PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua — Six years ago, a Miskito Indian named Juan Salgado was imprisoned for 60 days in an empty school in this port town for opposing Sandinista rule.
It was a time of growing rebellion on the Atlantic Coast against a new revolutionary leadership that had fought its way to power on Nicaragua's Pacific side. When he was freed, Salgado took up arms with an Indian guerrilla band allied with the U.S.-backed contra movement.
Not long ago, the warrior returned to the school. But this time it was to debate a Sandinista proposal offering something that he and other guerrillas had fought for--autonomy for their indigenous coastal communities.
The government-organized "multi-ethnic assembly" was a milestone in Managua's attempt to reverse its early failures in dealing with this unfamiliar region and to persuade hundreds of Indian rebels to make peace with the regime, as Salgado did two years ago.
After two days of discussion, the assembly of 2,000 delegates approved a document that, for the first time in Latin America, would give indigenous people a degree of self-rule. The document is expected to be enacted into law this year by the Sandinista-dominated national legislature.
It affects the entire eastern half of Nicaragua, a land of jungle, swamp and savanna that was a British protectorate until 1894 and is still separated from the Hispanic west by a centuries-old geographic and cultural chasm.
The region's 300,000 people, a tenth of the national population, include Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians with their separate languages, English-speaking black Creoles and Spanish-speaking mestizos, or those of mixed-race.
Long distrustful of Managua though dependent on it, many coast people doubt that much will change. Some note how skillfully the Sandinistas controlled the debate over autonomy, once they embraced the idea, and kept important powers for the central government. Others believe the lingering war will impede the outside investment needed to make the newly autonomous region self-sufficient.
Blessing Called For
But in an area where advocates of autonomy were once jailed as separatists, a new coexistence was evident as townspeople and Sandinista officials gathered for a rally here at the end of the assembly.
The local Moravian Church bishop called for a blessing of the autonomy law. Then a representative of each ethnic group stood and spoke of a new era.
"I am sorry I do not speak my own language," Rufino Omier Donald, one of 826 surviving Rama Indians, said in English. "But one day soon my children will get it back."
Interior Minister Tomas Borge said in a speech that the law is "a defeat for U.S. policy" because it will weaken the contras here. A 12-piece reggae band, the Coastal Dimension, seconded that notion with the refrain:
Mr. Reagan, symbol of shame,
All that hurts him is autonomy.
He wants to invade,
But don't be afraid.
We'll stop him here with autonomy.
"Autonomy is the only alternative for either side," Salgado said in an interview. "If it works, we will have our own local government and control of our communal lands, our schools. If not, the war will destroy this region."
The law would give coastal people a greater voice in local affairs than those in the rest of the country. It would permit popular election of two regional councils, which would be authorized to levy taxes, take steps to preserve native cultures, administer health care, education and internal commerce and undertake short-term economic projects.
The national government would retain control of the armed forces. It would also manage long-term development of the mineral, fishing and lumber resources, but regional authorities would negotiate for an "equitable share" of income from their export.
Sandinista representatives on the coast ran the assembly in a way that limited objections to compulsory military service. Some delegates were appointed by the government, others were elected.
Proposals to give the regional councils their own police forces and let them conduct foreign trade were defeated. So was a bid to eliminate the president's right to name a delegate in each region to work with the elected councils.
Nevertheless, Interior Minister Borge called the draft law "the most democratic project ever cultivated in the soil of our national liberation."
Borge has apologized publicly for Sandinista "errors" in the coastal region. After taking power in 1979, the Sandinistas replaced local authorities with army officers, sent in Cuban doctors and teachers, nationalized small sawmills and put down protests over these changes with harsh repression.
When thousands of Miskitos rebelled and villagers along the Coco River openly helped them, the government evacuated the villages and sent residents to live in resettlement camps. Other Indians fled to neighboring Honduras.
Returned to Villages