Nicaragua must 'break its violent cycle of becoming what we fight against'
Former Nicaraguan presidential candidate and political prisoner Félix Maradiaga recently returned to exile in Miami after being released by the Ortega dictatorship. He spoke to WLRN's Tim Padgett about his 'torture' behind bars, the reunion with his family and his renewed resolve to fight.
Former Nicaraguan presidential candidate and political prisoner Félix Maradiaga returned to exile in Miami this month after being released and deported by the Ortega dictatorship. He spoke to WLRN's Tim Padgett about his 'torture' behind bars, the reunion with his family and his renewed resolve to fight.
Like every other opposition presidential candidate in Nicaragua in 2021, Félix Maradiaga felt he had no choice but to remain in the country — even though he knew dictatorial President Daniel Ortega was likely to throw all of them in prison simply for challenging him in the election.
“I always expected Ortega to close any possibility of free and fair elections,” Maradiaga told WLRN.
“But the other candidates and myself, we also knew that we needed to continue our campaigns there in order to make a point — that this was not going to be easy for Ortega. We couldn’t just walk away, leave Nicaragua and make it that simple for him.”
As a result, when Ortega did indeed put him and more than 20 other candidates and opposition leaders behind bars in the summer of 2021 — just months before what the U.S. and the international community called Ortega's "sham" presidential re-election — “I expected to be in prison for quite some time," Maradiaga recalls.
“Of course, no one expected that it was going to reach such a level of inhumanity.”
Maradiaga, in fact, spent 20 months — 611 days — in Managua’s infamous El Chipote prison. Ortega, under U.S. and international pressure, finally released him and 221 other Nicaraguan political prisoners, including Maradiaga’s fellow opposition candidates, on Feb. 9.
They were flown to Washington D.C. Maradiaga has since returned to exile here in Miami — and to his wife, Nicaraguan journalist Berta Valle, who spoke out tirelessly in the U.S. media for her husband and all the political prisoners, and their 9-year-old daughter Alejandra.
Inhumane is certainly how most people describe El Chipote — where Maradiaga’s Nicaraguan family members reported he lost 50lbs in his first three months in detention.
“It was torture,” Maradiaga says. “I was severely beaten when I was arrested. I was in the dark 24/7; I got to see sunlight just a few minutes a day. I was in solitary confinement for 77 days — and forbidden to talk even when I had a cellmate.
“If you talked, they’d punish you by not giving you the things that your family were allowed to bring — food in very small quantities, and even the water, the drinking water. The families had to bring it to us every single day because we did not have any drinking water inside our cells."
Maradiaga says conditions began to improve slightly in El Chipote last year as a result, he says he was told, of U.S. and international outcry. But the lock-up, he insists, remains a squalid "nightmare."
“You can never be prepared for such a hell. But they were never able to break our souls.”
It was especially challenging for Maradiaga to keep his spirits intact, though, because his wife and daughter, for security reasons, had to remain in Miami. He hadn’t seen them since 2019, when he left exile in Miami to rejoin the opposition movement in Nicaragua — and was then forbidden by Ortega regime authorities to leave the country.
“I told my wife when I first met her, when we were first dating, that I was devoted for life to Nicaragua,” Maradiaga says. “I asked her if she would accept the fact that Nicaragua is going to always be something in our lives. And I’m just amazed by Berta’s strength and courage. My wife simply refused to give up, and I’m thankful for that.
“But as a political activist, it has forced me to find a new perspective, to remember the cost to children, for example. I feel guilt because I know how much my daughter has suffered. You know, in all her drawings she made while I was gone, there is something about Nicaragua. So she knew that I was doing this for a good reason. But even if for a good reason, we cannot relive the years that we missed.”
Maradiaga says that new perspective will also now influence his approach to helping end Nicaragua’s dictatorship.
“If anything,” he says, “after going through this, I feel even more devoted to Nicaragua — and the need for reconciliation in Nicaragua.
“El Chipote is one of the worst places you can be, but even there I encountered good people — doctors, guards who showed some compassion. We need to show Nicaragua that we are not coming out of those prisons with hatred, with resentment. I feel that has been the big problem of Nicaragua. Those who had been beaten put into prison, sent into exile by one regime — once they become part of a revolutionary movement, they become the same thing they were fighting against.
"For example, Daniel Ortega once fought a dictator, Anastasio Somoza — under whom my father was once a political prisoner, by the way — and then himself became a dictator.
“I think we need to break those violent cycles. That’s my commitment.”
Maradiaga realizes reconciliation doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for Ortega, whose brutal security forces have been accused of killing more than 300 civilians since anti-government protests erupted in 2018.
Nicaragua observers suggest he released the political prisoners this month hoping to get U.S. and international visa and economic sanctions on his regime lifted. But a top Biden Administration official told WLRN the prisoner release was merely a "positive step."
Ortega is still keeping 35 political prisoners behind bars — including Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who has reportedly said he will not leave his own prison cell until every Nicaraguan political prisoner is freed.
And as soon as Maradiaga and the other 221 released political prisoners left this month, Ortega had them stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship.
“Well, absolutely, dictators release political prisoners not because they want to, but because they have to,” Maradiaga says. “Our release speaks highly of U.S. diplomacy at its best — and to the generous open door the U.S. has always provided refugees, as I benefitted from when I first left Nicaragua in the late 1980s.
"But I think that Ortega is not softening at all. He’s radicalizing. Not just Somoza but North Korea could be an allegory for what Ortega has become. He is sending a clear sign that he’s not willing to open a door to democratic transition.
“So unfortunately, more U.S. and international pressure needs to be on the table, indeed.”
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