Living in exile: “As long as the same government is in power I do not dare to return”

Samuel[1] is a Nicaraguan teacher and lawyer who was forced to flee his country in April 2019 after being repeatedly arrested in retaliation for his reporting on human rights violations committed by government forces.

For the latest instalment in our Living in exile series, CSW spoke with Samuel to hear his story.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

“I am a Nicaraguan citizen from the Department of Chontales. I am a teacher and a lawyer. I am currently in exile in Panama as a “Refugee in Process”, and have been since 16 April 2019 through Executive Order No. 5 for the Protection of Refugee Applicants from the Government of Panama, through the National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR).

I have been persecuted because of my work with previous democratic governments – from 1993 to 2006 – as a teacher and human rights defender, and with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and other organisations in the educational field, in communities throughout the Nicaraguan region, including the Comprehensive School Nutrition Programme (PINE), the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA), Project HOPE and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).”

How has your faith encouraged you to work for justice and defend the rights of others?

“I consider myself a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Redeemer and Messiah and I currently belong to the Christian Church of the Living God. I was born in 1974, when my country was already experiencing the anxiety of the revolutionary war due to changes in authoritarian regimes, internal struggles and the effects of the Cold War. From a young age, that led me to examine the state of decline in my country caused by government leaders; for not protecting the inalienable rights of the people and all those articles they established in their Magna Carta.

When I qualified as a primary school teacher I felt the service I provided as an educator benefited my community, by teaching the basics to adults and children. This encouraged me to continue to equip myself in order to contribute more to the place where I worked. Knowing more about laws and rights allowed me to provide more comprehensive support to my community, so I decided to join the CENIDH team and study Legal Sciences so I could provide better legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.”

Could you explain a bit of the political history of Nicaragua up to today?

“In 2007 Daniel Ortega won the presidential election and, with the help of the amendments former president Arnoldo Alemán had made to the Constitution and Electoral Law, he began to dismantle all the international NGOs in Nicaragua. In particular, he targeted those working directly with communities to promote economic and social development, through education and other means. This work was strengthening Nicaragua’s incipient democracy that had been developing since 1991 with the government of Doña Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and Ortega perceived this as a threat. That is why the people decided to form a transition government: the civil war, in which more than 100,000 Nicaraguans died, was unbearable, and had generated a declining economy with a foreign debt of more than 14 billion dollars.

President Ortega – who lost the 1991 elections – always said in his populist speeches that the Sandinistas [a socialist political party] were going to command from below. And so it happened with each government that preceded it: Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños. During the Bolaños government Alemán’s deputies, together with the Sandinistas, had a legislative majority; this enabled Alemán and Ortega to negotiate an amendment to the Electoral Law, lowering the percentage required for Ortega to win the elections. Ortega also protected Alemán from the Bolaños government, who wanted to prosecute him for corruption during his administration.

Since Ortega took power in 2007, he has worked to ensure the complete domination of “Orteguismo” [ie Ortega-ism], amending constitutional articles that would have prevented him from staying in power. He also reformed all kinds of laws to benefit himself and his close supporters.

In doing this he ensured his dominion over all the powers of the state, which fell into fanatical servility; essentially deifying himself and his supporters as the only leaders, whilst perpetrating all kinds of violations of the rule of law and corrupt misappropriations of state money. Social security budgets fell into deficit as a result of his inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money, such as lending money to his relatives for investments that never met their insurance obligations, leading to bankruptcy. That is just one example of embezzlement. In 2017 there had already been protests against this insurance situation, but those who protested were evicted with an iron fist. “Orteguismo” continued through electoral fraud, creating an unbearable environment for social life, a high cost of living, and a crumbling economy.”

What happened in the country and what happened to you in April 2018?

“In 2018 I was in my fifth year of studying Legal Sciences at the UPONIC Popular University of Nicaragua Law School, where I also taught education. The government amended the Social Security Law in a way that disadvantaged insured people, and that lit the fuse of the social outbreak. During a protest in the city of León, a group of elderly people suffered a public beating. This, coupled with the injustices of the new law, prompted the university students to launch national protests against government corruption and its abuses against citizens. In response, President Ortega delivered an ultimatum: end these protests. But students, people from rural communities and the vast majority of the population in general continued to go on large-scale civic marches demanding their rights.

The government regarded this as a coup d’état and ordered the police, paramilitaries and the army to attack anyone who was against [the government], resulting in murders and crimes against humanity.

According to investigations carried out by foreign organisations, to date more than 300 people have been killed, hundreds more have been disappeared and injured, and more than 100,000 people have become exiles – the vast majority of whom now live in Costa Rica.

In July 2018 the government adopted the slogan “Let’s go with everything”, and began to remove the checkpoints – protest groups that blocked railways – killing all those who demonstrated. This was what happened at the San Pedro del Lóvago checkpoint, where an estimated 20 people[2] were murdered in front of a large number of people.”

What happened to you?

“I was detained many times by the police for being a human rights defender. They detained me for several hours in July, August and October 2018, threatening to kill me. They were trying to stop me reporting on what was happening in the communities, particularly after the massacre in San Pedro de Lóvago.

But I didn’t stop; I decided to formally report all this to the CENIDH based in Juigalpa Municipality, in the Department of Chontales, and the hostility towards me worsened. That is why I was forced to leave my country and seek refuge in Panama, to protect my life. I left my home and family on 5 April 2019, arriving in Panama City on 12 April. Four days after my arrival, I presented myself to the National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR), but since then I have not been informed of how the process is going or if they are going to give me refugee status or not.”

How is life in exile?

“Living in exile away from your family and with no fixed direction is devastating. It is a constant struggle to survive. It is having to obtain legal documents to be able to find an honest and decent job, to be able to help your loved ones. It is leaving behind all those you love, without knowing if you will ever see them again.

All this only because you think differently from a government that threatens you with death, imprisons you, disappears you or forces you to flee, if you do not submit to its injustices.

Many Nicaraguans have gone through this situation in which I find myself. That is very significant because without legal documents you have to work in the informal sector, so many have chosen to seek legal status through the immigration office, but that requires paying for a lawyer and paperwork with an approximate cost of $3,000 USD.

For someone who does not have papers, it is impossible to come up with that amount of money. So it is quite difficult for Nicaraguans in Panama since they have to be looking for temporary jobs, or asking the Red Cross or UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) to give them assistance and humanitarian aid, particularly since the pandemic began. Many Nicaraguans have returned to their country, on humanitarian trips, but once they arrive in Nicaragua the same police are in charge of investigating them. I know of cases in which they have killed young people who participated in the 2018 protests, because they consider them to have participated in a coup.”

What if you tried to go back?

“As long as the same government is in power I do not dare to return. I know without a doubt that I would be in danger of being kidnapped, imprisoned or disappeared. I say this because they have previously threatened me with death.”

What is the current situation in Nicaragua?

“The situation is chaotic and unstable. The police, paramilitaries and the army keep imprisoning and killing opposition leaders. There is harassment, anxiety and fear. The government does not allow expressions of freedom of any kind, nor allow you to fly the national flag or shout “Long live Free Nicaragua” – they will kill you. That is what happened to a young man from the north who was shot in the head for shouting this. The situation is increasingly tense.”

How is the church affected?

“There is no freedom to hold meetings. They prohibit you from meeting, and not because of the coronavirus. It is because of mistrust, and a fear that church meetings lend themselves to political activities or rallies. And if you visit believers in their homes, they follow up to see if you are doing something against the government.”

What do you ask of the international community?

“I would like to ask international organisations – both those in America and in European countries – to do everything within their power to force President Ortega to resign. This can no longer be just a notification or a request, but requires more forceful actions because what the people of Nicaragua want to be free.

Let human rights be respected; let there be rule of law; let there be justice; let there be democracy and let there be peace.

I ask all those human rights institutions at the international level, the NGOs and countries of the world, to please realise that we have been in the hands of these dictators for more than 40 years, and that the Nicaraguan people need help to break those chains of slavery which bind the nation. I ask all these organisations to take the necessary actions to achieve what we want: freedom, justice, democracy and peace.”

[1] Name changed for security reasons

[2] Official figures remain unconfirmed.