Nicaragua's extensive Caribbean lowlands region, comprising the country's two autonomous regions and the department of Río San Juan, has never been fully incorporated into the nation. This area, known as the Costa de Mosquitos, is isolated from western Nicaragua by rugged mountains and dense tropical rainforest. Communications across these barriers are poor. In 1993, there was still no paved road between the cities of the Pacific region and the Caribbean littoral. Costeños (the indigenous and Creoles native to the Caribbean lowlands) are also divided by history and culture from the whites and mestizos of the west, whom they call "the Spanish."
The Caribbean lowlands were never part of the Spanish empire but were, in effect, a British protectorate beginning in the seventeenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States displaced Britain as the region's protecting power. Not until 1894 did the entire region come under direct Nicaraguan administration. Even then, continuing United States political weight, commercial activity, and missionary interest in the Caribbean lowlands eclipsed the weak influence of western Hispanic Nicaragua until World War II. As a result of this history, costeños have not traditionally regarded themselves as Nicaraguans. Rather, they see Nicaraguan rule as an alien imposition and fondly recall the years of semisovereignty and intermittent prosperity they enjoyed under British and American tutelage. Costeños are more likely to speak English or an indigenous language at home than Spanish. Most are Protestants, generally Moravians; those who became Roman Catholics did so under the influence of priests from the United States rather than from Nicaragua.
The Caribbean lowlands are home to a decidedly multiethnic society. Miskito, Creoles, and mestizos account for most of the population of the region, but there are also small populations of Sumu, Rama, and Garifuna, an Afro-Carib group. The Miskito, the largest of the indigenous groups, themselves reflect the region's diverse ethnic history. Like the Sumu, they are linguistically related to the Chibcha of South America. Their culture reflects adaptations to contacts with Europeans that stretch back to their seventeenth-century collaboration with English, French, and Dutch pirates. Their genetic heritage is from indigenous, European, and African ancestors. During the colonial period, the Miskito, allied with Britain, became the dominant group in the Caribbean lowlands. A Miskito monarchy, established over the region with British support in 1687, endured into the nineteenth century.
The Miskito population is concentrated in northeasternmost Nicaragua, around the interior mining areas of Siuna, Rosita, and Bonanza, and along the banks of several rivers that flow east out of the highlands to the Caribbean. Honduras also has a large Miskito population in territory adjoining Nicaragua. In modern times, the Miskito have survived by alternating subsistence activities with wage labor, often in foreign-controlled extractive enterprises.
The black people of the Caribbean region, known as Creoles, are the descendants of colonial-era slaves, Jamaican merchants, and West Indian laborers who came to work for United States lumber and banana companies. As British influence receded from the Caribbean lowlands in the nineteenth century, the Creoles displaced the Miskito at the top of the region's ethnic hierarchy and became the key colonial intermediary. Concentrated in the coastal cities of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas, on the Islas del Maíz, and around Laguna de Perlas, the contemporary Creoles are English-speaking, although many speak Miskito or Spanish as a second language. As a group, they are urban, well educated, and amply represented in skilled and white-collar occupations. The Creoles are disdainful of indigenous groups, over whom they maintain a distinct economic advantage. All Caribbean groups, however, share the traditional costeño resentment of the western Hispanic elite.
The expanding mestizo population in the Caribbean lowlands is concentrated in the region's western areas, inland from the Caribbean littoral. Many live in mining areas. Since the 1950s, the expansion of export agriculture in the western half of the country has forced many dispossessed peasants to seek new land on the agricultural frontiers. On the Caribbean side of the central highlands, this movement has produced bitter clashes between mestizo pioneers and Miskito and Sumu agriculturalists over what the indigenous people regard as communal lands.
Within contemporary Caribbean lowlands society, a clear ethnic hierarchy exists. The indigenous groups--Miskito, Sumu, and Rama--occupy the bottom ranks. These groups are the most impoverished, least educated, and generally relegated to the least desirable jobs. Above them, at successively higher ranks, are recently arrived poor mestizos, Creoles, and a small stratum of middle-class mestizos. Prior to 1979, Europeans or North Americans, sent to manage foreign-owned enterprises, were at the top of the hierarchy. In the mines, Miskito and Sumu work at the dangerous, low-wage, underground jobs; mestizos and Creoles hold supervisory positions; and foreigners dominate in the top positions. Also prior to 1979, a special niche was occupied by a small group of Chinese immigrants, who dominated the commerce of the main coastal towns.
The demography of the Caribbean lowlands is a subject of speculation and controversy. The last census data are from 1971. Since then, the region has experienced rapid natural increase and heavy migration of mestizos from the west. Traditionally, the Miskito are recognized as the numerically dominant group, but that status has been challenged by the mestizo influx. In the early 1980s, armed conflict in the region drove thousands of Miskito over the Honduran border, but as the violence ebbed in the late 1980s, refugees returned. The most recent government estimates of the ethnic composition of the region are based on data from a 1981 housing survey.
|Country Studies main page | Nicaragua Country Studies main page|