Tim Coulter, a lawyer of Indian descent at the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, had never before received a call from the State Department offering support in his fight for Indian rights. So he was surprised when the Reagan administration's human rights bureau called to ask him to protest the growing conflict between the government of Nicaragua and Miskito Indians in that country.
The first call was about a year ago, and several more followed in recent weeks--all about the Miskitos. Next, a retired U.S. Army colonel from the conservative American Security Council issued a press release announcing its sponsorship of a visit to Washington by a Miskito to denounce what he called the Nicaraguan government's "policy of genocide" against the Miskitos.
Such sudden offical concern for Indian rights would have--in another era--been the equivalent of turning the U.S. Cavalry against white settlers for encroaching on Indian hunting grounds.
Nicaragua's Miskitos, about 100,000 people living in the Atlantic Coast's Zelaya province that makes up more than 50 percent of Nicaragua's territory, are locked in a struggle over land claims, preservation of their culture and self-determination with the revolutonary Sandinista government that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza almost three years ago.
The chorus of indignation from the Reagan team was caused by the Sandinista Army's forced relocation of 10,000 Miskitos from their villages along the Honduran border. The Sandinistas said they acted after a series of armed incursions in the area by groups seeking the overthrow of the Sandinistas.
Sandinista officials have said that the Army had burned several Miskito villages to prevent them from being occupied by opposition forces from Honduras.
Journalists, including this correspondent, have been refused permission by the government to visit the border area over the past two months.
To the American and international Indian rights organizations that have been monitoring the situation and supporting the Miskitos, the problem on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua is one of a series of longstanding violations of Indian rights in neighboring Guatemala and in Brazil, Paraguay and Chile in South America.
The difference--a perplexing difference to Indian rights advocates--is that Nicaragua's Miskitos have been caught in the swirl of an international geopolitical hurricane, where taking sides becomes wrapped up with ideology and the alignment of traditional Indian allies and enemies is skewed almost beyond recognition.
Traditionally, Indian rights groups have looked for support for Indian causes in Latin America to the left side of the political spectrum, and in both Latin American and North American Indian matters they have seen the U.S. government as a major adversary.
On the issue of the Miskitos, leftists have lined up behind the Sandinistas, rightists and U.S. officials have rediscovered Indian rights, Indian rights groups are divided--and some are bewildered.
In the Central American region that is increasingly the focus of world attention, the stakes in Miskito Indian affairs are high. For the Reagan administration, the issue is the leftist government of Nicaragua accused of being "another Cuba" seeking to spread revolution. For the Sandinistas and the Latin American leftist movements in general, the handling of the Miskito conflict could determine whether other Central American Indian populations join the wave of revolt or return to the sidelines in aloof distrust.
Of five Indian advocacy organizations consulted, two criticized the Sandinista Indian policy and condemned the relocation, two defended the Sandinista government and one said it was reserving judgment for the time being.
All five, however, were critical of the role of the Reagan administration and its public statements. Kenneth Taylor, codirector for Latin America for Survival International, a London-based group for protection of indigenous rights with a U.S. chapter in Washington, said his organization favors additional fact-finding and talks between the Miskitos and the Nicaraguan government. But he said the organization would withhold comment on the relocation because of the "military situation" along the Nicaraguan border.
The U.S. government's expression of concern, he said, was "completely unprecedented."
"When we have argued [in international organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission] the violations of human rights of Indians by 'friendly authoritarian regimes' there has never been any pro-Indian comment from the State Department."
Coulter's Indian Law Resource Center has a Miskito Indian on its staff. With the center's backing, the Indian, Armstrong Wiggins, presented formal testimony March 2 to the Inter-American Human Rights commission denouncing the Nicaraguan government's action as a "gross violation" of Indian rights.
But Coulter and Wiggins are uncomfortable with the attention the problem is getting from Washington.The Miskitos' conflict with the Sandinistas, Coulter said, is being used for political motives by the State Department, which he said "undermines our efforts to convince the Nicaraguans to take corrective action because it makes all criticism on the Miskito issue appear to be politically motivated."
He said his center, which has status as a nongovernmental organization before the United Nations, presented its criticism of the Nicaraguans at a recent U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva but also marked off its distance from the U.S. government: "We condemned in the strongest possible terms the political exploitation of Indian problems by countries that would ignore or condone more serious human rights violations in neighboring countries." He said he was referring to killing of Indians and peasants by the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala.
The American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council, sent representatives to the Miskito area late last year and have called publicly for support of the Sandinista government.
In a letter to another Indian rights group, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, an Indian anthropologist working with the Treaty Council, said her group accepts the government's explanation that Nicaragua is in danger because of U.S.-backed destabilization efforts and that the Indian relocation was a military necessity because of the rebel attacks along the Coco River border area.
The American Indian Movement is an activist organization widely known for its involvement in the 1973 Indian occupation at Wounded Knee, S.D. The Treaty Council is an Indian rights organization based in New York that is accredited before the United Nations.
Akwesasne Notes, a nationally distributed American Indian newspaper, published by the Mohawk Nation in upper New York State, has tried to walk a thin editorial line critical of Nicaraguan Indian policy but supportive of the Sandinista revolution in general as superior to rightist Latin governments.
Nicaragua, noted editor John Mohawk in an editorial, is the first test of a leftist revolutionary government in a country with a substantial Indian population, and is being closely watched by Indian populations elsewhere.
"If the Sandinista government continues with an Indian policy which gives no more than lip service to the rights of the Miskitos to a continued cultural existence, it will build a wall between leftist national liberation struggles and Indians in Central America, which no amount of rhetoric about revolution can penetrate. And without the support and involvement of Indians, liberation struggle in Latin America is an impossibility," he wrote.
A thorny problem in the groups' efforts to evaluate the Miskito situation is the lack of solid information about what happened in January along the Coco River border. Sandinista official Lumberto Campbell, in a recent interview in Washington, said the Sandinista Army moved about 10,000 Indians from more than 20 villages, transported them to settlements 50 miles from the border then razed the villages, burning the Indians' thatch houses and killing any remaining livestock.
That is as far as the undisputed facts of the case go. Campbell contended that no one was injured in the relocation, although part of the operation included the arrests of more than 100 Miskitos suspected of collaboration with subversive groups planning military attacks from bases in Honduras.
The Sandinista version is backed by John Wilson, the bishop of the Moravian Church to which most Miskito Indians belong. Wilson and a Baptist church worker, Sixto Ulloa, the director of a Protestant social assistance group active on the Atlantic Coast area, came to Washington as part of an official Nicaraguan delegation early this month.
"We are not Sandinistas," Ulloa said. "If we had any reason to think there had been killings or brutality, we wouldn't have lent our presence to this trip." He said he had talked to many of the Miskitos in the five relocation settlements.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., however, based his charge of "genocide" on reports by personnel in the U.S. Embassy in Honduras who he said had gone to the camps on the Honduran side of the river, and had interviewed all of the approximately 5,000 Miskitos who had fled the Sandinista relocation operation. He said that Miskitos who resisted the relocation "were shot directly on the spot," but did not provide further detail.
Another charge of mass killing came from Miskito leader Steadman Fagoth, who was brought to Washington, New York and Miami by the American Security Council, an organization that supported the Somoza dictatorship overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. Fagoth, who at one time was a political ally of the Sandinistas, said he had lists of 253 persons killed during the relocation and that thousands more Miskitos were unaccounted for.
To counter the charges, the Sandinista government formally invited the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States to make an on-site, fact-finding trip. A commission official confirmed that the invitation had been accepted but said a date for the trip had not yet been set.