U.S. intervention in Nicaragua has had lasting consequences for Afrodescendants.
Nicaragua and the United States are approaching the 30-year anniversaries of two periods of national reckoning that took place in the waning years of the Contra War. The conflict erupted in 1981 just two years after the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the Somoza regime, a brutal family dictatorship that had ruled Nicaragua for more than forty years. Once in office, Ronald Reagan, a devout anti-communist crusader, authorized the training and funding of counter-revolutionary forces or contras as part of a campaign to destabilize the Sandinista state. Armed resistance spread to the Atlantic coast region where dissatisfaction with the revolution grew in indigenous and Afrodescendant communities with the imposition of a new ruling order from Managua. By the end of the 1980s, the United States would extend over $400 million USD in aid to the contras, while the war and destabilization campaign would result in more than 30,000 deaths and billions of dollars in losses for Nicaragua.
What has U.S. militarization meant for the people who live in militarized places around the world?
The Contra War continued until 1990 when the Nicaraguan people removed the Sandinistas from power by popular vote. But indigenous and Afrodescendant resistance began to subside in the mid-1980s as the Sandinista state sought to reconcile the revolutionary project with these communities by recognizing their rights to land and regional autonomy. In November 1986, the state enshrined these rights in law with the adoption of a new constitution followed by the passage of an autonomy statute for the Atlantic coast region in 1987. The reforms established the framework for some of the most expansive multicultural citizenship rights in Latin America. It still took more than two decades for the Nicaraguan state to title indigenous and Afrodescendant territories. And even with formal recognition, conditions remain precarious in these territories where deforestation, land dispossession, capitalist intensification, and drug war militarization threaten community life.
As Nicaragua negotiated an end to armed conflict with indigenous and Afrodescendant communities, a parallel process of national reckoning was unfolding in the United States: the Iran-Contra Affair. The scandal broke in the national media in November 1986 after the Sandinista Army shot down a cargo plane carrying supplies for the contras. Nicaragua captured the only surviving crewmember, a former U.S. Marine, revealing a covert program to arm the contras that contravened U.S. legislation limiting aid to counter-revolutionary forces. Subsequent revelations linked funding for the program to illegal arms sales to Iran that were meant to help secure the freedom of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Congressional hearings in 1987 led to a series of convictions (and later pardons) for Reagan administration officials implicated in the affair. Today the scandal remains a footnote in U.S. foreign policy, lost amid the rubble of forty to fifty more military interventions overseas since that time. As many as 800 military bases in some eighty countries now secure U.S. Empire, making this country the most militarized global power in history.
And what has militarization meant for the people who live in these places around the world? In Iraq alone, estimates suggest that half a million men, women, and children died after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003. The death count was not as high and the destruction not as complete in Nicaragua, but indigenous and Afrodescendant communities still struggle with the legacy of the U.S.-funded Contra War in their region, where multicultural reforms have done little to stem postwar violence.
Indigenous and Afrodescendant communities still struggle with the legacy of the U.S.-funded Contra War in their region.
Since the early 2000s, I have conducted research with a rural Afrodescendant Kriol community on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua called Monkey Point. Most people from Monkey Point who are over the age of forty preface their recollections of the past with before-the-war and after-the-war estimations of community welfare. An entire way of life—from agricultural economies and food sovereignty to family and community cohesion and physical security—was negatively affected by armed conflict. Nostalgia for the past shapes community memories, but the war clearly represents a violent rupture when “everything changed.”
When the conflict spread to their region, Monkey Point people joined the contras or fled north to the city of Bluefields or south to Costa Rican refugee camps. Several families lost sons to combat violence. Many never returned to the fishing and farming community that their ancestors established in the nineteenth century. These forebears left places like Grand Cayman Island and Martinique in search of an independent lifestyle free from the racial servitude that structured Caribbean economies and social life after emancipation. They had families and built a thriving community that stayed on the land until the 1980s. After the war, in the 1990s, Monkey Point people came home to rebuild the community. They formed alliances with their indigenous Rama neighbors and mobilized to secure territorial rights, which were now enshrined in Nicaraguan law. More than a decade of activism resulted in formal recognition of the Rama-Kriol Territory in 2009, but violence still exacts a harsh toll on community life.
Postwar violence in Monkey Point is racially structured and systemic. In 1979, the Somoza regime left Nicaragua $1.6 billion USD in debt, which grew to $10.8 billion USD by the end of the Contra War. Neoliberal restructuring under Washington Consensus reforms in the 1990s did little to alleviate poverty or ease the country’s debt burden, which had grown so cumbersome by the mid-2000s that Nicaragua qualified for relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. The community struggled to revive the agrarian economy after the war, while young people left to work on Caribbean cruise ships or as nannies and hotel workers in Grand Cayman Island or Panama. Mestizo land colonists, many of them former contra combatants, settled the region in land-for-arms exchanges with the Nicaraguan state. Monkey Point people began to find sacks of cocaine floating in the sea and washed up on beaches in these years, as the region descended into drug war violence.
Today most community people associate the introduction of the drug trade with the Contra War. Former combatants from Monkey Point tell of contra smuggling networks and describe how economic crisis, militarization, and arms smuggling with Colombia during the war jumpstarted the trade. After the conflict subsided, they became racialized targets for counter-narcotics operations. The state established a military base in Monkey Point in 2004 to police the drug trade. Once ensconced in the community, mestizo soldiers sexually abused local girls and assaulted local men. Militarization now secures capitalist intensification in their territory, which comes in the form of a Chinese-led Interoceanic Grand Canal. If built, the canal will displace the people of Monkey Point and their Rama neighbors to the south.
Complex national and global forces conditioned the path from the Contra War in the 1980s to postwar violence today. But in the narratives of Monkey Point people, the experiential links are clear. Territorial recognition gives community people more political leverage than they have ever had, but multicultural reforms do not un-break a society ravaged by war. What community activists, and indeed history, call for now is a radical reimagining of political and social life alongside new egalitarian and democratic investments in the most marginalized sectors of global society. For the United States, the demilitarization of foreign policy is an essential place to start.