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The lives of the presidential aspirants who challenged Orteguismo

and were exiled

The flight of February 9, 2023 changed the lives of the 222 released political prisoners in a radical way. The seven presidential aspirants that the Ortega-Murillo regime imprisoned for more than a year and a half were expelled on that plane. In exile, less than half of them are still active on political platforms

By Divergentes (@DivergentesCA)

8 de febrero 2024

Every morning, Juan Sebastian Chamorro runs through the streets of Indiana, USA. These days, his route is usually drenched in rain or covered by snow, but before returning home, he always does a series of sit-ups and lunges, the exercises he did during the two years he spent in prison. 

Juan Sebastian, 53, is a man of routine. He says that is what helped him not to break down in El Chipote, a detention center turned into a prison to punish and torture opponents against the regime, according to the testimonies of those who have been imprisoned there. 

In prison, Juan Sebastián got up early to exercise, had breakfast, rested, and continued exercising in the afternoon. Since he had no room to run, he measured the cell with the towel he used to dry himself after showering. 

"The label on the towel said 1.25 meters long, I used that reference and, between wall and wall, I calculated five meters," he told DIVERGENTES, weeks after his release from prison. Then Juan Sebastián walked around the cell: he made up to 3,000 laps a day, about 15 kilometers, according to his calculations. 

But the routine wouldn't end without sit-ups and lunges. He estimates that he did 700 lunges and 500 sit-ups in a day. "The exercise was quite distracting," he says. 

Juan Sebastian now has other things to do. After running and breakfast, he goes to his office at University of Notre Dame, where he has worked as a visiting professor since August of last year.


Prepared to face the consequences of exile

His PhD in Economics, he says, helped him find a job to become economically stable with his family, after being banished, denationalized and confiscated a year ago by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. 

"I got off to a better start than the other banished people," says Juan Sebastian, referring to the 222 political prisoners expelled in the early morning of February 9, 2023, on a flight to Washington D.C.

Living a period of his academic life in the United States, where he studied his bachelor's degree at the University of San Francisco, his master's degree at Georgetown University and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, helped him to adapt more quickly than other political prisoners to the United States.

Prior to the 2021 elections, Juan Sebastián was one of seven aspirants who made their intentions to run for president public. However, Ortega and Murillo ordered the arrests of each of them months before the elections, which were considered illegitimate by the international democratic community.


They disappeared from political life

For this article we sought the versions of the other presidential aspirants imprisoned by the dictatorship: Noel Vidaurre, Medardo Mairena, Miguel Mora, Arturo Cruz and Cristiana Chamorro - to know how they were a year after their exile - but we only got the testimonies of Juan Sebastián Chamorro and Félix Maradiaga. 

They and Medardo Mairena are the only ones who remain active - at least publicly - in political platforms and international advocacy to denounce the human rights violations committed by the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua.

During the 611 days that Juan Sebastian was in El Chipote, he was one of the few political prisoners who did not receive visits from his closest family members. This was because his wife, Victoria Cardenas, was accused of "treason" in retaliation for a global human rights campaign she carried out, together with Berta Valle - Felix Maradiaga's wife - to denounce the situation of political prisoners in Nicaragua; while his daughter, Victoria Chamorro traveled to the United States to study at the University of Notre Dame, where Juan Sebastian is now a professor. 

When the guards came to his cell on the night of February 8, 2023, Juan Sebastian had not seen his wife and daughter for more than two years. He shared the space with Roger Reyes, another political prisoner, with whom he chatted every night until they fell asleep or got bored. 

But that night, when the guards handed them their clothes so they could change out of the blue " jumpsuit" they wore in prison, they both thought the worst was in store for them.


A difficult goodbye

Felix Maradiaga is one of the other presidential aspirants who were banished a year ago. He also went through a similar situation to Juan Sebastian: his wife and 12 year old daughter could not visit him in El Chipote. 

Months before they were banished, Berta, his wife, told him through a messenger that there was a possibility that political prisoners would be banished, and therefore, he promised her that he would not refuse to leave the country when asked. "Berta thought I might stay," Felix said. 

Getting on the plane was difficult, Felix says, because he had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he felt an emptiness about leaving the country and "the fight in Nicaragua," but on the other hand, he was happy to know that he was going to see his wife, daughter and mother, whom he had not seen for three years. That is why Felix kissed the ground before boarding the plane. Hours later, he kissed his family.


The "prison" desert

He spent almost two years in El Chipote. The first 84 days he spent in "total isolation," he says. Of these, 77 days he was in a dark cell. He was not allowed any phone calls or lawyers, "it was like the desert," he says.

Like the other political prisoners being held at that time in El Chipote, Felix had little access to sunlight, human contact or reading material. Even when family members brought them cartons of milk or soft drinks, the guards ripped off the labels so that they couldn't read them. 

He still finds it hard to talk about the possible traumas of prison. He admits that at some point he will take a break to review what he went through. He was received with a beating at El Chipote and subjected to long and intense interrogations. In most of them they asked him how much he paid the people who went to the protests in 2018, or who financed him. They also accused him of being a "mercenary" and "foreign agent." 

During his time in prison he developed skin and eye diseases, but Felix says the hardest thing was "not being able to have contact with my daughter and my wife." He was not allowed to receive letters or even drawings from the girl. He could not talk to her on the phone, except for a few weeks before his release from prison, when the political prisoners were granted some liberties. 

The suffering of prison is still with him. It is still hard for him to sit at a table to eat, "thinking that there are people in prison," he says, or to talk with his wife and daughter, "knowing that there are families separated by imprisonment.


Nights in El Chipote

El Chipote was a silent prison. The inmates were not allowed to talk to each other, much less to the guards. But at night, when there was less control, they would start talking to each other. In the absence of reading or writing material, Juan Sebastian began to remember everything he had studied, written, read or seen. 

He was Max Jerez's cellmate for "a long time" - he does not remember the exact time - and had long talks with him about movies, books and documentaries they had both seen or read. He would tell all his companions about his travels. 

With Luis Rivas, a political prisoner who was the CEO of Banpro and also has a PhD in Economics, he would talk about "economic theories or economic models". They had nothing else to do and so they would talk quietly among themselves. "Human nature helps you find refuge, and I found refuge in my cellmates," says Juan Sebastian. 

His last companion was Roger Reyes, with whom he "read" the movements in the prison before leaving. They analyzed the events with pessimism. "The logic we had was that we always had to expect the worst from the dictatorship," says Juan Sebastián, adding: "What the regime did was to provoke the worst: torture us, make us feel bad and generate uncertainty". 

Proof of this was that they were not told anything when they were taken out of prison to be put on the buses that took them to the airport. Juan Sebastián and Roger thought they would be taken to a massive court hearing.

Then, they thought they were being transferred to La Modelo prison, in Tipitapa. "We realized we were going to the airport when the bus turned and went into the Air Force gate," he says. "It was a normal thing for them to keep us in that state of anxiety and terror, it's their (the dictatorship's) way of operating." 

As he boarded the plane, Juan Sebastian says he was happy because he knew he would soon be reunited with his family in the United States. He went from being one of the few cases who did not receive family visits, to sleeping with his wife and daughter in a matter of hours. "In that sense the banishment was not so traumatic for me," he says.


Betting on Monteverde

A few days after arriving in the United States, Juan Sebastian was invited to participate in the Monteverde political platform, a space for dialogue between opponents of different political parties. He is currently the spokesperson and devotes much of his time to it. "I am dedicated to the fight for human rights, political prisoners, the democratization of Nicaragua and the creation of opposition alliances," he says.

He has dedicated the other part of his time to writing a book on Nicaragua's political crisis since 2018. He hopes to publish it in English throughout this year, "so that it will reach an English-speaking audience." The book, he says, has helped him organize his ideas and reflect on the events with "historical distance." 

Another of his projects is to write down his political and economic ideas with historical reflections on "why this crisis happened, and what should be done to solve Nicaragua's problems." 

-After being banished and confiscated, do you regret getting involved in politics," we asked Juan Sebastian. 

Being in a cell in unhealthy conditions, with bad food, I asked myself the same question... and I don't regret it at all. There was no way for one to keep quiet, and it fills me with pride to say that I took the right side...I put myself in the spotlight because Funides (Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development), of which I was the director, arranged, from the first weeks of the 2018 crisis, a fund to care for the victims, something that was not well known...This was the strongest reason for the interrogations I went through in El Chipote.


The hardest part of being exiled

When Felix Maradiaga is asked about the harshness of banishment, he says that since ancient times banishment "has been a perverse resource used by tyrannies to get rid of those they consider their main threat". In Ancient Rome, banishment was considered a punishment second only to the death penalty. 

Felix says he has coped with banishment through hard work. After all his assets were confiscated in Nicaragua, he has experienced "many material limitations" in the United States. 

He says he is currently working as an advisor and consultant with several international organizations and private companies, some of them focused on projects related to countries such as Ukraine, Guatemala and China. 

He is also in charge of a project called "Freedom Academy", which "serves the training needs of democracy activists around the world". 

In the Nicaraguan political arena, Felix is focused on the Foundation for Nicaraguan Freedom, founded in Nicaragua in 2012 and closed by the Ortega-Murillo regime in 2022. 

"The goal is to have an institutional and technical platform to support the work of civic resistance groups," he explains. He sits on the board of Freedom House, and this allows him to broaden his focus "on issues of promoting freedom in a more global context." 

Felix often travels to different countries. He regularly visits Costa Rica to meet with exiled opposition groups in that country. On some occasions he has traveled with his daughter, Alejandra, with whom he is excited to see Nicaragua's Lake Cocibolca from the plane. When the little girl sees him very excited, she always tells him "daddy, don't be sad, we will be back".