Since the elections on Sunday Nov. 5, Yatama has lost far more than the municipalities of Waspam, Bilwi, Prinzapolka, and Awaltara. At least four people have been killed, dozens have been injured, and 50 have been taken as political prisoners; Yatama’s Miskitu-language radio station and sacred headquarters was burned down; the “indio guerillero” (warrior Indian) statue was destroyed; and Yatama’s own flag was replaced by the flag of the Sandinista nation-state. Their backs are to the wall.
Yatama leaders’ feelings of helplessness does not fit within the Miskitu world-view, however. The Miskitu Peoples still see themselves as successful warriors. They fought alongside the British during the colonial era and were not conquered by the Spanish until 1894, when their Muskitia homeland was incorporated into the Nicaraguan state. As fighters in the US-backed Contra War within the Nicaraguan revolution (1979-1990), the Miskitu were awarded a pluri-ethnic homeland, almost half of the country, with two politically autonomous regions.
So why now in 2017 do the Miskitu feel helpless? In the past, the Miskitu aligned with the British and US governments. Today, they have no international alliances. Only Russia and China are current players in Nicaragua. Chinese mega-projects and Russian military bases and armory, including a recent purchase of 50 tanks, fortify the Ortega government.
On Tuesday, Nov. 7, the Miskitu Yatama sympathizers placed a road block in Sisin, blocking passage of vehicles and haulting commerce between Waspam and Bilwi. Rumors began that Yatama men were arming themselves in rural communities and planned to fight in Bilwi and burn down the entire town of Bilwi (pop. 50,000), the capital of the North Caribbean Autonomous Region. The US Embassy evacuated its Fulbright scholar in Tuapi. Bilwi residents experience anxiety and PTSD.
Speaking with Brooklyn Rivera by phone on the evening of Friday, Nov. 10, IC asked him directly if Yatama is planning to cause violence. He told us, “No, we are the victims of violence. The state is committing violence against us. We are poor indigenous people. We don’t have guns, we have rocks and they have automatic weapons. We can’t fight that.”
When asked if his troops are arming in communities, he responded, “That is just gossip.”
We also asked if Yatama plans to burn down Bilwi. He told us, “No, how can we burn down our home?”
Rivera continued, “Thousands of Miskitu people were not allowed to vote in the municipal elections. Then, the Riot Police from Managua backed by the local Bilwi Police burned down the Yatama radio station and headquarters.”
Rivera, now 65 years old, has served as the highest leader of the Miskitu people since the early 1980s. On the Monday following the 2017 municipal elections, Rivera had a busy day—he escaped from Riot Police and later, the devastating fire at the Yatama house.
Rivera interjected, “Tomorrow at 1:00 in the baseball stadium, we will celebrate Yatama’s 30-year anniversary.” He is the founder and long-term Yatama director. We asked if he plans to attend the celebration. Rivera replied quickly, “Sure, I have to celebrate along with my people.” We pointed out that he may be arrested. He demured, “I am ready for anything that comes. I am the leader of my people, I have done nothing wrong. I haven’t killed anyone.”
Meanwhile, Bilwi sleeps lightly tonight, with the Yatama celebration planned for mid-day. Bilwi is highly militarized, with over 100 riot police roaming the streets along with rogue neighborhood gangs. Any gathering could easily turn into a violent confrontation. The stage is set for a showdown.