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Never remain silent:

activism in the midst of exile

A group of political exiles keep on resisting in a new reality imposed by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. They did not ask to go into exile, but when the regime sent 222 political prisoners to Washington —priorly agreed with the United States— their lives radically changed. Now, in the midst of a long and challenging process of adaptation, some of these activists are trying to find their place in a fight that is about to be six years old and has been absorbed by repression and exhaustion

By Franklin Villavicencio (@fvillabravo)

8 de febrero 2024

Evelyn Pinto no longer uses social media as she used to, but spends most of her time very active in a WhatsApp group special to her. It is the only one she usually frequents, because after being banished by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship on February 9, she decided to stay away from digital spaces to "take care" of her mental health. It is not surprising. 

One of the crimes for which the Sandinista regime sentenced her was -allegedly- spreading fake news. "They practically pretended I was an influencer with thousands of followers, when I only had about 300 followers on Twitter," she recalls, via phone call from Texas. 

Pinto is a historic activist who throughout her life has been involved in social fights. An experienced advocate for the rights of children and teenagers in organizations such as Fe y Alegría, she has also defended the causes of women and indigenous peoples. And of course, when the April 2018 protests started, she was one of the tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who took to the streets and participated in the self-convened demonstrations. 

As a result, the dictatorship captured her on November 6, 2021, on the eve of Nicaragua's presidential elections, in which Ortega and Murillo had no political competition due to the imprisonment of the main opposition leaders. Since June of that same year, the dictators unleashed an unprecedented hunt, practically imprisoning and disqualifying all opposition options that sought to compete against them.

After her capture and subsequent stay in women's prison La Esperanza, Pinto suffered several health relapses. The heat of Managua, coupled with her hypertension, affected her so much that her relatives feared her life was at risk.

By March 2022, the regime accused her of spreading fake news and treason, two of the most common political crimes used by the dictatorship against critics of its regime. 

She was sentenced to eight years in prison and disqualified from holding public office. On February 9, 2023, the dictatorship banished her and 221 other political prisoners. They were sent on a one-way trip to the United States, the country that welcomed her in one of the most delicate diplomatic operations in recent times. 

Exile changed her life. Especially when she learned that it would be in a nation so different from her own. "It all led me to feeling a lot of tension, worry, and anxiety about what was going to happen. What was going to happen to my house, to all my things? In terms of activism, I frankly didn't have the opportunity to continue with it for several months. I said to myself: I can't do it right now, I need the time for myself, to stabilize, to heal a little bit", Pinto assures, with enough distance from those first months.


Getting everything back

Being exiled not only meant a new life, but also entering a reality she barely understood. The world, and its correlation with the Ortega-Murillo regime, had changed. Many entered prison when small signs of rebellion against the dictatorship were possible in Nicaragua. They came out when no one in the country could speak out against Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. 

The way to do activism had to change. This is what Tamara Davila, member of the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (Unamos) and part of the group of the 222 exiled, thinks.

"The main challenge for me has to do with making the different States and public officials understand that there should be no competition between the humanitarian and human rights conflicts that are taking place in the world, that everything should be prioritized," remarks Dávila, who has slowly resumed her activism.

Dávila still belongs to Unamos and has recently joined Monteverde, a political project that includes various opposition actors and movements. "My actions have been focused on lobbying and meetings to keep Nicaragua on the political agenda of the United States, but also of other countries in Europe," she adds.

But getting to this point meant a whole process for Dávila, due to the adaptation it meant to get out of prison. For her, coming out of captivity meant learning again to adapt to the noises outside, the light, the food, and freedom. 

"The goal and part of our activism is to be healthy, and for me the mental health support that I continue to receive has been fundamental," says Dávila, whose after-effects of prison have been treated through therapy. 


Digital activism
in the face of repression

Evelyn Pinto found a job that brings her closer to her fights. In the county where she lives she teaches Latino parents about democracy. "It's important because from our countries we bring all the culture of the house we were raised in and this is a very nice program they have in the county," she says.

Working on these issues reminds her of the activism she did in previous years, which was also related to defending human rights and building a democratic culture. 

But, what most links her to what she did before is the WhatsApp group she shares with other exiled Nicaraguan women in which they organize actions to remind the world that there are still 91 political prisoners in Nicaragua.

"The fact of not being able to go out and say anything, of not being able to do anything, of being here immobile, is emotionally affecting me, it makes me feel bad. Little by little, I began to prioritize and define the areas and people I wanted to work on activism with. Through the women's group, we decided to make videos to denounce and demand freedom for women prisoners. At that time, Olesia (Muñoz) and a group of women prisoners in La Esperanza were on hunger strike. So we made a video for them," recalls Evelyn.


Healing in exile

Ana Margarita Vijil has had to rethink her activism in this new context. Although in Nicaragua, before being imprisoned, she had to work in clandestinity, always hidden from the regime, she felt she had more freedom to help other people. 

"Being exiled has forced me out of my habitat, I had to rethink how I could continue doing those two things in an environment I didn't know, having to, in fact, look for another way to survive, because, well, they took everything away from us," she says via phone call from a cold northern U.S. city, which she prefers not to mention. 

"So, it has been a great personal challenge, but I feel that at the same time activism, the connection with this greater cause which is to change what is wrong in Nicaragua, is also what has helped me to cope," she adds.

Her activism, like that of most people in exile, consists of keeping in touch with the rest of the exiles and creating solidarity networks. The situation, for many, is critical. Unemployment, the high cost of living and a very different culture have affected the lives of many. 

In fact, the Nicaraguan diaspora in the United States took care of everything related to housing for most of the 222 political prisoners exiled by the dictatorship. 

"What we did was that a group of people and organizations of the diaspora opened the doors of their homes, for a period of three months. It is very difficult, because the diaspora was not emotionally prepared to receive them," assures Damaris Rostrán, a Nicaraguan activist based in the United States since 2022, who dedicated herself to coordinating solidarity networks for the political exiles.

"Sometimes we feel that it is too much, that the situation will never end, and then I think that we are closer, we are closer to the end, we have already made a lot of progress," reflects Ana Margarita.