Dozens of “stateless” and expelled to the U.S. Nicaraguans face various challenges adjusting to a new life abroad.
HAVANA TIMES – In the living room of a small apartment southwest of Miami, Florida, Armando Robles Alaniz and three Nicaraguan women are calculating their expenses for rent, basic services, and food to pay them in equal quotas. Starting on February 9, 2023, when the former political prisoners were banished from Nicaragua by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, an unexpected family bond sprang up between them.
Robles, a businessman who was also a leader of the opposition Civic Alliance in the department of Rio San Juan, talks with “Cristina,” “Juana,” and “Alicia,” his apartment mates. Unlike him, they prefer to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals from the Ortega regime against their relatives in Nicaragua.
They live in fear and seek solutions to their daily problems: the payment of US$2,100 monthly —divided into four— for the rent of the apartment is one of the immediate and priority issues.
“Juana” and “Cristina” spoke to each other for the first time on the plane that took them to Washington, D.C.
–Have you traveled by plane? – asked Cristina.
–No, answered Juana.
—Then try to think of something else.
Thus began their story, to which Robles and “Alicia” would be added. They are part of the 222 political prisoners that the Ortega and Murillo regime stripped of their nationality and banished by sending them to the United States. An unprecedented case of mass expulsion in Latin America, which raised alarms in the region about the seriousness of human rights violations in Nicaragua.
The four ran into a reality where language was only one difficulty. Even filling out immigration forms that included their families became an unresolved labyrinth. One more reason for insomnia.
Robles, “Cristina,” “Juana,” and “Alicia” are now part of the sizeable Nicaraguan community in Miami, a space where they struggle to survive among this group of age-old exiles.
Eighteen released prisoners of conscience agreed to tell their stories after being exiled, eight percent of those who were expelled from Nicaragua, declared “traitors to the homeland,” and confiscated by Ortega’s orders. They work as house cleaners, painters, construction workers, florists, and consultants. Others are unemployed.
Behind each of them are broken dreams, separated families, truncated careers, annulled degrees, anguish, and the desperate search for a better future. At the same time, they survive by using a temporary stay permit known as parole, which will be in effect until February 8, 2025, granted by the Biden Administration.
Sleeping on foam mats or air mattresses
In another sector of Miami, the also exiles Nestor Montealto Nunez and his cousins Angel de Jesus and Jose Gadiel Sequeira Zamora, share a single room in an apartment. It is not the first place they were in February, but they know their new reality.
“We accommodate ourselves (to sleep) on foam and air mattresses,” says Montealto. They receive support from their cousin Elvira —sister of Sequeira Zamora— and her husband Hamilton Javier Sanchez Quiroz, a 2019 former political prisoner, who fled previously from the regime and resides in the same place.
Moises Alfredo Leiva Chavarria, 26 years old, suffered Ortega’s repression in Matagalpa, a city in northern Nicaragua, where he was imprisoned twice since 2018 until he was banished in February 2023.
Leiva works for a flower company, packing and loading and unloading. In the evenings, he must travel a little over an hour to be at a restaurant where he works in cleaning, and on certain weekends he also makes home deliveries of mondongo soup. For short distances, he rides a bicycle he bought for 40 dollars. Before that, he also had short-lived jobs, mainly in painting and construction.
Before August 2022, Sergio Jose Cardenas Flores, was a photojournalist at TV Merced, a cable television channel of the Diocese of Matagalpa. He was part of the group, initially eleven people, that, since August 4, 2022, was held captive with bishop Rolando Alvarez in the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa.
Alvarez was finally moved to his home in Managua after a violent police assault on August 19, 2022, and in February 2023 he was sent to La Modelo prison. Cardenas, three priests, a deacon and two seminarians were taken to the high-security police prison “El Chipote,” denounced by human rights organizations as a torture center.
Insomnia due to prison trauma
Cardenas has trouble walking; due to injuries, he suffered in a traffic accident in Matagalpa before he was kidnapped. An ailment he had to deal with while he was imprisoned. During his exile, he underwent surgery to remove pins from his left leg and is recovering under the care of the Dioceses of Gaylord, Michigan.
As days passed by, a series of traumas in the exiles emerged. “I couldn’t sleep. I got anxious. It was bizarre for me to be anxious,” Cardenas confesses.
Insomnia also takes hold of Montealto, who receives psychological care every ten or fifteen days. “When I am sleeping, thoughts come to me, such as being in prison, and it is hard for me to sleep. I fall asleep at two or three in the morning,” he says.
Montealto was imprisoned with his cousins, of the Sequeira Zamora family for three years and three months. According to newspaper reports, they lived through torture scenes such as eating worms and rat droppings. One of them even thought of committing suicide. The conditions were so cruel that Montealto improvised a hunger strike by stitching up his lips.
Work in any job
The smell of grilled meat permeates a sector near Little Havana where a Nicaraguan “fritanga” stands out. In that place, one of the diners is a familiar face in Nicaragua: bald, dark, thin, and with a mustache. He is Carlos Raul Valle, father of Elsa Valle, the student who desperately asked for help from the university barricades under attack in a video that went viral on social networks.
Valle is 65 years old and was retired in Nicaragua. In addition to exile, the Ortega regime took away his pension. Today he faces unemployment and only manages to get odd jobs. He recently worked for over 40 hours for an events company in two days.
“One could find a job working in construction, but how could I work on that? If I get up on a ladder and fall from the second floor, I kill myself,” Valle regrets.
Almost all of them have had to restart their lives in trades other than those they had in Nicaragua. “Cristina” studied and has always worked in business administration and public accounting. She has had to work cleaning houses in Miami and is currently unemployed. The chronic illnesses that this 59-year-old woman has, including diabetes and osteoporosis, were aggravated in prison.
The language barrier
Jose Alcides Zeledon Ubeda, another exiled living in Portland, Oregon, also has a well-founded fear that the regime will retaliate against his relatives in Nicaragua. He was a prosperous farmer, business owner, and cattle rancher in his native Jinotega. The cows he raised broke national records in production several times. In 2017 at a fair in Esteli, his cow “Calceta” produced 83.5 liters of milk. But he was jailed twice since 2018 until he was also banished.
“There are many things I can’t talk about because those people (Ortega’s supporters in Nicaragua) are very attentive, and in fact, my family is in danger in Nicaragua. They have you with your hands tied,” Zeledon Ubeda apologizes, and the only thing he openly refers to is the challenge of finding a job in this new reality.
Like other exiles, language is a barrier. In Oregon, where Zeledon Ubeda lives, only 6.5 percent of the population speaks Spanish, according to the 2020 US Census. That figure contrasts with other places in the United States, where Spanish is a reality among migrants, such as Miami, where approximately 70% of the population speaks Spanish.
Rusia Evelyn Pinto is a renowned human rights defender. She is 64 years old and for her activism in defense of children and indigenous communities’ rights, she was imprisoned for 460 days, from November 6, 2021, until her exile on February 9, 2023. She is unemployed and points out, “for those of us who were lucky enough to have relatives here in the United States, it has been easier to deal with the grief of losing our nationality and being banished.”
“I have dealt with the loss of my home, of my things, of my past life, and that is what has hurt me, and I am still processing it,” Pinto laments.
Problems with family reunification
Another major problem exiles face is the reunification with their families, especially in cases of minors, which depends on the authorization that the Ortega and Murillo regime must give them to leave the country.
Carlos Valle says that among those exiles, they have surveyed “there are 27 brothers and sisters who have not been able to find a sponsor to bring their relatives here.”
Sergio Cardenas, the photojournalist from the Diocese of Matagalpa, has been unable to reunite with his wife and daughter while he continues recovering from leg ailments.
Valle had a different experience. His wife and four children were in the United States when he was banished on February 9. Through parole, he brought three other children with him, but two remain in Nicaragua.
Two of the women with whom Armando Robles shares an apartment in Miami, “Juana” and “Alicia,” dream of being reunited with their families. In the first case, she reunited with her oldest son, but her husband and 13-year-old son are still in Nicaragua.
“Alicia” regrets a scenario that she sees as an uphill struggle to reunite with her three children. She needs all of them to have passports. “They say that I have to send a power of attorney, go to the (Nicaraguan) embassy, but I see no logical reason (…) if I am going to spend my time and money because once I give my name and last name, they will deny everything.”
*Fragments from the report Vidas y desafíos de los desterrados por Ortega (Lives and Challenges of the Exiles by Ortega), originally published by Mosaico CSI.