San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Violence Rocks Atlantic Coast

The Caribbean port town of Bilwi woke up Tuesday morning to torrential rains and a desolate yet tense calm on the streets, following a day of violent clashes between Miskito separatists, riot police and Sandinista followers determined to defend their political power against independence claims.

One 85-year-old Miskito elder died after inhaling tear gas fired by riot police guarding the regional government headquarters, which the separatists attempted to take  over as part of their assertion to an independent Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia. Dozens more were injured or arrested, according to separatists leaders, who originally reported two deaths but later changed the number to one.

Two military helicopters carrying reinforcements from Managua arrived in Bilwi Monday night – a show of state force that, for some, provoked haunting images of past Sandinista military repression in the 1980s.

“This is practically psychological repression; they enter at night with helicopters and we don’t know what they are doing. This is the same thing they did in the ‘80s,” said Guillermo Espinosa, the Miskito Nation’s appointed minister of defense, in a phone interview from Bilwi.

Espinosa said the separatist movement has heard rumors that there are plans to kidnap their Wihta-Tara, or “Great Judge,” and other leaders of the Miskito nation. He told The Nica Times Tuesday that the Wihta-Tara, a local reverend named Héctor Williams, and the other Miskito leaders had been taken to a safe house.

“This is a state of siege; the Wihta-Tara cannot go out of the house in his own land. He is in (a virtual) jail,” Espinosa said.

Shortly before going into hiding, the Wihta-Tara told The Nica Times in a phone interview Monday evening that the situation is the regional capital of Bilwi is “very serious.”

He said a group of “8,000 separatists” marched peacefully on Bilwi Monday morning to assert their claim to independence, but were attacked by teargas and bullets fired by riot police, as well as rocks thrown by “drunken Sandinista thugs” trying to defend the regional government controlled by their party.

“This is not over yet, and I don’t know how this night is going to end, or what Bilwi will be like tomorrow,” Williams said in a phone interview. “Their plan is to massacre, destroy and exterminate us, but the people are defending themselves with their fingernails and rocks.”

Other, non-separatist sources in Bilwi confirmed the violence, but said the separatist group numbered closer to 1,000 or 2,000, not the 8,000 claimed by Williams. Still, the source said, the number of indigenous separatists continued to grow throughout the day as more Miskitos arrived in town from the surrounding communities, until the military allegedly blocked the roads into town, according to Defense Minister Espinosa.

By Monday evening, the separatists had allegedly gathered some 3,000 supporters, easily outnumbering the Sandinista loyalists and riot police combined.

Monday’s clash with the riot police occurred around 1 p.m., about 50 meters outside of the regional government building.

Though President Daniel Ortega gave specific orders earlier this year that the police are not to use tear gas on Nicaraguans, the riot police reportedly fired dozens of canisters of tear gas at the protesters, and chased the indigenous demonstrators as the fled, firing at them indiscriminately.

The Nica Times tried to get comment from the National Police, but Commissioner Vilma Reyes, spokeswoman for the National Police, curtly said she had “no information” about the situation, and quickly got off the phone.

Non-separatist Bilwi residents interviewed by The Nica Times confirmed that police fired tear gas at the crowd, many of whom were members of the indigenous council of elders and who were reportedly carrying white flags. One government worker, who wished to remain unidentified, said the Sandinistas were trying to force state employees to take to the streets to stop the separatist march – an order he said he refused because he saw it as a clear violation of the country’s Labor Code.

“The situation here is horrible,” the source said. “There is violence and injuries and all the businesses are closed and the windows are boarded up as if a hurricane was coming – a human hurricane, which is even more dangerous.”

Espinosa said that his movement will continue to protest peacefully, but warned that there is only so much repression people can take.

“If they are going to mistreat us, we won’t allow it,” he warned. “We are going forward on independence.”

No International Backing

Culminating a process that started with a proposal in 2002, the Miskito Council of Elders announced the rebirth of the Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia on April 19, 2009, claiming that their right to succession is established by international treaties and laws protecting indigenous self-determination.

Their claim to independence, they said, marks the rebirth of the Mosquito Coast.

“People have been waiting and waiting for this for 115 years. But everything has its moment,” the Wihta-Tara said at the time, referring to 1894, when the Mosquito Coast first lost its nationhood status.

The independence leaders gave the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega six months to hand over power, and a deadline was set for Oct. 19 – the day of this week’s violent clashes. In the meantime, the separatist leaders sent letters to the United Nations, the United States government and the Queen of England, looking for recognition and support. They got backing from international indigenous groups, but no one else.

“We have no international backing at the moment, that’s the problem,” Espinosa said. “The UN hasn’t declared anything yet, and we are here defending international law,” the defense minister insisted. “Is the law of the UN valid or not?”

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