Freed political prisoner discusses Nicaragua’s slide toward authoritarianism

Earlier this month, Nicaragua exiled hundreds of its citizens, many of whom were political prisoners, to the United States. Their release marks a turning point for a government that has become increasingly authoritarian. Felix Maradiaga, a former Nicaraguan presidential candidate, was one of those exiled. He joined Geoff Bennett to discuss his experience inside Nicaragua's most notorious prison.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Earlier this month, Nicaragua exiled hundreds of political prisoners to the U.S. All of them and dozens of other Nicaraguans were stripped of their citizenship by a government that has become increasingly authoritarian.

    At Washington's Dulles Airport, a day of joy and a moment of relief and reunion. Juan Sebastian Chamorro is one of more than 200 Nicaraguan political prisoners freed earlier this month and flown to the U.S.

  • Juan Sebastian Chamorro, Former Nicaraguan Political Prisoner:

    I was sentenced to 13 years in prison, without any proof.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Nicaragua has been under U.S. sanctions for decades, but officials say the release was a unilateral decision by President Daniel Ortega.

  • Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan President (through translator):

    We are not asking for anything in return. It is a matter of honor and for them to take their mercenaries away.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The people he calls American mercenaries include students, human right defenders, and opposition leaders who were arrested for challenging his rule. They were released, but forced into exile.

    The government revoked their citizenship and that of 94 more Nicaraguans who Ortega calls — quote — "traitors to the motherland," including one of the country's best-known writers, Sergio Ramirez.

  • Sergio Ramirez, Nicaraguan Writer (through translator):

    This has no basis in any legal standards. It violates them. But we have received infinite solidarity from around the world.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Once a close ally of President Ortega, Ramirez was a prominent figure in the 1979 Sandinista revolution. He served as vice president during the 1980s in the first Sandinista government led by Ortega, but broke with him in the 1990s over his excessive grip on power.

  • Sergio Ramirez (through translator):

    What I remember is a shared leadership in the revolution to create a common project for the country. That project can be judged either way today. But it was a project, and that's what Nicaragua is missing now.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Nicaragua was at war with the Contras, a U.S.-backed rebel group that fought to eradicate communism, when Ortega came to power in 1984.

    He was then defeated in 1990 by opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro, another close ally who had defected from the Sandinista party.

  • Cynthia Arnson, Woodrow Wilson Center:

    But you see defections after defections.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Cynthia Arnson is a distinguished fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

  • Cynthia Arnson:

    There were people who — in the Sandinista movement who had embraced the anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive aspects of the Sandinista movement and became gradually disaffected as the — as Sandinismo became much more associated with a personalistic dictatorship around Daniel Ortega.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Ortega was elected again in 2006 and vowed to never lose a future race. He abolished presidential term limits. At one point, he embraced the private sector and brought government growth.

    But then came a decade of what U.S. officials call sham elections and crackdown on dissent, then more intimidation. More than 2,000 NGOs and at 50 media outlets shut down. Political opponents poised to run against him in the 2021 elections were arrested.

  • Cynthia Arnson:

    Even if you can believe public opinion polls seem to desire a change, Ortega is not going to allow that. And that is why he imprisoned so many people in advance of the November 2021 elections.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    But, with their release, there's now renewed hope, however faint, for a return to democracy.

    I spoke recently with Felix Maradiaga, a former Nicaraguan presidential candidate and political prisoner who is now exiled in the U.S. He spent nearly two years in captivity. And we spoke about his experience inside one of the country's most notorious prisons.

    Felix Maradiaga, Former Nicaragua Political Prisoner and Opposition Leader: For years, even before I became a politician, I was a human rights defender, an academic. I focused most of my life in post-conflict reconstruction, civil society.

    I met with other former political prisoners around the world. But having experienced that myself, it's even today something hard to something hard to describe. I was in a small cell of the first day — to be exactly, the first 84 days. I was officially disappeared, in the sense that the government did not allow my family, my lawyers, or anyone to know about my whereabouts.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    How were you able to endure that, 84 days in solitary confinement, most of it spent in complete darkness?

  • Felix Maradiaga:

    I used my faith as my source of strength, prayer, meditation. But, mostly, I was convinced that my wife had become a relentless advocate for my freedom and the freedom of all political prisoners, as we had agreed, because I knew that, at some point, I was going to be arrested, and also my convictions, my principles. I got into Nicaraguan politics to pursue a basic human rights in Nicaragua.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On February 9, the Ortega government released you and 221 other political prisoners. Take us back to that moment, that moment you realized that you were free.

  • Felix Maradiaga:

    They asked us to dress in civilian clothing, and then we were put on a bus, handcuffed with our heads looking down. So we did not know what was the direction of the bus.

    Suddenly, about 40 minutes later, we arrived at the Managua airport, and we were asked to sign a paper. It's a — basically a one-liner saying that we voluntarily would leave the country towards the United States. And only then we learned that we had been expelled from the country and sent into exile.

    However, we did not know that we had been stripped from our nationality. We learned that upon landing in Washington. But watching, seeing U.S. diplomats traveling from Washington to Managua to free us, to welcome us into an airplane, it's something that I can only define as truly the shining city on the hill.

    So, I need to — and I feel I need to thank the American people for welcoming us.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What does your release signal or suggest about the stability of the Ortega regime? Does it signal weakness on their part?

  • Felix Maradiaga:


    It signals that everything in his playbook has not worked so far. He tried, as he did with me and many others, to beat us. I was severely beaten in two occasions. He put us into prison, as he did with hundreds of political prisoners prior to our release. And we continued to fight in a nonviolent way. So, he used banishment as his last resort.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What are conditions in Nicaragua right now for everyday citizens living under the Ortega regime?

  • Felix Maradiaga:

    From what I have learned, the situation is very hard, in the sense that everyone who issues an opinion, everyone who tweets or to even uses private messaging to speak a private opinion is subject to arrest.

    The police has full control of Nicaraguan information and the way in which people exchange information. I think that it can only be compared to a sort of a tropical North Korea. Even private companies are requested to present a list of people that have been involved in any type of opinion against the government.

    Newspapers are shut down. University students are expelled out of universities because of their political ideas. It is something unheard of in Latin America. And, more recently, over 300 people stripped from their nationality, something that is against international law.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Secretary of State Tony Blinken called the release of you and other prisoners, he says it's "a constructive step towards addressing human rights abuses in this country."

    President Ortega has been in power for more than a decade. There's nothing to suggest that he's going anywhere anytime soon. What do you think comes next?

  • Felix Maradiaga:

    Well, as we have seen in other cases of Latin America, there's always the possibility that dictators will remain there for a while.

    But I also know that there are many, many Nicaraguans who are committed to our nonviolent, peaceful, democratic struggle for a new Nicaragua, a new Nicaragua in which even Sandinista supporters are — will be welcome to be part of a new nation. Nicaragua has had cycles of violence precisely because those who are former political prisoners, as Ortega himself was a prisoner in the 1970s, once they are free, they become what they used to hate.

    In our case, we made it very clear that we want to break that cycle of violence. We want to establish freedom and democracy in our country. So we will go back, and we will continue to work for that Nicaragua that we love.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Felix Maradiaga, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

  • Felix Maradiaga:

    Thank you.

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