Ethnic Exclusion in Nicaragua: Ongoing Challenges to Democratic Consolidation

The Miskitos are an indigenous group, residing on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, that continue to face marginalization and mistreatment by the national government. They have enjoyed an increasing level of autonomy since the 1860 Treaty of Managua, in which Great Britain ceded a part of the Atlantic coastline to Nicaragua. As a result, the Nicaraguan government designated the region a Miskito reserve, endowing the ethnic group with certain semi-sovereign rights.

In the 1980’s the leftist government led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) fought for influence over the region, taking such actions as limiting the sale of turtle meat, a traditional part of local cuisine and one of the main sources of Miskito economic livelihood. The Miskitos responded to this infringement by forming guerrilla groups (not to be confused with the right-wing contras) at the forefront of armed resistance to the FSLN. The indigenous group cites the prohibition of turtle meat as a major impulse for the creation of their own independent nation.

In “An Independence Claim in Nicaragua,” journalists Blake Schmidt and Marc Lacey highlight the tense relationship between the Nicaraguan government and the Miskitos.

 “The Council of Elders of the Miskito people has an extensive list of grievances. For as long as local residents can remember, the federal government has allowed outside companies to exploit the raw materials in their jungle territory — everything from lobster to lumber to gold.” [1]

As a result, separatists seized control of the headquarters of YATAMA (the local ruling party, which stands for “sons of mother earth” in the Miskito language), and declared the territory’s independence on April 19, 2009. [2] Héctor Williams, leader of the separatist movement, has cited everything from “devastating hurricanes and rat plagues to a mysterious disease known as grisi siknis, which is marked by collective bouts of hysteria,” as some of the problems that the Miskitos continue to endure. [3]

Daniel Ortega, the current President of Nicaragua, led the FSLN since the end of the 1970’s. The separatists’ distrust of Ortega stems not only from a lackluster response to Hurricane Felix’s coastal devastation in 2007, but also from civil war veterans who did not receive the assistance Ortega promised during his presidential campaign. [4] Schmidt and Lacey further point out that, while government officials discourage the separatist movement, they recognize that Managua could have responded in a more effective manner. [5]

In Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, two well known political scientists, examine the unique challenges that are involved with democratic transitions in multi-ethnic societies. They maintain that if the goal is a successful democratic consolidation, the proponents of democracy must carefully take into account the mixture of cultures, communities, and political identities that are present in the territory. The idea of “stateness,” or the concept that the population or populations must feel they belong to a settled political community, is particularly useful in the case of Nicaragua. [6] This article intends to examine how the exclusion of the Miskito people, on various levels, has contributed to an incomplete democratic transition.

Measuring Democracy in Nicaragua

The traditional Western concept of democracy is generally equated with a republican representative democracy; however, there is a tendency towards a more participatory form of government in developing countries. [7] In their article “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: A New Approach,” political scientists Michael Coppedge and John Gerring highlight various indicators useful for measuring democracy. One must recognize, however, that although Nicaragua fails to meet all of the democratic criteria, it does meet some. Coppedge and Gerring also provide various categories of democracy, some of which apply to Nicaragua more than others. Thus, it is important to characterize Nicaraguan democracy not as non-existent, but rather as incomplete. Two main indicators that are missing in the case of the Miskitos are: access to resources, and recognition of formal rights. Resource accessibility is defined as: the distribution and accessibility of resources such as income, education, and health as qualities that are due to the body of citizens. The second indicator refers to the ways in which underprivileged ethnic groups (defined by their race, religion, caste, or other ascribed characteristics) are given formal rights of suffrage and the power to participate in government. [8]

Nicaragua’s democratic transition should therefore be measured by the presence of resource equality and representation of underprivileged ethnic groups – in this case the Miskitos. According to Coppedge and Gerring, these indicators fall under the egalitarian form of democracy, which would ideally achieve equal political representation, participation, protection of civil liberties, and protection of resources such as income, education, and health. One could even say that the delegation of resources, to a certain extent, is an extension of political power and vice versa, as it is difficult to gain political power without resources and resources bereft of political power. It is difficult to imagine that any system of government could be enjoyed by all citizens when resources and opportunities are not equally accessible. Political equality therefore presumes social and economic equality. The exclusion of the Miskitos is evident on all levels—social, political, and economic.

Levels of Miskito Exclusion

Nicaragua’s ethnic minorities suffer a dual form of discrimination: ethnic oppression and exploitation based on social class. The Miskitos find themselves in the lowest part of the local ethnic hierarchy, taking the least desirable and lowest-paying jobs. In the gold mines of Bonanza, [9] for example, Miskitos have always been relegated to the most dangerous and strenuous tasks in the mine shafts, where they suffer the highest rates of silicosis, a debilitating and permanent pulmonary disease. The Miskitos also take poorly paid agriculture jobs, and suffer from high rates of illiteracy and alcoholism.

The class hierarchy has always been accompanied by ethnic polarization and racial prejudice, and many indigenous people on the Atlantic coast find themselves victims of blatant racism. [10] Such patterns of interethnic domination are solidly rooted in the lower rankings of local class structure and cannot be quickly eliminated by decree. [11] Such hierarchies extend throughout Latin America and mimic the class structure found during the colonial period. In Nicaragua, old habits die hard.

Geographically one can observe several trends in Nicaragua in terms of social exclusion, namely regional disparities—specifically between Atlantic and Pacific population concentrations—and inequality among urban and rural regions. [12] While these tendencies are commonly found in the majority of developing countries, Nicaragua continues to experience high levels of urbanization, [13] along with the lowest population density in Central America. [14] Furthermore, the Miskitos live at a meeting point between Anglophone and Hispanic worlds. The east coast of Nicaragua, with its English-speaking minorities, have a long history at the periphery of the Spanish Empire. [15] These statistics serve to demonstrate that, combined with the added isolation along the remote east coast of the country, the opportunities for inclusion are drastically lower than elsewhere. In this context, it is as if the Miskitos were destined for exclusion not only on the basis of their racial makeup and ethnicity, but also from their language, culture, and geographic location.

Not surprisingly, this marginalization remains true on the Nicaraguan political stage as well. It manifests itself throughout all levels of government, from local to national. In spite of democratic transitions in Central America, there is still a perceived sense of increasing corruption. [16] Moreover, many Nicaraguans are forced to bribe officials in order to obtain access to basic services, especially within higher spheres of inclusion than those available to the Miskitos. [17] Given these realities, it is not difficult to imagine the lack of services in rural peripheral zones such as those in which the Miskitos tend to live, especially with the added breach between the ideological politicians in Managua and those who inhabit more rural areas.

In general, inclusion in the political system has improved both the quality of political representation and the possibility of democratic consolidation in the region. [18] The political party created by the Miskitos, YATAMA, “has allowed the Miskito people to gain representation among the local autonomous governments of the Caribbean coast. However, YATAMA does not participate in national-level elections.” [19] Since the Miskito people cannot protect their interests through the politicians in Managua, it is understandable that they should seek autonomy, through legal procedures, as evidenced by “YATAMA v. Nicaragua.” In that legal case, the Inter-American Court ruled in favor of the Miskito people, demanding that the Nicaraguan government take measures to integrate YATAMA into Nicaraguan politics. [20] They concluded, however, that Nicaragua had not completely complied with the demands of the Court by not having implemented legislation to facilitate electoral law reform.[21]

In spite of all of this, one of the principal points of contention has little to do with politics, but instead with the economy. [22] Lobster fishing is one of the main components of the Miskito economy, although the risks often outweigh the benefits for the workers. While this line of work offers the best way of making a living, many Miskitos develop health problems or even die as a result. [23]  Several companies that have hired locals have cut salaries as well, much to the dismay of the Miskitos, who blame the companies’ greed. [24] In some parts of the Atlantic coast, the unemployment rate reaches 80 percent. [25] To add insult to injury, according to an interview with a group of Miskitos performed by Al-Jazeera English in 2008, climate change has had a major impact on their already faltering economy. One Miskito man commented that the excessive rains damage his crops, and another that he feeds his family with rats. Their requests for relocation by the government have been unsuccessful.[26]

Photo source:

Implications for the Nicaraguan State

These levels of exclusion contribute to the lack of legitimacy of the national government from the point of view of many Miskitos. For this reason, they declared their independence in 2009. [27] The essence of the problem of democratic consolidation in Nicaragua is that a portion of the population feels isolated and mistreated, and therefore seeks to separate itself from the national state. Linz and Stepan argue that “modern democratic governance is inevitably tied to the state. Without the state citizenship cannot exist. Without citizenship there can be no democracy.” [28]

German political scientist Max Weber famously defined the state as “that which controls the monopoly of force over a territory.” He added that “an organization that controls the population that occupies a territory is a state.” [29] The independence of the Miskitos, justified or not, threatens the control and sovereignty of the Nicaraguan state. In this sense, democratic consolidation is not only needed to preserve human rights, but also to guarantee the national security of Nicaragua. The already transnational nature of the Miskito territory is evidenced by the fact that many Miskitos generally ignore the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. [30] Consequently, drug traffickers have taken advantage of the lack of a national presence in the peripheral areas, and the trafficking of drugs continues to reach further and further into the region. The result is a huge influx of drug money into the Miskito communities. [31]

According to the aforementioned Al-Jazeera English interview with the Miskito community, a huge source of concern is the climate which, combined with the lack of action on the part of the Nicaraguan government, could cause massive migrations from one country to another. This situation obviously has the potential to create tensions between neighbors as problems shift to the international sphere.

Another way in which the Nicaraguan government is impacted by Miskito marginalization is in the realm of human rights. The country already appears in various reports released by organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights. Therefore, in spite of the end of armed conflicts and the transition to democratic rule, it must salvage its image in the international community. Given the ongoing persecution and marginalization of other native groups in Guatemala and Honduras, Nicaragua has the potential to be a regional model regarding the poor treatment of minorities, and should take advantage of the opportunity to redeem its all-but crippled reputation.


Nicaragua is an incomplete and flawed democracy. A portion of the population and territory operate outside the control of the central government and even consider themselves an independent country. To consolidate this democracy, the Nicaraguan government must begin with concrete steps, such as complying with the “United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” together with the rulings of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights regarding “YATAMA v. Nicaragua.”

The “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” demands that the government of Nicaragua recognize the need to “respect and promote the natural rights of indigenous people which are derived from their political, economic, and social structures […] and especially their rights to their land and resources.” [32] It must also “comply with and implement all of its obligations as they apply to indigenous people […] particularly those dealing with human rights.” [33]

The “YATAMA v. Nicaragua” ruling ordered that Nicaragua “adopt in its internal laws the necessary means to create an effective and simple resource for opposition to the Supreme Electoral Court, without limits to the subject at hand.” [34] Another way to incorporate the Miskitos could be the assignment of special rights to protect their beliefs and way of life (complying with the “U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”). While there have been victories for indigenous communities, such as in December 2008 when the Nicaraguan Attorney General officially ceded land titles to the Mayagna community on the Miskito Coast, the fight for inclusion must continue. The government should relocate the Miskito people that live in areas threatened by climate change, and, if necessary, ask for international aid for the tasks that they do not have the capacity to execute.

In return for these concessions, the Miskitos should cease efforts to separate themselves from the Nicaraguan state. As Linz and Stepan point out, creating nations out of multiethnic societies is difficult through democratic means. [35] One of the only ways to do so democratically is by having all parties assimilate voluntarily. [36] Guillermo Espinozo, mayor of one of the poorest communities in Miskito territory, said that “the independence movement is about frustration and lack of opportunities for Miskitos. It all has to to do with unemployment… If you called these people and offered them jobs they would come here to work. They would immediately stop talking about independence.” [37]

The tensions between the national government and the coastal minorities have the potential to boil over into violent conflict, much as they did during the Sandinista period. Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan government continues to ignore the Miskito people, inadvertently damaging itself. Along the coast people continue to shout, “Long live independence!” [38]

William Kinney, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and with the collaboration of Allison Norris.

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[1] Blake Schmidt and Marc Lacey, “An Independence Claim in Nicaragua,” The New York Times, June 9, 2009,

[2] (Schmidt and Lacey.)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Juan Linz, and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996) 16.

[7] Susanne Jonas and Nancy Stein, “The Construction of Democracy in Nicaragua,” Latin American Perspectives 17, no. 3 (1990)

[8] Michael Coppedge and John Gerring “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: A New Approach,” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 3 (2011).

[9] A municipality in northern Nicaragua known for its mining activity.

[10] Mary Cunningham Kain, “Racism and Ethnic Discrimination in Nicaragua,” Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development, November 2006

[11] Philippe Burgois, “The Miskitu of Nicaragua: Polarized Ethnicity,” Anthropology Today 2, no. 2 (1986): 7

[12] Colburn, Forrest Colburn. Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class, and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) 26.

[13] Marci L Gerulis-Darcy, Vulnerability and the Social-Production of Disaster: Hurrican Mitch in Posoltega, Nicaragua, Diss., Northeastern University, 2008. Boston: Proquest Informaiton and Learning Company, 2008.

[14], Anne-Juliane Hünnemeyer, Ronnie De Camino, and Sabine Müller. Analysis of Sustainable Development in Central America: A Set of Indicators for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Argiculture, 1997, 68.

[15] Eliga Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled World: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery.” The American Historical Review 112, no. 3 (June 2007): 768

[16] “Evaluation of Judicial Corruption in Central America and Panama and the Mechanisms to Combat It,” Due Process of Law Foundation, 2007, 2

[17] Rikke Broegaard. “Land Tenure Insecurity and Inequality in Nicaragua,” Development and Change 36, no. 5 (2005): 858

[18] Roberta Rice, “Why Indigenous Based Parties? New Party Formation and Electoral Success in Latin America,” Diss., University of New Mexico, 2006.

[19] (Rice.)

[20] Maia Campbell, “The Right of Indigenous Peoples to Political Participation and the Case of YATAMA v. Nicaragua,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 24, no. 2 (2007): 511

[21] (Campbell)

[22] Stephen Gibbs, “Nicaragua’s Miskitos Seek Independence,” BBC News, August 3, 2009

[23] “The Price of Lobster Thermidor,” The Economist, August 21, 1997.

[24] (Gibbs.)

[25] Ibid.

[26] Teresa Bo, “Nicaragua’s Moskito Feel Force of Climate Change,” Al-Jazeera English, July 8, 2008.

[27] (Gibbs.)

[28] Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996) 28.

[29] (Linz and Stepan.)

[30] Paige Penland, Gary Chandler, and Liza Prado, Nicaragua & El Salvador, Vol. 10. Lonely Planet Productions, 2006, 236.

[31] Tim Rogers, “Drugs Dilemma on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast,” BBC News, May 10, 2011,

[32] U.N. General Assembly, “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,” October 2, 2007

[33] (U.N. General Assembly.)

[34] Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, “YATAMA v. Nicaragua,” June 23, 2005, 103

[35] (Linz and Stepan.)

[36] Ibid.

[37] (Gibbs.)

[38] Ibid.

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