the surveys say that the people from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are going to support the Sandinistas in these elections.
Now the other element of that is communication. So one thing in is the hospital, because for a woman in somewhere like across the Rio Grande who needed to get to a hospital five years ago, 10 years ago, they would have to take a boat for about two days if it’s a slow boat, or if it’s a fast boat like nine, 10 hours to get to a hospital. So it’s not just the hospital, but it’s the roads.
Now I hear that to go from La Cruz to El Tortuguero is four hours by road. So those are elements when you talk about development and progress, etc., those are key elements to rights and well-being. People ask, “Why are you fighting so much for the road on the coast?” And I just like to tell this story.
A gentleman had a heart event in La Cornelia Island at three o’clock in the afternoon. They rushed him to a clinic. And the doctor said, “You have to get on a plane.” By the time they stabilized him and tried to get him on a plane, the plane left. So now he’s stuck in La Cornelia overnight. He has to wait now at least 15 hours for the plane to come back again. So he survives through the night. The plane comes at 8:00 in the morning. They try to get him on. Finally, they get him on the plane, and he comes to Managua. So why the argument about why a hospital in La Cornelia?
La Cornelia has 10,000 people, and you have a hospital that costs something like $8 million. So when you go to the demographic decision making, it didn’t make sense to invest $9, $10 million in a hospital for 10,000 people. When you have any municipality in Managua or any municipality close to Managua — Chichigalpa, for example — you didn’t have a hospital. And it’s like 300,000 people that live in that municipality.
So 10,000 people vis-à-vis $10 million to 200,000 people. Any bureaucrat sitting around the table would decide for the 200,000. And if it’s a bureaucrat with a political ledger, he said, “This is 200,000 votes.” That is why we need to be around the table where the decision making is taking place, in order to influence decision making in policy. So finally, the hospital was built in La Cornelia. That gentleman was my father, who survived, by the way.
And to show you that the farthest municipality from Managua off of the course is Ocotal, that’s on the border with Honduras. It takes you four hours to get from Ocotal to any hospital in Managua. From Cornelia, it takes you a lifetime. That is what I think would be described here by decision policy.