Volume 4 Number 4
Nicaragua's Homegrown Agents of Peace
01 April 1991

The Indians wanted to be respected by the Government and left alone to control their own affairs; the Sandinistas believed they could be interwoven into the fabric of the new revolutionary Nicaragua. Their interests were on a collision course. In 1981 armed conflict broke out.

There are currently some 40 armed conflicts in the southern hemisphere. The world has no tools for dealing with most of them, says conflict resolution expert John Paul Lederach. Peacemaking has to come from within conflict areas, not outside, he believes.

Lederach speaks from experience. A sociology professor from Harrisonburg, Virginia, he was the only foreigner on a mediation team which in 1988 brought an end to the armed conflict between Nicaragua's Sandinista Government and the country's largest indigenous Indian tribe.

Nicaragua's Indian tribes live along the country's sparsely populated Caribbean coast. The territory of the 250,000 Miskitos overlaps into Honduras.

While Nicaragua's heavily-populated Pacific coast is Catholic and Spanish in heritage, its Caribbean coast is Protestant, mainly Moravian. The main outside influence on the Indian tribes were British traders and pirates. Isolated from and dominated by the capital Managua, the Indians grew distrustful of the Nicaraguans. Even today, they call them `Spaniards'.

The Indians wanted to be respected by the Government and left alone to control their own affairs; the Sandinistas believed they could be interwoven into the fabric of the new revolutionary Nicaragua. Their interests were on a collision course. In 1981 armed conflict broke out.

The Government removed entire villages along the border with Honduras and relocated nearly 20,000 Indians closer to Managua, avowedly for their own protection. Thirty thousand refugees fled into Honduras to escape the fighting. Their leaders conducted military operations from exile in Costa Rica and Honduras. Although the Contras also used Honduras as a base in their struggle to wrest control of Nicaragua from the Sandinistas, the Indians had little use for them either. They saw the Contras' war as ideological and political, while theirs was for self-determination.

In 1987, Costa Rica's president Oscar Arias devised a regional peace plan. Under its protection, the Indian resistance leaders asked the Moravian Church, and in particular its leader Andy Shogreen, to act as a channel for talks with the Sandinistas. This followed a rare admission by the Sandinistas that their policy towards the Indians had been mistaken.

The Moravians were acceptable to the Sandinistas as mediators because they had built up good relationships in the early 1980s. Rather than being neutral outsiders - as is traditional in negotiations in Europe and the US - they were known and trusted by both sides. This, Lederach believes, was crucial.

Lederach was in Costa Rica at the time, completing a doctoral thesis, and holding a series of workshops on conciliation which were attended by some Moravian pastors. He was asked to join the mediation team as technical assistant. This was the beginning of two years of intense work, negotiating the safe return of exiled Indian leaders to Nicaragua and acting as a go-between for the Sandinista interior minister Tomas Borge and the Indians.

Direct talks
The first direct talks between the warring parties took place in January 1988. These led to the establishment of the Conciliation Commission, composed of the Moravian Church's Provincial Board and a Protestant relief charity registered with the Sandinista Government, the Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development (CEPAD).

At the first meeting both sides agreed to desist from `offensive military action'. `It wasn't called a "ceasefire",' says Lederach, `but this language permitted both sides to move on to other concerns.'

Each negotiating session began with prayers and the reading of Scripture. `Faith was the core of why we were involved in a high risk, complicated affair with no promise of positive results,' says Lederach, who is a Mennonite himself. He points to the patience and persistence of Andy Shogreen and of the head of CEPAD, Baptist pastor Gustavo Parajon.

Counterpoised to this faith was the realism of both Sandinistas and Indians. `The Sandinistas recognized that a solution could not be forced from Managua,' says Lederach. `They realized that their broader national goals had to be coordinated with the Indians' right to autonomy.'

For the Indians' part, `they knew achieving their goals of government respect for their way of life, and access to their regional resources, depended on good relations with Managua. They originally went to war because there was no respect for their life.'

Despite this mutual realism, talks broke down three times. Eventually, later in 1988, a `procedural' ceasefire was agreed. The negotiations provided a model for those which ended the Sandinista-Contra war. In 1989 the Sandinistas announced elections for 1990. Resistance leaders returned from their exile bases to take part in the elections, which the Sandinistas lost.

After a year of democracy, Nicaragua's position is still precarious with inflation raging at 3,000 per cent, unemployment at 25 per cent and a foreign debt of $13 billion. Economic reforms have been hampered by massive strikes, and foreign investment is slow. Meanwhile human rights abuses continue - for which the ex-Contras and Sandinistas blame each other.

President Chamorro recently appointed Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera as head of a commission responsible for east coast affairs. The fact that the commission is in Managua makes rival Indian leaders suspicious.

In spite of this, Lederach believes, the accord between the Miskito Indians and Sandinistas has something to teach the world. `The agents of peaceful transformation emerged from where the war was taking place, rather than from outside,' he stresses.