Will '80s Stance on 'Ethnocide' Harm Sanders With Native Americans?

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It was their land first.

And while the Miskito people managed to survive Columbus and the colonialism that followed his arrival, many were driven from their homes on the Caribbean Coast centuries later by Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Eyewitnesses remembered how the communists bombed their villages and burned their homes, how the military machine-gunned and lynched their men.

“Oh, my -- it is so bad,” an old man on the edge of tears told filmmakers for a documentary that debuted at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and later aired on PBS. “Just like there was no God.”

The overall humanitarian crisis, however, was of little concern to Bernie Sanders. “It happens,” the then-mayor of Burlington, Vt., told the Rutland Daily Herald, “not to be an area of my interest.”

It was the summer of 1985, Sanders had just returned from an official junket to Nicaragua where he met with President Daniel Ortega, criticized the Reagan administration, and celebrated the sixth anniversary of the leftist revolution in the jungles there. But for the democratic socialist from North America, the suffering of the Miskito Indians apparently did not register.

Though an outspoken advocate for the self-determination of Nicaragua as a whole, he downplayed concern for the autonomy of the Miskito, a people numbering around 100,000. Now that Sanders is running for president and aggressively courting Native Americans in this country, that callousness may cost him. (He is slated to speak at a Native American presidential forum in Iowa Tuesday night.)

At the time, the atrocities seemed like an acceptable part of the price of revolution. Sanders told the Herald that he opposed forced deportation but added that the criticism of the Sandinistas had to be understood “in the context of the society we are living in. When you discuss what is going on now, you have to look at the alternatives.” 

According to reporter Debbie Bookchin, who would later serve as press secretary for Sanders during his years in the House of Representatives, that meant improved health care, access to education, and increased literacy overall. Apparently annoyed that he was being pushed on the Miskito issue, he shot back, “I really don’t think the people of Rutland are staying up nights worrying about this.”

Some of the mayor’s neighbors may have been more concerned: Burlington had adopted Puerto Cabezas as a “sister city” and, as the Herald noted at the time, 70% of the little port community along the coast consisted of Miskito Indians. Their forced relocation was well-documented in the pages of the New York Times, and the refugee crisis it created on the Honduran border was impossible to ignore.

A report by the Organization of American States detailed repeated violations of basic human rights by the Sandinista government.  The OAS Human Rights Commission told of how the Miskito Indians were detained “without following legal formalities and without allowing any judicial remedy,” how they were the victims of “illegal killings” and how, in some cases, they were subjected to torture.

The report was released publicly in June 1984. Sanders visited Nicaragua in July of 1985.

The Reagan administration accused the communist-backed Sandinistas of “ethnocide.” Sanders, who spent a night in Puerto Cabezas during his trip, later criticized the re-location but dismissed the White House characterization.

“They did not do the right thing in the right way at the right time. And they acknowledge this,” he told the Burlington Free Press, “but to use the word genocide is nonsense.”

Under the regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle – who was forced from power in 1979 -- the Miskitos were marginalized but mostly left alone to live communally. According to a 1982 New York Times report, they grew mistrustful of the Sandinistas when the government ended that isolation, sent Cubans into their villages to form them into collectives and force the indigenous people to learn Spanish.

When the leftist government began the forced relocation as part of an effort to combat the U.S.-backed Contras, many of the Miskito joined the insurgents’ ranks. (Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement, vowed at the time to take 100 “warriors from North America” to join the Miskito fighters — which never occurred.) The conflict continued until the Nicaraguan government granted the Miskito autonomy in 1987, but only after weathering international outrage. 

Critics included the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who condemned the Sandinista regime’s “unconscionable” treatment of the ethnic group before Sanders even visited Nicaragua.

“One-third to one-half of the 90,000 Indians on the coast have been displaced. Some 20,000 have fled to Honduras to escape the Sandinistas' scorched-earth policy — the razing of villages along the Rio Coco — and 10,000 are confined in resettlement camps in the central coast area,” the Massachusetts Democrat wrote in a 1984 New York Times op-ed.

“Most disturbing of all, 3,000 to 5,000 have lived for two years in intolerable conditions in forced-labor camps — which resemble concentration camps — in the mountainous Matagalpa-Jinotega area, where they pick coffee beans for the state,” he continued.

A spokeswoman for Sanders this week noted how the candidate later criticized the Nicaraguan government for the forced relocation and then pointed RealClearPolitics to a list of his accomplishments for Native Americans such as fighting the construction of oil pipelines and nuclear storage facilities on tribal lands.

“Time and time again, the federal government has broken promises to the Native American people and allowed huge corporations to put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities,” Deputy Communications Director Sarah Ford told RCP.

“Bernie Sanders will stand with Native Americans in the struggle to protect their treaties and sovereign rights, and improve the quality of life for Native communities,” she continued.

This work could endear Sanders to Native Americans in North America as he seeks the Democratic Party’s nomination a second time. It will likely do little to allay the criticism of his support of a government that regularly persecuted Native Americans in South America.

“If a man calls himself a socialist and is concerned about people, he should be smarter than that,” Armstrong Wiggins, a Miskito Indian working at the Indian Law Resource Center, told the Herald in 1985. “In reality, they are not in solidarity with the people. They are in solidarity with the leftist groups. They are really away from the suffering of the people.”

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