Nicaragua: “Turning Off” the Political Prisoners’ Brains

Ortega’s jail keepers forbid reading and writing in the infamous El Chipote

Statement by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights: Like Hitler, they are “failing to recognize human dignity.” Venezuela learned the technique from Cuba, Cuba learned it from Russia, and Nicaragua is now copying Cuba and Venezuela.”

By Octavio Enriquez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – For over a year and a half, Berta Valle, 39, a former television presenter, has been publicly asking Nicaragua’s police authorities to allow her husband to have a Bible. Her husband, Felix Maradiaga, is a political prisoner who was arbitrarily arrested on June 8, 2021, for the “crime” of aspiring to run for president.

Maradiaga is currently serving his sentence in the maximum security police complex, popularly known as El Chipote. The heavily guarded jail is located in a rural area of the capital city of Managua. Up until now, authorities there have responded to Valle with a resounding “NO!”

The El Chipote jail currently houses 59 political prisoners; like Maradiaga, these prisoners are forbidden to read or write. For the more than 600 days that the earliest political prisoners have been in that jail, none of them have had access to books, or to pencils and paper to write with. Other methods of psychological torture are practiced in that jail as well, including isolation and keeping the prisoners incommunicado. Four of the female political prisoners are still being held in solitary confinement. Prisoners are hindered from speaking with their defense attorneys, kept from sleeping, and exposed to constant interrogations. Medical attention is lacking, and the food is so poor that in Maradiaga’s case, for example, the prisoner lost over 60 pounds during his first year in jail.

The prohibition of reading and writing, added to the abovementioned serious violations, are part of the punishment regimen the Ortega dictatorship has imposed on the prisoners for political motives. These policies are comparable to practices in some totalitarian countries of the Middle East, and also to other authoritarian nations, such as Cuba and Venezuela. Confidencial was able to confirm the aptness of these comparisons through consultations with international human rights specialists.

“This punitive measure has been applied in a number of contexts, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently. It’s a problem in many of the Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt. Keeping the political prisoners from reading (including textbooks for students) or writing is fairly common in places that detain prisoners with no legal basis. It’s not part of the penal system, simply a common practice,” explained a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch.

The prohibition of reading and writing in El Chipote also violates the minimal norms for the treatment of prisoners established by the United Nations as the “Nelson Mandela rules,” in honor of the South African leader who fought apartheid in his country and spent nearly thirty years – from 1963 to 1990 – as a prisoner.

Rules 58 – 64 of this code speak of the prisoners’ right to communication with relatives and friends via correspondence, phone calls and visits. The rules also speak of allowing them periodic access to information, be it through radio, newspapers or special publications, together with access to a library with “instructive and recreational” literature.

Dora Maria Tellez, Daniel Ortega’s former comrade in arms during the struggle against Somoza, is now a political prisoner who is kept doubly isolated. She remains in an isolation cell located in the men’s wing of the jail. She’s kept in semi-darkness, according to journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. Chamorro referred to these conditions during his November 28, 2022, acceptance speech on behalf of Dora Maria Tellez for the Honoris Causa doctorate bestowed on her by Sorbonne University in Paris.

“There’s not even enough light to see the toothpaste on her toothbrush,” Chamorro affirmed at that time.

According to Esmeralda Arosemena de Trotiño, Special Rapporteur for Nicaragua under the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), measures like forbidding reading and writing, as the Nicaraguan regime is practicing in El Chipote, recall the policies of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. It’s a policy that denies any recognition of the imprisoned as human beings.

“What’s the objective of a prison rule that prohibits reading and writing, or receiving a child’s drawing? What’s the sense of that prohibition? From a human rights point of view, it’s a failure to acknowledge the prisoners’ human nature – their need to communicate, to have contact with the outside world,” explained Arosemena, who gave examples of similar human rights abuses in the region, such as in Venezuela.

Objective: to torture and harm

US forensic psychiatrist Terry Kupers specializes in the topic of solitary confinement and its effects on prisoners. He’s followed such practices within the US prison system. To him, the objective of measures like these is to cause harm, psychological torture, and provoke depression in the prisoners.

Kupers explained that those deprived of liberty in the United States generally have access to books. “Most of the prison population are allowed to write, and their mail is relatively secure. They’re also allowed to use the prison libraries and to keep a small number of books with them,” Kupers affirmed.

The exception are the isolation jails, such as those at the US military base in Guantanamo Cuba, a symbol of egregious human rights violations that has been denounced by diverse international organizations.

“The prohibition of pencil and paper, books and reading materials, is practiced principally in solitary confinement units in the United States,” Kupers continued. “These punitive measures are applied as a form of torture, in order to inflict more damage on the prisoners who are already ‘in the hole’ [term used for punishment cells in the United States].”

Prison conditions in Venezuela

Alfredo Romero, director of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, states that in his country there are currently 274 political prisoners. However, those suffering the greatest restrictions are in the jail known as Helicoide, which is managed by the Bolivarian Intelligence Services. Fifty-nine prisoners are being held there.

The other main prison, under the control of the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, is housing another 7 political prisoners. However, in these places, Romero understands that the prohibition of reading and writing isn’t a constant measure but depends on the will of the prison warden.

In the case of writing, Romero adds that it’s often restricted, because the political prisoners frequently try to send notes outside. Because of that, it’s common in the Military Counterintelligence prison to not allow the political prisoners to have pencils at certain periods.

The expert notes sadly that the world has grown tired of talking about Nicaragua, as happened at one time with Venezuela. He finds this regrettable, given that international denunciations exact a political cost for those responsible for the abuses.

Romero believes the extreme prohibitions seek “one of the greatest punishments: closing off the mind.” He thinks of the violations committed by China, Belarus, Egypt, but also by other nations such as Saudi Arabia. “[The abuses] aren’t only perpetrated by the left but are also common to those whose rhetoric puts them on the right. There are countries that copy each other, maintain similar strategies, and learn from each other. Venezuela learned from Cuba; Cuba from Russia; and Nicaragua from Cuba and Venezuela,” he added.

Ana Leonor Acosta, director of the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, affirmed that this type of denunciations were common in Venezuela in 2014, but that Venezuela’s military jails have advanced “a little” as the result of the denunciation campaigns on the part of national or international organizations that have some influence with the authorities.

“Isolation and confinement leads to psychological problems. Not being able to read, not being allowed to write, not having sunlight, not having a place with a flow of fresh air, not having ventilation – all these have psychological implications and health effects that can be considered torture,” Acosta declared.

“They’re using the same methods that Cuba initially implemented”

The reality for those detained in Cuba for political reasons has at times been similar to the examples cited above. Lariza Diversent directs Cubalex, an organization that denounces abuses on the island. She believes that the repression in Cuba has been a process spanning over six decades, ever since Fidel Castro triumphed in 1959.

Looking over that time, she notes, you notice the poor prison conditions that marked the treatment of political prisoners in the first years of the dictatorship. “[Ortega] is using the same methods that Cuba utilized at first,” Diversant says of the situation in Nicaragua.

The Cubalex director added that, in her country, books are allowed in the prisons, and relatives can bring white paper, pencils and pens. The guards keep these items in a bag, allowing their use when requested. She noted, though, that everything changes if the prisoner is in solitary.

In other words, a selective policy is employed for those detained for political reasons. According to the organization “Prisoners’ Defenders”, there are 1,057 political prisoners in Cuba, as of December 2022. Should the authorities then decide that a certain book should not be read, it’s taken away from the prisoners – for example, the book 1984 by George Orwell, explained the human rights advocate.

While imprisoned under Somoza, Daniel Ortega had the right to read

Daniel Ortega, the ferocious repressor of today’s political prisoners, revealed in December 2022 that he was allowed to read while imprisoned by Nicaragua’s former dictator Anastasio Somoza from 1967 to 1974.

On December 23, 2022, during a commemoration remembering the 1972 Managua earthquake, Ortega accused today’s political prisoners of terrorism and an attempted coup d’etat.

That’s how Ortega habitually refers to the peaceful protesters of 2018, when thousands of citizens went out on the streets of Nicaragua to demand that Ortega resign. The government response was a brutal crackdown that left hundreds dead, through joint actions carried out by the special police forces and paramilitary groups loyal to the government.

In his speech, Ortega spoke of the cruelty he was the victim of when he was imprisoned under Somoza. However, he was silent about the poor prison conditions that prevail today. Despite his silence and the large lagoons in his stories of those years under Somoza, he accepted that they were able to bring in books with the aid of some officials, who also tipped them off when there were going to be surprise cell inspections, so they wouldn’t be caught unaware.

In an interview Ortega gave Playboy Magazine in 1987, he admitted that he could also write in prison. He began reading the poetry of Rosario Murillo while behind prison bars. Murillo would later become his wife and decades later comprise the other half of his dictatorial reign.

“I felt very attracted by them (Murillo’s poems). In general, feminine poetry attracted me – it was a poetry of high quality, and I began to write to her. And so, we got used to exchanging poems,” Ortega stated during that conversation.

Amnesty International: an attempt to enforce silence

Erica Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said the measures of the Nicaraguan regime are aimed at silencing the political prisoners. That tactic is yet another illegality, in accordance with all the other violations observed during Maradiaga’s arbitrary detention, five months before the 2021 presidential elections.

“We’ve been denouncing the conditions under which these persons have been detained. At different moments, they’ve been subjected to the international crime of forced disappearance: in the beginning, many of those detained within the pre-electoral context were considered ‘disappeared,’ because for a span of time their whereabouts was unknown, and [the authorities] refused to give their relatives any information,” Guevara Rosas recalled.

Bertha Valle and Felix Maradiaga have now been apart for over 500 days, after 17 years of marriage, due to the adverse situation in Nicaragua. Bertha treasures the family photos, where they’re both enjoying the company of their daughter.

Every morning, at 6:30 am, Bertha Valle arises in her Florida apartment and goes to her desk to perform her morning prayers. She reads the Book of Jeremiah: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord.” Written in the margins, in beautiful handwriting, she reads a note interpreting the passage, which seems to be written for this family: “God’s promises for our lives!”

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times