Exhuming Nicaragua’s Red Christmas

The unfinished colonial project: Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, never really settled by the country’s Spanish conquerors, is once again the site of unrest as Spanish-speakers from the west move into Indian lands. Mateo Jarquin delves into the history of the last attempt to bring the Mosquito Coast into Managua’s orbit, when idealistic young communists from the Sandanista movement sparked an uprising.

Six years ago, Nicaragua’s Attorney General closed — due to an alleged lack of evidence — an investigation into a human rights NGO’s formal complaint that the Sandinista government of the 1980s had committed war crimes against the country’s Miskito indians. In particular, the litigation surrounded the so-called “Red Christmas,” which according to reporting by Confidencial, was “the operation carried out by the Sandinista Army to remove some 8,500 indigenous people from their communities on the edge of the Coco River (bordering Honduras) and resettle them in five encampments in order to prevent them from providing logistical support for the “Contras.”” In the eyes of both those who opposed the Sandinista Revolution as well as those who fought to defend it, the treatment of the Miskito — best symbolized by the Navidad Roja saga of December, 1981 — represents a black mark on the period’s legacy.

But another glance at the historical record reveals that our collective memory of the Red Christmas does not match neatly with the way that events played out at the time. All Nicaraguans should take note of this dark episode and the different ways in which it has been remembered, for they point to a society that’s curiously unaware of the ethno-racial cleavages that have shaped its own development.

After the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, the new revolutionary government tried to “integrate” and “develop” the Caribbean Coast which, for having existed on the margins of the nation’s political economy, had enjoyed a sort of de facto (and impoverished) autonomy during the 40-year, U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. Sandinista leaders, for the most part urban youth of Marxist persuasion, thought they would inculcate a national-revolutionary identity that should be superimposed onto the Atlantic region’s various local and ethnic identities. During the first few months, the guerrillas-cum-statesmen dealt with the Coast — for many of them a foreign country of strange language, religion and customs — with little cultural sensitivity. As a result, many of the revolutionary program’s most successful measures, such as the importation of Cuban doctors or the much-lauded literacy campaign, produced serious anti-government protests in cities like Bluefields and incited violence in the Nicaraguan Miskito region. In response, the government created a new ethnic-based institution for the indigenous and afro-indigenous communities called MISURASATA (Miskitos, Sumos, Ramas, and Sandinistas) and gave it a seat on the Council of State, the revolutionary government’s legislative body.

However, instead of cooling tensions, the new institution inflamed them. Taking advantage of the opportunity created by the revolutionary government and its official ideology of national liberation, the indigenous communities worked with a North American NGO to present a study in which they claimed the historical right to communal lands which comprised nearly a third of the national territory. The government, perhaps ignorant of the indigenous peoples’ history and distrusting of these communities which had been the first to offer popular resistance to the Revolution, accused the Miskito of separatism.

That indictment culminated with the February, 1981 arrest of the MISURASATA leadership. The oral testimonies published by The University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast in the book Wangki Awala show that the Miskito rose up against the Sandinista government for reasons too varied and complex to describe in this article. Nevertheless, the fact that some of them had vindicated historical rights as part of an authentically indigenist agenda is ignored in the popular memory of the Red Christmas, where the Miskito indians are treated as passive victims of a conflict between the “mestizos” of the government and the Contra.

And long before they served as “social and logistical support for the Contra,” in the summer of 1981, tense relations with the government pushed indigenous leader Steadman Fagoth to lead a massive exodus of Miskitos across the border to Honduras. Once there, they enjoyed the support of ex-Somocista guardsmen as well as Honduran and Argentine military advisors, who helped them launch raids against Sandinista civilian and military positions from both sides of the Coco River. In Managua, nobody heard about these bloody encounters until months later, when in February of 1982 the Ministry of the Interior proudly announced the dismantling of a plot led by “Steadman Fagoth and deceived Miskitos” which pretended to foment an indigenous insurrection. The alleged end goal was to declare an independent state in the Northeast corner of the country, which would then serve as the beachhead for an imminent counterrevolutionary invasion.

As evidence, the government presented the videotaped confession of a supposed collaborator: the Moravian pastor Efraín Omier Wilson. Wilson, aside from offering details regarding the plot, explained that Fagoth and his co-conspirators planned to “christen [the plot]Red Christmas because they expected there would be a lot of blood.” Here we find the grand irony of the Navidad Roja: today, the term connotes the violence that the Sandinistas brought down upon Nicaragua’s indigenous communities when, in fact, it was actually the supposed name of Fagoth’s armed insurgency. The tragic decision to forcibly resettle thousands of Miskito, which in December of 1981 killed dozens and displaced thousands according to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), came in response to this indigenous rebellion.

The point isn’t simply to know this history in order to avoid repeating it; in fact, what’s truly interesting is that violence on the Coast has been a constant, and the only things that have changed over time have been our interpretations of the bloodshed. News of the the Miskitos’ resettlement set off an endless propaganda war surrounding the virtues of the revolutionary project. The Reagan administration seized the opportunity to paint the Sandinistas as genocidal totalitarians, whereas the FSLN’s allies on the international scene insisted that there was no discontent (save for that artificially inspired by North American meddling) among Nicaragua’s indigenous communities. In any case, in 1986, after facing several years of resistance in the Miskito community (a majority of which went on to back the Contra and receive CIA support) and international condemnation, the Sandinista government introduced a constitutional amendment which recognized the ethnic pluralism of the Nicaraguan nation and turned the Atlantic provinces into autonomous regions.

Lamentably, while this indigenous agenda invited well-earned praise for Nicaragua from around the world, the legislation has proved to be little more than a piece of paper in the coastal provinces. Researcher Laura Hobson recently affirmed that “the reality on the ground has been far from peaceful in recent years, as the coastal peoples of Nicaragua are once again fighting for their survival in the face of violence and on-going land grabs.” In La Prensa, Tammy Zoad Mendoza has written about an “ignored war” waged by mestizo colonists who have been forcing indigenous communities off their ancestral lands. Those events, along with massive deforestation and plans to build an interoceanic canal (which were designed without consulting any of the region’s communities) represent the complete trampling of the autonomy and “saneamiento” laws which are supposed to determine policy in the Caribbean region.

In so far as it’s discussed at all, our historical memory of the Red Christmas has ignored the reality of the Caribbean and has instead functioned as a sort of proxy referendum on the Sandinista government of the 1980s, to such an extent that the origin of the term itself has been bizarrely distorted. Somewhere along the way, Nicaraguans also erased the real roots of the conflict, which had as much to do with the country’s ethno-racial divisions as they did with the revolutionary process and its Cold War context. Which begs the question: if we can’t identify those social cleavages in our past, how can we recognize them in our present?

A version of this article appeared originally at Confidencial

Mateo Jarquin Translated from Spanish by Mateo Jarquin