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Black, indigenous rights activists fight for place in Nicaragua's opposition

By Ray Downs
Hundreds of people participate in a march named "Together we are homeland" in Managua, Nicaragua, on September 15. Demonstrators are protesting the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. File Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA-EFE
Hundreds of people participate in a march named "Together we are homeland" in Managua, Nicaragua, on September 15. Demonstrators are protesting the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. File Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA-EFE

MIAMI, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- As the opposition against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega increases its organizational efforts among Nicaragua's international community, representatives of the country's Caribbean Coast are determined not to be excluded.

Since protests over social security reforms in April spiraled into violence, leading to hundreds of deaths of anti-government protesters, as well as police and government supporters, Nicaraguan opposition leaders have sought international support to sustain the anti-Ortega movement.

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After meeting with U.S. lawmakers earlier this year to garner monetary assistance for the opposition movement and economic sanctions against the Nicaraguan government, opposition leaders met in Washington, D.C., last weekend with Nicaragua-based activists and members of the Nicaraguan diaspora who oppose the Ortega administration.

Felix Maradiaga, a Harvard-educated academic who has been at the forefront of opposition efforts since April and is frequently mentioned as a presidential contender, said the D.C. meeting ironed out goals and strategies of the opposition while utilizing the financial and political will of the about 700,000 Nicaraguans living abroad.

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"The bigger middle class of Nicaragua lives abroad," Maradiaga told UPI. "Only 9 percent of the general population within Nicaragua is considered middle class. However, in the diaspora, particularly countries like Costa Rica, the United States, Panama and Spain, Nicaraguans have a much higher income and education level. When a nation is trying to defeat a dictatorship, you need all your people. You need those fighting inside the country through nonviolence, but you also need those abroad."

However, in an example of the challenges that the opposition movement faces, Nicaragua's representatives of Nicaragua's black population said they weren't consulted about the meeting until just days before it started -- and that was only after activists in Bluefields, the biggest city on the country's Atlantic Coast, threatened to denounce the meeting for not including members of the Creole community.

Territorial rights

Nora Newball, president of the communal government of Bluefields, said the community's top concern is the erosion of territorial rights for Nicaragua's black and indigenous populations under the Ortega administration. If a new government emerges, they want those rights recognized.

"We have to demand our territory rights or else we will continue to be trampled on," Newball said. "Every government that comes and goes treats the Caribbean the same."

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In 2003, after losing an international court case over land rights, the Nicaraguan government created laws to guarantee autonomy to the country's black and indigenous population in a large swath of the Caribbean Coast. But in 2014, Ortega changed those laws as part of an effort to clear the way for construction of an inter-oceanic canal that is still in the planning stages.

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The controversial canal project also faces a legal challenge after black and indigenous communal governments filed a lawsuit against the government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Newball said the Caribbean community has the same concerns over human rights and democratic reforms that the newly created opposition movement has, but also wants its territorial rights to be part of the discussion that ensued after the April protests began.

If that doesn't happen, she said, any new government that arises from opposition efforts will commit the same wrongs current and past governments have made.

"We have suffered enough structural discrimination and racism," Newball said. "That's why we had to be heard. We are a different people with different laws but we are part of Nicaragua."

A 'new Nicaragua'

The Caribbean community was heard after Ariel Hamilton, a Bluefields native and Creole activist based in Miami, spoke at the Washington, D.C. meeting on Sunday.

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"We have to make sure they're not trying to build a new Nicaragua without the Coast involved," Hamilton said.

One of the major objectives for the Bluefields contingent was to free prisoners they believe have been jailed for political reasons. That includes Brandon Lovo, 18, and Glen Slate, 19, who were convicted of killing Bluefields journalist Angel Gahona in a highly controversial trial that garnered international attention.

Gahona was fatally shot on Facebook Live while covering the police response to protesters in Bluefields in April. Police quickly blamed Lovo and Slate. Both were participating in anti-government protests at the time and Lovo had been recorded via cellphone while in possession of a homemade pistol. But many in the Bluefields community, including Gahona's family, believe police killed Gahona.

"Nobody believes Brandon and Glen did it because they didn't do it," Hamilton said. "They have to be freed."

It's a demand that is unlikely to be met since Lovo was sentenced in August to 23 years in prison and Slate was sentenced to 12 years. But Hamilton said the demand must be made and the two men's plight should be recognized as part of any dialogue on opposition-building.

Hamilton also said the Bluefields' communal government aims to stop local elections in March due to concerns that the government will bus in supporters to vote for the Sandinista Party and bribe local officials, giving Ortega an easy win.

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Accusations of voter fraud, bribery and intimidation are a common part of Nicaraguan politics. But on the Caribbean Coast, where Sandinista support is not as strong as it is in the country's Mestizo areas, those accusations are particularly loud.

"If elections are held in March, it will give the false impression of normalcy," he said. "You'll have all these people voting Sandinista and Ortega will say, 'Look, the people support me.' We can't have that."

Maradiaga said the newly created opposition movement will make greater efforts to involve the black and indigenous populations.

"The Caribbean Coast has been historically excluded from different decision-making processes in Nicaragua," he said. "They've always had to fight for their space because, historically, Nicaragua hasn't recognized that part of the country has a black identity and a Miskito identity. So at this meeting, we saw that. The new Nicaragua that is about to emerge is a Nicaragua that cannot commit the mistakes of the past."

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