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Dr. Juliet Hooker – Excerpt from interview by Danae Vilchez (Confidencial / Niu)

Dr. Juliet Hooker is an Afro-Nicaraguan Professor of Political Science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She is a political theorist specializing in racial justice, multiculturalism, Latin American political thought, Black political thought, and Afro-descendant and indigenous politics in Latin America. She is the author of Race and the Politics of Solidarity (Oxford, 2009) and Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos (Oxford, 2017).

Her current research project examines the politics of loss, aspects of which have appeared in “Black Protest/White Grievance: On the Problem of White Political Imaginations Not Shaped by Loss,” South Atlantic Quarterly 116 no. 3 (2017): p. 483-504 and “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics: From Democratic Sacrifice to Democratic Repair,” Political Theory44, no. 4 (2016): p. 448-469. Prof. Hooker has been the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the DuBois Institute for African American Research at Harvard, and the Advanced Research Collaborative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Dr. Hooker moved to Managua for high school, but would return often to the Caribbean, where she was born. At the end of the 80s, she moved to the United States to study political science at Williams College, and later at Cornell University. She began her career as an academic researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, focusing on the political advances on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast as the result of the passage of the Autonomy Law.  

That law established Nicaragua’s Autonomous Regions of the North and South Caribbean, and gave them a unique political and administrative structure in which, among other rights, their ancestral forms of organization were to be “respected.”

In an interview with Confidencial/Niu, Dr. Hooker analyzed the social and political context of Nicaragua, a country in which racism continues to be prevalent, along with continued neglect of the Caribbean Coast, even 30 years following the passage of the Autonomy Law.

What does the ideal of autonomy really mean, and how would it protect the people of the Atlantic Coast?

The idea is that the peoples who have historically inhabited the Atlantic Coast are going to have the power to organize themselves based on their traditions and to exercise control over the area of the Coast.

Nevertheless, the framework created for the autonomy makes that very difficult, because it awards equal rights to the descendants of the Africans, the indigenous, and the mestizos, who in many cases have arrived more recently. At present, the mestizos are in the majority.

In a legal framework where the demographic numbers are what hold weight, the mestizos are always going to have more power. It’s very difficult within that framework to imagine how the aspirations of the Coastal residents to really control their ancestral territories could be realized.

Nicaragua governments have spoken of “advances” and of “progress” on the Caribbean Coast. How tangible are these things?

Within the legal framework, there have been advances. The fact of proclaiming the Autonomy Law in 1987, which includes a Constitutional recognition of the descendants of the Africans and indigenous peoples on the Coast – that’s an advance. Later, when Law 445 was passed and the communal territories were recognized, that was also progress.

There’s a great gap between what exists on the books, in the legal and judicial frameworks, and what happens in reality.

The problem is that the rights stipulated in the Autonomy Law have not gone into effect. They’re really beautiful rights on paper, but in fact, the communal lands are being invaded, there’s no way of exercising self-government, and that contradicts what the Autonomy Law was supposedly aimed at.

But the Autonomy Law was approved 30 years ago.  What should the government be doing to guarantee that all of those things finally be fulfilled?

I believe that the problem goes deep. The national government, regardless of what type it is, has no interest in this. The national government is always going to have a national vision. Its focus is never going to be on what the Atlantic Coast population wants or needs. There’s always going to be a contradiction between the interests of the Coast residents and that of the national government.  For that reason, many people on the Coast say: “Maybe we shouldn’t depend on the national government to resolve the situation or to be the ones to really put autonomy into effect.”

What are the roots of racism in Nicaragua? Where does it come from and why does it continue being so much the prevailing attitude?

I believe that racism originated with the plunder of the indigenous population when the colonization began. With the black people, it has its origins when they were brought in as slaves. That created a history in which these populations are already marginalized with an enormous historic debt.

Although this might seem very far back, its consequences extend into the present. The exploitation of the labor force of the black slaves created wealth that didn’t go to those communities, only served to enrich others.  This then goes on to create inequities that are reproduced even when slavery ceased to exist.

In Nicaragua, it also dates back to 1894 when the Atlantic Coast region was incorporated via a forced military takeover. This brought about an annexation that was against the will of the coastal residents. Then, during the 20th century, we went through a period in which we were officially part of Nicaragua, but there was no attention or investment in the Coast. The Caribbean region lay forgotten, a region that was only exploited and used as a source of natural resources. I think that there’s a legacy of treating the Atlantic Coast as a semi-colonial territory, and this impacts relations between the region and the national State.

Do you believe that someday we’re going to be able to become that multicultural nation that’s on paper in the Constitution and the laws?

We have to keep working to get there, though we may not arrive in my lifetime, or in yours. But we have to keep working to go forward towards that ideal.

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