Last week David McKnight travelled to the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. David spent time in Bluefields and Pearl Lagoon to film interviews for a short video analysing the situation for indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples on the Coast ahead of this November’s Presidential elections. We will post the interviews over the coming weeks. The first interview – published verbatim below – is with Johnny Hodgson. Johnny is a long-time friend of Wales NSC, having visited Wales on three occasions. Johnny is a Creole historian, a community development specialist, an indigenous and Afro-descendant rights advocate,a former Mayor of Bluefields and currently the Campaign Secretary for the Sandinistas in the RAAS. He’s also a fantastic dancer. Oh, and he sings a pretty mean version of Green, Green Grass of Home…
Johnny occasionally blogs here
Interview with Johnny Hodgson, Bluefields, RAAS – 05/09/2011
DM: What changes, if any, have there been for the people of the Caribbean Coast in the last 5 years?
JH: There have been significant changes. To begin with, we have been working to change the model. We are substituting that model that we had before, that model that was based on every man for their self and we are building a new model that is based on solidarity and love for your neighbour and this cause us to define a development strategy for the region, for the Caribbean Coast. And it’s a very important tool because it is the first time in our history that we have a development strategy and this strategy is so important because it is a strategy of human development. We are working to develop people not to develop only things. And the essence of this strategy is that development come from within so it’s not people that came from the United States or England or Spain or anywhere else that came and made this strategy. It’s a strategy where we got together and we work it out defining our priorities. This strategy contains fifteen different programmes and we are implementing these programmes and we are getting good results from them.
The first programme on this strategy is to do with Mother Land. How we going to take care of Mother Land? And that programme includes an amount of projects and one of these projects is the project of demarcation of land and titling of communal property. So we have been working in defining in the territory of the Caribbean Coast, all the land that going to be handled in the model of communal property. This is a model of ownership, traditional among the indigenous and some of the Afro-descendant. We have contemplated in that strategy to demarcate and titles for 22 territories and we have already demarcated 17 territories, and that 17 territories signify more than 22,000 sq km. 22,000 sq km in the hands of the communities – owners of communal property – is more than the whole extension of our neighbour country El Salvador. This is one of the first changes that you can observe, we still have to work more on this. But we are advancing pretty good with this and this is a very significant change. Because this means that our people will never lose the land. We have had a type of ownership that is more according to the mestizo type of ownership that is individual ownership. Well, the individual ownership is not bad but that’s their culture, and the culture of the indigenous and afro-descendant is more in harmony with communal ownership.
There is another programme that is to do with electricity for example. The strategy contemplates carrying electricity to all the communities of the Caribbean Coast. The least of the communities today have energy service, there was just a few communities that had electrical energy service and those few used to have electrical energy service for certain hours during the day. What we are working on right now is to carry electrical energy service to all the communities of the Caribbean Coast, 24 hours. We can’t do this all at the same time. It’s little by little. But we have already advanced with a lot of communities that didn’t even dream that they was going to be enjoying electrical power for 24 hours during the day. There are some that didn’t even dream to have it even one hour during the day and today they have electrical energy service.
The President of the country, Commander Daniel Ortega, is always telling us that ‘we cannot sleep tranquilo in our bed while you have people that when it rains, they’re getting wet’. So we have a programme to help people fix their roof. We share zinc to those families so that they can fix their roof and we can know that when it rains that these people doesn’t get wet. We still have a lot of people that get wet when it rains but we are working on this programme. You see it’s not just a project. We are not going to stop this until the last person, the last family, on the Caribbean Coast – and this is for the whole country but we are talking specifically about the Caribbean Coast – until not one single person get wet when it rains. And this don’t have to do with the political ideology of the person or their religion or their ethnical group – it’s for everybody. We want to make sure that no-one get wet when it rain.
And Daniel Ortega is always telling us we can’t sleep tranquilo – we can’t just relax in our beds – until we know that there is no-one, not one single person, in our country that don’t know to read and write. You know, we have to continue, doing this literacy crusade until we know for sure that there is no-one that want to learn to read and write that hasn’t had the possibility as yet.
if you love your neighbour as yourself, you can be a Sandinista
These are the kinds of things into that strategy into those programmes where we are trying to build a model that we define as Christian, Socialist and Solidarity. Those are the values. When we talk about ‘Christian’, christianity value, what we are talking about is that value of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself. When we talk about Christian, some people say well if they mean that we have to go an learn the whole Bible, well if they want to do that that is welcome, it’s good. We think they will never learn anything bad in the Bible! We say if you want to learn the Bible from Genesis to Apocalypse, it’s up to you and that would be good, we welcome that but basically what we are asking you is to love your neighbour as yourself, if you love your neighbour as yourself, you can be a Sandinista, if you love your neighbour as yourself you can be sure that you are going to be a part of that whole development strategy. We talk about Christian principles and which of the christian principles are we trying to rescue? The principle of loving your neighbour as yourself.
we are not going to have a socialism like what maybe Marx or one of these guys them preach or write about, that’s not what we are talking about. We here on the Caribbean Coast, we historically I think have been more socialist than anybody else, maybe in the world!
When we talk about socialism we talk about socialist ideals – ideales socialista – we are convinced that we are not going to have a socialism like what maybe Marx or one of these guys them preach or write about, that’s not what we are talking about. We here on the Caribbean Coast, we historically I think have been more socialist than anybody else, maybe in the world! But I am sure in this country. You see, we historically had for example the land in communal ownership and that’s a socialist principle. We are not fighting for individual ownership of the land – we the indigenous and afro-descendant. People got afraid of the word socialist or the word communist because, well they tell them that if you say that you are socialist, socialist don’t believe in God, and things like that. But we by nature, our tradition, the people on the Caribbean Coast, we have been socialists, we love our neighbours as ourself, we have always practised solidarity, and I just gave you that example of the type of ownership, of the land. So when we talk about socialist, you know I could give like a example. If we was to have a big flood like they had in Noah days and it begin to rain and rain and rain and the water is coming up, if we are living in that model of every man for theirself, probably the people that have a big boat, can get in their boat and put in their things and their family and they can be nice in the boat even if it be raining and you have a big flood. If the water go up, then the boat go up and they can be in there and they can eat and drink and bathe and cook and do everything in their boat. If they don’t have a big boat and they have a small, little boat, a dory maybe they can even get saved but they are not going to be comfortable, they are not going to be able to save their things, and they might get wet but they might still be able to get saved, but the thousands of people that don’t have any boat would just have to die because well, every man for themselves. What we are talking about is that if a big flood come it not going to be every man for himself – all of us are going to be working together, to try to save us all, to try to save everyone. If we have a hundred sheeps we are going to save a hundred sheeps, we are not going to be happy if we save 99 and one got lost. So that is the socialism that we talking about – socialist ideals.
we don’t want to preach about solidarity we want to practice solidarity on a daily basis
And when we talk about solidarity practices, we don’t want to preach about solidarity we want to practice solidarity on a daily basis. When they had this terrible earthquake in Haiti, our President decided to send a crew of doctors and send some medicine and some grocery to help out in Haiti. There were people here in Nicaragua and even here on the Caribbean Coast saying ‘but why is that we going to send food and medicine to them? We don’t even know them. We don’t have enough for ourself and we taking the little that we have to share with these people that we don’t even know!’. And Daniel said ‘it is logic that people think that way after 16 years of every man for themselves’. And he told us that we have to work hard to get people to begin to feel something for others and he say ‘we going to work on this thing, we going to preach this thing of ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, we are going to preach it and we are going to exercise it, and we sure that little by little, people are going to recover those values of solidarity, of love, of peace, of life.
That’s what we are trying to do so you will definitely see a lot of changes. When we talk about the changes that we have to make, because we didn’t try to reach to the government just to change the person in government, we anounced that we was going to reach the government to change things, to change the model and that is what we are doing and that is what our revolution is about – to change things and we are talking about working and making material transformation but accompanied with the transformation of the consciousness of the people – what we call the spiritual part – it’s not just a material transformation. We are not working to develop things, we are working to develop people, human development. So we have this programme for example, roofing for peoples houses, we have a programme to help that live in the countryside, to get a cow, to get a pig, to get a chicken, to get a start, but if you facilitate the zinc for a family for the fixing of a roof, but you didn’t reach to his conscience, that family might even take that zinc and sell it and may even use the money to drink rum and maybe that roofing don’t even reach to his home. So you can be trying to do the material thing but if you are not reaching to the conscience, if you are not making that transformation, in the spiritual part, in the conscience of the people you are not reaching the changes that you need to make to have a better country. Some people say ‘no, the people are selfish, and every man for themselves and that’s how it have to be – we will never change that’. We are saying that we know it’s not easy, but a revolutionary always accept the tough challenges.
I am concerned and very attentive, to watch the changes in the human being and that is the most important change what we are working towards
And we assume that challenge to make material and human changes in the country. We are working on the material part but on the spiritual part of the people to build a better country. You know that, even if we should pave the streets of Bluefields with gold, and build big palaces, if we don’t change the people, we are not going anywhere. We will still have an unjust and unfair society. And what we are really working for is to have a more just society. A society – a Nicaragua, a Caribbean Coast – where people love their neighbours, that’s what we are looking for. And where people can exercise their rights, we call it restitution de los derechos, restitution of rights, and when we talk about demarcating and titling the land, we are talking about restituting the rights of the people from the Caribbean Coast. All the land from the Coast was taken away by former governments and given to other people not from the Caribbean Coast. We know it is impossible to get back all the land that was historically for the Caribbean Coast but we are convinced that we could get back enough to live good and live happy but as I said it’s not only enough to get back the land – the material part – we need to get back our values, we need to build a better society and this is the essence of what we are talking about so you will see a lot of material changes but I am not getting impressed only with the material changes with the electricity with the houses or with the economical situation of the people. I am concerned and very attentive, to watch the changes in the human being and that is the most important change what we are working towards.
DM: Do you think people will elect the FSLN in the forthcoming elections? If so, why do you think people will be more inclined to vote for the Sandinistas this time compared to in the past?
JH: In the last election, in the year 2006, the FSLN won, and we won with 38% of the votes of this country. Because, okay it was like four different big political parties and the Frente got the most votes, and got more than 10% more than the closest follower. In this coming election I can’t tell you exactly what the FSLN with their allies going to harvest but in my idea I am convinced that more than half of the people, more than 50% of the Nicaraguan people, in the Caribbean Coast and in the rest of the country are going to vote for the Frente Sandinista. The polls, the encuestas as we call them in Spanish, is telling you that, anybody make a poll, an encuesta right now, get the same result, whether it’s univision or the Washington Post, El Nuevo Diaro, or La Prensa, or CID Gallup or whatever the firm is called – everywhere they do it they reach to the same conclusion, that the Sandinista have more than 50% of the people willing to vote for the Sandinistas.
That everyman for themselves what it brings is a lot of selfishness, and loss of values, and it’s really an ugly system, an ugly model, and people got tired of that model and they gave the Sandinistas a chance
Why? In other elections after 1990, what we call here the liberal party used to tell the people that if they vote for the Sandinistas that the war was going to come back, they used to intimidate the people, telling them that if you vote for the Sandinista we are going to have military service etcetera, and you know, people was scared of this but people got tired of that model of every man for themselves. That everyman for themselves what it brings is a lot of selfishness, and loss of values, and it’s really an ugly system, an ugly model, and people got tired of that model and they gave the Sandinista a chance and when they gave the Sandinistas a chance they have been able to verify that there is no war, that the remittance – you know that they telling them ‘if you vote for the Sandinista you are no going to be able to get remittances from out, nobody going to send money back home’, – and they told them a lot of lies. But the people have been able to prove that these were lies and none of that did happen and that you have a transformation and that this model of love your neighbour and solidarity is really good for us. And this model have a special characteristic that it have a preferential option for the poor – it don’t have anything against the rich – but it have a preferential option for the poor. You see, when you are doing literacy crusade, it’s who you are working for – the poor people that didn’t have access to education. When you are working on roofing, the wealthy don’t need not getting wet, it’s the poor people, which is the big majority in Nicaragua. Nicaragua have five million and a half people and out of that five million and a half, half a million are wealthy and semi-wealthy people, and five million is poor and very extremely poor people. So these five million people is the ones that have seen the benefit of this model. The people are convinced that they need to preserve this model and go profound into it. Because the model is good but we are still poor, so we have’nt been able to reach everybody, we haven’t been able to reach all the poor people but people can see the intention and see the road and being as we have a strategy and the strategy is known by a lot of people, well people can see what it is you are trying to do and where it is you are trying to reach and that is very good and this is some of the reason why I am totally convinced that more than 50% of the people of Nicaragua are going to vote for the Frente Sandinista this 6th November.
DM: Some mainstream media outlets say that Bluefields and the Caribbean Coast are havens for drug traffickers and that the Coast is a dangerous place. I have been coming here for ten years and always feel safe and welcome. What’s the reality here?
JH: It’s a stereotype, I will never say that we don’t have problem with drugs. Well, we don’t produce any drugs to begin with. The drugs traffickers use different countries in Central America to carry their drugs from South America to north America, to the United States, and they pass through Nicaragua, just as they pass through the other central American countries. There was a time after 1990 where there wasn’t sufficient effort made by the government to control and keep the drugs out of our country. The drugs dealers were able to set up bases here to help them get the drugs across. Since 2006 the government of Nicaragua have strengthened our fight against drugs and this fight has been clearly recognised by international organisations and the drugs dealers are thinking twice before they try to pass their drugs through Nicaragua. But we are victims of that international drug dealing and we are working hard against it. I think that more drugs circle through the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua probably than through the Caribbean Coast. Anyhow, we have that stereotype and we are working against that because we will never accept it. Because you know the people here in Bluefields, the people here on the Caribbean Coast work very hard for what they have. Sometimes a lot of our families, a lot of people from the Caribbean Coast, have their family working overseas, they work on ship, they work twelve months without come home to see their family and when they get a vacation of four weeks or five weeks, they come and pass with their family. So sometimes people can’t understand how a family is living relatively ok if no-one in that home is working or they don’t see anyone working but maybe two of the children are working on the ship out there and sending that remittance home monthly. And to work on a ship is a very tough job. A lot of our people, I could tell you that at least, just from Bluefields, 5,000 families have their children working on ship and sending money home to 5,000 families basically. This is just people working on ship, I mean there are a lot of families working hard overseas, working in people’s houses, cleaning people’s houses etcetera to send some money home and it is hard work. So you know, we can’t accept that our people working so hard to send money home and that people could just say that maybe these families are living from drug dealing. It is true that we have problems and you have a few people, very few people, and we need to work against that system, that system of drug trafficking through our country and through our Caribbean Coast. And we are doing it and we are being effective and I hope that sooner than later we can eradicate this drugs trafficking through our country.
They are the most, the strongest power on the face of the earth and they always showing how mighty and strong they are and why they don’t do anything to stop this drugs business?!
Definitely if the United States government would do something to stop all this big amount of drugs that they are buying, because they buy all the drugs. Them buy million and million and millions of dollars worth of drugs from Colombia for example. And I think the United States government could stop that. They are the most, the strongest power on the face of the earth and they always showing how mighty and strong they are and why they don’t do anything to stop this drugs business? This will help maybe the whole world, it would help at least this hemisphere, it would help this continent of America, if them should just do something to stop buying drugs. United States is the only country in this whole continent that buy drugs! They are the principal drugs buyer in this continent and you think they can’t do nothing about that?! I mean, it is ugly to make a comparison but after God – God is the strongest thing exists right? And we respect God – after God is United States government! And them can’t do it but I don’t know why – I have never heard a good explanation of why they don’t just say ‘no more drugs coming into our country’ and all the problem will finish, right there. But them like to point their hand at other countries, at other people, and they don’t accept their responsibility with putting all the money, not just the buying, they finance the planting, they finance the guys that plant, that grow these drugs and well they are the owners of the drugs when it come out. All them say ‘we don’t plant it, we only buy it’. Well, they are the ones that into this whole thing and I would love to see that someday that they do something more efficient, more effective. I am convinced that they can do it, with they power that they have they should be doing something.
Nicaragua gets scant attention in the mainstream media. And when it does, the portrayal of the country is usually negative. Two of the main culprits are Tim Rogers, who writes for the Nica Times, a Costa Rican published paper, who work is syndicated in US newspapers like the Miami Herald and the Christian Science Monitor, and Rory Carroll, who can regularly be read in the Guardian putting the boot into Nicaragua, Venezuela, and any other left wing country that he happens to land in.
Rogers latest contribution to international understanding was posted on the BBC today, Drugs Dilemma on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. The drugs problem on the Coast is real, and started when Colombia began using the Caribbean Coast as a staging point during the Contra War. Anyone with eyes can see the effect that drugs has had on the Coast, and the influx of money spent on lavish dwellings and lifestyles which are otherwise in short supply in the poorest region of Nicaragua.
Drugs, though, are only one story on the Coast. Rogers article quotes people and organisations the Campaign has met during our visits there over the past two decades, including the Council of Elders. Without being too harsh, you have to doubt the political judgment of an organisation which thinks it can achieve its separatist demands by petitioning Hillary Clinton and the Queen. The other main body representing the Miskitu people is the political party, YATAMA. Made up of men (and women) who fought in the Contra War, they have shared power in the region, have stood in a Coalition with the Sandinistas, but YATAMA members have also led protests against the Sandinista Government. YATAMA doesn’t get a mention in Rogers’ article.
One of the outstanding achievements of the current Government on the Coast is moving towards demarcating all communal land. The work, which has taken four years, have ensured the rights of indigenous people over land more than the size of Wales. Someone who has looked at issues on the Coast over the past decade is Luciano Baracco. His latest book, which he edits, National Integration and Contested Autonomy, examines the history of the region, bringing the story up to date. The chapters on the demarcation law are particularly valuable, describing the process, the outcome, and also some of the challenges that remain.
The prose might not be as flowery or as exciting as the Central American ‘orientalism’ practised by Rogers and Carroll, but it will give you a much better understanding. Better to invest your time in back issues of Envio!