Nicaragua Facts
Area:    129,494 sq. km.
Capital:    Managua
Total Population:    4,583,000 (source: various, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The status of the Miskito and other indigenous peoples of Nicaragua improved following the 1989 repatriation of refugees in Nicaragua – guerrilla activity virtually ceased. However, the Miskito still struggle to implement autonomy plans that have not been fully supported by the central government. Moreover, unemployment in the Mosquito region is over 50 percent. YATAMA members are still active – reaction to perceived government repression has included demonstrations, takeovers of government offices, and occasional physical violence. With nearly 95 percent of registered Miskitos boycotting the 2000 elections, their organizational base appears profoundly strong. Furthermore, in 2001-2003, indigenous peoples have been active in protesting against international financial institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Unless the Nicaraguan government begins to make a serious effort to address their concerns, future protests and sporadic violence seems likely. This is especially true for autonomy issues, around which mobilization is highly likely to continue.

Analytic Summary

Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, divided into the "Mosquitia Reservation" and the "Departamento Zelaya", is inhabited by the descendants of the Miskito, Sumu, and Rama tribes as well as immigrant mixes of Creoles (African-American) and Mestizos (Indian and Spanish decent). While the Miskitos are the largest group in the Mosquitia region (c. 150,000), there are also Sumu and Rama peoples resident (GROUPCON = 3). The Sumu number approximately 9,000 with most living in the northeast section of the Mosquitia. The Rama number less than 1,000 and live in the Bluefields area of southeast Nicaragua.

The Miskito Indians, constituting more than half of the ethnic makeup of the Atlantic region, is the culturally and politically dominant group in the region. Because of the efforts of American Moravian missionaries who arrived in the mid-1800s, the Miskito population is largely Protestant (BELIEF = 1) and speaks both English and their native tongue, Miskitu. This differentiates the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast from the dominant Spanish-speaking peoples of Nicaragua. Miskitu has been reported to be the most frequently utilized indigenous language; the bible, hymm books, prayer books, dictionaries, and grammar books are available in Miskitu. Religious and grammar books also exist in the Sumu and Rama languages.

Language rights were among the earliest priorities in the Autonomy Project of the Atlantic Coast; the right to be educated in Nicaragua in one's own language was decreed in December 1980 and indigenous languages have been given official status in the Nicaraguan Constitution. The first bilingual program for the Miskitu language began in 1984 and was followed by programs in Sumu and Rama (LANG = 2). Four additional government efforts have been developed to recognizing indigenous languages: basic linguistic research; applied research (translation, education, etc.); native-speaking personnel living within the communities; and general education for all Nicaraguans on the languages and cultures of the Atlantic Coast.

In 1687, the governor of Jamaica established an English protectorate over the area and named a Miskito chief the leading authority over the Miskito reserve. The British relinquished protection over the reserve in 1860 to the Nicaraguan government under the premise that it would be a self-governing region; this established the "Mosquitia Reserve." During the late 1800s, the region integrated with English-speaking Creoles, living in relative autonomy until the reserve was occupied by Nicaraguan troops in 1894 (AUTON = 1). The ensuing Nicaraguan "modernization and state building" efforts prompted Miskito and Creole resistance in the region. At the Nicaraguan government request, U.S. and British troops were sent in to end the resistance. By 1905, Indian villages had received communal land grant titles.

From 1936 to 1979, Nicaragua was ruled by the Somoza family, a dictatorship whose main interest was economic control over the Atlantic Coast. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Atlantic Coast was utilized for projects of deforestation, commercial fishing, and farming. The Miskitos benefitted through employment by these governmental policies and supported President Somoza. Very few Miskitos supported the Sandinistas, a Marxist populist group that ousted Somoza and established control over Nicaragua in 1979. After assuming power, the Sandinistas launched modernization and educational campaigns (e.g., Spanish literacy programs) to incorporate the Atlantic Coast. They also nationalized untitled lands and refused to recognize the independent cultures of the Miskito and other indigenous groups in the region.

Nicaraguan indigenous peoples organized (COHESX9 = 5) to protect their rights and traditional lands through the organization of ALPROMISU (Alliance for the Progress of Miskitos and Sumus) in 1974 under the leadership of Steadman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera. Replacing ALPROMISU in November 1979, MISURASATA (Mascot, Rama, and Sandinista United) was formed to represent the indigenous populations' more serious grievances to the Sandinista government. Over 80 percent Miskito, MISURASATA supported claims for indigenous communal land grants and the promotion of language and culture. When the Sandinistas banned it as a rebel movement in 1981, the group began launching attacks on the Sandinista military from Honduras, with funding from the CIA. The Sandinistas responded by forcibly relocating 8,500 Miskitos, destroying as many as 100 villages.

Eventually, more than 20,000 escaped into Honduras and were often placed into UNHCR camps. MISURASATA relocated to Costa Rica. In 1984, the Sandinistas began to make peace with the Indians, releasing rebels who had been jailed and offering amnesty to all still fighting. Gradually, refugees began to return to their homelands. The government also began replacing Sandanista officials in the Atlantic region with Miskitos. MISURASTA, then based in Costa Rica, began negotiating for regional autonomy; negotiations concluded in September 1987.

The successor to MISURASATA, YATAMA (Yapti Masrika Nani - Descendants of Mother Earth) was founded in 1987 to unify factious indigenous organizations. Its main constituents were former contras and other MISURASATA members. This group primarily represents the Miskito, but has made efforts to include the Sumu and Rama people. Fractions of the group are still very militant (GOJPA03 = 3); however, no evidence of group rebellion was found for 2001-2003 (REB01-03 = 0). YATAMA strives for further autonomy and protection of Indian cultural and land rights (ECOSTR99 = 7), and to eliminating corruption within their regional councils and administrations. In the past, YATAMA militants discontented with the alleged corruption of the present council members have seized government offices and villages. After the candidacy of many YATAMA representatives were invalidated in the 1998 elections, 1,500 supporters attacked a military post, killing three and abducting six. When the government again blocked YATAMA candidates from municipal elections in 2000, large protests and an election boycott developed. In an effort to control the protests and quell violence, military troops occupied the city of Puerto Cabezas. A conservative mayoral candidate was assassinated in the northeast town of El Ayote. In 2003, YATAMA filed a lawsuit suit before the Inter-American Human Rights Court

against the Nicaraguan government, for having been excluded from the past municipal elections. Protests after 2000 have focused on international development projects (PROT01-02 = 3, PROT03 = 2).

The Atlantic region is now divided into two autonomous regions, North and South. Each was given its own 45 member council which in turn elects a governor. The North and the South are also represented in the National Assembly with three and two representative respectively (POLSTAT = 3). In theory, the two autonomous regions should jointly participate with the Nicaraguan government in ruling over their economic, cultural and environmental affairs. This would guarantees the preservation of their cultural heritage, including linguistic rights, and establishes regional control over natural resources.


Amnesty International. Oct. 2002. "Americas: Indigenous peoples -- Second-class citizens in the lands of their ancestors"

Decker, Ken and Andy Keener. 2001. "A report on the English-lexifier creole of Nicaragua, also known as Mískito Coast Creole, with special reference to Bluefields and the Corn Islands." SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2001-004.

Hale, Charles R. 1987. "Inter-ethnic relations and class structure in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast: A historical overview." Ethnic groups and the nation state: the case of the Atlantic Coast in Nicaragua,(ed.) CIDCA/Development Study Unit. Stockholm: University of Stockholm.

Muñóz, Betty. 1992. "Comunidades indígenas del Caribe nicaraguense: el caso de barrio El Cocal, Puerto Cabezas." Persistencia indígena en Nicaragua, (ed.) Germán Romero. Managua: CIDCA-UCA.

Lexis-Nexis news reports. 2001-2003.

Nica-Net. 2002. "Report of the Indigenous Rights Delegation to Nicaragua, August 8-17, 2002"

Perry, Pamela. 1991. "The politics of identity: community and ethnicity in a pro-Sandinista enclave on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast." Berkeley Journal of Sociology 36:115-135.

World Bank. 2001. "Second Rural Municipalities Development Project."


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