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Improvements Under Sandinistas For Nicaragua Caribbean Coast Peoples

Report Back From Nicaragua Caribbean Coast Delegation, June 2023.

Editor’s Note: From June 17th – 27th, 2023, the Friends of ATC hosted an international delegation to Nicaragua that traveled from the capital city of Managua to the Southern Caribbean Coast. The focus of the delegation was to learn about the history, current context and culture of Nicaragua, with a focus on the improvements to quality of life for Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast peoples thanks to the Sandinista Revolution. We asked participants in the delegation to write about their experiences. In this installment, Jonah Blaustein shares the essay he wrote about the delegation.

Why I came to Nicaragua

Some friends of mine made several trips to Nicaragua between 2014 and 2017 and had wonderful reports about it. I was getting more interested in visiting there but then in 2020 with the pandemic and travel restrictions, I put thoughts about visiting Nicaragua on hold. It was then that I heard about an online course (called the Ben Linder Solidarity School) being offered on Zoom with an overview of the history, culture and politics of Nicaragua with an emphasis on agricultural policy and farmworkers rights. The course was presented by Friends of the ATC, an organization based in Managua. ATC is the Rural Workers Association or Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo. Friends of the ATC is the part of this organization that promotes solidarity, not only with farmworkers but with Nicaragua as a whole.

This course was very extensive and an eye opening experience. One thing I learned from it in particular impressed me. The Caribbean coastal region in Nicaragua is a huge, remote area which has been cut off historically from the main currents of the country, is populated primarily by a mix of indigenous, Black and Creole peoples, and after the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, efforts were started to undo the unfair treatment the people in this region have received. This process included restoring land rights for the lands originally inhabited by the locals which had been stolen throughout the colonial period.

This was one of the reasons I signed up for the June 2023 Friends of the ATC delegation to visit and learn about the Caribbean coast region of Nicaragua. I was part of a group of about 25 people for this tour which made stops in Bluefields, Rama Cay, Orinoco and Marshall Point. All these towns and communities are in the Southern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region in Nicaragua.

This was another revelation for me: the North and South Caribbean regions in Nicaragua are now autonomous. Laws were passed during the first period of Sandinista governance making these regions autonomous so people there could have more control over their communities than ever before. They elect officials to serve as local representatives there who are also part of national governing bodies in Nicaragua. On this tour we met and had exchanges with government, school, and community leaders, students, business owners and others to learn about the Caribbean region, its people and the changes happening there.


The ATC was established during the revolutionary struggle which finally ousted the Somoza regime in 1979. It has organized for peasant rights, farmworkers unions and agrarian reform. The ATC also has created schools for people in rural areas to learn about farming practices which emphasize more sustainable methods than conventional industrial agriculture. One school that is in a rural area in the Nicaraguan department of Chontales is called the Instituto Agroecológico Latinoamericano (Agroecological Institute of Latin America) or IALA (“ee-Yalla”). It happens that IALA is located about halfway between Managua and Bluefields, a good place to stop on the way to Bluefields, and this was our first stop after the delegation assembled in Managua.

The four hour bus ride to IALA brought us to a compound of buildings and cultivated fields surrounded by lush wooded areas with large trees. We stayed here for two nights and participated in a full schedule of programs much like the students participate in. Activities included early morning milking of cows, learning to make cheese with the fresh milk, tours around the grounds with talks about the land, its trees and history, and classes in some of the jobs that are done on a regular basis like tending crops, fertilizing and making compost. We learned about and got to sample a homemade fermented drink known as ‘chicha,’ which is roughly similar to ‘moonshine.’ I was expecting something totally different: it tasted more like sparkly apple cider rather than some burly, high-test firewater.

The tour through the grounds and the woods focused on various trees. One palm tree called coyol produces fruits that the cows eat, and is also used for making chicha. We saw a grove of cultivated teak trees planted in straight rows like an orchard. These trees produce valuable wood. We also saw black granadillo, whose wood is often used to make musical instruments like marimbas, clarinets and oboes. Another tree, a giant with light colored, smooth gray bark and buttress roots named ceiba is so impressive that it’s no surprise that there is much lore surrounding it. They can be huge but they have an elegance in their proportions. It’s said that these trees help hold up the world which is obvious when one encounters the largest ones. They are the source of spirits, both good and bad with elaborate stories to go with. In short, a very powerful presence in the woods.

One of the most amazing plants I learned about here is called pitaya which also goes by the name dragonfruit. I have seen the fruits but didn’t know a thing about the plant that produces them. There is a field with pitaya plants at IALA and they look a lot like a kind of cactus. In fact it is a kind of cactus related to the also very remarkable night-blooming cereus. The pitaya produces flowers which only bloom at night, like the cereus, and so moths and bats are generally what enables its pollination.

The pitaya plant is somewhat viney and doesn’t stand up on its own very well, so at IALA they make wooden supports to hold the young plant up, and they also plant a small tree called jelequeme as a “nurse tree” which the pitaya can support itself on later. This nurse tree is planted right next to each pitaya and can help to manage the surrounding soil with nitrogen. It also can survive without its leaves which are stripped off so it doesn’t block any of the full sunlight the pitayas need for about 12 hours a day. In Nicaragua pitaya fruit is sometimes available as a delicious bright red juice.

In the evenings there were programs for learning and discussing peasant struggle, history and politics. Plus there were cultural events more in an artistic mode that included music and dance. Dance appeared on several occasions during the 10-day tour which dovetailed with an underlying current of revolutionary struggle.

From IALA our next stop was Bluefields by bus. The brightly colored ex-school bus showed up at IALA and soon we were on our way with windows down and breezes blowing in as the bus sprinted along. The driver was playing a soundtrack of mostly merengues and cumbias, quick tempo dance pieces which made for good driving music, covering much distance with each song. The sun was setting and in the growing darkness, anticipation of finally arriving in Bluefields started to take over. Someone started clapping to the tune that was then playing, and soon others joined in. It felt like the whole group had become of one mind, clapping to the beat while the bus hurtled towards the Caribbean. I thought this was a fine complement to pay the driver. The driver then acknowledged our high spirits by blinking a light on and off at the front of the bus to the same rhythm. Eventually a few stood up in the aisle and did a little dance there, then sat down while someone else got up to do some dance steps. Even if the writer, activist and anarchist Emma Goldman never did actually say, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution,” it’s a good reminder that the struggle doesn’t mean we have to be dead serious all the time.

We had heard about accomplishments the Sandinista government has made in building roads, and one of the most significant projects was a road connecting the Pacific side of the country to the Caribbean side completed just a few years ago. The trip between Managua and Bluefields used to take several days in each direction. Road conditions on unpaved sections were usually very poor, but worse after heavy rain. Now it’s possible to drive from Managua to Bluefields in seven to nine hours.


Our schedule resumed the next morning to hear a talk given by Johnny Hodgson, a historian, political leader and activist in Bluefields. His talk was an overview of the history of the region which has been a separate entity since the Spanish started settling Central America. The Caribbean region had been caught in the struggles between Spain and Britain. Spain was more interested in the Pacific side of what was to become Nicaragua while the British were trying to gain control over the Caribbean. After Nicaragua gained independence, the Caribbean region continued to be separate, more of a backwater far from the centers closer to the Pacific coast. The people who live in this region have been neglected and exploited for many generations but things have been changing for them since the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime.

Hodgson pointed out that the Sandinistas defined several specific goals in their vision of how they wanted the country to change. Regarding the Caribbean region, the vision was for people there to become full participants in the country. He stressed that achieving the goals in the Caribbean region were difficult, but this struggle succeeded in being able to implement the autonomy process, which is allowing the region to make a number of important changes for the development of the region. The changes centered on these points:

  1. Recognition of the historic rights of the peoples in the Caribbean regions
  2. Upholding principles written into the new national constitution after 1979
  3. National unity

One of the first hurdles was the old thinking that national unity meant uniformity and homogeneity. This included only recognizing Spanish as the official language and a deaf ear to the whole concept of multiculturalism. But as we heard in the following days, this has been changing. Hodgson said that the efforts towards the ongoing transformations were meant to convert the Caribbean coast into the paradise it was meant to be.

Rama Cay

The next morning we boarded two pangas or speed boats at a dock in Bluefields and made the 20 minute trip to an island community of the indigenous group named Rama. When the boats approached the dock in Rama Cay, we could see children there who seemed to be interested in checking out the visitors. We tied up and disembarked and started on a walking tour of the island which is large enough for a small town. We saw traditional houses, some with thatched roofs and others with corrugated metal roofs, clothes-lines everywhere, a wide assortment of tropical trees like breadfruit, mango and palm. There was some undeveloped space, a wetland area where we could hear frogs. There were also some buildings for schools, the police department, town office and the electric utility. And a Moravian church. The Moravians were prominent in the Caribbean communities we visited and their churches are a common sight.

People came out to see us. There was as much curiosity about us as we had about them. Thoughts that we were intruding or interrupting their day fell away when we could see that most people were as friendly and respectful as we tried to be. The atmosphere felt positive to me. The children seemed pretty happy. One of the community leaders who helped plan our visit, Betty Molinar, welcomed us saying that since Covid-19, there have been very few visits to the island, so now they appreciate visits from groups like ours.

Another Rama community leader and teacher named Oscar Omeir gave a talk where we were gathered on a grass clearing near the shore of the island. He spoke about the challenges in preserving their language called Rama. He said that the Moravian missionaries who came years ago spoke English, and as more Rama converted to the new religion, they also adopted a Creole style of English. Within a few generations, fewer people could speak and understand the Rama language. They realized that their own language could die out soon unless efforts were made to teach Rama to students starting at a young age. This is what they are doing now and developing materials to make it easier for students to learn the Rama language in primary school.

This is a widespread problem for indigenous people throughout the hemisphere as fewer can speak and understand their native tongue with each new generation. We’ve learned how one important issue in the Caribbean region is maintaining cultural identity and that language is one of the most important factors in cultural identity. Changes are happening but those we’ve met stress that this will happen without negating cultural identity which is what had been done before.

Oscar said that there are nine Rama communities in this region which make up the Rama territory. Each community has its own governing body connected to other layers that in turn connect to the overall country wide government at the national level. As I contemplate this, I wonder has this structure of government, grassroots-based, something which sounds like participatory democracy, ever been tried before? Then I wonder if existing structures of government that reinforce concentrations of political power can ever be changed from within?

Questions like these and their variations hovered around our group. Participants in this delegation struck me as being shrewd in their political outlooks. Many are young too, which is encouraging. The future could resemble the world we are starting to see unfold. We made our way back to the dock and said goodbye to the gracious people of Rama Cay.


The next day we packed our bags to clear out of the Caribbean Dream Hotel in Bluefields and went back to the dock for pangas to Orinoco, a Garifuna community about two hours from Bluefields. The ride followed a route through the estuaries, rivers and lagoons all inland from the outer coast on the Caribbean Sea so we never actually saw the coast, but the waterways we did see were spectacular enough. Long stretches of mangrove line the banks of much of the route with occasional clearings revealing some cattle grazing on the land. We passed the town of Pearl Lagoon on the southern end of the large bay called Pearl Lagoon and continued across this body of water to the northern end where Orinoco sits.

Disembarking from the boats, we made our way to Hostal Garifuna where we would stay for the next two nights. It dawned on me that this village had no cars, trucks or motor vehicles of any kind except boats and a few motorcycles. A rare pleasure. Our travels had led to increasingly remote and traditional communities. Bluefields is a city. Or maybe a town, but even in this remote part of the world, it has more of the frenetic energy of cities I know. Rama Cay and Orinoco are different worlds. The communities probably look very much like they did a hundred years ago and fit in beautifully with the tropical surroundings. The atmosphere is peaceful.

The Garifuna people are originally from the island of St. Vincent, and are descendants of Africans, indigenous people in the Caribbean region such as Caribs, as well as indigenous South Americans. They were expelled by the British from St. Vincent to the uninhabitable Baliceaux island in 1796 and about half of the 5000 died. From there, the survivors traveled to Roatan (today Honduras) and from there throughout the Caribbean coasts of Central America where Garifuna communities are now widespread.

The historian William Loren Katz calls such intercultural mixes like the Garifuna “Black Indians” and writes that such groups are more widespread than is generally known. Katz has written about this primarily related to North America. Since Blacks and Native Americans have been so oppressed by the dominant powers, stories about their early alliances and cooperation in forming new communities together reveal efforts towards their own self defense and survival. This was also a radical response to the divide and conquer strategies of colonial and imperial powers and posed a grave risk to those trying to maintain this power.

Our hosts at the Hostal Garifuna are the couple Kensy Sambola Solis and her husband Matthew. Kensy was a key contact for organizing this part of the delegation. She is a community leader, anthropologist and parliamentarian in the regional autonomous government. Matthew is originally from Finland and started coming to Nicaragua for his work. Some years later he decided to settle here. Their lodge was a welcoming space for us as our temporary home and here we shared meals, talked, watched some documentary films about the Garifuna, and continued learning about this impressive tropical world.

We were invited to the Orinoco high school where we would have interactions with teachers and students. Several teachers spoke about how they are working towards improving students’ opportunities in education which have been growing in recent years. Overcoming the disadvantages that came with the old patterns of neglect is an ongoing struggle but it looks like students now have more possibilities than before and their teachers are fighting for them. Johnny Hodgson said that in the 1970s seeing a student like him from the Caribbean region at a college in Managua was rare compared to now.

Humberto Solis is another community leader in Orinoco and he led us on a walking tour of the town. We started at a big ‘Welcome to Orinoco’ sign which had a picture of one of the community’s founders, John Sambola who was known as a curandero or a traditional healer. The beginnings of this location for the community date to 1898. We walked by the cemetery, a health clinic, an octagonal community center, and a new solar powered generating project for the town. We saw a Moravian Church and a Catholic church. Houses with thatched and steel roofs. Gardens. Some small pulperias or convenience stores. Athletic field and basketball court. He also showed us remaining damage from hurricane Julia in 2022 which tore through the town, leaving some schools without their roofs, and damaging a recently built baseball stadium. They have survived this and more.

Later we met in an old building which was part of the Catholic church for a discussion with members of the community to talk about traditional farming methods. It sounds like some of the knowledge about cultivating crops has survived and several mentioned practices related to phases of the moon, understanding different insect pests, and learning traditional ways from grandparents who did farming. There are new challenges now like climate change and pests which have led to crop failures.

One panelist brought up the problem of children now losing interest in staying on the land and continuing the farmers’ life. This sounds similar to what is happening to rural communities throughout the world. Our group invited the community to visit IALA and to send young people from the community to study agroecology. Kensy shared about the different government programs that are supporting small farmers to make a living.

Marshall Point

On the last morning in Orinoco, we packed up again, said goodbyes, took a lot of group pictures and then walked along a concrete walkway to another Garifuna community about a mile away called Marshall Point. Seeing the surrounding land which was mostly uninhabited gave an impression of what some of the vast areas adjacent to the more built up parts are like. Marshall Point seemed to be a bit more spacious than Orinoco, a little less built up near the shore of Pearl Lagoon. This was a Sunday and when we arrived children were playing dodgeball outside the Moravian Church. The whole atmosphere was very relaxed. Some from our group joined in the ball game.

Soon we were invited to learn about a workshop in which a local, traditional drink is made called Gifiti. We met Rodolfo Bennet who said he had studied biology at a University in Maine and came back to Marshall Point and decided to start a business making and selling Gifiti. He described the beverage as having a base of rum made from sugar cane to which are added medicinal herbs. He ferments and distills the rum and then adds the herbs and lets the mixture rest. Then it is poured into bottles with labels. The workshop is mainly a large still for making the alcohol and vats for resting the completed mixture. He filled a small glass to pass around for each of us to sample the result, which most of us enjoyed. He sold a fair number of small bottles of Gifiti that day.

Later we were treated to a meal and then we basically relaxed and chatted until it was time to leave. The pangas had picked up our luggage in Orinoco and then came to Marshall Point for us to board for the return trip to Bluefields. After landing in Bluefields we started making our way back to the hotel and I noticed that the town looked almost deserted compared to the other days we were here. Because it was Sunday the busy sidewalk shops and markets near the hotel were closed, only the empty stands and shelves remaining.

Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU)

We spent one more night in Bluefields and the next morning we went to the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University or BICU for a tour and presentations. We were taken to different sections, offices, a lab and classroom and met with several of the staff people. The school is evidently well run and managed and everyone we met had a sense of pride and purpose that this is their school. They prepared a program for us which included several of the current students who each gave an account of who they were, where they were from and what their educational journey was like. They were from a mix of places and communities around the Caribbean region plus from neighboring Honduras. The student community is much like what the vision for the region is, with students of various cultures adding their perspectives towards being full participants in their society.

A student dance troupe also performed some lively traditional dances. Dance was again an appropriate means to communicate the joys and our shared humanity involved in learning and struggling in this endeavor to create the world anew.


This sketch of what our delegation consisted of is no substitute for actually visiting Nicaragua, and as many people say, if it’s possible, by all means come to Nicaragua and see for yourself what is going on. The barrage of propaganda slandering this country and government is non-stop and is effective. For 30 years we have been subjected to an official narrative that was summed up by “there is no alternative.” Propaganda and the official narrative around this have proven nothing except that the premise is false and the status quo will doom us all unless alternatives are adopted. Nicaragua is proving that there are good alternatives and is implementing these to solve many serious problems with good results.

The disturbances in 2018 in Nicaragua which shook the whole country are better understood now after much investigative work and writing was produced about events that year. It was an attempted coup funded and supported by the US which has been trying to oust the Sandinista government since it regained power through elections in 2006.

These violent disturbances followed many of the same patterns used for ousting a targeted government which is part of the playbook used over the past century by the US and its allies. When the people of Nicaragua figured out what was happening in 2018 and saw that the horrendous violence taking place was mostly directed towards police, government workers, Sandinistas and bystanders rather than “government forces attacking non-violent students,” the people banded together and forced an end to the roadblocks strangling the country and the paid thugs causing so much violence.

Because of the Sandinista achievements in improving living conditions, decreasing extreme poverty, making health care and education a human right, and in general solving problems that plague much of humanity, it has become a light of hope in a very troubled world. The US continues its interventions going back to the Contra war, meddling with elections, funding opposition media and organizations, and ongoing economic sanctions. These are clear examples of belligerence and add to the most serious problems of humanity today. Signs that the world has started a phase towards shifting the political power structures away from the hegemonic domain of the US and its allies is also a light of hope. The alternatives which have been forbidden for so long are starting to emerge and Nicaragua has done much to help this.

The maven of Friends of the ATC is Erika Takeo who came to Nicaragua from the US for her work in this organization and has made Nicaragua her home. She is the organizer, facilitator and translator for delegations like the June 2023 Caribbean delegation. I asked her what her thoughts were towards the future, the big picture regarding her work with the ATC.

“I think it’s really important to do two things: One, work with young people and build up this next generation of anti-imperialist/solidarity organizers from around the world who know Nicaragua, who care about Nicaragua and take the anti-imperialist stance in respect of Nicaragua’s national sovereignty.

“But I think that needs to be paired with intergenerational exchanges, because there’s a whole generation of people that came to Nicaragua in the 1980s when most of them were young and had a very transformative experience here… [Young people] need to listen to the folks who have been in this for many decades. I think that’s very important because we don’t need to reinvent the wheel! There’s a lot of things to learn from the past.”

She continued by saying she’s hopeful about the next generation of young people who are searching for solutions in a time when those in the US are facing growing difficulties with the cost of education, health insurance, the housing crisis, and with climate change creating disasters. “I think Nicaragua has a lot of answers that can be picked up in other places around the world. That’s what we call the threat of a good example.”

Dedicated to all the participants in this delegation.

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