indigenous sovereignty and sandinismo
Exhibiting how Nicaragua, and the isthumus at large, is far from monolithic, a visit to Bilwi reveals a unique mode of struggle that constructs sovereignty through cultural preservation brought into reality by rejectng capitalist, imperialist domination. Popular, multiethnic resistance is exemplified through institutions that are participatory rather than representative; here, decolonization is a verb rather than a shiny academic buzzword.
Amidst deceptive claims from mainstream Western media that President Daniel Ortega is mandating institutional violence against indigenous Nicaraguans, a visit to one of the nation’s autonomous native cities tells us otherwise. Located 520 kilometers from the capital of Managua, Bilwi, a port city in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, possesses a plethora of ethnic and linguistic diversity that contributes to Nicaragua’s rich history and culture. A quick stroll will have you hearing different languages such as Miskito, Mayangna, and Rama – each language is celebrated and preserved, a marker most notably witnessed at the city’s leading university, URRACAN (University of the Autonomous regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast).
A young academic institution, its aspirations have been at the forefront of curating sovereignty – a process which we must remember is continuous, chiefly in the ongoing struggle against US imperialism and neoliberalism – URRACAN is a leading research center that hosts classes in various languages native to the region. Conversing with Dixie Lee Smith, the coordinator of URRACAN’s Institute of Autonomous Studies, we can learn how decolonized, revolutionary higher education can be established, and how socialist and indigenous modes of praxis are complementary within varying disciplines from agroforestry, medicine, climatology, and social science. To have higher education in the Caribbean coast, for Dixie Lee, was once a utopia; young students previously had to have substantial funds to leave the coast for Pacific cities like Leon or Managua to go to university. Prior to the 199 Sandinista revolution, it could take up to a month for Caribbean Nicaraguans to travel to the Pacific region for there were no roads as there are now. A trip that once took an entire month is now completed in eleven hours – it is one of the many accomplishments of the FSLN that go unnoticed by the West.
Nevertheless, because we are never isolated from our historical pasts, we must comprehend that there is a lingering impact of the geographic division amongst the Pacific and Caribbean. Cultural differences, for instance, had also made it challenging for Caribbean Nicaraguans to study in the Pacific; both coasts were notoriously divided, with the Caribbean most notably being ignored by previous governments. URRACAN, for Dixie Lee and many others, showcases us what popular, multiethnic struggle looks like. It is honoring indigenous traditions within academia, best illustrated in URRACAN’s medicine program that incorporates native epistemology around illness and treatment. But further, none of the struggles and triumphs are isolated from the banner of Sandinismo.
The merging of native struggle with that of the Sandinistas is, in essence, a symbiotic mode of interplay, fearlessly reinventing what sovereignty looks like. The national question, when interrogated by Nicaraguan Marxism, is answered through an ongoing practice of land back, first enacted with the 1987 Constitution and Autonomy law which recognized indigenous land ownership.
In addition, the prioritization of native languages and epistemologies, and genuine democratic practices that equally recognize votes propelled by communities (Indigenous towns), local, municipal, territorial, and federal actors, all of which carry significant roles that equally distribute power. As elections come up, journalist and Tuapi community leader Raul Davis explains how everyone is mobilized to vote – to do so is ensured by the FSLN. People do not have to travel long distances to have access to the voting poll but rather the voting poll is brought to their front steps.
Native autonomy and Sandinismo are harmonious because they fight against the same enemies: US empire, Western chauvinism, and the interests of neoliberal transnational corporations. Because it was Reagan’s military that bombed the Pacific’s Estelí while it also strayed Miskito people towards deception, influencing many towards abandoning the FSLN for the Contras. The coasts may be different however regardless of which ocean waters meet the shore, blood and collective trauma caused by the United States are still washed up today.
Within the Nicaraguan tradition, to decolonize is to explicitly embrace revolution. Contending with the intimacies of Miskito and Mayangna people during the dawn of a new national paradigm, WANI magazine (which is published in English Creole, Spanish, Miskito, and Mayangna) from its first edition onwards has curated information on classical and contemporary Marxist theory, the speeches of Sandinista revolutionary Tomás Borge (1930-2012) and boasts articles such as ‘El banano es nuestra flor de pino’ (the banana is our pine flower). This article in particular is fascinating because it is an interview with the 80s music group Saumuk Raya, which means New Seed in Miskito. For readers unfamiliar with ‘Flor de Pino,’ it is a revolutionary song written and performed by Carlos Mejía Godoy, who rose to fame in the 80s. Saumuk Raya achieved national recognition due to the cultural support of Commander Tomas Borge, who organized them into a musical group.
Revolutionary struggle particularly its praxis and cultural influences, physically and ideologically united the Pacific to the Caribbean – no longer would the Caribbean be viewed as secondary or distant while the FSLN governed. This is because the FSLN is organized through the working class, through the campesino; it is propelled into action by the social actor that once was disposed from their land, labor, and autonomy, and thus, we can affirm that the party is composed and moved by those fighting for their sovereignty. With this logic we can reiterate how and why indigenous sovereignty goes hand in hand with socialism.
In Bilwi’s CIDCA (Center for Investigations and Documentations for the Atlantic Coast), archives not only include WANI magazine, but they are also composed of extensive literature on gastronomy, linguistics, military history, sociology, agroecology, and gender studies – all of which speak from the material realities and conditions of indigenous peoples. This literature is cherished and open to the public and is currently directed by Esther Melba McLean Cornelio. She is an indigenous Mayangna and operates CIDCA alongside with the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU). CIDCA arose after the successful Sandinista revolution and aimed to operate as a center for social scientists to document indigenous history; it has always embodied autonomy in its procedures for archiving information and rescuing popular Atlantic culture. With respect to linguistics, CIDCA spearheaded a movement on preserving indigenous languages such as Mayangna, Rama, Miskito, and Creole. Alongside with the center’s research, it is truly remarkable how half of Nicaragua is not dominated by the Spanish language but rather a wide array of native languages, cultures, and customs.
Religion too, plays a fundamental role in the construction of autonomy and self-preservation. With the accompaniment of our good friend and comrade Raul Davis, we attended a Sunday service at the Moravian Church within the Tuapi community. Although the Moravian Church was introduced through German colonization, all sessions are held in Miskito. Religious texts and hymns are also sung in the native language and further, it is legal for all centers of work to be closed, thus ensuring full participation from the community not just within the service but in all other communal activities hosted throughout the day. Moravian Pastor Luis Mantaquell Smith expresses the congruous relationship the church maintains with other faiths, and in the same vein, he illustrates how different ethnic groups coexist, with many people opting towards learning other native languages to facilitate communication and cultural distribution. Contrary to the West, imbued with a modernist rejection of religion, heightening alienation, Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast combines the spiritual with the physical, molding a cultural identity that naturally binds towards a community orientated habitus.
Community operates at the forefront of indigenous self-determination; when young people find themselves in legal trouble, for example, Miskito elders (whose age and wisdom culturally establishes a role like that of a local judge) have the full capacity to mobilize their community to engage with law enforcement. Rather than enacting punitive and carceral methods of accountability, the advent of indigenous community organizing permits for them to advocate for the offender directly to the police. Historically, this method has been successful in avoiding the offender being sent to jail, since it is widely expected that accountability will be legislated within the community. Both the local police and state honor this process. This highlights how the FSLN coordinates and tributes different procedures for dealing with harm and crime within the area. Decolonial and in solidarity, it is both the people and its government who mitigate power to construct different realities – realities that the imperialist West chooses to ignore.
This report serves as a brief consensus surrounding the lived veracities of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. Although there is plenty of work and development that must continue to be enacted, especially following the devastation of 2020 hurricanes Eta and Iota, Bilwi and its surrounding communities serve as a primary example of what it means to fight for one’s self-preservation and autonomy. In the face of US imperialism and ongoing US sanctions that aim, with all its racist chauvinism and self-interest, to delegitimize the resistance enacted by Nicaraguans both on the Pacific and Caribbean, I hope that this analysis elucidates a truth too often obscured by the agendas of the world’s modern-day colonizers.