Civil War, Statebuilding, and the Continuing Struggle for Indigenous Autonomy in Nicaragua

Kai Thaler is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, working on rebellion, political violence, and post-conflict statebuilding in Africa and Latin America, and on protests and authoritarianism.

Featured image credit:Courtney Parker, 2016

image from Wikimedia Commons of "Miskito men organized for community defense in Nicaragua's Caribbean region" credited to Courtney Parker, the original photographer in 2016)

Dr. Kai M. Thaler
@kaimthaler on Twitter on BlueSky

Our article highlights the importance of statebuilding priorities, especially governability, and shows how civil war researchers focused on state interests can build bridges to offer insights for nonstate groups seeking autonomy or other policy changes, who could achieve gains by appealing to statebuilding interests.”

What happens to promises of autonomy made during civil wars after conflict ends? And how can communities seeking autonomy protect and advance their interests when former rebels and other politicians turn their attention toward other priorities? Governments facing security threats may sometimes agree to autonomy for Indigenous communities or other minority groups but might not fulfil those promises once conflicts or threats end. By framing their own interests as aligning with statebuilding priorities or by posing a challenge to the state, communities might better ensure state promises of autonomy are put into practice.

Indigenous Autonomy, State Interests, and Civil Conflict

As Giorleny Altamirano Rayo, Eric Mosinger, and I argue in a recent article, states sometimes recognise and implement autonomy for Indigenous communities when they believe it will help advance goals of gaining influence over hard-to-govern regions, populations, and resources. We focus on three core statebuilding aims: governability, identification, and extraction.

Governability, states’ highest priority, is the ability to maintain stable order. Identification entails getting populations to identify with the nation-state and use institutional channels to address their aspirations. Extraction is states’ ability to pursue economic development goals and generate rents from natural resource exploitation or taxing formal markets.

We analyse Central America, a region where states are relatively weak, yet Indigenous communities have struggled to gain formal autonomy. In the case of Nicaragua, civil war unexpectedly led to an autonomy agreement, but implementation has been a longer-term struggle.

Civil War and Autonomy in Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) fought their way to power in 1979, motivated by a left-wing ideology that called for extending state influence throughout Nicaragua’s territory, including the previously-neglected Caribbean Coast. The FSLN sought to establish governability but was especially interested in increasing costeños’ (Caribbean Coast residents) identification with the Nicaraguan state through education and other service provision. Extending infrastructure also held potential for greater economic integration and extraction.

Most FSLN leaders and cadres were from Nicaragua’s Pacific region, though, and did not understand costeños culture, desires, and connections to lands and waters. Indigenous armed resistance emerged especially among the Miskitu people, leading to collaboration with other anti-FSLN forces collectively known as the Contras, and US government support.

As the civil war dragged on, the FSLN sought non-military ways to address Indigenous rebels’ demands, due both to pragmatism and acknowledging mistakes. In 1987, after negotiations, the FSLN government passed a law recognising Caribbean Coast autonomy and its communities’ particular rights. This was primarily due to governability concerns, but the FSLN still hoped to increase Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities’ identification with the Nicaraguan nation.  Initial practical steps began, but fully implementing the autonomy law required further legislation.

Limits of Post-Conflict Autonomy Implementation in Nicaragua

To make peace with the other Contra rebels and the US, the FSLN agreed to hold elections in 1990—which they unexpectedly lost. Subsequent right-leaning governments viewed Indigenous and Afro-descendant autonomy as a barrier to capitalist economic extraction, stalling autonomy implementation.

FSLN leader Daniel Ortega, meanwhile, centralised the FSLN around himself and formed alliances with right-wing actors to try to regain power. Ahead of the 2006 elections, Ortega also allied with Nicaragua’s main Indigenous-led political party, YATAMA, seeking votes and Indigenous and Afro-descendant identification with an FSLN-controlled state by committing to fulfilling wartime promises and titling collective territories.

Ortega won, and titling began advancing throughout the Caribbean Coast. As Ortega grew more secure in power, however—winning elections relatively cleanly in 2011 and then through fraud in 2016—he no longer needed costeños’ votes nor identification with the state. Ortega discarded YATAMA and independent leaders, and instead installed loyalists in Caribbean Coast local and regional governments. This ensured government-backed extractive projects could proceed uninhibited and migrant settlers, who increasingly outweighed costeños in elections, would not face eviction. Settlers and companies have increasingly attacked Indigenous and Afro-descendant people without police and government responses.

When mass anti-government protests erupted in 2018, Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities joined in, calling for reestablishing democracy and for autonomy to be meaningfully implemented. Ortega’s government responded with a lethal crackdown and increasingly totalitarian rule countrywide, suppressing YATAMA and other Indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations, leaving little possibility of peaceful pro-autonomy mobilisation.

Implications beyond Nicaragua

Indigenous rebellion and threats to governability amid a wider civil war pushed the Nicaraguan state into granting autonomy, but other than a brief window when Ortega first returned to power in the 2000s, there has been a continuing ‘implementation gap.’ How then can Indigenous communities or other minority groups not only gain autonomy recognition, but ensure autonomy laws are implemented and communities truly benefit?

Our article highlights the importance of statebuilding priorities, especially governability, and shows how civil war researchers focused on state interests can build bridges to offer insights for nonstate groups seeking autonomy or other policy changes, who could achieve gains by appealing to statebuilding interests. Threats to governability from rebels or other armed groups may lead states to view Indigenous communities as allies in establishing security and stability where the state has had limited reach. Governments themselves may initiate this, but Indigenous communities threatened by armed groups can also appeal to states’ governability aims to gain protection while also advancing their own autonomy struggles. As the Civil War Paths project highlights, however, policies adopted during civil conflict must be traced over the longer term.

In 2023, Indigenous communities facing land invasions, destruction, and disease brought by illicit actors called on Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to implement autonomy agreements by titling communal territories and evicting invaders. Lula’s government views armed groups in the Amazon as threats to governability and has launched operations against them, alongside recognising and titling Indigenous territories. This could be a model for other threatened Indigenous communities and their allies to ensure statebuilding and security operations are accompanied by autonomy implementation—so long as they can make governments uphold the bargain after security threats subside.


Rebel Governance as Self-Legitimation: The Case of the FARC in Colombia

Dr. Wolfgang Minatti (he/him) is a visiting researcher at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His research focuses on the legitimation of governance in international politics with a particular focus on violent non-state actors in civil wars. Furthermore, he is interested in fieldwork methodology and the ethics of qualitative research, having conducted extensive fieldwork in Colombia with ex-combatants and peasants.