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date: 23 April 2017

Central America’s Caribbean Coast: Politics and Ethnicity

Summary and Keywords

From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.

The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.

Keywords: Caribbean coast, indigenous peoples, Afro-Latin history, Panama Canal, United Fruit Company, immigration, social movements, ethnicity, race

The Caribbean coastal regions of Central America—from Guatemala in the north to Panama’s Canal Zone in the south—form a distinct cultural space that has historically stood in contrast to the isthmus as a whole. While the Pacific coasts and central highlands of these nations have often exemplified Mesoamerican features, with the Spanish language, Catholic religion, and various forms of mestizo identity politically dominant, the Caribbean coastal zones have manifested different traits. They are territories of great ethnic diversity, with large black, indigenous, and racially mixed populations, where dozens of indigenous languages and Creole English are spoken and blended, and Protestant churches have long predominated. These coastal lowlands have also long been physically isolated by thick jungles and inadequate transportation infrastructure. Despite national borders and geographical boundaries dividing the Caribbean littoral, these spaces—referred to by terms such as “the Atlantic Coast” and “the North Coast” depending on the country—share a great deal in common with one another. Their comparative historical trajectories provide insight into the nature of ethnic and racial identities and hierarchies as well as the question of national integration.

Dating back to the time of colonial competition, the eastern side of the isthmus remained largely unconquered by the Spanish Empire and, at times, came under the influence or outright dominance of the British Empire. The arrival of multinational corporations and foreign powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to the formation of enclave economies and the mass immigration of foreign labor from the Anglophone Caribbean to work on these enterprises. Over the course of the 20th century, these locations became progressively incorporated economically, socially, and politically into their respective nation-states. State power, infrastructure works, and large numbers of Spanish-speaking mestizos—in search of employment and land—arrived in increasing numbers into once-isolated territories. Given the discrimination locals faced at the hands of the authorities, questions of race and ethnicity often moved to the forefront of political relations on the coastal plain. Through their participation in labor unions, political parties, social movements, and in some cases armed conflict, diverse coastal populations have staked claims for social inclusion, collective rights, autonomy, and self-determination.

Colonial Roots of “la Costa”

With its dense jungle foliage, high rainfall, lagoons and rivers, Central America’s Caribbean littoral forms a distinct ecological region when compared to the Pacific-facing side of the isthmus. Indeed, large stretches of coastal area remained beyond the effective control of Spanish power and, following independence, the new nation-states. The most extreme case was the 200-mile-long segment known as the “Mosquito Coast” or “the Mosquitia,” a one-time British protectorate that spread from present-day eastern Nicaragua into Honduras. Rather than a preexisting ethnic group, some scholars argue that the indigenous Miskito (or Miskitu) populating the coast were a novel “colonial tribe,” an ethnogenesis produced as a result of native people’s interactions with Northern European buccaneers operating in the region.1 The presence of African slaves (often described as arriving via shipwreck) further transformed local indigenous peoples, mixing with the natives and forming a new mixed group pejoratively termed “zambos” by the colonial powers. The British maintained a foothold on the isthmus in alliance with a lineage of Miskitu kings who ruled from the mid-1600s up through 1894. Whether these monarchs possessed legitimacy and authority in local society or were mere “British puppets” has long been a topic of debate among historical anthropologists.2 Likewise, historians disagree significantly over the extent of British interest and involvement in the region.3 From the mid-1800s, the Miskito Coast was evangelized by the Moravian Church, which won widespread adherence in the region by the end of the century.4

In addition, other new ethnic groups emerged in Central America’s Caribbean areas over the course of colonial rule, including the English-speaking Creole population—descendants of Europeans and enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbean people—who populated settlements in Mosquitia such as Bluefields and the Bay Islands off of Honduras. Like the Miskitus, the Creole population was overwhelmingly converted to the Moravian Church in the 19th century. Even during the period of Miskitu rule, Creoles played an intermediary rule as the most educated, politically influential, and economically powerful of the non-Europeans.5 Finally, in the late 18th century, there emerged the Garifuna people (also known as “Black Caribs” or “Garinagu”), the descendants of African maroons and Carib-Arawak Indians who had collectively fought against the British on St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean. In 1797, the British deported thousands of them en masse to the Bay Island of Roatán, from where they fanned out, forming large numbers of fishing and subsistence farming villages in modern-day Honduras and Belize (British Honduras), as well as Livingston in Guatemala and Pearl Lagoon in Nicaragua. During this period, the Garifuna spoke their own—largely indigenous—language, practiced the Catholic faith, and maintained many African-influenced traditions such as music, dance, and ritual.6 Each of these varied ethnic groups would develop ways of negotiating their rights and status with colonial and postcolonial states as well as foreign companies.

After 1860, as a result of negotiations between the British and the Republic of Nicaragua, the Mosquitia was transformed into a partially self-governing Miskitu Reserve, and the kings were now referred to as chiefs. Finally, in 1894, Liberal President José Santos Zelaya sent Nicaragua’s military forces to claim sovereignty over the region through force. Though Zelaya termed it the “Reincorporation,” the event was known as the “Overthrow” to the Costeños, many of whom felt themselves to have fallen under the rule of hostile “Spaniards.”7

The Enclave Era and Racial Tensions, 1870s–1940s

From the mid- to late 19th century, transnational corporations came to reign supreme along the coasts of the various Central American republics. With British dominance slipping, the United States was fast becoming the hegemonic power throughout the hemisphere. Rather than direct colonial control, U.S. power on the isthmus often functioned through massive foreign investment and ownership by its companies. Flexing its new status, the United States carried through to fruition the centuries-old dream to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with a canal. Work had been begun by the French in Panama in what was then northern Colombia but was abandoned due to series of economic difficulties and outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria. In 1903, however, the Republic of Panama was formed through U.S. gunship diplomacy and the Americans were granted a contract providing for sovereignty over the Canal Zone. During these same years, Minor Keith’s United Fruit Company (UFCO) and its competitors, Standard Fruit and Cuyamel Fruit, became virtual states unto themselves, ruling over vast swaths of once-dense jungle regions with sparse populations.8 Buying off local politicians and dictators, these companies were granted such significant monopoly powers over land and labor that the title “banana republic” emerged as a term of derision for Central American governments. In addition to their network of railroads and company towns, a number of international ports were constructed, including Puerto Barrios (Guatemala), Puerto Cortés (Honduras), Puerto Cabezas (Nicaragua), Puerto Limón (Costa Rica), and Puerto Colón (Panama). Much of the Caribbean littoral was transformed into a vast complex of plantation, lumbering, and mining enclaves producing bananas, rubber, timber, and gold for export to the American market.

To carry out these projects, the transnational corporations imported their workforces from abroad. A large part of the mestizo populations of Central America, whether due to land ownership or relatively higher wages, initially appeared uninterested in the possibilities offered. Although these immigrants came from all over the world—from the United States, Europe, China, India and the Middle East—the vast majority of the laborers were recruited from the economically-depressed plantation colonies of the British Caribbean and, to a far lesser extent, the Francophone Caribbean. Many unemployed, landless workers arrived in the isthmus from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Belize, and the Cayman Islands. Jamaicans constituted the single largest group of migrants in the wider region, to the extent that black West Indians were often termed jamaiquinos regardless of their actual origin. Upon completion of the Panama Canal, many then migrated northward again in search of work. Constructing railroads and ports and opening huge tracts of jungle land for fruit plantations, the Caribbean migrants played a fundamental role in transforming these host nations.

Work conditions were extremely dangerous and wages relatively low. The American companies also brought with them “Jim Crow”–style racial segregation and discrimination, with whites obtaining superior wages, housing, and status compared to the local and Caribbean workers. On the Panama Canal, for instance, while white engineers, managers, and even laborers were on the “gold roll” receiving payment in U.S. dollars, most black migrants were placed on the “silver roll” and were paid in local currency. The largest and most stable group of white North Americans were the “Zonians,” who inhabited the racially segregated Canal Zone for many decades. On a smaller scale, similarly self-contained U.S.-style towns dotted the banana plantation enclaves farther to the north. The foreign companies also proved adept at using racial and ethnic “divide and conquer” strategies to further fragment the nonwhite workforce by race. Placing whites at the top of the racial hierarchy, these corporations divided work gangs and responsibilities by racial groups (such as Hispanic, West Indians, and indigenous workers), at times even playing migrants from different Anglophone islands (like Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts) against one another.9

Although initially concentrated in hard, physical labor on the plantations, railroads, and docks, a number of the West Indians rose in status over time. This social mobility was particularly the case following the influx of ever-larger numbers of Spanish-speaking mestizos and ladinos from the Pacific regions of Central America. Due to their knowledge of the English language spoken by the American managers and their higher education levels, many West Indians came to serve as foremen and office workers, functioning as intermediaries between the corporations and the local Hispanic workforce.10 The competition for employment and the resulting tensions at times precipitated racist attacks against foreigners at the hands of Central American mestizo workers and the authorities alike. The 1910 Masica incident in Honduras, the 1914 Quiriguá incident in Guatemala, and the 1925 race riot in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua were some of the more dramatic episodes of xenophobic violence.11 As British colonial subjects, the black West Indians were able to appeal to local consuls with their experiences of abuse, bequeathing a voluminous historical record of the discrimination and harassment they often faced.

With large numbers of West Indians laboring along the coast, a transnational black cultural and political space linking the ports and company towns began to emerge. Isolated from the mainstream Central American culture, the migrant communities developed Protestant churches, mutual aid societies, social clubs, and cricket and football teams, as well as English-language newspapers. At times, they organized labor unions, such as the Artisans and Labourers’ Union led by Jamaicans in Puerto Limón, which launched a major strike in 1910 against UFCO.12 Perhaps the most notable was the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Pan-African organization founded by Marcus Garvey. Garvey was a Jamaican-born activist who had worked in the enclave zones of Costa Rica and Panama and experienced firsthand the difficult situation of the black migrants. By fostering self-reliance, unity, and an embracing of one’s African roots, UNIA challenged white superiority among the black diaspora of North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, and even in Africa. Dozens of UNIA chapters quickly gathered large numbers of adherents in the 1910s and 20s among the migrant communities in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.13 Historians disagree over the role of the UNIA in their relations with the American fruit companies. Some emphasize its role in mobilizing West Indian worker militancy along on racial grounds, while others demonstrate that the group actively opposed strikes and even received funding from UFCO.

During these same years, the responses of coastal indigenous peoples to the export boom varied greatly. Many attempted to maintain a subsistence lifestyle marginal to the expanding capitalist economy, but others began working for wages. Some of the Miskitu population of Honduras and Nicaragua often found work on the lumberyards and docks owned by the American companies. The Garifuna also increasingly participated in these activities, earning income to supplement their fishing and farming. Elsewhere, indigenous people resisted the expanding export sectors when they threatened their local autonomy and land ownership. In 1910, in the province of Limón in Costa Rica, Talamanca chief Antonio Saldaña opposed the expansion of banana plantations onto communal land. Following the sudden death of the Bribri leader and his successor, popular belief came to hold that they had been poisoned by UFCO agents.14 The arrival of the foreign workforce also contributed to social changes in indigenous society. As time went on, West Indian migrants began to intermarry into the local Bribri tribes to such an extent that a new black Bribri clan emerged by the 1920s.15

At times, indigenous and Costeño responses to oppressive state power presence took openly violent forms. On the San Blas Islands of Panama, the Kuna people rose up in the 1925 Tule Revolution under the leadership of their chief, Nele Kantule, against what they saw as government efforts to take away their lands and cultural rights in their villages. After the rebels killed numerous non-indigenous police officers and their local collaborators, the Panamanian state negotiated with the Kuna and granted the San Blas Indians a certain level of autonomy. Interestingly, the United States here backed the indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the government, perhaps in an effort to keep the Panamanian state weak.16

These years saw increasingly strident xenophobic opposition to West Indian migrants by Central American politicians and local workers. The scapegoating of foreigners was partly a response to economic difficulties. Some began denouncing the “Africanization” of the coast, and nationalist opposition to the foreign corporations mixed easily with racist attacks against “blacks.”17 In Honduras, a particular discourse of mestizo identity—inclusive of indigenous and European roots but opposed to blackness—also arose during these years.18 The countries of the isthmus began applying restrictive immigration rules requiring entrance fees or employment quotas of local workers. From the 1920s and particularly following the Great Depression, openly racist laws blocking entrance to “the black race” were passed in one country after another and, in some cases, deportations were carried out.19 Panama’s 1941 Constitution effectively rendered stateless thousands of West Indian migrants and their children.20 In 1942, Costa Rica stopped granting visas to black migrants hoping to enter the country.21 Thousands of West Indian migrants returned to their home islands or headed northward to the United States. These tough years marked the definitive end of the era of mass immigration and intense cultural exchange with the wider Caribbean. Although a massive number of West Indians left the Central American isthmus during these tough years, many migrants and their locally born children would remain and continue to impact the countries.

Citizenship, Political Parties, and Labor Movements, 1920s–1950s

The period following the 1920s saw a gradual and partial incorporation of the coastal regions into their respective nations through the spread of roads and the growing presence of state agents. Ever-greater numbers of Spanish-speaking mestizos continued to arrive in the Caribbean zones, whether in search of employment with the foreign companies, land for subsistence agriculture, or cattle ranches. Given its relative isolation, inaccessible terrain, and status as a frontier, the Caribbean coast served as a launching point for numerous military expeditions and rebellions in those Central American republics rocked by civil war. Afro-Caribbean people often used their participation in these upheavals in order to make claims upon the national governments for their rights.

During the 1926 Constitutionalist War in Nicaragua, for instance, Creole General George Hodgson launched an armed uprising, leading his black followers (called “the Twenty-Five Brave”) to capture military power in Bluefields and elsewhere along the coast. While standing up to the Managua government in favor of coastal rights, they did so in alliance with the Liberal Party as part of its perennial struggles against the Conservative faction. When the United States intervened militarily in order to bolster the latter’s power, sending troops to the coast and then occupying the wider country, the Liberals quickly capitulated. Creole demands seemingly came to naught.22 Later, during the Anastasio Somoza García dictatorship established in 1936, sectors of the Creole and Miskitu populations of the coast came to serve in the government’s political and military structures as part of the dictator’s Nationalist Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacionalista, PLN).

The Garifuna population of Honduras likewise joined in partisan conflict during these years, allying themselves with that country’s Liberal Party against the National Party. In 1928, Catarino Castro Serrano became the first “Black Carib” to become a congressman, though the black writer and politician was based in the capital city rather than on the coast.23 During the 1930s rule of General Tiburcio Carias Andino, the Garinagu again allied with the Liberals as they attempted to overthrow his dictatorial regime, which was closely identified with the banana companies and U.S. foreign policy. In retaliation, the military in 1937 carried out a massacre against the Garifuna village of San Juan (Durugubuti), brutally murdering twenty-two male residents.24 Many Garifuna would later join in the labor movement as part of the banana and railway workers unions, although this would at times place them at odds with the small remaining West Indian population.

In Guatemala, events took an even more dramatic turn. Despite its relatively smaller black population, people of West Indian and mixed race heritage played key roles during the 1944 to 1954 political opening under Presidents Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz. After the fall of the dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico, multiethnic unions began mobilizing. The leader of the banana workers’ union was Alaric Alfonso Bennett, a charismatic labor leader whose parents had emigrated from Jamaica. Numerous Guatemalans of black and mixed background took on important roles in the nationalist labor and land struggles against the United Fruit Company (UFCO) on the railroads, plantations and the country’s main export facility at Puerto Barrios. In 1949, Bennett was elected the country’s first Afro-Guatemalan diputado in representation of the Caribbean department of Izabal for the left-wing, pro-government Revolutionary Action Party (Partido de Acción Revolucionaria, PAR). During the U.S. CIA-backed 1954 coup against the Arbenz government, Bennett was brutally murdered by counterrevolutionary forces.25

In Costa Rica, as well, it was through an alliance with national political parties that the West Indians, once disenfranchised and stateless, were able to position themselves within the national sphere as Afro-Costa Ricans (afrocostarricenses). While the province of Limón saw significant conflict and mobilization against UFCO, the Jamaican-descended population often looked askance at these activities. Racial divisions in hiring meant that when the epic 1934 banana strike took place, it was completely directed by a Hispanic labor movement with very little involvement of Limón’s black population.26 Not only were most of the remaining West Indians without citizenship rights, but many had moved up the ladder into management positions or become small farmers of banana and cacao who sold their produce to UFCO.27

As in Guatemala, the post–World War II period witnessed major transformations in Costa Rican politics. There was rising political conflict as populist leader Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia formed an alliance with Costa Rica’s Communist Party in favor of social legislation for the working class. In fact, it was only in the aftermath of the overthrow of this coalition in the 1948 Civil War that Limón’s black population became involved in national politics. As their efforts to gain citizenship rights bore fruit, they became a reliable voting base for José Figueres’ National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, PLN). In 1953, Alex Curling Deliser entered Congress as the first black congressman in representation of the community.28 Increasing social rights and the possibility of government employment would follow for the Afro-Costa Ricans, and dozens of black congressmen would serve in office over the coming decades, often but not always on the PLN ticket.

Similarly, during this same postwar period, the Afro-Antilleans of Panama (afroantillanos) were able to achieve the restoration of their citizenship rights as part of the 1946 Constitution. George Westerman, a journalist and sociologist of West Indian parentage, played a key role in the burgeoning movement for the restoration of citizenship rights and an end to segregation and discrimination in both the Canal Zone and Panama proper. He and other prominent Afro-Panamanians later mobilized the black vote on behalf of various candidates in the country’s major political parties during the 1940s and 50s. As in Costa Rica, these years saw further cultural integration with the spread of schooling in the Spanish language, while intermarriage between afroantillanos and Hispanic Panamanians increased.29

The Rise of Ethnicity-Based Movements, 1950s–1980s

Just as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had rippled through Central America’s Caribbean coast during the 1910s and 20s, the impact of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the figure of Martin Luther King Jr. would inspire many in the coastal regions to more openly demand social justice. With many Afro-Panamanians and Afro-Costa Ricans studying in and traveling and migrating to the United States, the demands of those years echoed back through new organizations and activist groups. Laws banning racial discrimination were passed by Panama in 1956 and Costa Rica in 1960 and 1968.30 Likewise, with the later rise of the Black Power movement in the United States, there was a turn towards a more militant form of ethnic politics among some of the youth. Similarly, the diverse indigenous groups ringing the coast also played a part in the emergence of the international indigenous rights movement in the 1970s, organizing for land rights, cultural autonomy, and an end to marginalization and discrimination.

As mentioned, the Garifuna population of Honduras had a history of participating as part of the Liberal Party and later in the banana and railroad unions that had challenged the fruit companies and their subsidiaries. A number of young Garinagu activists became affiliated with the Honduran Communist Party and during the late 1950s formed the Abraham Lincoln Society, with the aim of ending racial segregation in the restaurants and hotels in the mestizo cities of the North Coast like La Ceiba and Tela. Eventually, some of those who had participated in both mainstream and leftist party politics came together to form the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (Organización Fraternal Negra de Honduras, OFRANEH). The group was founded in 1977, with participation by both West Indians (negros ingleses or negros de habla inglés) and Garifuna alike. Among the principal leaders was Erasmo Zúñiga Sambulá, a Garifuna man from Trujillo in the department of Colón, who had served in the military and denounced segregation on the docks of Puerto Cortés. Over time, OFRANEH began making demands as “indigenous people,” allying with Miskitus and others in their calls for the protection of communal property rights.31

Given the important integration of the Afro-Costa Ricans (afrocostarricenses) into national politics through Figueres’ Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), more openly race-based activism was relatively limited during these years. But during the 1970s, student groups, inspired by the global upswing of black activism, began celebrating black pride in their African and Jamaican heritage. In 1978, this general mood helped to spur a “National Seminar on the Situation of Blacks in Costa Rica.”32 For working-class afrocostarricenses living in the province of Limón, the years after 1957 saw the re-emergence of banana production and intense trade union activity. Black dockworkers took on important leadership roles in the Limón Workers Federation (Federación de Trabajadores Limonenses, FETRAL). This organization launched a general strike in Puerto Limón in 1979 that brought the nation to a standstill. Some radical members of this new labor movement, like Marvin “Calalú” Wright Lindo, broke with the country’s mainstream left and created the Authentic Limonense Party (Partido Auténtico Limonense, PAL) in 1976, a regionalist party blending elements of Marxism and Black Power which gained great renown but never won office.33 In Costa Rica, as in Panama, these years saw the gradual assimilation of the descendants of West Indian migrants into the mainstream Spanish-speaking national cultures.

International civil rights and Black Power currents in Panama gained force following the rise to power of the populist military regime of General Omar Torrijos in 1968. In his tense negotiations with the United States for the return of the Canal to Panamanian sovereignty, Torrijos sought the support of Afro-Panamanians of West Indian background and publicly denounced the racial segregation they still faced. In this way, he courted those who traditionally had depended on the U.S. government for employment and may have identified with the occupying power rather than Panamanian nationalism. With official encouragement, organizations like the militant Advocacy Action for Panamanian Blacks (Acción Reivindicadora del Negro Panameño, ARENEP) began asserting claims on behalf of the movement. Among the prominent figures affiliated with the group was Leroy Gittens, an Afro-Panamanian singer and composer. Torrijos, in a challenge to traditional elites, also increasingly opened the civil service to afroantillanos, which helped to precipitate the formation of the more middle-class Association of Professionals, Workers and Leaders of Black Ancestry (Asociación de Profesionales, Obreros y Dirigentes de Ascendencia Negra, APODAN).34

Likewise, the years of Torrijos’ rule saw the spread of activist groups among the coastal indigenous peoples. In 1972, the Kuna Youth Movement (Movimiento de Juventud Kuna, MJK) was formed out of previous indigenous student groupings. In its discourse, it harkened back to the 1925 Tule Revolution and called for autonomy, respect for their culture, and land rights. Like the new black organizations, the Communist-affiliated MJK aligned with the Torrijos government, taking an anti-imperialist line on the U.S. presence and calling for the return of the Canal to the Panamanian government.35 Among the Guaymí (or Ngäbe-Buglé), on the other hand, the 1960s witnessed the emergence of the Mama Chi movement, a messianic religious revival that emerged in the wake of labor disputes and mass layoffs by the Chiriquí Land Company. It quickly spread across coastal Panama and converted into a political movement, which briefly declared an ethnic Ngäbe republic in 1965 before opening dialogue with the government. Despite the movement’s decline, many among the Guaymí continued to be involved in political action for their lands and rights during the Torrijos period and after.36

In Nicaragua during the 1970s, the distant Atlantic Coast remained largely untouched by the dramatic rise of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN), a left-wing guerrilla group challenging the rule of the Somoza family dictatorship. The “Mosquitia,” however, did not remain outside of the flurry of indigenous and black organizing that was taking place in the Caribbean sectors of the neighboring countries. In 1974, the Alliance for Progress of Miskitos and Sumus (Alianza para el Progreso de Miskitos y Sumus, ALPROMISU) was formed in the northern part of the coast, with the backing of the Moravian Church and Capuchin missionaries.37 Affiliating with the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, ALPROMISU increasingly made ethnic demands on behalf of their coastal and riverine communities, calling for schools, health centers, and access roads. The group’s leadership was later accused by some of having been co-opted by the Somoza government via employment and state funding.38 Farther to the south in the coastal city of Bluefields, the Progressive Costeño Organization (Organización Progresista Costeña, OPROCO) and the Southern Indigenous and Creole Community (SICC), formed groups supporting economic development and political inclusion for the black Creole population. The SICC developed a strong critique of mestizo racism and what they referred to as the “internal colonialism” of the Atlantic Coast. However, like the Miskitu organizations, OPROCO was closely aligned with the Somoza regime, while SICC also abstained from openly criticizing the government in power.39

Revolution, Conflict, and Autonomy

The most dramatic and bloody episode in the Caribbean coast’s history of ethnic politics took place following the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, with the full encouragement of the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN) overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and promised to incorporate the Atlantic within its wider national plans for social reform and popular empowerment. Young Miskito activists like Brooklyn Rivera, Hazel Lau, and Steadman Fagoth took over the leadership of MISURASATA (Miskito, Sumu, Rama, Sandinista Aslatakanka, “united together”), which became an official mass organization affiliated with the revolutionary government. Sandinista efforts to “integrate” the eastern part of the country proved clumsy and alienating towards local non-Hispanic populations and cultures about which knew very little. Official FSLN propaganda referred to the Coast as “an awakening giant,” suggesting its residents had been asleep during the Somoza years. According to some scholars, Costeños still possessed great “anglo affinity” or “anglo ideology” due to their history of alliance with the British Empire and American multinational corporations, and saw the “Spaniards” (Nicaraguans from the Pacific and Central regions) as outsiders attempting to impose their system and way of life. Likewise, anti-communist discourse fostered by the Somoza regime, the Church, and the U.S. government led many to oppose the new government.40

MISURASATA’s regional claims of cultural and language rights were accepted by the FSLN, but sudden calls for direct Miskitu control of vast areas of land (about 80 percent of the Atlantic region) struck some in Managua as tantamount to separatism. Anti-Sandinista groups, previously uninterested in the economic and social problems of the coast, helped spur more radical demands. In response to this dissent, the FSLN was heavy-handed, arresting leaders of the Miskito movement. During this period, the U.S. CIA became actively involved across the border in Honduras, arming the remnants of Somoza’s military (known as the Contras or counterrevolutionaries) to attack the Nicaraguan government. By 1981, MISURASATA leaders Fagoth and Rivera had turned definitively against the Sandinistas, leaving the country to join in the military fight begun by the Contras.

Although Sandinista abuses against the Miskitus were exaggerated by the U.S. government, FSLN actions did in fact force many indigenous people into the arms of the Contras. In response to cross-border attacks by the CIA, the Sandinistas in 1982 carried out forced evacuations of Miskitus from their homes on the Rio Coco to new settlements. In the process, the army killed an unknown number of innocent Miskitus. In response, 10,000 indigenous people fled into exile in Honduras, where many indigenous men were recruited to the counterrevolutionary forces. Over the coming four years, the Miskitu insurgency—divided into several factions with different leaders—engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Nicaraguan state armed with weaponry provided by the U.S. government. Interestingly, while Miskitu and black Creole ethnic groups largely opposed the Sandinista Revolution, the small Garifuna community at Orinoco in Pearl Lagoon remained closely aligned with the FSLN.41 Finally, after many casualties on both sides, peace negotiations were opened and Miskitus returned to their ancestral homes well before the wider Contra War could be brought to a conclusion. The Sandinistas, through their new 1986 Constitution and 1987 Autonomy Law, created two partially self-governing regions on the Caribbean coast, where Miskitus, Sumu-Mayangna, Creole, Garifuna, and mestizos were to be guaranteed rights and representation as ethnic groups. In 1990, the FSLN would be voted from office, bringing the Sandinista Revolution to its end. In those same elections, the former Miskitu rebels participated through a new indigenous party called YATAMA (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nani Alsatakanka, or “Descendants of Mother Earth”).42

Nicaragua’s autonomy statute was the product of wartime exigencies. Nevertheless, it has proven representative of a new approach to issues of ethnicity taking place throughout the region. Since the 1990s, the governments of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama have embraced visions of multicultural and multiethnic citizenship in which indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities can stake claims to collective rights based on these identities.43 Ironically, this new orientation has coincided with the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberal globalization and a decline in regional economic prospects. Unemployment, poverty, and outmigration have become ever-present realities for coastal peoples. Indigenous and black communities—increasingly led by women—now find themselves on the forefront of struggles against land usurpation and environmental devastation at the hands of mestizo peasants and ranchers, drug cartels, national governments, and multinational corporations.

Discussion of the Literature

Although largely ignored within the wider national histories of Central America, following the political crisis of the 1980s, there has been growing academic attention to issues of race, ethnicity, identity, and politics on the Caribbean coast. Given that these areas were widely seen as indigenous and Afro-Caribbean, anthropologists were the first to systematically undertake their study. These scholars produced not thick descriptions of timeless communities but rather critical ethnographies, sensitive to questions of power and informed by historical developments over the longue durée. Among the important studies are Philippe Bourgois’ Ethnicity at Work on the Bocas del Toro banana plantation on the Panama-Costa Rica border, Trevor Purcell’s Banana Fallout on Puerto Limón, Charles Hale’s Resistance and Contradiction on Miskitu communities of Nicaragua, and Edmund T. Gordon’s Disparate Diasporas on the Creole population of Bluefields.44 Later historical ethnographies—such as James Howe’s A People Who Would Not Kneel about the San Blas Kuna rebellion of 1925 and Baron Pineda’s Shipwrecked Identities on Miskitu identity in Puerto Cabezas—are worthy successors to this scholarly tradition.45

More traditional archival research on the coast also began to be carried out during these same years. Historians focused particularly on West Indian migration, the construction of the transnational banana plantation enclave, and ethnic relations within the context of labor history. Seminal studies like Michael Conniff’s Black Labor on a White Canal, Paul Dosal’s Doing Business with Dictators on Guatemala, and Aviva Chomsky’s West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica revealed how race, ethnicity, and nationalism became deeply implicated in both corporate labor relations and politics.46 Darío Euraque, Ronald Harpelle, Frederick Douglass Opie, and Glenn Chambers have built upon these earlier studies, considering the experiences of West Indian migrants—and national responses to their presence—in Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.47 Lara Putnam’s The Company They Kept likewise reconsidered race relations in Puerto Limón during the enclave period of migration from the angle of gender and kinship.48

Recent historical monographs often seek to set developments in Central America and the Caribbean “contact zones” within larger transnational frameworks. The Business of Empire by Jason Colby sets the United Fruit Company’s (UFCO’s) activities in Costa Rica and Guatemala in the context of the wider interdisciplinary conversations on U.S. empire and race.49 Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves considers the cultural space and transnational discursive community formed by black migrant circuits in Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States, while Michael Donoghue’s Borderland on the Isthmus places the social history of race and gender in the Panama Canal within scholarly debates over borders and empire.50 The lion’s share of historical research has focused on the period of foreign investment and mass migration, with little sustained exploration of political and social movements in the Caribbean Coast since the 1930s. Recent studies dealing with questions of citizenship, assimilation, political mobilization, and identity of black Costa Ricans, Panamanians, and Guatemalans in the 1940s and 50s are salutary exceptions.51

Primary Sources

The most important primary sources are found in the still-underused national archives of each Central American country, which contain a wealth of information on coastal regions and ethnic groups, largely from the perspective of the central governments. In addition, regional newspapers published by locals and migrant communities alike have provided historians with important local and transnational understandings and developments. The National Archives in London (formerly the Public Records Office) holds reams of consular reports describing the abuses and treatment of West Indian laborers who migrated to the isthmus’ shores. United Fruit Company (UFCO) archives remain largely unseen by scholars, aside from stray collections located in Central America and those documents subpoenaed for the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust investigation of the company. The records for the Standard Fruit & Steamship Company, however, are held at Tulane University. The records of the Moravian Church, held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, give insights into life and society on the “Miskito Coast.” Likewise, the U.S. National Archives contain a wide array of State Department and Consular Post reports relating to coastal dynamics dating back to the 19th century. Other U.S. documents declassified via Freedom of Information Act requests are sure to help future historians understand the explosive tensions of the Cold War era.

Further Reading

Bourgois, Philippe I. Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Chomsky, Aviva. West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica: 1870–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Colby, Jason M. The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Conniff, Michael. Black Labor on a White Canal: West Indians in Panama, 1904–1980. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Euraque, Darío. “The Banana Enclave, Nationalism and Mestizaje in Honduras, 1910s–1930s.” In Identity and Struggle at the Margin of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean. Edited by Aviva Chomsky and Aldo Lauria Santiago. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Euraque, Darío. “The Threat of Blackness to the Mestizo Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Honduran Banana Economy, 1920s and 1930s.” In Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas. Edited by Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg, 229–249. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

González, Nancie L. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Gordon, Edmund T. Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African Nicaraguan Community. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Hale, Charles R. Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894–1987. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Harpelle, Ronald N. The West Indians of Costa Rica: Race, Class, and the Integration of an Ethnic Minority. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Howe, James. A People Who Would Not Kneel: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998.Find this resource:

Pineda, Baron L. Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Putnam, Lara. Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.Find this resource:


(1.) Mary W. Helms, “The Cultural Ecology of a Colonial Tribe,” Ethnology 8.1 (1968): 76–84.

(2.) Michael D. Olien, “The Miskito Kings and the Line of Succession,” Journal of Anthropological Research 39.2 (1983): 198–241; and Mary W. Helms, “Of Kings and Contexts: Ethnohistorical Interpretations of Miskito Political Structure and Function,” American Ethnologist 13.3 (August 1, 1986): 506–523.

(3.) Craig L. Dozier, Nicaragua’s Mosquito Shore: The Years of British and American Presence (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985); and Robert A. Naylor, Penny Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600–1914: A Case Study in British Informal Empire (London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989).

(4.) Benjamin F. Tillman, Imprints on Native Lands: The Miskito-Moravian Settlement Landscape in Honduras (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011); and Karl Offen and Terry Rugeley, The Awakening Coast: An Anthology of Moravian Writings from Mosquitia and Eastern Nicaragua, 1849–1899 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

(5.) Edmund T. Gordon, Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African Nicaraguan Community (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

(6.) Nancie L. González, Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

(7.) Charles R. Hale, Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894–1987 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 37–38.

(8.) Jason M. Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

(9.) Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: West Indians in Panama, 1904–1980 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985); Philippe I. Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); and Frederick Douglass Opie, Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882–1923 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009).

(10.) Aviva Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica: 1870–1940 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996).

(11.) Paul J. Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899–1944 (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1993), 119; Glenn A. Chambers, Race, Nation, and West Indian Immigration to Honduras, 1890–1940 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 103–107; and Baron L. Pineda, Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 91–93.

(12.) Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 147–173.

(13.) Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 37.

(14.) Paula Palmer, “What Happen”: A Folk-History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast (San José, Costa Rica: Editorama, 1993), 115.

(15.) Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 249.

(16.) Jesús Smith Kantule, Nele Kantule, padre de la revolución Kuna: Biografía. Part 1, 1868–1925 (Panama City: Editorial Portobelo, 1997); and James Howe, A People Who Would Not Kneel: Panama, the United States, and the San Blas Kuna (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998).

(17.) Ronald N. Harpelle, The West Indians of Costa Rica: Race, Class, and the Integration of an Ethnic Minority (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 71.

(18.) Darío Euraque, “The Threat of Blackness to the Mestizo Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Honduran Banana Economy, 1920s and 1930s,” in Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas, ed. Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 229–249.

(19.) Putnam, Radical Moves, 102–104.

(20.) Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal, 98–99.

(21.) Harpelle, The West Indians of Costa Rica, 141.

(22.) Gordon, Disparate Diasporas, 78.

(23.) Salvador Suazo, “Catarino Castro Serrano: Primer intelectual Garífuna Hondureño, apuntes biográficos,” Yaxkin 14.1 (2008): 109–112.

(24.) Víctor Virgilio López García, La Bahia del Puerto del Sol y la masacre de los garífunas de San Juan (Tegucigalpa: Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, 2008).

(25.) Ingrid Castañeda, “Dismantling the Enclave: Land, Labor, and National Belonging on Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast, 1904–1954” (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2014).

(26.) Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work, 108–109.

(27.) Charles W. Koch, “Jamaican Blacks and their Descendants in Costa Rica,” Social and Economic Studies 26.3 (September 1977): 351.

(28.) Harpelle, The West Indians of Costa Rica, 175–183.

(29.) Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal, 127–140; George Priestly, “Race and Nationalism in Panama: George Westerman and the Antillean Question, 1941–1960,” Wadabagei 7.1 (Winter/Spring 2004): 1–58; and Michael E. Donoghue, Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 93–127.

(30.) George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 178.

(31.) Mark Anderson, “When Afro Becomes (Like) Indigenous: Garifuna and Afro-Indigenous Politics in Honduras,” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 12.2 (November 1, 2007): 392; and Olivier Cuisset, “Del campo a la ciudad y vice-versa: Elementos para la historia del movimiento garífuna en honduras,” Revista de Estudos e Pesquisas sobre as Américas 8.1 (August 12, 2014): 79–111.

(32.) Quince Duncan, Contra el silencio: Afrodescendientes y racismo en el Caribe continental hispánico (San José, Costa Rica: EUNED, 2001), 172.

(33.) Omar Hernádez Cruz, “De inmigrantes a ciudadanos: Hacia un espacio político afrocostarricense (1949–1998),” Revista de Historia 39 (1999): 219, 230–232.

(34.) Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal, 167–169.

(35.) James Howe, Chiefs, Scribes, and Ethnographers: Kuna Culture from Inside and Out (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 207.

(36.) Chris N. Gjording, Conditions Not of Their Choosing: The Guaymí Indians and Mining Multinationals in Panama (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

(37.) Pineda, Shipwrecked Identities, 137–144, 200.

(38.) Hale, Resistance and Contradiction, 137–139.

(39.) Gordon, Disparate Diasporas, 155–166, 178–190.

(40.) Hale, Resistance and Contradiction, 83; and Gordon, Disparate Diasporas, 198–199.

(41.) Pamela Perry, “The Politics of Identity: Community and Ethnicity in a Pro-Sandinista Enclave on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 36 (1991): 115–135.

(42.) Pierre Frühling, Miguel González, and Hans Petter Buvollen, Etnicidad y nación: El desarrollo de la autonomía de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (1987–2007) (Guatemala City: F&G Editores, 2007).

(43.) Juliet Hooker, “Indigenous Inclusion/Black Exclusion: Race, Ethnicity and Multicultural Citizenship in Latin America,” Journal of Latin American Studies 37.2 (May 2005): 285–310; Juliet Hooker, “‘Beloved Enemies’: Race and Official Mestizo Nationalism in Nicaragua,” Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005): 14–39; Anderson, “When Afro Becomes (Like) Indigenous”; and Mark David Anderson, Black and Indigenous: Garifuna Activism and Consumer Culture in Honduras (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

(44.) Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work; Trevor W. Purcell, Banana Fallout: Class, Color, and Culture among West Indians in Costa Rica (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, 1993); Hale, Resistance and Contradiction; and Gordon, Disparate Diasporas.

(45.) Howe, A People Who Would Not Kneel; and Pineda, Shipwrecked Identities.

(46.) Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal; Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators; and Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica.

(47.) Darío Euraque, “The Banana Enclave, Nationalism and Mestizaje in Honduras, 1910s–1930s,” in Identity and Struggle at the Margin of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean, by Aviva Chomsky and Aldo Lauria Santiago (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Euraque, “The Threat of Blackness to the Mestizo Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Honduran Banana Economy, 1920s and 1930s”; Harpelle, The West Indians of Costa Rica; Opie, Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882–1923; and Chambers, Race, Nation, and West Indian Immigration to Honduras, 1890–1940.

(48.) Lara Putnam, The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

(49.) Colby, The Business of Empire.

(50.) Putnam, Radical Moves; and Donoghue, Borderland on the Isthmus.

(51.) Diana Senior Angulo, Ciudadanía afrocostarricense : El gran escenario comprendido entre 1927 y 1963 (San José, Costa Rica: EUNED, Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia, 2011); Kaysha Lisbeth Corinealdi, “Redefining Home: West Indian Panamanians and Transnational Politics of Race, Citizenship, and Diaspora, 1928–1970” (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2011); and Castañeda, “Dismantling the Enclave: Land, Labor, and National Belonging on Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast, 1904–1954.”