A Nicaraguan Indian rebel leader returned to the country today for talks with the governing Sandinista Front about a possible truce with his guerrilla group and the return to Nicaragua of thousands of Indian refugees.
Brooklyn Rivera, a Miskito Indian who leads the Misurasata rebel organization based in Costa Rica, was the first leader of the armed opposition known to have held peace talks with the Sandinistas since guerrilla violence began almost three years ago.
Rivera met for 1 1/2 hours today with head of state Daniel Ortega to begin the talks.
An agreement with Rivera could mean the peaceful return to Nicaragua of about 3,000 members of Misurasata and several thousand other Indian refugees in Costa Rica. A larger Indian rebel group is based in Honduras.
It would also help stem international criticism of the Sandinista Front, which has been accused of violating the rights of Indians.
Rivera went into exile in August 1981. He had been arrested earlier in the year for leading what the Sandinistas called an illegal Indian separatist movement. Two of the main issues that must be resolved, he said today, are the same as those raised by him and other Indian leaders in 1981, which led to a confrontation with the government, violence, mass arrests, the flight of thousands of Indians to neighboring countries and Indian involvement in guerrilla warfare against the government.
Those issues are the rights of Indians to their traditional lands without government interference and also their demand that Indians be given a large measure of autonomy in running their own communities.
"It seems to me they the Sandinistas are willing to work for peace and dialogue," said Rivera in a press conference.
But he said that the Sandinistas would have to change the approach to the Indian people that they had used in the early years of the revolutionary government after coming to power in 1979.
"They have to adapt the Sandinista revolution to the indigenous people and not the indigenous people to the Sandinista revolution," he said.
Rivera told reporters that he had been pressured by other rebel groups not to meet with Sandinista leaders.
Rivera arrived in Nicaragua with two other Indian leaders, a representative of the French Embassy in Costa Rica, two U.S. Indian rights activists and an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Rivera said he would leave Sunday for the Caribbean coast to tour Indian communities for several days and meet with indigenous leaders. He is expected to have more substantive talks with Sandinista leaders when he returns.
There has not been a census in Nicaragua for more than a decade, but about 90,000 of Nicaragua's estimated population of 3 million are Indians. Three Indian peoples -- the Miskitos, Sumos and Ramas -- live principally on the sparsely populated and underdeveloped Caribbean coast.
It is estimated that about 30,000 Nicaraguan Indians have left the country in the past three years and taken refuge in Honduras and Costa Rica.
Washington Post staff writer Joanne Omang reported the following in Washington:
Rivera's return was the product of lengthy, delicate groundwork, including secret meetings in New York, painstakingly laid with the help of Gregory Craig, Sen. Kennedy's legislative aide for Latin American affairs.
Craig said in an interview that Kennedy had become interested in the Miskito situation during last spring's Senate debate on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and had asked him to set up hearings, which were held in May.
Through contacts made during that process, Craig visited Central America and met Rivera.
"He called me after I got back and said he wanted to talk to the senator about the possibility of going back to Nicaragua," Craig said. "He felt he needed some political support in order to negotiate with the Sandinistas."
Craig said his initial feelers to the Nicaraguan government found them responsive. Knowing Ortega would be in New York to speak at the U.N. General Assembly Oct. 1, Craig raised funds from private sources and brought Rivera to New York at that time.
Rivera and Ortega met alone for two hours at Ortega's hotel suite on Oct. 3, Craig said, and agreed to hold further talks in Nicaragua.