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From the classroom to exile

The journey of students imprisoned by Ortega's government

Student activism in Nicaragua is punished with persecution, jail and torture under the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. The regime sees students as traitors to the homeland if they don't agree with their repressive policies. John Cerna, Samantha Jiron and Mildred Rayo, punished with banishment and denationalization, and who now struggle to survive in exile, suffered this in the flesh

By Divergentes (@DivergentesCA)

8 de febrero 2024

To speak, John Cerna has to come out of the darkness of his room. He apologizes and opens the fully closed curtains. The after-effects of having been deprived of light for almost three years persist. He explains that his eyes have not yet adapted and that is why he prefers to be in the dark.

The city that now welcomes him is cold and very far from his hometown Matagalpa. Since his exile he has been in different places. Though at the time of this interview he is in Texas, he says it is better not to specify the city because of his constant mobility.

Once seated in front of the screen and with enough clarity to see, he speaks fluently and concisely about the last year of his life, marked by an unprecedented event in the history of Nicaragua: the denationalization and banishment of 222 political prisoners to Washington D.C., United States.

Advocating for university autonomy, demanding justice for the students killed in the 2018 protests and demanding democracy for the country, cost him more than a thousand days in jail, after being sentenced to 12 years in prison on the fabricated charge of illegal drug trafficking. 

Even after several years of detention, Cerna is still meticulous. He knows how many days he was in jail and how many days he has been free. He knows that he was declared stateless long before his banishment, that at midnight on February 8, 2023, he left his cell, El Infiernillo, and that 36 hours after arriving on U.S. territory, he decided to go his own way.

As soon as he arrived in the country of his exile, he also knew what his priorities were: to attend to his health, aggravated by imprisonment and torture by the guards; to resume his studies, interrupted by the dictatorship; and to regulate his immigration status, at that time non-existent. 

His reasons for knowing all of the above are clear: "I already knew I was going to be released," he says with certainty. "I didn't know when or how, but I told my mother to get ready because they were going to call her to let her know I was free," he says. And so it was, although not in the way she expected.

From the moment he arrived until now, it has been a year of changes, learning and challenges. A year of reunions, freedom and adaptation. "I was in a little concrete box and I was thrown into a concrete jungle with more than 300 million inhabitants, who have another language, another culture and another way of looking at life," he says. The United States was the last country he had in his mind as a place of exile.


Only a day and a half after being in his new country being evaluated, examined and inspected by U.S. medical and immigration authorities, he grabbed his practically empty backpack - his only belongings - and left. He didn't want to be detained again, much less for a list of vaccinations he needed to get. "I just thought: I came from being in a box and they want to put me in a bigger box," he repeats. 

He does the math again and estimates that since he was released from prison and banished to the United States, until this conversation with DIVERGENTES, exactly 301 days have passed. "I always say that the person they used to know stayed in El Infiernillo. That's where he stayed because he went through a process of metamorphosis and transformation," he says.

Although the confinement to which the Ortega Murillo dictatorship subjected him changed him in many ways, his essence remains the same. The dictatorship could not take away what was most important to him: his faith in God, his love for his family and his determination to stay alive. 

"Today I can say that I took care of my legal documents to stay in the country, a work permit, a social security number and a driver's license," he says.

"I can also say that I am no longer stateless," he proudly points to one of his latest accomplishments. He obtained Spanish nationality two days after his 28th birthday, July 25, 2023.


the regime's political punishment

The youngest of those imprisoned, political, student and social activists, were not immune to this measure. Unlike other groups, the vast majority of them were studying or finishing their university degrees. 

When they made their denationalization public on February 9, 2023, Cerna was not even sure what it meant to be "stateless". The only person he knew with that status, Albert Einstein, came to mind. Confusion overwhelmed him.

"When I was told I was stateless, I hesitated over the term. The only person who came to my mind was someone famous who had nothing to do with me. The only one I knew who was stateless was Albert Einstein. How am I going to compare myself to such a high-profile person?" he says.

It was no wonder. Statelessness was a political punishment that had not been seen in the region for many years, and it is classified as a crime against humanity. When this sanction was brought to light again by the regime, the general reaction was confusion.

On February 9, 2023, it was possibly not the banishment that shocked the population and the international community the most, but the creation of a law declaring the loss of Nicaraguan citizenship and leaving more than 200 people under civil death at that time.

In addition to the law of denationalization and treason, the assets of the denationalized individuals and their families would also be taken away, something that although it is not in the law, the regime enforces.

In view of this, Cerna says that luckily "he does not have a dime". What he has after the stripping of his nationality is the affection for his country and the hope that everything will get better. "I am a Matagalpan and Nicaraguan by the grace of God. It is not a piece of paper that will take away my love for that little piece of land where I was born," he says.

As a sign of his sense of belonging to the country, he always wears a Nicaraguan flag pin on his vest at his current job, where he is part of a catering service. He grabs the little blue and white pin, shows it to the camera and smiles in this long-distance interview.


Physical aftermath,
a sign of political violence

Nearly three thousand kilometers away from Cerna, in a colder and more distant land, is student activist Samantha Jiron. Passionate about political science and communication, and marked by a strong sense of justice. She was the youngest female political prisoner held by the dictatorship until February 9, 2023.

Like many, she was captured in the year of the electoral fraud, the year in which for the fourth consecutive time Daniel Ortega declared himself president of Nicaragua, with all his electoral competitors locked up in jail or in exile. 

Like other exiled student activists, Jiron's post-imprisonment health is an issue. With difficulty, due to a severe cough that attacks her, she says she is recovering from an unexpected surgery. Her left ovary was twisted and she needed immediate surgery.

"Just like that, it twisted out of nowhere," she says. The twisting of her ovary happened in October 2023, just a few months after her partner and also an exiled political prisoner, Kevin Solis, experienced a facial paralysis "out of the blue".

However, this is no coincidence. Jiron knows the origin of all their ills: the after-effects of being in the regime's dungeons, deprived of medical attention and any other humanitarian needs they required at the time.

She, who has always been in good health and had few medical problems, spent her last year in the United States riddled with illnesses, discomforts and worries.

"It's completely after-effects and I'm a witness to that," she says. "I have had many health problems, both while in prison and after my incarceration," she says. These are the manifestations of physical, emotional and mental damages of being unjustly deprived of liberty for more than a year.

The first consequence she noticed is her inability to be in closed spaces, even if it is a car or a bus. "My blood pressure drops, my blood sugar drops, I turn pale and I feel like I'm going to faint," she says.

Surprised by her reactions, she went to a doctor to find out if the reason was a blood pressure problem, but the doctor told her that it was all an emotional reaction to experiencing confinement again.

"I had never been through this before I was in prison. I've never had these medical problems before," she says. To reduce the constant discomfort, she wears a special bracelet that regulates her blood pressure. Although she still has anxiety attacks, with this device she can at least control them.

Because of the special protection that Jiron has with the humanitarian parole - which the rest of the 222 exiles also have - she has an insurance called Medical, which is available only for the state where she lives, California. So her surgery and postoperative treatment, which cost $89,000, was not paid for by her. "Getting sick here is the worst thing that can happen to you," she says.

Even in the midst of all the problems, she laughs and says that when her boyfriend, Solis, suffered the facial paralysis that cost more than $20,000, they were joking about fleeing the country if the insurance company did not pay the hospital bill.

The young student says something that all the other banished people endlessly repeat: "that they sent us to the United States doesn't solve our lives."

"Many say that they made it easier for us because we came here, but that's not the case," she emphasizes. Due to her constant medical problems and to improve her health, Jiron decided to quit her job at the company where she worked. 

There, many of her responsibilities involved physical effort. In addition, as in any other place in the North American country, if she did not have at least one year working, she had no right to receive compensation for her rest and recovery days.

"We have little time to work (my partner and I). In these companies they don't give you a leave for full recovery, not in this company at least. A job is not worth your health deteriorating," she adds.

She says that the month in which Solís was paralyzed, she was unable to work for several weeks and therefore did not even receive half of her salary. Her insurance only covers medical expenses, but does not cover the lost work days. 

The space where she lives alone costs $1800 and it is not even an apartment. It is a studio apartment with no rooms or partitions. It only has a small bathroom and a laundry room that simulates a kitchen. It is enough to look around to see the whole space.

Exiled and now a foreigner in another country, these are elements that intertwine to make it difficult for her to find a job that will allow her to afford a better place. "It's very difficult to get a job here, even if you're a professional. It's not like I'm a journalist and I'm going to work in a media outlet here. The jobs for us are different," she stresses. "Us," meaning the banished.


2023 was an unusual
year for the banished

In the middle of the conversation, Jiron coughs again. A reminder that her health remains delicate. She makes a couple of conjectures about her cough. It could be because it's the cold time of year and everyone tends to catch a cold, but it could also be pneumonia because it's been going on for too long. 

The young woman defines her last year as "unusual". "You don't expect to live through what has happened to me and to the 221 political prisoners who have been released," she explains. On the one hand, it is the year of her freedom, after a long time locked up. On the other hand, it is a complex year because of all the challenges of having arrived in the United States as an exile.

Like so many others, she had no family and no one to welcome her when she arrived. That meant adapting to this new context only with her partner's company. The distance that separates her and her loved ones is felt much more than when she was imprisoned in Nicaragua.

"I have gone through very difficult moments of depression far from my family. That adds to the emotional problems, the traumas I bring from prison and the uncertainty of what will happen to me and my future. It has been a very difficult year," says the now 24-year-old activist.

Above all, her future and the uncertainty that comes with it, is a subject that occupies her mind most of the time. Although she was one of the first exiles to apply for citizenship offered by the Government of Spain, she has yet to receive a response to her application. She is not the only one. Another large group of released prisoners are still waiting, she says.

"They haven't told me when my (Spanish) passport will be ready. I am always sending emails to find out how my process is going. It is difficult and exhausting to have to wait all these months. Here it is not easy to keep an apartment and be in these conditions," she says.

One of her goals is to move to Spain with her partner as soon as she gets her passport. Solis obtained it on December 4 last year. In the meantime, she will have to wait for her new nationality, which also represents hope, in the freezing San Francisco Bay Area.


Banishment meant
the separation of families

Just a couple of kilometers ahead, a young woman turns on her computer. As soon as she sets up her camera, the wound Mildred Rayo has on her upper lip is noticeable, evidence of the recent accident she had on her electric skateboard.

She explains that she collided with another person who was also riding a skateboard and fell face first to the ground. The result was a cut on her lips and a bruise on her front teeth. However, despite her accident, she is smiling and excited to talk.

Her sense of humor and optimism for life can easily hide everything she experienced in her last four months in Nicaragua: the arbitrary detention by the dictatorship's military, the abuse at the time of her check-up and the unexpected banishment.

She says that every time she tells her story to her co-workers at the hotel where she is a receptionist, they tell her it sounds like something out of a movie script. Repression, imprisonment, banishment and statelessness.

"When they ask me how I ended up here and I explain everything that happens in Nicaragua, they always say 'I can't believe you, it's like a movie.' Even though we think the situation is well-known, it's not," Rayo says.

For her, her exile is about ups and downs. Moments of success and achievement, and moments of sadness and unease. "There have been moments of a lot of frustration, especially the first few months. It was hard because I didn't see myself leaving Nicaragua and being here is difficult. Everything is bureaucratic and slow. There is no way to get settled sooner," she says, annoyed.

Unlike most of the exiles, she did not opt for one of the citizenships offered by more than five Latin American countries and Spain, but decided to apply for political asylum in the United States. Once the process is completed, she will proceed to address the issue of her nationality.

The reason: she does not want to be farther away from her family. Because, obtaining citizenship from the voluntary countries means having to eventually leave the United States. That is something she definitely does not want because it would be to mark more distance between her and her loved ones. In fact, when she arrived in the country, one of the first people to welcome her was her older sister, who resides in Miami and with whom she lived in the following months.

On the contrary, she wants to settle down in the North American country and with assured economic stability, she intends to bring her parents so that her family will be reunited again. 

"Sometimes I have felt very lonely without my family. After the accident I asked myself who is going to take care of me now? It's a habit. You can be 30 years old and say 'I want my mom to make me some soup'. There is emotional support and it's been hard without it," she says with tears in her eyes.


In reality, Rayo never wanted to leave the country where she was born and raised, not even in spite of all the persecution and harassment she experienced as a student activist and member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia).

Although she did not know how much she would suffer because of her sudden banishment, only days before she had been convicted for allegedly "conspiring to undermine national integrity". 

Even if she had been released in Nicaragua by a miracle of fate, Rayo would not have chosen to flee. Such was her stubbornness to stay in her home country. The Ortega-Murillo dictatorship took away her only desire.

Despite having been sent away completely unaware and against her will, she now embraces her freedom with clear goals ahead of her. 

"It was hard at first, but I told myself even though I was frustrated, that I wasn't going to let this drag me. I'm going to go back to my family and I'm going to give the best of my life to see them again. The first few months were hard," she says.

"There were days when I was alone in the house and I started to cry looking at pictures. It's a way to vent and a difficult feeling to forget, but I've learned to live with it. Some days I've cried a little and moved on," she continues.

She has already achieved one of her goals, she says with pride: to find a good place to work. Work is probably one of the biggest challenges faced by all exiles because of the physical demands of most jobs, and the few job benefits they can get, apart from their salary.

At least where Rayo works, she feels she is valued and that she can grow. She says that thanks to her charisma and good spirits - in addition to her English skills - she managed to get her position, but she plans to continue and not just stay there.

"I think we can all move forward if we are not afraid to ask. I'm not afraid to ask for help if I need it. For example, I didn't even know who to turn to about the accident. I had to call my boss and he gave me instructions," she says.


Becoming independent,
the biggest challenge for exiled students

Rayo no longer lives with her sister. She managed to move out and rent an apartment a few months later in San Francisco, California, along with her boyfriend, Hilfrem Saborío, and political activist Max Jeréz. Saborío was never engaged in any activism and was detained by the regime's military at the same time as Rayo, on the eve of the 2022 municipal elections. 

Rayo points out that the fact that they were able to rent an apartment is a privilege because to date, many of the exiles have not been able to become independent from the people who took them in on February 9, 2023. 

"To be able to rent here you must have a credit history, proof that you can pay the monthly rent, and we don't have one yet. I know that many of the 222 don't have it. I know that renting has been a privilege," she says.

Most of the exiles have created networks to emotionally and economically support each other, to share expenses, experiences and their own fight that they started in Nicaragua. 

In their free time, the former prisoners who live nearby get together, and in the case of her boyfriend, Hilfrem and Samantha Jiron's boyfriend, Kevin Solis, they meet to play soccer and spend time together. While those who live far away make calls and text each other to stay in touch.

"There's a girl I was in prison with who I still talk to. We are an hour apart. In fact, I still talk to all the girls. The networks we made are hard to break. It's a bond beyond belief," Rayo says.

Moreover, what unites them is their continued activism, which, far from being stopped by the banishment, was driven by it. When all of them are asked what their demands are, they all have a clear answer: freedom for political prisoners.

"Without a doubt, freedom for all the imprisoned people, democracy for Nicaragua and justice for all the victims, who are our families as well and the people who are still inside. They have a prison for a country. Many cannot leave, because they had their nationality taken away", denounces Rayo.



The need for
effective leadership

Back in the eastern United States, John Cerna is harsh and critical of many of the leaderships that have been exercised by various opposition groups. "If these people are not able to confront each other and speak their minds, they are not effective leaders," he says.

Although he works in a catering service, with many responsibilities and "a crazy schedule," he clarifies that he is always aware of what is happening in Nicaragua, reports through his social media accounts and helps all Nicaraguans who come to the United States, either with information or contacts that may be useful.

University autonomy is his constant demand. It is not only because the dictatorship interrupted his opportunity to finish his degrees on two occasions. The first time by expelling him from the University of Engineering and the second time by arresting him outside of the university, the former Central American University.

His demands are not only because of his own experience, but also because many of his friends and family members have been affected by the cancellation of the legal status of private universities, the confiscation of the campuses and the imposition of Ortega's propaganda in these stolen institutions.

His demands are also focused on the more than 90 people currently detained for political reasons. "I lived through that and I know the things their mothers go through, because they are subjected to all kinds of humiliations", says the former politician, also known as El Tigrillo, a nickname he got when he was part of the Scouts.

"My friends are dead, arrested, or in exile. Activism is something I have kept with me, not only in these five years. I have always insisted on education, since my mother is an educator. Civility defines a society's behavior," he adds.

John Cerna is straightforward. He does not say things behind anyone's back and makes his ideas clear in the spaces where he is. However, he is calm and serene. With a 2023 full of changes, he talks about his progress towards his goals. After surgery on his shoulder and medical follow-up on all his conditions (those he had before his incarceration and those that followed), he says he has improved a lot.

He still struggles to adapt to light and wears glasses, but exercise and sports have been his allies. Not only for his physical well-being, but also mentally. He also finds it difficult to be in crowds and large groups of people, because it is difficult to go from being subjected to total solitude to being in constant company.

With great joy, he says that he was able to embrace "his wonder women": his mother and his two sisters. He says he will soon be with his children. "The future is an opportunity to brave people," he says.


A future full of hope
is coming

Samantha Jiron's demands also include the release of those unfairly detained by the regime, but not the restitution of her Nicaraguan nationality; at least, not for the moment.

"I can demand my nationality, but there are no safe conditions for a return to Nicaragua. There are no economic conditions, nor a future for us young people due to the closing of all spaces for thought. Even Professor Freddy Quezada, who was my teacher, was captured and transferred to La Modelo," said Jiron.

"There can be no dialogue with the dictatorship. They don't understand words. The dictatorship only understands violence. It is the only thing they know," says the young activist. From Monteverde, a space for the different opposition groups to come together, Jiron keeps the university agenda as a priority. 

Jirón plans to continue studying Communication and Political Science, the majors she was studying in Nicaragua. "I love journalism and writing. I'm going to continue studying that. Maybe I will specialize in political, economic and social issues, which is what I have always liked," she says.

Her target destination is Spain because as a future citizen she would have the opportunity to enroll in a public university in that country, she would have no language barriers, and she could settle down in Europe.

Meanwhile, Mildred Rayos plans to certify her university grades in the United States and get an architecture degree. Although she finished her degree in Nicaragua, she was arbitrarily detained just as she was getting her university diploma. Her goals are such that if she has to pay to get her diploma, she will do it, she says with determination.

"I don't care. I didn't work so hard for five or six years to get my degree and not even have my diploma," she says. 

Always with the goal of preparing himself academically, John Cerna will not give up on finishing his studies. It doesn't matter that there is banishment in between. He is currently enrolled at Universidad Rafael Landívar (URL), a Jesuit university that offered the continuation of studies to Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) students after its confiscation.

Online, Cerna intends to resume his studies in Civil Engineering, which he had already tried to study, but the dictatorship prevented him from doing so. He is also excited to be able to study at a Jesuit institution where he will be able to continue with the Jesuit mission "in all things to love and serve", which inspired him at former UCA.

A future full of plans, aspirations, struggles and dreams surrounds these students. They are the hope that the dictatorship could not erase with any political punishment, nor will they be able to do so. "The future is for the brave", says "Tigrillo" again.