Mosquito Coast Bites Nicaragua's Ortega

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Isidro Hernandez / El Nuevo Diario / AP

Residents clash in Puerto Cabezas last year during political violence in response to the municipal elections. Now a separatists are calling for a cancelation of future elections and a complete break from Nicaragua.

A separatist attempt to form a breakaway nation of indigenous people on Nicaragua's jungle shores has the legendary Mosquito Coast buzzing once again — and posing a dilemma for leftist President Daniel Ortega. Frustrated by broken promises of autonomy and generations of exploitation by outsiders, traditional leaders on the rural Atlantic coast are calling for a clean break from Nicaragua and the creation of the Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia (named after the region's indigenous people). On April 19, the indigenous council of elders officially declared the secession of the Atlantic coast from the rest of Nicaragua, warning that if push comes to shove, their independence claims will be backed by a new Indigenous Army of the Moskitia.

"We are not puppets. We are men. And now we have the weight of a nation on our shoulders," said separatist leader Rev. Hector Williams, known as the Wihta Tara, or Great Judge of the Nation of Moskitia. The separatist leaders this week declared a state of emergency to protect their lands from the "colonialist" outsiders and sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking for support and protection.

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The separatists claim to be thousands strong with a standing army of 400 soldiers, mostly aging ex-combatants from the YATAMA uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Today, the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS) remain geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of Nicaragua. The northern Atlantic-coastal region is mostly inhabited by Miskito and Mayangna indigenous populations, while its southern neighbor is home to most of the country's black Creole population. Although both groups have suffered historic discrimination, it is the indigenous population in the north that's leading the charge on independence — a call that hasn't yet found much resonance in the RAAS. The self-proclaimed Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia says all land titles, concessions and contracts issued by the Nicaraguan government are now invalid, and that taxes must now be paid to the new self-proclaimed indigenous authorities. A new flag, national anthem and currency are in the works as the aspiring country appeals for official recognition.

"People have been waiting and waiting for this for 115 years. But everything has its moment," said Great Judge Williams, referring to 1894, when the Mosquito Coast first lost its nationhood status.

President Daniel Ortega, a revolutionary who claims "indigenous blood" and pledges solidarity with underdog struggles for independence around the globe, was the first and only president in the world to recognize the breakaway Russian-backed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia during last year's hostilities in Georgia. And at last month's Summit of the Americas, Ortega advocated for Puerto Rico's independence from "the colonialist policies" of the United States — a "show of solidarity" that irritated the Puerto Rican government. Now, faced with a popular secession in his own backyard, Ortega has remained tightlipped, and his government has not yet made any substantial response to the claims of the Nation of Moskitia.

Local authorities in the RAAN insist they have no intention of turning over the state machinery to the separatist leaders, but are trying to downplay the matter, apparently hoping it will go away on its own. "How are they going to take control of the police and military? Please! " said RAAN Governor Reynaldo Francis.

But the true scale of the movement remains unclear and Miskito leaders are warning the Nicaraguan government it would be a mistake to take the situation lightly. Even those opposed to the independence movement warn the conditions are ripe for a separatist fever to spread, or even turn to violence. "Autonomy has been a failure," said Osorno "Comandante Blas" Coleman, who had been a Miskito military leader during the YATAMA uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. "The separatists are looking for an alternative, for a light at the end of the tunnel. Their movement could gain force because people are frustrated with autonomy."

Though the Atlantic coast was given autonomy in 1987, indigenous and Creole leaders say discrimination and economic concerns have prevented the law from being implemented true to its spirit. Their frustrations have been amplified by the aftermath of Hurricane Felix, a devastating category 5 storm that ripped through the area in 2007 destroying much of the local communities' infrastructure, livelihood and natural resources.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, west-coast Nicaraguans have moved into the area to profit from the storm-felled timber, and to set up ranching and farming in indigenous territories. "They operate like the mafia," said Oscar Hodgson, the legal advisor to the aspiring nation. Hodgson said the new indigenous army is being deployed into the forests to stop all logging activity in their territory. "We are going to put a stop to this, which is something the Nicaraguan authorities couldn't do," he said.

The separatists, led by former indigenous rebel leader Norman Molina — or Comandante Yul Wild (Wild Dog) — already staged an unarmed takeover of the headquarters of the indigenous YATAMA party April 22. But it's still unclear whether the group presents a substantial threat.

Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera, a Nicaraguan lawmaker with the YATAMA party, says the prospects of the separatist movement "will depend on how the (Nicaraguan) government reacts." He said that if the government takes the situation seriously and address the demands of the people, the situation could be controlled. But if it's ignored, it could fester and grow.

"There are lots of (indigenous) ex-combatants who are very unsatisfied with the government, they've been waiting for over two years for the government to comply with its promises," he said. The worst case scenario, he said, would be if the government responded with force. Warns Rivera, "If they did, there would be a situation like there was in the 1980s."

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