Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987

Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987

Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987

Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987


A mere eighteen months after the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua in 1979, Miskitu Indians engaged in a widespread and militant anti-government mobilization. In late 1984, after more than three years of intense conflict, a negotiated transition to peace and autonomy began. This study analyzes these contrasting moments in Nicaraguan ethnic politics, drawing on four years of field research in a remote Miskitu community and in the central town of Bluefields. Fieldwork on both sides of the conflict allows the author to juxtapose Miskitu and Sandinista perspectives, to show how actors on each side understood the same events in radically different ways and how they moved gradually toward reconciliation.

Since 1894, Miskitu people have faced an expansionist nation-state and have participated as well in a U. S.-controlled enclave economy and a civil society dominated by U. S. missionaries. The cultural logic of contemporary ethnic conflict, the book argues, can be found in the legacy of Miskitu responses to this dual subordination. While resisting the Nicaraguan state, Miskitu people drew closer to the Anglo-American institutions and worldview. These inherited premises of "Anglo affinity," combined with militant ethnic demands, motivated the post-revolutionary mobilization. Sadinista revolutionary nationalism, in turn, had little tolerance for ethnic militancy, and even less for Anglo affinity. Only with autonomy negotiations did both sides begin to address these underlying causes of the conflict. Though portraying autonomy as a major step toward peaceful conflict resolution and more egalitarian ethnic relations, the nook concludes that this new political arrangement did not, and perhaps could not, fully overcome the contradictions from which it arose.

The book offers a critique of existing approaches to ethnic mobilization and to revolutionary nationalism in Central America, putting forward an alternative framework grounded in Gramscian culture theory. This permits a grasp of the combined presence of ethnic militancy and Anglo affinity in the Miskitu people's consciousness, a previously unexamined key to Miskitu collective action. The same notion of "contradictory consciousness" illuminates the Sadinistas' thought and practice: They too espoused a determined political militancy fused with assimilationist premises toward Indians, which created contradictions at the core of their egalitarian revolutionary vision.


The days are over when a cultural anthropologist from the West can travel to the Third World, with pretenses of living for a few years as an objective observer or detached scientist, and then return to write up the research. At least in Nicaragua and in the other parts of Latin America that I know, the conditions of field research have become deeply politicized. Although anthropology has been enmeshed in politics and power relations since its inception, there is a difference now: to a much greater extent the subjects of research now hold anthropologists accountable for what we do. When this occurs, one cannot avoid consciously taking on a dual role of researcher and political actor. These certainly were the ground rules under which I worked on the Atlantic Coast between 1985 and 1988. Although I did and still do subscribe to them out of conviction, they are best understood as existing irrespective of my own preferences. Because this dual role in turn influenced the methods, theoretical concerns, and analysis of this study, it is best specified from the outset.

During a year's work in Nicaragua in 1981-82, I caught the last part of the wave of euphoria that swept over the country after July 19, 1979. Popular insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship had given rise to an extraordinary burst of collective political energy: literacy and health campaigns, intense popular organizing in the city and countryside, hopeful initiatives of economic reconstruction. By early 1985, when I returned to begin dissertation research, this spontaneous energy had subsided, replaced by political resolve for many and by resignation or disillusionment for others. Ronald Reagan had just been reelected president in the United States, and the U.S.-backed contra war against Nicaragua was reaching a crescendo. Political slogans now focused on "defense of the revolution" and the implementation of a "survival economy." I quickly came to share the widespread sense of foreboding.

Ironically, one of the few glimmers of hope on the horizon came from the region where political strife and military conflict had first arisen. Just a year after coming to power, the revolutionary government had confronted serious political unrest in the Caribbean or Atlantic Coast re-

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