“No one is safe in Nicaragua,” said award-winning journalist Maria Lilly Delgado about President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. “In Nicaragua, everyone knows that once you’re being investigated, that’s one step away from being arrested.”
Delgado fled the dictatorship over a year and a half ago and has since lived in exile in the U.S. Her sentiment isn’t an isolated thought, but the common feeling among many of her expatriates.
She is one of over 464,000 Nicaraguans residing in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. making Nicas the 12th largest Latino population in the country.
Fleeing was the only option for Delgado. She was lucky to leave with her documentation intact, she said. Others weren’t quite so fortunate. Many of her colleagues tried to leave the country, but instead had their passports confiscated at the airport.
On February 9, Nicaragua deported 222 political prisoners to the U.S. Among them were businessmen, journalists, students, political analysts, priests, historians, lawyers, activists, feminists, and academics.
“There is a persecution of any and all Nicaraguans that speak up against the regime,” Delgado said. “It’s a transborder persecution.”
In less than a week, the Ortega-Murillo regime stripped away the nationality of 316 Nicaraguans. The U.S. has offered humanitarian parole to the 222 deported political prisoners, which grants immigrants two years to figure out their next steps. Spain and Chile have offered citizenship as well.
The ex-prisoners have options, but it’s not what they want. Many still have family in their motherland. They are still processing their deportation or forced exit, Delgado said, adding that “they’re stunned and confused.”
Many are struggling to deal with their deportation and the trauma of being imprisoned.
“We’ve confirmed that prisoners were tortured. It was white torture,” Delgado said, referring to the form of abuse inflicted in “extreme isolation (prison) regimes,” according to Stuardo Ralón in a report by Huellas de Impunidad and Divergentes.
“The objective is that the person (incarcerated) can be affected in their mental health, even losing their own identity,” Ralón writes.
For the first 127 days of Irving Larios’ detention, he shared a small dark and dingy cell with another prisoner. “We were literally in the dark,” Larios said. They were fed through an agujero or small window in their cell, which he said measured nearly four inches long and two inches wide. That little hole was their only source of fresh air.
A sociologist and academic, Larios is president of Instituto de Investigaciones y Gestión Social de Nicaragua. It was his independent work in providing resources for impoverished communities that landed him in jail, refusing to lie and tell his clients that the services were provided by the presidency or on behalf of the government, Larios explains.
He was apprehended, interrogated, and never allowed contact with his attorney. He spent 16 months and 19 days in El Chipote, formally called the Dirección de Auxilio Judicial.
“In Nicaragua, the law does not exist,” said Max Jerez, a student activist and former political prisoner. He was taken from his safe house, arrested, and brought to El Chipote, one of the most notorious jails in the country, where he remained for 19 months. He was isolated and tortured from day one, and, similar to Larios, he never spoke with an attorney.
“This is meant to injure the humanity of the person,” Jerez said.
He was also refused visitors. When he was finally granted a visit, he learned his mom had died a month earlier. His family petitioned for him to be able to attend his mom’s funeral, but the petition was denied.
“Things like this are supposed to cause you harm,” Jerez said. “This is what they’re doing.”
By stripping 316 Nicaraguans of their nationality, the Ortega-Murillo regime borrowed a concept from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and put into practice the unpersoning its enemies. They are now non-existent socially, politically and economically within Nicaragua, their assets confiscated by the government. All of their documents —from birth certificates to diplomas, identification cards, school transcripts, etc.— have been deleted from official records.
“I don’t recognize this government, so I don’t feel affected,” Jerez said. “It seems extreme. And dictatorships are not for life.”
There were no talks or discussions to release any prisoners beforehand, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. The decision was a unilateral decision by the Nicaraguan government.
“I think this is a historical act by Ortega,” said Anais González, a Nicaraguan youth activist and organizer for more than 10 years. “It’s basically a ‘fuck you!’ to the U.S.”
She said Ortega’s act reminded her of Fidel Castro and the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, a brief period, from April to October, in which the Cuban leader granted Cubans the chance to leave the island with no repercussions as long as they could secure their own rides out of the country.
“After the start of the exodus, Castro shocked the world by opening Cuban prisons and mental health facilities, transporting the prisoners and patients to the port,” wrote former Florida Sena. Robert McKnight in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald in 2018.
Once the banished Nicaraguans landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., they were greeted by friendly faces: the U.S. State Department, expatriates, and sympathizers. Only then were they able to contact their families in Nicaragua to let them know they had been released from prison and were now in another country.
A few minutes before reaching the tarmac, they were handed a sheet of paper with one sentence and a line for them to sign. It stated that from that moment they were under U.S. custody and if they didn’t accept and sign the document, they were going to be sent back to Nicaragua where they would have no rights, Jerez recalled.
Everyone signed, except for two people. The rest are now navigating their new lives in the United States.
González said most are in need of money upon their arrival. Organizations like the Nicaraguan American Human Rights Alliance and members of the Nicaraguan community are helping refugees and new immigrants find resources.
“Even though we’re a big diaspora, we’re not rich,” González said. “A lot of people that help those in exile are everyday people.”
Since the 2018 protests against the Ortega government, there’s been a massive increase in Nicaraguan migration to the United States. The U.S. Border Patrol registered 3,164 apprehensions of Nicaraguans in 2020, 50,722 in 2021, 164,600 in 2022, and 94,590 so far this year.
“I feel happy to be free, but still a little weird,” Jerez said.
Shahrazad Encinias is a bilingual multimedia journalist who reports on social justice, environmental justice, and human rights. She is currently based in Guatemala. Twitter: @ShaEnci