Tensions remained high this week in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) following an outbreak of rioting that left more than a dozen people injured – including several in critical condition with gushot wounds.
The rioting occurred April 4 between government and anti-government groups that clashed over the fate of the upcoming municipal elections in the RAAN.
President Daniel Ortega and his regional Miskito allies, a group called YATAMA, have argued that conditions still don’t exist to hold elections in the municipalities of Bilwi, Prinzapolka and Waspam, following the devastation caused by last year’s category-five Hurricane Felix. The opposition movement, lead by an indigenous splinter group called “YATAMA No Sandinista,” claims the Sandinistas only want to stall the elections because they are afraid they’ll lose their mayoral seats in the region (NT, April 4).
The Supreme Elections Council (CSE), however, sided with Ortega and ruled April 4 to suspend the vote until April 2009 in the three municipalities controlled by the Sandinista-YATAMA alliance.
Opposition indigenous leaders in the Caribbean released a statement saying they didn’t recognize the CSE’s decision and insist that elections be held on the originally scheduled date in November. The indigenous group also accused CSE President Roberto Rivas of being Ortega’s “marionette” and declared him persona non-grata in the RAAN.
In Managua, the CSE’s decision has also caused an uproar.
“This is in violation of the Constitution and the Electoral Law, which clearly state that municipal elections have to be held every four years,” said analyst Alejandro Serrano.
Another group of indigenous leaders from Waspam, a remote indigenous community by the Honduran border, claim the Sandinistas’ real motive for suspending the elections is so they can wrap up some murky timber concessions to international lumber companies before they’re voted out of power.
Osorno “Comandante Blas” Coleman, leader of the anti-government indigenous group YATAMA No Sandinista, told The Nica Times this week there is a real possibility of renewed violence in the RAAN as rumors spread that the Sandinista Front is planning to arm its supporters in the region.
Coleman said his group, which he claims is more than 5,000 strong, is unarmed, but will “defend itself” if they have to.
He also said that YATAMA No Sandinista plans to stage more demonstrations in the days to come, by blocking roads and taking over government buildings, to “obligate” authorities to hold elections in November.
On the group’s list, he said, is the local police station, from where his group plans to “liberate” the 17 protesters arrested during last weekend’s rioting.
“Police have not captured anyone who was shooting guns, instead they are only going after the victims,” Coleman said in a phone interview from Bilwi. “This is a political persecution.”
A Day of Rioting
The April 4 rioting was touched off when a group of 80 or so YATAMA Sandinista supporters got news that a military plane carrying three opposition Liberal party lawmakers – including former contra Enrique Quiñónez – was due to arrive at the Bilwi airport to meet with members of the community who are opposed to the Sandinista government.
When the plane arrived, the YATAMA supporters surround the runway, reportedly with stones and machetes, to prevent the lawmakers from getting off the plane. But when the larger group of Liberal supporters waiting in the park got wind of what was going on at the airport, they went to the lawmakers’ rescue – sparking the violent clash with the Sandinista supporters.
During the altercation, at least two members of YATAMA No Sandinista were shot –including one at close range in the head – while others were injured with rocks fired from slingshots.
Coleman says the gunshots came from the YATAMA group headed by Brooklyn Rivera, a former anti-Sandinista militant who formed a controversial electoral alliance with Ortega in 2006 in exchange for a seat in the National Assembly. Rivera, meanwhile, says the violence and rioting was incited by the three visiting Liberal lawmakers, who he says worked up the crowd with liquor and drugs and then gave them guns – a claim Quiñónez denies.
“There was no violence in the community before they came,” Rivera told The Nica Times.
Rivera last Friday filed a criminal complaint against Quiñónez for instigating the violence, and the National Police sent a high-level delegation from Managua out to the Caribbean coast by helicopter to investigate.
Quiñónez, meanwhile, said he and the other two Liberal lawmakers went to the coast simply to listen to residents’ concerns about the situation under the Sandinista government.
“The same ones who tried to persecute and exterminate the people on the Atlantic coast in the 1980s are, with their YATAMA allies, again trying to take away the right of the coastal population to have free elections,” Quiñónez said of the Sandinistas.
While a war of words and finger pointing goes on in Managua, back on the Caribbean coast the violence is now being used as another reason to justify the Sandinistas’ call to suspend the elections.
“This is evidence that we are right. How can you have elections under these circumstances?” Rivera demanded.