Nicaragua’s Creoles are the descendants of English-speaking people of mainly mixed African and European descent who settled the Caribbean coast beginning in the mid-17th seventeenth century. The Creole population has three main streams: descendants of 18th and 19th century settlers from the West Indies who were mainly of Jamaican origin; ‘Creole’ families who are frequently lighter-skinned and whose ancestry can be traced back to European settlers and traders, ‘Samboes‘ or ‘Zambos’ who are working class Creoles, many of whom have married for generations within the indigenous population of the coast. They were estimated at 19,890 in the 2005 Census, while other estimates put them at around 43,000.
Creoles are mainly located in the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS) towns of Bluefields, Corn Island and Pearl Lagoon. There are also smaller Creole communities in the rural areas of the RACS such as Monkey Point. In the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACN), Creoles make up a small but influential minority in the main city of Bilwi.
Most urban Creoles are fluently bilingual and have higher levels of education than most other coastal groups. The more educated continue to play an influential role in regional business and politics, particularly in the RACS where they are most numerous. There are also a number of Creoles who have moved to the capital city Managua and many more who have chosen to migrate to the United States in search of economic opportunity. However, many Creoles in the rural communities and the low-income barrios of the RACS towns are poor and have limited access to education.
Creole culture is essentially Afro-Caribbean and similar to the other English–speaking Caribbean countries and enclaves along the Central American coast that are a direct result of large–scale 19thcentury US export–based enterprises.
Like most residents of the region, Creoles are chiefly Protestant belonging either to Moravian or Anglican congregations.
Around 1786 many enslaved Africans who were being transferred to Belize escaped and settled on the Caribbean coast and were later joined by other maroons (escaped slaves) from Jamaica and San Andres. The arrival of British colonizers and enslaved Africans was eventually followed by that of economic migrants from the Caribbean in the nineteenth century and led to the formation of a sizeable English-speaking Creole population. Their lifestyle at the time differed little from that of the indigenous peoples. They lived by fishing and cultivating small-scale plantations.
By the time of emancipation in 1841 most of the Creoles born on the Caribbean coast as well as the incoming West Indies immigrants were people of African descent who had already experienced freedom for several generations. They were then joined by emancipated slaves from nearby Atlantic coast settlements, who, were gradually integrated into the already established Creole community.
Towards the end of the 19th century, North American entrepreneurs entered the area to export coconuts, bananas and precious woods. To service this growing business, two new groups of black workers were brought in from Jamaica and New Orleans. These Africans gradually mixed with the Europeans and also with the small mestizo, Indian and Chinese populations already settled in the region by then.
The Creoles of the Atlantic coast were as mistrustful of the Sandinistas as the indigenous peoples. Sandinista economic policies, designed to reduce economic inequality and economic dependency, undermined Creole status in the ethnic hierarchy and therefore their identity. The recognition of MISURASATA (Miskitu, Sumu and Rama Sandinista Alliance), a Miskitu-dominated popular organization, by the Sandinistas as the sole representative for the coast also undermined Creole organizations, such as the Southern Indigenous and Caribbean Community (SICC).
In 1980, SICC organized strikes and demonstrations against the arrival of Cuban teachers and technicians to work in Bluefields. Some of these escalated into the first ethnic violence of the revolution and were forcibly repressed by the government. The autonomy process increased Creole confidence in the revolution with a revival of black consciousness and the Creole language through the bilingual education programme. Educated Creoles became very instrumental in drafting various sections of the Autonomy Law and its regulations and in establishing the regional universities of URACAAN and BICU.
In both the 1990 and 1994 regional elections, Creoles took key posts on the executive board of the RACS Council. However, they were unable to greatly advance either regional or ethnic rights due to the marginalization of the regional government by Pacific coast dominated national policies and the increasing influence of national political parties in local elections.
Due to the slow implementation of the autonomy process Creoles now have mixed feelings about its usefulness but continue to view it as an important instrument for cultural survival. Creoles are very involved in the political process and still actively strive to make the regional councils more effective and responsive to their particular needs. In 2007, three Creoles, two of whom were women, were elected as national representatives to Central American Parliament.
During the last decades of the 20th century Creoles ceased to be a majority in their traditional areas. Creoles’ current minority status has resulted from substantial mestizo economic migration to the main RACS centres of Bluefields and Corn Island.
The rapid urban increase of mestizo migrant populations with no grounding in local cultural norms or traditional land use has placed a strain on the environment and urban infrastructure. Housing densities already exceed acceptable limits putting an ever-greater strain on already limited potable water supplies and garbage and sewage disposal capacity. This further threatens the local marine environment on which many Creole residents still depend for subsistence.
The negative affects of racial discrimination also continue to be an issue among Creole minorities. The use of the Caribbean coast of Central America as a transhipment point by international drug cartels has prompted an increased military and law enforcement presence in both the RACS and RACN. It has also added to an already negative national perception of Caribbean coastal communities and their culture. Security force members are predominately from the Pacific region and arrive with strongly held prejudices and no prior orientation. This often results in unwarranted stereotyping and racial profiling especially of Creole populations. Consequently, Caribbean coast Creoles have experienced a significant rise in the frequency and degree of official harassment both in their home areas and especially when travelling in and out of the region.
The primarily indigenous Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka (YATAMA) party’s decision to field candidates from other ethnic groups – such as an ultimately successful Creole woman representative – was a significant step towards rebuilding strong inter-cultural understanding and avoiding conflict; especially given the tensions that had emerged in the post civil war years when Atlantic coastal communities had increasingly begun to divide along exclusionary ethno-political lines.
Rural Creoles as well as indigenous Rama in the Caribbean coastal community of Monkey Point continue to be concerned about proposals for mega-projects that may affect them. For instance, in the mid- and late 1990’s, there was a proposal to construct a US$2.64 Billion ‘Dry Canal’ corrridor comprising of a high-speed rail link across the country to the Pacific with deep-water container ports and free trade zones on either side of the country – with one such harbour in their community. The Nicaragua Interoceanic Canal Company (CINN) was set up in 2001 to promote the venture.
Monkey Point is an isolated settlement located in the municipality of Bluefields in the RACS that has existed as a mixed Creole and indigenous Rama community since at least 1815. As the site of a proposed deep-water port, it is a key location in all of the planned ventures and the local community has already been affected by preliminary work.
Engineers and environmental experts from various organizations have been showing up at Monkey Point since the 1990’s to gather information and continue with design and engineering work, however the community has consistently complained that they are kept in the dark.
The demarcation law (Law 445) passed in 2005 obliges construction firms to consult with those who hold traditional rights to land in the path of these projects, nevertheless there is a perception that events are proceeding without community involvement.
Two US-based companies were given concessions and authorised to commence feasibility studies and the World Bank conducted a US$2 million environmental impact study. In 2010, it looked as if the project would proceed – two Korean companies Dongyeong Engineering Consultants & Architecture Co., Ltd and Ox Investment Finance Co., Ltd signed a memorandum of understanding to build a deep-water port at Monkey Point. However, a year later, that particular proposal foundered on disagreements concerning financing. In August 2011, the Brazilian construction firm Andrade Gutierrez signed an agreement to conduct a feasibility study; however, they pulled out in 2012 citing overly high costs in comparison with the volume of goods that the port would handle.
Meanwhile, there has been a land invasion that has brought serious problems to the Creole and Rama Monkey Point community. Wealthy off-shore land speculators, claiming to have purchased Indigenously titled land in the vicinity began logging on the fragile rainforest soils already threatened by encroaching farmers and cattle-farmers from the Pacific. Community resistance has produced a violent response including armed attacks, assaults and at least one murder.
Complaints to the National Assembly’s Committee on the Environment, made by the community have met with little success. The Monkey Point community has wanted its legal rights recognized to roughly a half-million acres before any proposed construction work commenced. They also sought the establishment of a multisectoral commission to oversee negotiations that would include the Regional Council of the RACS, the Municipalities of Bluefields and Nueva Guinea, and the Creole and Rama community at Monkey Point.
As the ‘Dry Canal’ ran into obstacles, a far larger threat to Creole and Rama communities emerged – namely proposals for a proper ‘wet’ canal to cross Nicaragua. The Grand Nicaragua Canal is a highly controversial US$50 billion programme involving the government and a Chinese company to construct what would be the world’s largest canal between the Pacific and the eastern coast. The concession to build it was granted via a Special Law (Law 840), which was approved by Nicaragua’s National Assembly in June 2013. Current plans are for the Caribbean terminus to be built just south of Monkey Point, although the project has struggled to get off the ground, due to financing problems.