Since the announcement of the first COVID-19 case in Nicaragua on March 18, nearly 20 communities, mainly indigenous and Afro-descendant, have declared themselves in self-quarantine or confinement. The inability of state institutions and the government's unwillingness to take action to control the spread and effects of the pandemic in the country, add to the conditions of social exclusion and inequality that already existed in these populations.
These acts of self-protection once again highlight the historical reality of abandonment experienced by Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities throughout the country. The State, its institutions, and even the private sector not only abandon these communities, but they are also the originators of most of their vulnerabilities.
The country's indigenous and Afro-descendant communities consistently denounce that they do not have direct voices in political and decision-making spaces, making them null and void in the face of the actions being taken, or should betaken, in the context of the pandemic of the new coronavirus or in the face of any other local or national crisis.
"You still hear the gunshots and people haven't forgotten their dead, although now there are new victims. They are victims of the virus and dictatorship," says Mauricio, a 24-year-old who self-identifies as Ocanxiu indigenous and who lives in the hard-hit neighborhood of Sutiaba, León. "The Government is more interested in repressing the most vulnerable and shutting up dissenting voices. In Sutiaba, and I am sure in other neighborhoods and communities, neither the MINSA - Ministry of Health - nor any other institution has ever arrived to collect information or at least to speak about the virus that is killing us," added the young man, who has been renamed to protect his identity due to the escalation of violence and siege against former political prisoners and other individuals not related with the government across the country.
In the context of the pandemic, with great courage and effort, several independent media outlets in the country portrayed how indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, mainly from the Caribbean Coast, confront the new coronavirus and other life-threatening conditions that impact the elderly people of many families alone and without basic resources. In the Pacific region of the country, the story is no less dramatic or painful.
"I was afraid to arrive at the Osman Rios -Health Post in Sutiaba - because I didn't know if I was going to leave sicker if I was going to be withhold a lot of time because of the confinement," says a merchant living in the Sutiaba neighborhood and working in a popular area of León, a municipality that has already reports more than 130 suspicious deaths by Covid-19 according to data from the Covid-19 Citizen Observatory in Nicaragua, which has served as an alternative to documenting the impact of the pandemic and is a reference for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Enrique Beteta, an official at MINSA, said that at the at the end of 2019 more than 5,200 citizens had been cared for at that health center in Sutiaba. When attempting to obtain information on the number of cases and persons attended for Covid-19 at that medical center, local workers simply told the Conyuntura team that "that information can be obtained from the Ministry [of Health]".
Mauricio claims that at the end of July the virus was spreading in a zone of the city with many street food establishments. "In my house we have been taking care of ourselves since before the firstcase because we knew that the government would do nothing. Since I am the stubborn one in the family, I went to lunch with a friend because I was tired of being locked up, and five days later it turns out I lose my senses of smell and taste. I isolated myself in my room and there I became ill," said the young man, who also said that in hospitals they work with "stealth, but not professional".
"I arrived because I was so sick. Hardly anyone dares to go to the hospitals, but I did it because I was so afraid. At HEODRA -Hospital Escuela Oscar Danilo Rosales Argoello - it's all silence and fear. Three days after my consultation I received a call from MINSA and was only asked 'how I feel'," Mauritius added.
Conyuntura requested information from the HEODRA medical team on the number of cases, the conditions of people still in the Covid-19 unit, and the aggregated data on the indigenous population served during the pandemic. Once again we were redirected to MINSA.
The situation in Sébaco, Matagalpa, home to many indigenous families in the center of the country, is similar to that of Sutiaba. "We have been told—by MINSA and the mayor’s office—that we must keep this information—on covid-19 contagions—exclusively within the administration. The workers themselves are afraid of being fired and in the city's health posts no data are shared on anything," says Maria, a private clinic worker in the municipality, who called for anonymity for fear of losing her job.
"Here we have received a few cases of indigenous people, most of them 40 years or older, who had to come by their own means," says Maria, demonstrating the inaction on the part of local and national authorities to the protect the country's most vulnerablt community. The Citizen Observatory reports to date 13 deaths from the new coronavirus in the municipality of Sébaco.
More than 100 KM from Sébaco is the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó, Masaya, a place the feels frozen in time. Tourism has declined almost entirely, crime is increasing and the virus seems to spread without stopping. Meanwhile, the official media highlights "the advances of the Nicaraguan Autonomy Process, emphasizing the government's actions to confront Covid-19 through the Family and Community Health Model", even though Ortega has yet to implement any extraordinary measures to protect that particular population or the country at large. Masaya, a bastion of the Sandanista revolution, home to an indigenous community and one of the civic centers of the so-called "April rebellion,” counts 158 deaths and more than 600 cases of Covid-19, according to data from the Citizen Observatory.
The efforts of the country's indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to survive and confront the various crises throughout their histories has been a lonely journey. National and international agencies, including the Oakland Institute, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others, documented a cruder, unequal, and violent reality in recent years.
One of the main streets of the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó in Masaya
Photo of Coyuntura by Jairo Videa
The Oakland Institute published a report in early August of this year entitled "Nicaragua: A Failed Revolution: The Indigenous Struggle for Sanitation", which documented the new threats covid-19 has brought to indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants of the country, and how the Government "encourages the colonization of its territories", mainly on the Caribbean Coast, in the midst of the pandemic.
"Since January 2020, ten people from the Mayangna and Miskitu communities in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) have been killed, bringing the total number of murders since 2011 to 46. Dozens of people have been injured, abducted, and disappeared, and thousands displaced due to land invasions. Nicaraguan state functionaries are complicit in the illegal sale of land and in the police, repression perpetrated by the state against communities that resist dispossession," states the Oakland Institute report.
Hunger and poverty; the lack of drinking water, food, medicines and medical personnel; unpunished violence from settlers; forced displacement; deforestation and the advancement of the agricultural frontier; lack of decent jobs; violence against women and children; drug trafficking; natural disasters; repression by the National Police and paramilitary groups. The list of ills for indigenous and Afro-descendant communities seems to be without end.
On the Caribbean Coast, home to countless indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, the State's investment in the local population seems to "vanish into the air," according to allegations of community leaders consulted by Coyuntura.
The Government, settlers, and the armed forces of the State are the main culprits in the face of increased killings against indigenous leaders and settlers in the Caribbean area. "Settlers and indigenous people are pieces of perverse game of chess between local and extra-regional power groups. We found scenes of this battle in Bosawás. For those in power there are no 'good' or 'bad', there are only useful or useless according to your conjunctural interests," says a September 2016 publication of Revista Envío.
The repression and abandonment of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on the Caribbean Coast is most evident with the pandemic. Although Ortega and his officials have denied the impact that Covid-19 has had on the country, the Autonomous Regions suffer the reality of the destructive force of this silent virus, which does not stop its advance and hits the most vulnerable particularly strongly.
To date, the Citizen Observatory records 190 cases and 91 deaths in the Autonomous Region of the North Caribbean Coast, while in the Autonomous Region of the Southern Caribbean Coast reports 243 cases and 69 deaths by Covid-19.
Women in Kakabali, south Caribbean Coast
Photo of Flickr by Fernweh Reise
In the context of the pandemic, the state's inaction has prevented the accurate documentation of the impact of covid-19 in the most vulnerable areas of the country, including Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. President Ortega, for his part, called the pandemic a divine sign (sent by God himself) and assured that "transnational forces that only want to take control of the planet" are "a sin."
Faced with these statements, Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, said, "Your own government has made deals with Canadian, British, Australian and Colombian mining companies that are exploiting the country's mineral wealth at the expense of indigenous livelihoods."
Nora Newball, representative of the Alliance of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Peoples of Nicaragua (APIAN), within the framework of the 172nd Session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), highlighted how the State has seriously harmed forests with the deforestation caused by Alba-Forestal company and "the imposition of the Great Interocean Canal." In addition, the advocate and political leader explained how the private sector also exploits all kinds of natural resources throughthe expansion of the North African palm, the advancement of the agricultural frontier, extensive livestock farming, increased mining activity, and fisheries.
Between January and March 2020, Nicaragua's Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) reported the export of more than 73,000.00 troy ounces of gold and more than 190,000.00 troy ounces of silver (almost double what was exported throughout 2008 -110,621.05 troy ounces of silver). Mining is and will continue to be a trigger for violence against the country's Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, mainly on the Caribbean Coast.
Although Law No. 445 states that the historical rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities prevail over titles granted in favor of third parties, the State of Nicaragua and its officials have given concessions and approved "development programs" that allow the exploitation of land on the Caribbean Coast and the aggravation of the abandonment experienced by the residents of the Caribbean Coast.
Instead of contributing to the general development of localities, livestock, and mining, the extraction policy implemented by the Government, not only disregards the territories and historical rights of communities, but also allow the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. Proof of this are the thousands of hectares granted to various companies throughout the national territory.
List of Concessions of HEMCO NICARAGUA S.A. - 2014 Financial Report of Mineros S.A.
For its part, the livestock industry "has been in Nicaragua for more than four hundred years, arriving with the Spanish conquistadors, and soon became a key part of the country's culture and economy. The 1960s and 1970s saw the largest increase in cattle breeding. With the support of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the agri-export industry in Nicaragua expanded substantially to meet consumer trends in the United States. Funding was provided through government-promoted programs to encourage the growth of the 'national herd', the expansion of grasslands, and the agro-industrial development of livestock products. Between 1963 and 1971, livestock grew by 46 percent, accompanied by 31 percent growth in the total grassland area," says the Oakland Institute report.
As if that were not enough, these “pro-development” policies have a latent impact on the environment. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) reported through its Atlas of Forest Cover and Deforestation in Nicaragua (1969 - 2015) that between 2005 and 2015, the national territory has lost more than one million hectares of forest.
Loss of tree cover in Nicaragua, between 2001 and 2019 - Images from Global Forest Watch (GFW)
According to Nicaragua's last Population and Housing Census in 2005, 443,847 people self-identified as indigenous or Afro-descendants in the country, the majority being Miskitu (120,817 people), Mestizo —a category created by the State— (112,253 people), Chorotega (46,002 people), Sutiaba, Ocanxiu (19,949 people), Matagalpa or Cacaopera (15,240 people), among other ethnic groups in the urban and rural sector.
Currently, there is no up-to-date data on these communities and several public health and development experts say that this information could contribute to the creation of pandemic mitigation strategies. In turn, it is also important to generate information for these opulations in their native languages. "There are communities that are estimated to simply disappear; for that reason, it is the important to produce information to prevent the transmission of the virus in indigenous languages," says Paulo Sassarao, Representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Nicaragua.
Although MINSA is the only institution capable of obtaining all the necessary data to keep the population informed and for the Government to improve national containment and control strategies against the new coronavirus, the institution and its entire work apparatus have decided to ignore the reality and those suffering from it. Proof of this is that, to date, the largest health entity in the country has not published any information directed at the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of the country, in their own languages.
In addition, MINSA has become the main source of disinformation about Covid-19 because the general data presented in its weekly communiqués is confusing, not detailed, and lacks information to analyze pandemic impacts.
For the Molecular Biologist and current Vice-Chancellor General of the Central American University (UCA), Jorge A. Huete, "the coronavirus has exposed the tragic reality that we live today in Nicaragua. We are before authorities with an anachronistic and a-scientific view of the world, with a predatory view of nature, with an opportunistic and economistic vision in the face of a problem that is their responsibility to solve because it affects the whole of society. We are before authorities acting on their own interests, regardless of those of the nation. Coronavirus has exposed that the priority of these authorities is to stay in power and maintain their power with control and repression."
The Statute of Autonomy of the Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, created by the National Assembly, establishes in Art. 33 "a special social development and promotion fund, from internal and external resources and other non-budgeted, extraordinary income, which will be earmarked for productive social and cultural investments controlled by the Autonomous Regions". Despite this, the few public documents that exist demonstrate fragile, ineffective, and almost non-existent investment, both from the State and in the non-governmental initiatives and projects.
According to Law No. 1010, Annual Law on General Budget of the Republic 2020, these were the only three non-profit organizations that received a grant for projects directly related to the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of Nicaragua, or to a municipality with that population:
• Association of Municipalities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (AMURACAN): 1,000,000.00, divided into institutional strengthening (C$ 300,000.00) and the LXIX Atlantic Baseball Series 2020 in the municipality of Mulukukú (C$ 700,000.00).
• Federation of Differently-Abled Women (FEMUCADI): C$ 150,000.00, as support for technical education to be developed in 10 municipalities (Corinthian, Chinandega, El Viejo, Juigalpa, Acoyapa,Sandino City, Jinotega, Waslala,LaDalia and Rio San Juan).
• Carlos Fonseca Amador People's Education Association (AEPCFA): C$ 300,000.00, to support the Comprehensive Health, Production and Popular Education Project on Rama Cay Island.
Throughout his tenure, Ortega has endorsed the culture of hiding public information and data. To this day, it is not known for sure how many economic resources the State has allocated for the mitigation of Covid-19 and its impact on the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of the country,or in any other sector or population of Nicaragua.
"The Government of Nicaragua shows serious fiscal transparency violations: the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit has not created on its website a specific section or module for the guidance of public spending and purchases made, nor has it published reports on fiscal decisions to address the pandemic, so little official communications should be consulted. Nor has the government issued guidelines or for transparency in emergency-associated purchases. With regard to access to information, the exercise of this right remains unprotected, as the guarantor authority established in the law of the matter, the National Commission for Access to Public Information, remains disintegrated and there are no protection measures or means for compliance with the existing legal framework. The Office of the Attorney General does not have a specific website with up-to-date information on its actions to monitor the execution of resources to deal with the pandemic; while the Central Bank of Nicaragua has not published information containing analysis of the economic impact of the pandemic, nor has it reported on the actions taken during the emergency," the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi) said in a press release published on May 29th, 2020.
Four months after that publication, the State of Nicaragua has not yet shown interest in sharing timely and aggregated information on the pandemic, including covid-19 cases and monetary capital made available; instead, more international organizations have joined the call for government to release official information on Covid-19, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).
For the present work, as a way of corroborating the work of the Legislative Power, Coyuntura attempted to communicate through various avenues with the Committee on The Affairs of The Aboriginal Peoples, Afro-descendants and Autonomous Regimes of the National Assembly of Nicaragua; these requests for communication were not answered by either the Commission or any of its members (members and deputies of the Constitutional Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Sandinista Front). Entities such as the National Assembly, the MINSA and the Nicaraguan Army should be tending to these and other vulnerable communities in the country.
Part of the Commission for Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants and Autonomous Regimes of the National Assembly of Nicaragua
Photo of National Assembly of Nicaragua
At the 172nd Session of the IACHR, Nora Newball of APIAN, presented the political situation of the indigenous and Afro-descendant sector of the country, and how the Nicaraguan State has gradually neutralized civic and political leadership. "In the recent Autonomous Elections of 2019, the participation of the indigenous and ethnic population has decreased due to the increase in the invasion of settlers. 95.5% of councillors belong to national parties and only 4.5% belong to the Indigenous party," he said.
Another sign that the political disintegration of the country's indigenous and Afro-descendant communities on the national and local level is the subsistence of YATAMA (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka): the country's only indigenous political party, founded in 1987 after the reunification of various Miskitas political-military organizations fighting the Sandinista government of the FSLN.
But it is not only the Government that invalidates the demands and participation of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. "We have seen that all the political organizations from Pacific region want to be the center of opposition leadership. Everyone feels that the need for the opposition to be close to them and that's a mistake; we all need each other and each of us is complementary to the other. There are people who say that in the Coalition there is a hegemony of political parties and that is false. There are only three political parties -PLC, PRD and YATAMA-. Then there are the movements and civil society - National Blue and White Unit, Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, Peasant Movement and Nicaraguan Democratic Force. But the people of the [Caribbean] Coast see it differently; we just see six Pacific organizations and only one from the [Caribbean] Coast. The Peasant Movement is from the canal strip and that counts for the Pacific," said George Henríquez, YATAMA's delegate to the National Coalition, during an interview with Conyuntura.
"The participation of the Regions through a political party has not been part of the culture and customs of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Our system of choice for leadership is through community and territorial assemblies; their candidacies are launched by ethnicity, and not through a political party, therefore, from 199 to 2002 YATAMA was a political movement and was usually aligned with the the Liberal and later with the Sandinistas. As a purely regional party, our political impact is limited to both regions. In order to participate in the national we must have structures in all the municipalities of the country, but the Electoral Law limits us. That's why we can't put forward presidential candidates. Moreover, this electoral law prevents us from being elected according to cultures and customs. That has been a hindrance to the processes of participation in the Coast," Henríquez added.
For its part, in the center of the country, the indigenous community and the Sébaco Council of Elders has twice denounced (December 2013 and March 2018) "the disrespect to the internal and legal rules governing the electoral processes of the indigenous community." On both occasions there is one common factor: Luis Antonio Martínez Medal (Mayor of Sébaco).
In 2018, Víctor Manuel Chavarría Dávila denounced that the Mayor of Sébaco selected "provisionally and in detail" the Board of Directors of the indigenous community, disrespecting the Election of December 18, 2017, where Chavarría assured that he was elected as President. The same thing happened in 2013, when the Council of Elders protested Medal's illegal call for elections earlier than established by community laws and statutes.
These political barriers, amid then country's pandemic and political processes, prevent indigenous and Afro-descendant populations from participating in decision-making for their own protection and development.
The political culture and the system that has historically governed Nicaragua are designed to exclude the most vulnerable populations in the country, which prevents their auto-determination.
Have the State and decision-makers (including political parties and private enterprise) ever wondered why the participation of the country's indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in political spaces is necessary?
If such questioning has arisen, the answer is simple: "Because we want to live better; we want to reduce the gaps that distance us from the rest of society. We want access to health, access to education, access to credit," says Myrna Cunningham, current President of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).
Moreover, in order to achieve equity in the country, it is necessary that the participation of these communities to include representation of Women. "Women are the first transmitters of the culture and life of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Women need to be at the front line of decision-making about how they want their lives to be like in the future," says Rose Cunningham, Founder and Director of Wangki Tangni.
"We really started to participate because we wanted to promote a strategy of articulation with States, which would change a relationship of oppression. Our goal is to transform States to truly become multi-ethnic or intercultural states," Myrna added.
Historically, civil society has been the only sector that has been present in some way in the lives of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities through reports, national and international complaints, and studies that have helped to highlight the need for public policies in favor the country's most vulnerable communities.
"You have to be where they make decision on our lives" - Rose Cunningham