Vilma Nuñez: I’m staying in Nicaragua Defending Human Rights
as long as I’m able
The long-time president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh) doesn’t rule out the possibility of being jailed by the Ortega-Murillo regime, but she refuses to remain quiet in the face of the injustices and crimes the regime commits.
HAVANA TIMES – Vilma Nuñez learned about Nicaraguan jails when she was just a child. She was eight years old when they took her to visit a political prisoner – her father. He had been imprisoned by Somoza’s National Guard, the same repressive body that years later would also jail and torture her.
In the course of over six decades of work, she’s become the veteran defender of Nicaraguans’ human rights. Founder and current president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), she confesses that she decided to study Law to fight against the outrages she’d experienced since childhood. Her law career has spanned 63 years, although she was very seldom the prosecutor, but almost always worked on the side of defense.
Through Cenidh, Nuñez continues her struggle for the liberation of the Ortega regime’s political prisoners, just as she did in 1958, when she formed part of the Leon student movement. Through that organization, she became involved in the Committee for the Liberation of the Political Prisoners during the the Somoza regime. On one occasion, she recalls, they requested and received an audience with Luis Somoza Debayle, effectively Nicaragua’s dictator from 1956–1967. Together with university chancellor Mariano Fiallos Gil, she met with the man who had inherited the Somoza dynasty. The dictator became enraged when they demanded the release of the prisoners.
Twenty-one years after that meeting, Nuñez was jailed and tortured with electric shocks by order of the dynasty’s final successor, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. It’s not surprising, then, that the current situation of the political prisoners brings her back to the days of that other terrible dictatorship that – like the current regime – wouldn’t tolerate criticism.
In addition, Nuñez is a survivor of the student massacre of July 23, 1959. She has felt in her own flesh what it means to be jailed for false crimes because of having protested. At 83, it’s been her destiny to once more live under attack from a new dictatorship.
At the end of 2018, the Ortega regime ordered the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly to strip Cenidh of the non-profit status it had held since its founding in 1990. It also confiscated its offices.
“They’ve struck us a blow, but it doesn’t hurt us,” the Cenidh president declared defiantly. “A serious human rights organization can’t be dissolved by a resolution from a political organ with no autonomy or independence; nor can they dissolve our commitment and accompaniment of the Nicaraguan people,” she affirmed, in reference to the legislature’s decision.
International recognition for Vilma Nuñez’ work
Vilma Nuñez has received national and international recognition for her work as a human rights defender. On November 24, 2021, Spain’s Association for Human Rights awarded her the APDHE Human Rights Prize in the international category.
In 2019, the Schwelle Foundation granted her the Bremen International Peace Prize as “ambassador of peace in public life”. She was also recognized in 2011, with the French government’s “Legion of Honor” medal.
On March 8, 2017, nine Sandinista functionaries sent an official letter to the United States Embassy, protesting their nomination of Dr. Nuñez for the “Women of Courage” award, in recognition of the Cenidh president’s trajectory.
According to Nuñez, all the attacks are because they won’t forgive her for having accompanied the case of Zoilamerica Narvaez, Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter. In 1998, Narvaez filed formal accusations of 19-years of rape and sexual abuse and harassment against Ortega.
The ever-present possibility of arrest and jail
The issue most disturbs Dr. Nuñez at present is not being able to accompany the victims at the site where the human rights violations are occurring. She can’t even file an appeal, because the entire state apparatus is controlled by the Ortega regime.
“No one listens or does anything, which generates a situation of powerlessness. You can’t protest, or do anything, and for that reason I’ve said that I feel I’m a prisoner in Nicaragua,” she explains.
Nevertheless, she insists that she won’t cease in her struggle for the defense of human rights and the search for justice. “Fear has been one of the most powerful weapons wielded by the dictatorship, and I won’t let it dominate me,” she declares.
The human rights defender doesn’t rule out the fact that they may want to jail her. Every day, she says, she once again conquers that fear. “The authentic defense of human rights isn’t restricted to the use of the Law. Although the national and international statutes are always useful, they go hand in hand with less formal mechanisms, and one of the most effective of these is the public denunciation,” Nuñez notes.
“I’m going to continue on in Nicaragua. My commitment is to keep standing beside the people, denouncing and defending human rights as long as I can. It’s always been my lot to be standing on the sidewalk, right in the nose of the tyrants and human rights violators,” Vilma Nuñez says.
Some reflections on Vilma Nuñez’ example:
Antonia Urrejola, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: “Ever since I first met her, [Dr. Nuñez’] strength has impressed me (…) if there’s a person who’s always been present in the denunciations of human rights violations in Nicaragua, it’s her. She’s an example of strength and courage.”
Gonzalo Carrion, Nicaragua Nunca + Human Rights Collective: “The history of the human rights movement in the last sixty years in Nicaragua chronicles a people suffering and resisting two different dictatorial dynasties. Whoever writes [that story] will inevitably have to tell of Vilma Nuñez’ activism and commitment.”
Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan writer: “Who hasn’t seen Doña Vilma traveling to the most remote places to accompany victims whose rights have been violated? No one, more than you knows how to be at the side of the Nicaraguan people.”