Exile: The Price for Defending the People in Nicaragua

Haydee Castillo wrote the last sentence of her speech five hours before she was to read it during the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) session. She was tired, nervous and the hardest moments Nicaraguans have been living through for this last year kept running through her mind.

Human rights defender, Haydee Castillo, brought many to tears during a recent session of the Permanent Council of the OAS.

“I am Haydee Castillo, a defender of human rights. Six months ago, as I was getting ready to board a plane to come to this city to denounce the repression we are suffering, when the Nicaraguan government abducted me at the Augusto Cesar Sandino airport  [in Managua] and took me to the El Chipote torture center,” she began reading out loud until she finished reading the five pages she had managed to write very early the morning of April 26th. She then went to sleep and woke up to re-read it a couple of hours before, making sure she didn’t exclude anyone.

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“I wanted to write a lot more, however eight minutes places a limit. So it was just a summary of a whole year of pain, a year of hope in four or five pages,” she explains.

Only the people can save the people”. Haydee Castillo has found ways to denounce the Daniel Ortega regime’s human rights violations from her place of exile. Courtesy | Confidencial

Castillo has a long history within the defense of human rights and rights of the Earth. She is the founder and director of an institute promoting leadership in Las Segovias, in northern Nicaragua. Last year, after focusing their work on the civic protests that arose against Daniel Ortega’s regime, persecution against them started until the government finally took away their legal status and confiscated the organization.  Now she lives in exile, longing to return to her homeland.

On the 26th of April she had the opportunity to speak, before ambassadors and delegates of the OAS, about the abuses and violations of human rights that forced her to leave the country and the drama of the mothers of those murdered, the people in exile and the political prisoners of Nicaragua.  Her words moved many Nicaraguans who were following the transmission through social networks and near the end, heard how her voice broke and her eyes got teary.

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“April announced, alongside her women, peasants, indigenous people, the diaspora, the Catholic Church and especially next to her brave youth and students, the planting and harvest of a Nicaragua with dignity and irreverent which leaves dictatorships and wars behind to now emerge as proud volcanoes of freedom and lakes of sovereignty. We will succeed. Nicaragua will once again be a republic. Free homeland and live,” she ended.

When she left the session, many Nicaraguans who live in the United States and travelled that day to stand outside where the session on Nicaragua was happening, hugged her and they all cried together. “It was collective weeping,” she recalls.

Flee, to live

On October 15th of last year, Haydee Castillo was arrested and taken to the interrogation cells of El Chipote as she was about to board a plane. Weeks later she had to go into exile. Courtesy | Confidencial

Haydee Castillo never thought that in her life’s history she would have to leave her country secretly, traveling along trails with a backpack on her shoulder.  She didn’t do it when she first rose her voice against Somoza’s dictatorship and much less in the 1980s when she fought for the Revolution. But after she left El Chipote there wasn’t a single second of peace in her life.

“I was released because of international pressure, but when I get out, the situation only gets worse. There was no tranquility in any safe house. They would follow me, surround the houses, the police and paramilitaries would come. They would persecute my children. And that is why I had to leave,” she says.

However, she had to flee the country through blind spots because when she was arrested they placed exit restrictions on her because she was being investigated supposedly for breaking the anti-terrorism law, money laundering and for having arms of mass destruction.

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“Exile is really another prison. It’s keeping you imprisoned in a prison outside of the country, product of a decision made by the regime which badly governs your country. Exile hurts. Exile breaks down the social fabric of the territory. Exile divides. Exile is carrying many health problems, it creates an emotional imbalance,” she confesses.

For those who flee and leave their families in the country, she says, it is still difficult because all the acts of resistance and denouncement one does against the dictatorship must be well thought out because there are loved ones who are under siege. When she decided to give this speech, she had to talk it over with her husband to take the necessary safety measures.

“It’s hard because one sacrifices their family and sometimes one doesn’t know if they have that right. I say it’s the price we have to pay for defending human rights. I am willing to pay. But one says, in the end time and history puts each one in their place,” she assures.

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In early October 2018, Daniel Ortega’s regime installed a state of siege via a Police decree prohibiting civic marches. The OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights warned at the time that Ortega instituted a de facto State of Emergency. He had essentially suspended constitutional rights such as the freedom of assembly and mobilization, free speech, and a free press.

The goal of the state of siege was to wipe out the independent civic protest and to suppress and divide the opposition. Further, they aimed to impose a false normality through repression. With this, they hoped to coopt the large business leaders and reestablish the regime’s political and economic alliances.

Nevertheless, looking at the facts, Ortega instead deepened his national and international isolation. In addition, for two consecutive years he aggravated the economic recession and the social crisis. This continued until the negligent management of the Coronavirus health crisis brought him an unexpected political invoice. The mismanaged public health crisis wore down the credibility of his leadership, even among the members of his own party.

The regime now announces the imposition of new punitive laws. There’s a push to allow the use of life sentences for certain crimes. There’s a new law to regulate supposed “foreign agents”, and a “cybercrimes” law, better known as the “Gag law”. With these, the regime is recognizing the failure of the police state. The repression never succeeded in squashing the civic protests. Even without massive demonstrations, the spirit of the resistance remains intact.  Despite the National Coalition’s stumbles and the lack of a united national front, today the resistance is greater and better organized. It now has a presence in all of the country’s municipalities.

In the next two weeks, the regime’s parliamentary steamroller will assure the approval of that combo of punitive laws. These impose severe jail sentences for any and all opposition, a majority who represent over three-fourths of the electorate.

However, in reality, the regime has never needed legal pretexts to repress and imprison. Almost two years ago, the police assaulted the offices of Confidencial and Esta Semana and executed a de facto confiscationThis was done without the backing of any judicial orders. Yet, despite the television censorship, they never silenced us. We continue our truth-based journalism. Meanwhile the independent press – persecuted, harassed and sometimes exiled – now enjoys much more credibility and influence than the official machinery.

The latest Cid-Gallup polls confirm that the majority of the population no longer believes the government’s lies about COVID-19. The express burials and the Ministry of Health statistics on pneumonia fatalities and COVID-19 tests speak for themselves. These facts refute the daily monologues of Vice President Rosario Murillo.  Because of that deception, every day political support for Ortega and the FSLN shrinks still more. His backing among the public employees, both civilian and military, continues eroding.

In reality, the “Gag Law” is aimed at threatening the honest and professional public servants. It is meant to keep them from leaking information to the press and the public regarding acts of political corruption.  Such acts are occurrences that the regime wishes to hide.

The “Cybercrimes Law” also threatens users of social media with jail time. However, the dictatorship will continue losing the battle for the truth in social media. They can’t control the massive exercise of free speech and the use of new information technologies now at the service of citizens.

These punitive laws aren’t a symptom of strength, but rather of the political and moral defeat of a minority regime. Why, then, does Ortega need to impose them against wind and tides?  There are at least three hypotheses to explain this imperious political necessity.  All are based on the regime’s urgency to adapt the Cuban and Venezuelan “model” of repressive authoritarianism to Nicaragua.

First, they intend to make full use of the Constitution and laws as one pillar of their repressive strategy. However, they don’t want these as guardians of rights, but as a means to criminalize democratic liberties and civic protest. Clearly, it’s not a carbon copy, but this strategy definitively reflects the Cuban and Venezuelan “model”. The regime is adapting that model to fit a dynastic family dictatorship with the aim of liquidating the democratic project in Nicaragua.

Expedited by the “Law” he’s mandating, Ortega will now be able to eliminate organizations of civil society. He will also control any eventual adversaries and political competitors, by criminalizing them as “foreign agents”. The Venezuelan experience demonstrates that despite high international political costs, the Cuban “model” can prove effective in giving the regime stability. Through this model, pure and harsh repression can be draped in a “legal” mantle. For Ortega, this translates into an incentive to accumulate political hostages and gain time.

Secondly, the regime intends to take over the agenda of justice and present itself as a punisher of “hate crimes”. The latter would now carry a sentence of life in prison. This, in the end, is merely a defensive act. It responds to the need to assure the Sandinista bases that they’re not the ones under the gaze of justice.

Those accused of true “hate crimes”, crimes against humanity, crimes with no statute of limitations, are in the regime’s inner circle. The finger points to members of the Ortega-Murillo regime who are most directly tied to the repression. However, as in the April killings and the failed official narrative of an attempted “Coup d’Etat”, Ortega will point the finger elsewhere. He’ll try to convince his followers that his own hate crimes can be attributed to the victims.

Thirdly, although the Nicaraguan Constitution proclaims political pluralism, this combo of punitive laws assures there’ll be no competitive elections. With these laws, Ortega has ratified his stance for the November 2021 elections. Given this, it’s illusory to expect some electoral opening from a regime that’s willing to play All or Nothing. Though they risk further international sanctions and a declaration of illegitimacy, they’ll be celebrating the elections with no competition and without transparency.

Will we arrive at the opening of the 2021 electoral campaign without a political reform?  The answer to this interrogative doesn’t depend on Ortega, but on the political opposition.  Ortega has already decided to radicalize his authoritarian model. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to be paralyzed. They’re discussing which electoral box is the safest, in imaginary elections in which they haven’t even been invited to participate.

Meanwhile, the national debate must center itself on determining the most effective strategy. The opposition must work on joining forces, weakening the regime, and altering the balance of power. They must thus force a political reform on the regime, one that results from national and international pressure. First, the reform, with or without Ortega, and later free elections.

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