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The hostility between the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast was sharp during the 1980s, and many Indians joined the contra effort against that regime. They wanted little more than to be left alone, but the Sandinistas wanted to conscript them into the revolution. To the Marxist Sandinista leaders they were relics of a pre-capitalist age, and had to brought into 20th century Stalinist reality.
The Sandinistas are back in power in Nicaragua, under the same Daniel Ortega as president, so pity the poor the Indians. Once again they are government targets, and just a week ago 10 were killed. All the old problems about Sandinista interference in Miskito lives is back--but greatly exacerbated now by the canal project.
The Sandinistas have enlisted China in a project to build a new trans-Isthmus canal, at a cost of $50 billion. The project is wrapped in mystery. No one really knows where the money is coming from. No one knows why it is economically sound to build a new canal. After all, the Panama Canal has just concluded a big modernization and enlargement project. Why is the new canal needed? What we do know is that somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Indians will be displaced by this project and the environmental impact will be huge and destructive.
Daniel Ortega’s son is the liaison to the company supposedly building the canal, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group. That gives us a hint of what is more likely behind the project: money. Anyone familiar with how Sandinista leaders stole millions from the government they ran, and how wealthy most became, will recognize the pattern here. Those who have forgotten can find one good account of their piñata here, translated from a 1991 Mexican newspaper article. But just as Nicaragua’s peasant farmers never shared in the money the Sandinistas stole, and rose up against them in the contra movement, Nicaragua’s Indians will surely resist this new land grab and the effort by government officials to take even more money home. The open question is whether anyone--groups defending the environment, or defending Indian rights or human rights more generally, or fighting back against Sandinista repression--will help them.