Main languages: Spanish, English Creole, Miskitu, Sumu, Rama
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Moravian, Episcopalian).
There are seven indigenous peoples in Nicaragua, mostly situated in distinct locations within the country. In the Pacific as well as the north and centre of the country, these are Chorotega, Cacaopera (Matagalpa), Ocanxiu (Sutiaba) and Nahoa (Náhuatl), while on the Caribbean / Atlantic coast there are Miskitu, Mayangna (Sumu) and Rama.
Estimates vary on the exact size of these communities, with the 2005 Census producing the following figures: Chorotega (46,002), Cacaopera/Matagalpa (15,240), Ocanxiu/Sutiaba (19,949), Nahoa/Náhuatl (11,113), Miskitu (120,817), Mayangna (9,756, though with an additional 698 Ulwa, who are also associated as a Mayangna sub-group) and Rama (4,185).
Other estimates arrive at quite different figures: Chorotega (221,000), Cacaopera/Matagalpa (97,500), Ocanxiu/Sutiaba (49,000). Nahoa/Náhuatl (20,000), Miskitu (150,000), Mayangna (27,000) and Rama (2,000).
There are also Afro-descendant minorities such as Creoles (19,890) and Garifuna (3,271), according to the 2005 Census, though other estimates suggest that the communities number around 43,000 and 2,500 respectively.
Nicaragua also has substantial communities of Middle Eastern and East Asian origin.
Updated May 2020
Nicaragua’s history, distinct within the region, of both British and Spanish colonialism still shapes the country’s social and political landscape today. With the arrival of the first Spanish colonizers in the early sixteenth century, much of the western part of Nicaragua’s present-day territory by the Pacific was occupied and its indigenous population decimated or enslaved, with only a few Mayangna communities still surviving in the area. On the eastern, Atlantic side, however, the relatively limited encroachment of Spanish colonizers meant that a larger portion of the indigenous population, including Mayangna and Rama, survived. The subsequent arrival of British colonizers and enslaved Africans was eventually followed, after the abolition of slavery, by that of economic migrants from the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, and led to the formation of a sizeable English-speaking Creole population.
Nicaragua’s multi-ethnic population is now characterized by a white and mestizo majority, who largely dominate the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, and a variety of indigenous (5 per cent) and Afro-descendant (9 per cent) populations. The relationship between the central government and its minority and indigenous communities has frequently been characterized by tensions over political autonomy, cultural assimilation and other concerns – issues that have at times been reflected in violence and other human rights abuses.
Since 2006, the country has been ruled by the Sandanista National Liberation Front (FSLN) under Daniel Ortega, who during his rule has steadily entrenched his power through a range of measures, including the scrapping of presidential limits. At the same time, his government has conducted an aggressive crackdown on media, civil society and the political opposition. The Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka (YATAMA) party, formed from a coalition of indigenous organizations and enjoying considerable support from the country’s indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, entered into an alliance with the FSLN in 2006 but severed its alliance in 2014 following regional elections in the country’s autonomous regions that saw many of its seats transferred to FSLN control. This was especially contentious as the elections took place in the country’s autonomous regions, populated primarily by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Indeed, the YATAMA party has complained that electoral fraud continued in the subsequent 2016 and 2017 municipal elections. After each election, the YATAMA party has organised peaceful protests which were suppressed with force.
Two autonomous regions, created in the northern (RACN) and southern (RACS) Caribbean coastal regions, were established under the 1987 Autonomy Law (Law 28) and supported by subsequent legislation, allowing these ethnically diverse regions to manage their own lands and resources. Both have the right to design their own health services with an intercultural approach, which combine ancestral and western medical knowledge. These regions also provide education in indigenous languages and there are even tertiary institutions, such as the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN), with inter-cultural teaching models that support the preservation of minority and indigenous knowledge and practices.
However, as the regions are still connected to the central government, they remain subject to the national political process: as a result, as incoming mestizo settlers have changed not only the demographic but also voting patterns, the areas have become increasingly dominated by the FSLN, creating fears among some communities that the political autonomy of these regions has in practice been eroded. As a result of the 2017 municipal elections, the YATAMA party lost control over both RACN and RACS. Violence broke out in three towns; in Bilwi, the capital of RACN, police stood by and watched as pro-FSLN youth burned the YATAMA party office to the ground.
The foremost issue for indigenous coastal populations is that of land titling. Since almost all indigenous lands are communally held and since these are the very areas that are being settled by groups from the Pacific, it cuts to the heart of the ability of the indigenous peoples to continue to survive in a traditional manner, including safeguarding the environment. The continuous process of tree clearance for cattle raising by settlers in the region of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, for example – already designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is posing a serious risk to lands that have long been inhabited by indigenous peoples. These groups still maintain their traditional forms of cultivation without harming the environment and are fervently opposed to the harmful practices of the cattle farmers and the irreparable long-term damage they are doing. Despite hopes that the 2003 Demarcation Law will provide a much-needed mechanism to halt the process and end their situation of vulnerability and uncertainty, problems around land grabbing persist to this day.
The state has in many cases actively contributed to the seizure of ancestral lands for large-scale development, energy projects and illegal settlement. This includes the Grand Nicaragua Canal, a controversial US$50 billion programme involving the government and a Chinese company, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. (HKND), to construct what would be the world’s largest canal between the Pacific and the eastern coast. The project was approved by a concession (Law 840), adopted in June 2013. Though the project has struggled with funding in the wake of the stock market slump in China, meaning progress since its ground–breaking ceremony in December 2014 has been slow, the canal will likely have a disastrous impact on pristine local environments, as well as the many indigenous communities whose lands it will pass through. It is intended to cross the great Lake Nicaragua, a vital source of drinking water and fish as well as a crucial ecosystem that would risk being contaminated by dredging as well as passing ships. Since the project was approved without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples it will uproot, protests against the development have been met with violence and repression. While indigenous and Garifuna communities have reportedly been pressured to not oppose the development of the canal, to date construction has stalled due to lack of funding from investors.
The struggle between Miskitu, an indigenous population with Amerindian and African ancestry, and non-indigenous mestizo peasants settling illegally in their lands has continued. Tensions between the two groups escalated during 2015, leaving a number of people dead. Among those killed were two Miskitu leaders, Rosmeldo Solórzano and Mario Leman Müller, while many others experienced aggressive tactics and intimidation. Indigenous women have also been targeted in this conflict. In February 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that in the previous four months, besides several killings, kidnappings and house burnings, three indigenous women had been sexually assaulted. By 2017, the indigenous rights organization CEJUDHCAN reported that 32 Miskitu had been killed and 66 people were missing as a result of the land conflict of the previous five years. Miskitu women have been raped, and villages have been attacked. Miskitu have repeatedly denounced the government for failing to protect their land rights and allowing illegal settlement to take place on their territory. As a result of this conflict, in the last few years thousands of Miskitu have been forcibly displaced within the country or across the border to Honduras.
In a highly publicised study, the international campaigning organization Global Witness found that 2017 was the deadliest year to date for land and environmental defenders worldwide, with 201 killings globally. Nicaragua was the deadliest country per capita, with four murders. Three of the victims belonged to the same Miskitu family; the killings appeared to be in retaliation after the family had successfully sued to protect their land title in court.
Political tensions in Nicaragua came to a head in 2018. In April, large-scale anti-government demonstrations mobilised across the country, in response to an announcement by Ortega that social security benefits would be cut. While the demonstrations were primarily student-led, at least in the beginning, the YATAMA youth organization issued a statement a week after the demonstrations began in order to express its solidarity. Police and pro-FSLN armed groups mobilised in a violent crackdown. In July, the indigenous neighbourhood of Monimbó in Masaya became the focus of the government crackdown in a brutal and ultimately successful push to regain control over the area; at least four people including one police officer were killed in one day. By September, 324 people had been killed, of whom 23 were children; over 2,000 people had been injured. Public hospitals were reported to have turned away wounded protestors.
Nicaragua’s diversity is reflected in a rich legacy of Afro-descendant and indigenous cultures that continues to be an important element in the identity of these communities. One of the most well-known celebrations is the annual King Pulanka festival, a Miskitu festival with traditional music and dance that subversively mocks the colonizers who historically occupied the country. The celebrations bring together neighbouring groups for a feast hosted by the indigenous community. Other festivities include the Palo de Mayo, held every May on the Caribbean coast, and the Walagallo, a Garifuna religious celebration rooted in African spirit worship and traditionally carried out to cure disease. These and other celebrations remain an important source of pride and identity today.
Updated May 2020
Nicaragua is bordered on the north by Honduras and on the south by Costa Rica. Over 90 per cent of its people, and the centres of government and the economy are located on the narrow Pacific Plains. The majority of Nicaragua’s minorities live in the very sparsely populated tropical Atlantic lowlands, which comprise over 56 per cent of the national territory.
In the pre-colonial years there were two basic indigenous streams. In the central highlands and Pacific coast were Chibchas and Náhuatl-speaking people like the Nicarao who were linguistically related to the Aztec and the Maya. According to oral history they had migrated south from Mexico several centuries before Spanish arrival. In the east of what was to become Nicaragua were communities who had continuously lived in that part of Central America for nearly 10,000 years.
Nicaragua is unique in Latin American colonial history. It was colonized simultaneously on the western Pacific side by Spain and on the eastern Atlantic coast by Britain. Spain colonized the Pacific coast but with no precious metals available used it primarily as a source of forced labour to work the mines of South America. The result was nearly total annihilation for the indigenous peoples of the region. Spanish officials estimated that the population of about 600,000 at the time of the conquest in 1523 was reduced to 30,000 by 1544. Over time the remaining indigenous population mixed with the Spanish colonizers, out of which evolved the dominant Spanish-speaking, Catholic mestizo culture of today. There are still a few indigenous Mayangna communities on the Pacific coast.
The Atlantic coast peoples avoided early depopulation mainly due to Spanish disinterest in colonizing areas with limited mining potential and fiercely resistant inhabitants. The indigenous population were mostly Chibcha speakers who lived by hunting, fishing and shifting agriculture. Chibcha who had little to do with the Europeans became known as the Mayangna (Sumu). Another Chibcha group, the Rama, also maintained communities and continued to use their own language.
In the early 17th century. British pirates began using coastal estuaries as hideouts then turned to extracting the region’s natural hardwoods in association with the indigenous people that became known as Miskitu.
Africans from around the Caribbean who had escaped bondage also moved to the Mosquito Coast and some joined in with indigenous people. This population of indigenous inhabitants who became mixed with people of African origin, and Europeans evolved into a distinct autonomous Miskitu culture that combined elements from all the groups including language and social structures.
Miskitu established firm relations with the British crown thereby gaining access to firearms and other imports, which helped them to acquire significant ascendancy over other coastal groups.
During the British Protectorate period (1687-1787), Miskitu functioned as intermediaries in European trade dealings with other indigenous peoples, conducted long distance slave raids and assisted in the recapture of escaped slaves in other Caribbean territories. They often joined the British in forays on rival Spanish holdings and eventually became the largest of the coastal ethnic communities.
In the late 17th century British traders and settlers began bringing Africans to the Nicaragua Atlantic coast for forced labour timber extraction and plantation work. After emancipation in the late 19th century they were joined by economic migrants from Jamaica and Belize. All had mixed with both European settlers and indigenous peoples and together they formed a distinct English-speaking minority who became known as Creoles. They established population centres in the southern Atlantic coast and became the next largest ethnic group with a culture rather similar to Caribbean nations.
From the mid-19th century until the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, the Caribbean coast experienced considerable economic activity. US companies set up businesses for natural resource extraction that employed many indigenous peoples, like Miskitu and Mayangna, in mostly low wage jobs on plantations and in the mining industry.
Britain surrendered most of its claims to the Atlantic coast in 1860 and the region remained as a notably prosperous autonomous reserve until 1894. In the 1890’s US commercial interests attracted by the region’s considerable natural resources began establishing large–scale fruit, gold and timber extraction enterprises and the US government sought to gain exclusive rights to build a trans-isthmus canal using the Atlantic coast as the Eastern entry point.
With the coming to power of President José Santos Zelaya in 1893, the Nicaraguan national army invaded the Caribbean coast aided by US marines and forced territorial integration under central government control. Annexation brought increased mestizo migration to the coast and policies of economic and cultural absorption. This included pressures for total assimilation of the Caribbean coast into the dominant Pacific based Hispanic mestizo mainstream via government decrees that marginalized the indigenous cultures and languages of the region.
A national war of liberation against American occupation led by Augusto Cesar Sandino was organized largely on the Atlantic coast in Miskitu areas. US Marine and Nicaraguan National Guard efforts to capture the revolutionary leader were ultimately unsuccessful; however, Sandino was tricked into attending peace talks with Guard commander Somoza Garcia and assassinated in 1934. Under the incoming dynastic Somoza dictatorship, the Caribbean coast remained marginalized and neglected despite the considerable wealth being generated through resource extraction by US companies.
From 1936 onwards, Somoza García ran Nicaragua as his giant family estate and amassed a large fortune. For two decades he cultivated and won powerful allies in the United States. Foreign companies were given free rein to exploit Nicaragua’s gold, silver, timber and seafoods, almost all sourced in the Caribbean coastal region. In the rest of the country the National Guard was used to repress political opponents and anti–government activities.
From the 1950s and 1960s the extraction companies began to depart and many predominantly indigenous wage–earning people were forced to return to subsistence survival strategies. These indigenous peoples were also increasingly affected by growing land pressures from incoming Pacific migrants who had been removed from the Highlands during the Somoza regime. However, when the 1979 Sandinista revolution finally arrived it did not stimulate widespread participation from the Atlantic coast populations.
Mestizo migration to the coast increased significantly during the Somoza era, helping to increase Caribbean coast resentment and antagonism towards the Pacific region.
Following his assassination in 1956, Somoza was succeeded by his US trained sons Luis Somoza Debayle who ruled as President and Anastasio Somoza Debayle who commanded the National Guard.
They continued and strengthened the system of absolute economic and political control, corruption and support for US policies. In 1961 the Caribbean coastal city of Puerto Cabezas was used as the launching pad for the unsuccessful CIA backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
That same year a small group of Nicaraguans inspired by the Cuban revolution, formed a guerrilla force aimed at overthrowing the Somoza regime. They took their name from the nationalist revolutionary leader Augusto Sandino calling themselves the Sandanista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
During the 1960s the Frente gained support mostly among students, rural Nicaraguans and poor urban youth in the Pacific region. After years of repeated defeats in clashes with the National Guard the Sandanistas eventually benefitted from the declining popularity of the Somozas following the 1972 Managua earthquake.
Although for the first time, opportunities were being created for Atlantic coast minority and indigenous communities to campaign for their rights, the troubled bi-coastal history caused distrust of Sandinista plans. Events were seen as merely a change of government in the ‘Spanish’ part of the country, and this was compounded by a lack of understanding of the region on the part of the new regime.
For example, government–supported social services threatened long-established indigenous community authorities like the Moravian Church; Sandinistas offended Miskitu groups by the imposition of the Spanish language in the literacy campaign; MISURASATA (Miskitu, Sumu and Rama Sandinista Alliance), a Miskitu-dominated popular organization, which served as the only link between indigenous communities and the Sandinista government promoted the Miskitu cause and was not trusted by the government, specifically since few MISURASATA leaders and activists were actually Sandinistas.
By August 1978 a Sandinista commando force was able to seize the National Palace, taking the Nicaraguan congress hostage and greatly enhancing their reputation. By the time the Sandinistas finally took power and set up a government on 19 July 1979, an estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans had died in the revolutionary effort.
Relations with the United States deteriorated steadily thereafter especially following the 1981 election of the strongly anti–communist Ronald Reagan as US President. Reagan suspended aid to Nicaragua, imposed an economic boycott and began supporting an armed opposition guerrilla force known as the ‘contras’.
Meanwhile, the Sandinistas increased efforts to impose a socialist economic model which did little to dispel the long held Caribbean coastal communities’ antagonism and suspicion of Pacific region populations. Relations between the monocultural socialist Sandinistas and the multicultural independently minded coastal indigenous and Creole communities continued to deteriorate, prompting a significant number of Miskitu to become allied with the US-backed anti-government contra forces and triggering a search for political solutions.
Following the Sandinista victory in the 1984 elections, two years of nationwide discussions produced the 1987 Autonomy Law (Law 28), which was aimed primarily at achieving peace by promoting the rights of the Atlantic coast’s minority and indigenous communities. The region’s population welcomed the autonomy proposal as an opportunity to guarantee not only multi-ethnic cultural, linguistic and religious rights but also customary rights to land and natural resources. However, with the change in government after 1990, implementing these autonomy arrangements proved a very slow and protracted process.
Meanwhile the coastal populations continued to take initiatives on their own and in March 1995 the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast (URACCAN) began its first year aimed at developing the necessary human resources for a genuinely autonomous development. This was further enhanced with the later establishment of the Bluefields Indian and Creole University (BICU).
Elections in 1996 and again in 2001 did little to change central government attitudes. In May 2002 Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños refused to swear in the Autonomous Council for right months. Exploitation of the region’s natural resources continued with companies engaging in resource extraction without consent from the indigenous owners.
There was notable progress in statute approval by the National Assembly in 2003 ensuring better recognition of the rights of minority and indigenous communities as well as consolidating the legal autonomy framework. Most notable was the passage of regulations for the Statute of Autonomy itself. Other very important regulations included the Law of Demarcation of Communal Property (Law 445); the General Law of Health (Law 423) that recognizes the use and promotion of the traditional medicine in the Autonomous Regions; the Law of Conservation, Development and Sustainable Development of the Forest Sector (Law 462) that establishes the power of the Regional Councils to determine forestry policy and grant concessions. Nevertheless, the central government continued its unilateral handling of the Caribbean coast’s natural resources in flagrant violation of the autonomy legislation. Prime examples included the authorization of fishing licenses through ADPESCA by the Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade; the operation of the mining company HEMCO; as well as the licenses given to timber companies through INAFOR.
Furthermore, the National Development Plan presented by the central government in 2003 did not include the Caribbean coast in any of its perspectives. This was challenged by coastal organizations as well as international funding institutions prompting the UNDP to support the preparation of a special Regional Development Plan consisting of programmes and a variety of specific projects.
International NGOs continued to be the main funders of regional development projects such as the bilingual education programme. The centralization of administrative funding also persisted manifested in the retention or delay of funding assigned to the region’s governing structures. Of the US$33 million (568 million córdobas) budget allocated for public investment in the Autonomous Regions, only US$1.9 million (32 million) was actually administered by the Regional Council. This was seen regionally as another coercive measure to force acceptance of policies imposed from Managua.
Moreover, despite the advent of autonomy, the ever–increasing influence of Managua–based national political parties on the internal political activities of the autonomous regions since the 1990s, seriously compromised the original intention of those who drafted the autonomy law. The victory of the Sandanista Party under Daniel Ortega in the December 2006 national elections raised hopes among indigenous and Creole supporters on the Caribbean coast for a revitalization of the autonomy process and an end to the discriminatory attitude towards populations of the Autonomous Regions at official levels.
This expectation encouraged the emergence of a new political alliance between the FSLN and the YATAMA Party (Yapti Tasbaya Maraska Nani Asla Takanka or Organization of the Nations of the Mother Earth), which is the country’s largest indigenous socio-political movement. YATAMA has its roots in Miskitu/contra anti-Sandanista resistance and had long been a fierce adversary of the FSLN. After years of limitations imposed against it by Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), YATAMA chose to contest the December 2006 elections jointly with its former wartime rival, the Frente.
According to YATAMA’s leaders, the unprecedented political initiative was intended to ensure greater ethno-cultural inclusion after years of marginalization and economic stagnation. It was seen as a means of better enabling the indigenous Miskitu, Rama and Mayangna peoples and Creole and Garifuna minority populations to collectively address socio-economic development issues and exercise greater control over regional resources and institutions. YATAMA argued that the former Liberal governing party (PLC) never defended the region’s multi-ethnic interests, choosing instead to promote Pacific–centred party–based agendas and Hispanic cultural homogeneity that failed to protect minority and indigenous languages or cultures.
However, in the ensuing years this coalition came under increasing pressure, particularly as the FSLN gained political traction in both the autonomous regions. As the regions are still linked to the central political system and so are also subject to national elections, the loss of YATAMA control of the regions to the FSLN following their landslide victory in the 2014 regional elections. Amidst suspicions of widespread electoral fraud, the results provoked outrage among many indigenous and Afro-descendant residents and prompted YATAMA to formally end its alliance with the FSLN.
Having scrapped presidential limits in 2014, Ortega went on to win his third term in 2016 in an election that was condemned for voting irregularities and allegations of electoral fraud. His rule has become increasing authoritarian amidst a crackdown on the media and political opposition. In April 2018, following proposed amendments to the country’s social security programme, protests against the government broke out across the country and resulted in clashes with police that left dozens dead.
Despite successfully returning to democratic politics in the wake of a brutal civil conflict, Nicaragua’s governance in recent years has been undermined by the increasing authoritarianism of the ruling FSLN and its leader, Daniel Ortega, the country’s President since 2006. His government has been accused of electoral fraud, intimidation of the political opposition and restricting free expression in the media to maintain control in the country. In 2014, Ortega scrapped the presidential limit and went on to win the 2016 elections. However, protests against his regime erupted in April 2018, triggering mass demonstrations and the killing of dozens of protestors by police.
The 1987 Autonomy Law is a unique and remarkable initiative aimed at limited self-rule within the Republic. Two autonomous zones were created; the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACN) and the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS) with their respective governing councils; however, implementation of the statute has in practice been limited. After 1990 the Violeta Chamorro government reasserted central control through the Managua-based Regional Development Institute (INDERA). It was not until July 1993 that the councils were able to present a draft to expedite Autonomy implementation. However, indigenous peoples elsewhere in the country do not enjoy the same legal protections and, as a result, have been more prone to rights violations. To tackle this, a Draft Bill for the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific, Center and North of Nicaragua has been developed, but not yet approved.
Updated May 2020
Centro por la Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN)
Investigation Centre for the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA)
[Culture and research]
Organización Negra de Centro América (ONECA)
URACCAN (University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua)
Updated May 2020