More Nicaraguans Choose Exile
The political violence makes more people want to flee the country.
Susana Lopez of the “April mothers”, released prisoner Lenin Salablanca, and Karen Lacayo, sister of current political prisoner Edward Lacayo, explain why they went into exile.
By Cinthya Torrez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – They killed Susana Lopez’ son, Gerald Vasquez, and they forced her to go into exile. “My son was killed on July 14, 2018, and now I’ve had to flee the repression that’s occurring in Nicaragua. I didn’t want to become their [the government’s] prisoner,” Susana told the Costa Rican immigration authorities on June 11th. She crossed the border into that country illegally, for fear of being arrested by Nicaraguan immigration officials as she left that country.
Lopez first thought about exile when she found out about the imprisonment of Cristiana Chamorro and Arturo Cruz, the first of five presidential candidates arrested by the Ortega regime. Currently, they’re holding 21 opposition leaders in jail, including three additional presidential hopefuls.
Nonetheless, the last straw for Susana Lopez was Vice President Rosario Murillo’s venomous speech, threatening to punish those who’ve denounced to “meddling countries” the crimes perpetrated by the dictatorship. That, along with the continuing arrests, pushed her into leaving.
During the week of June 7, Lopez couldn’t find peace at any moment of the day. Her family, like her, feared she’d be taken prisoner, because since the assassination of her son Gerald, her voice has resounded nationally and internationally in demand of justice.
On November 25, 2019, as a member of the April Mothers’ Association, Lopez spoke before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) to demand that the crimes committed by the regime in 2018 not be left in impunity.
Following her testimony in that international organization, she was the object of insults. They accused her of enriching herself from the struggle, they claimed she was lying. They even disrespected the memory of her son, calling him “riff-raff”. “I participated in the OAS meeting, but I decided that I’m not going to serve as a baited hook for anyone,” Lopez concluded and decided to leave the country.
“The struggle has been my life for the past three years,” she told reporters from Confidencial.
The day before she left, Susana told her daughters of her decision to go into exile. “The only solution I have is to leave,” she assured them. Other friends counseled her to wait for the weekend to begin the trip, but she insisted on crossing the border that Friday, June 11. She was afraid that the repressive forces would reach her first, since she’d been living under constant siege, watched by police.
Lopez hasn’t been allowed to live out her mourning in peace. She wasn’t allowed to spend time at the grave of her son, or to honor his memory with a Mass at the Divine Mercy Church, where a bullet struck him on July 13, 2018, as he and other protesting students resisted an armed attack from Ortega’s paramilitary.
Costa Rica isn’t an unknown country for Susana Lopez. But even though she’s safe now and already has her refugee card, her mind is still in Nicaragua. Not only does she think about the safety of her daughters and the rest of her family, but also about the risk to other people who remain vulnerable, given the regime’s stepped-up authoritarianism. “As international pressure against the regime increases, they’ll respond with further repression,” she believes.
Now, twenty days after going into exile, she explains that the decision was tough, but the current context forces people to choose between life or jail. “You have to opt for life,” she says.
Lenin Salablanca: “the separation breaks my heart”
On June 1, International Children’s Day, released prisoner Lenin Salablanca said goodbye to his four children. The “present” he gave them that day was telling them he’d be leaving. “I’ll never abandon you,” he repeated. Even though he knows his exile doesn’t represent abandonment, “the separation has broken my heart,” he told Confidencial.
Salablanca decided to go into exile after receiving a video call. The person on the other end advised him to take care of himself, to safeguard his life; that if he could leave, he should do so. He calls this occurrence “supernatural”, because up to that moment he’d maintained his firm decision to remain in the country and continue on with the struggle, despite the ongoing police siege and threats.
“I’m leaving Nicaragua,” he told his wife. He sold his motorcycle, he communicated with the people he most trusted and in a little over a week, he was ready to go into exile. His mother applauded his decision. Ever since he was first released from jail in 2019, she’d been pleading with him to leave the country. Other friends also assured him it was necessary.
Lenin feels that the decision to go into exile was the “hardest decision” he’d had to make in the years since April 2018, when he became involved in the civic struggle. “To leave your country, when you’ve been willing to give it everything, has pained me,” he recognized.
Salablanca left Nicaragua via unmarked rural paths. He prefers not to name the country where he’s now found safety.
He views his exile as a new challenge, summed up as “surviving here outside”. The same way he survived in Nicaragua, through jail, beatings, threats; and the dozens of times he stood up to the Police who were watching him. His friends urged him to understand that his life, his freedom and the security of his family were at risk.
Now outside his country for one month, he thanks God for connecting him with people who’ve supported him. Up to the moment, he considers his experience “marvelous”.
One day after Salablanca left Nicaragua, the Ortega regime began hunting down prominent opposition members. These illegal arrests will impel yet more people into exile, says the former political prisoner.
“We continue resisting from wherever we find ourselves, but returning to Nicaragua at this stage isn’t an option,” Salablanca declares.
Karen Lacayo: “I didn’t want to leave my brother.”
Political prisoner Edward Lacayo, counseled his sister, Karen Lacayo, to get out of the country, for her own safety. He told her repeatedly that their mother, Esthela Rodriguez, wouldn’t be able to bear up with two children in prison. Karen initially refused to do so. Eventually, however, she had no other option. They warned her that her name appeared on a list of opposition members that the Ortega regime was planning to jail.
When she saw that Cristiana Chamorro had been arrested, Karen reasoned that after abducting the opposition leaders, they’d come after the political prisoners’ family members, many of whom had continued in the civic struggle. She herself coordinated the Association for the Relatives of Political Prisoners.
Karen Lacayo had been under constant police watch for months. On several occasions, the Police kept her and her mother from leaving their house in Monimbo, Masaya. In 2019, she was also part of a group of political prisoners’ relatives that held a nine-day hunger strike, demanding freedom for the prisoners of conscience. On that occasion, the National Police formed a strict cordon around the San Miguel Church, and trapped the women inside, together with Father Edwing Roman. They were held there incommunicado.
Karen admits that leaving the country was a difficult decision. Her family told her they’d rather see her exiled instead of imprisoned. Her mother was left saddened, because now she has two children who aren’t at her side. Lacayo took up exile in Mexico, with her husband and teenage daughter. She noted that it’s not easy to be in a country that’s “not yours, where you’re not legal”.
“It was a complex decision, because I didn’t want to leave my country, I didn’t want to leave my brother, my family, my mother all facing this alone,” she recalls.
Lacayo isn’t the only relative of political prisoners who’s been under police siege – other prisoners’ family members face the same situation. They see exile as an opportunity to safeguard their freedom and put an end to the persecution. However, some don’t have that option, since they don’t have the money to leave. “These days, Nicaragua’s not a safe country,” Lacayo comments sadly.