Last week thanks to the support of an AHRC networking grant to develop initiatives around the UN Decade for People of African Descent, scholars and activists from the University of Edinburgh, URACCAN, African Voices of Nicaragua (AVOCENIC) and the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture held a forum in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) on the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua to debate the challenges facing Afro-descendant Central Americans and to explore the opportunities that the Decade might offer. Participants travelled to the event from Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia and Scotland, as well as from Bluefields in the South Caribbean and joined a large contingent of local Bilwi-based Black Creole leaders and activists. It was an extremely productive event that proved to be a much needed space for knowledge exchange and reflection, that was well covered by several local media operations and that led to the signing of the Bilwi Declaration – more on all this to follow.
Such an event was necessary because in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America, Afro-descendant populations have been forced to resist epistemic, cultural and political exclusion by mestizo-dominated governments and institutional and everyday racisms. The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, where the majority of Nicaraguans who identify as Black, Creole and Afro-descendant live, was never colonized by Spain but was violently annexed by the state of Nicaragua in 1894. Since then, Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast, collectively known as Costeños, have been fighting for their rights to land, language, and culture as well as for the material outcomes of development, including clean water, electricity, education, healthcare, employment, and housing. In all these dimensions, the Costeños are worse off than the Pacific-based mestizo-identified population. There is an urgency to the demands of Afro-descendants, a sense that their culture and continued collective existence as people are threatened by the growing dominance of Spanish-speaking mestizo culture as well as by persistent racism and socio-economic exclusion. Our forthcoming book documents the state-led attempts to stifle the struggle for autonomy and land rights. It discusses how the current Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega implements a strategy of ignoring some of the country’s most serious problems, especially those that affect the people on the Caribbean Coast that disrupt the ideology of mestizaje on which the Nicaraguan nation-state is built.
Our forum was held during a difficult time for Bilwi residents. The town is currently suffering both water and electricity shortages and the municipal council, led by regional and indigenous political party Yatama, is struggling to keep up with garbage collection. One of the main reasons for these challenges according to the municipal government is that the central government has only transferred just over 10 per cent of the funds – 3.8 million córdobas instead of $30 million – it is supposed to have transferred. This failure is compromising the council’s ability to carry out ongoing public works, maintain infrastructure and deliver social services. One can speculate why the funds have not been transferred but it might well be an attempt by the central government to wrest control of the municipal council of Bilwi off Yatama in the coming municipal elections in November. A lack of funds will prevent projects being executed and might therefore make the Yatama-led council look like a failure in the eyes of the electorate. Yet most Nicaraguans are now familiar with the efforts of the FSLN to maintain and extend their grip on power by any possible means. The municipal elections of 2012 and last presidential elections of 2016 were widely seen as fraudulent. The 2016 elections produced substantial protests and confrontations in Bilwi.
On Friday 18 August, our forum concluded, those of us who had travelled to Bilwi from other countries and other parts of Nicaragua were leaving. It was our attempt to leave and the manner in which we left that really captured both the current crisis and the long-term neglect of the Caribbean Coast by central government, both this one and the preceding ones. I have been working on the Coast for the past decade and I have always travelled there from Managua by plane on La Costeña. The flight takes a little more than an hour and costs about $80 each way. There are also flights three times a week from Bilwi to Bluefields that also take around an hour.
One of our party had managed to leave for Managua on the first flight in the early morning. The rest of us (12 people in total) were travelling on the midday flights to Bluefields and Managua or the late afternoon flight to Managua. Five of us had international connections from Managua to Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and the UK later that day or early on Saturday. When the second group left for the airport at around 10am they found the airport had been occupied by Yatama protestors. The protest was organized by workers of the municipal council and led by the mayor, Reynaldo Francis, and its main demand was the immediate transfer of funds from the central government. All flights to and from Puerto Cabezas were therefore suspended.
We had to change our international connections before travel or lose them. In the hope that the protest would be over the following day and we could get to Managua on Saturday, we changed them to Sunday. It cost almost $600 to do so. We got up early on Saturday morning to get to the airport by 6am but learned that it was still occupied and that no flights would be leaving that day. So we had to take a decision; stay put indefinitely while incurring huge costs for accommodation and flight changes or try and leave by bus. We opted for the latter, in part because I couldn’t get any advice from La Costeña, my employer, my insurance company or the British embassy, and also because it was likely the protest would not only last but escalate, involving also road blockades. Another factor was that at that time tropical storm Harvey, which has just hit Texas, was making its way up the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. (It later changed course and Bilwi was not affected). In the end the airport remained closed for an entire week, endorsing our decision to leave overland.
We took a bus that departed from Bilwi at 10am and was scheduled to arrive in Managua around 5am. The road is mostly unpaved and in extremely poor condition so it takes around 19 hours to travel 500km! We needed to be at the airport by 5.30am to make the first rescheduled international flight. Those travelling to Bluefields had to take another bus and a boat as there is no land transport between the North and South Caribbean.
We travelled on one of the discarded US school buses, ubiquitous in Nicaragua and which aren’t too bad if you’re on a short daytime journey between Managua and Leon but are not suitable for long distance travel. Furthermore, this bus was in a truly appalling condition. There was of course no bathroom so we had to limit the amount of water we drank. It was bumpy, dusty, and frequently required the need to hold on. Passengers often let out screams when it felt like the bus was about to topple over on the uneven surface. Some passengers bumped their heads on the metal luggage racks above or were hit by items that fell down from them. The bus also broke down several times. The first time the drivers got out spanners and cables and got it going after about 20 minutes. Another stop involved jump leads to get the battery going again. In Rosita, we had to wait while they found someone who could weld a bit of the engine. Twice in the remote darkness the lights failed and we had to wait again for the battery to power the lights sufficiently, provoking fears we might have to wait until daybreak to continue our journey. The back door kept opening by itself, risking the lives of those sitting at the back of the bus. I don’t know much about bus standards but I feel certain that that bus would have long been condemned anywhere else in Latin America, deemed not safe for public or private transport.
The bus had two drivers who took it in turns to drive. They do the 19-hour journey twice a week: from Bilwi to Managua leaving Saturday and arriving Sunday, and from Managua to Bilwi leaving Wednesday arriving Thursday. Tickets cost around $20 for the entire journey and the bus has about 40 seats. They pick up a few standing passengers too who are just travelling parts of the journey. They stop very briefly for lunch and dinner and the passengers can use the bathroom in these two comedores en route. They were polite, serious and conscientious and I wished for more dignified employment for them both.
The distance from Bilwi to Managua is not much further than the distance from Managua to San José where there is a decent road and a comfortable air conditioned bus in which you can sleep, read, and watch movies. You can get there in around seven hours including a border crossing. The whole thing makes you wonder why the Coast and indeed the people of the Coast are not deemed worthy of this much-needed social investment? Costeños need to travel the capital to do all kinds of thing and the plane is too expensive. I chatted to a Miskito woman sitting behind me who told me she had frequently made that journey as she was suffering from a heart condition and had to visit the hospital in Managua for treatment. I could not imagine putting myself through that journey more than once in my life but there are Costeños who routinely need to make this journey. This seasoned passenger knew the names of all the villages and small towns we passed through; Wawa Boom, Cuarenta y Tres, Mani Watla, Las Breñas and so on.
During the interminable journey, it occurred to me that this might well be the most gruelling bus journey on the entire planet. It is not just very uncomfortable, it is very dangerous. It amply captures and illustrates the on-going neglect of the Coast by the government. As one of the Creole members of the forum wrote on my Facebook timeline:
We are so invisible …so only with those type of protest…maybe it will be on news papers but only in Spanish language. Sorry Julie you had to live the hard experience. ..the electricity, the lack of water…, the airport.. …
I felt like I had put everyone’s life at risk and feel so relieved we arrived safely. It shouldn’t have to be like this. So I really want to know the following:
Where is the paved road from Puerto Cabezas to Managua? Why has the building of this road still not commenced? It has been 30 years since the passing of the autonomy law and 27 years since the end of the war? There has been plenty of time to do this, but seemingly no political will.
Why is it deemed acceptable to the authorities that Costeños who need to travel to Managua for medical treatment, to visit relatives, apply for a visa, access a legal service, or do an exam must risk their lives?
Where is the government scheme to lease buses that would meet international safety standards to entrepreneurs? Why can’t the two young men who run this service access any kind of state support to replace their bus with something reliable and comfortable?
Why has the existing government spent more than $3 million on metallic trees in Managua before investing in essential public transport to and from the Coast?
Why does the government not send the funds to the municipal council that it is legally required to send?
Where on the road from Puerto Cabezas to Managua is the socialist, Christian and solidarity government?
I’ve just heard that the occupation of the airport has ended. I’m not sure whether the Yatama demands for the immediate transfer of funds have been met and am still trying to find out. The journey has however had a profound effect on my psyche. It has provided me with indisputable evidence that the Nicaraguan government values the lives of low-income Black and indigenous Nicaraguans less than those of mestizo Nicaraguans. I’m immensely grateful to all my travelling companions – all of them dedicated in a range of ways to courageous anti-racist struggle and Afro-descendant liberation – for their ethic of care, solidarity and friendship and for their collective approach to the situation in which we found ourselves.