A New Profession for Nicaraguans: Full-Time Activist in Exile

Jessica Cisneros (left) and Yerling Aguilera. / Photo: David Fernandez for El Salto


The threat of being detained if they return to Nicaragua has obligated Jessica Cisneros, Yerling Aguilera and Celia Navarro to remain indefiniteley in Madrid, the first two to seek asylum. In this interview, they discuss Daniel Ortega’s newly adopted methods of repression as well as the progress being made in regards to creating other political options.


By June Fernandez 
(Pikara magazine)

HAVANA TIMESYerling Aguilera and Jessica Cisneros are two of the spokespersons of the Nicaraguan International Solidarity Caravan in Spain. They arrived with a small suitcase and round-trip tickets they’ve had to change several times until, in July, the approval of an antiterrorist law and the detention of two prominent activists— merchant leader Irlanda Jerez and the peasant leader Merardo Mairena—brought them to Madrid so they could apply for political asylum.

In order to give this interview, they had to make room on their calendars, filled with talks and events. “That’s the life of an activist in exile”, jokes Yerling. They have received a lot of support and affection, especially from the feminists and the #SOSNicaragua solidarity groups, motivated by Nicaraguan immigrants. However, they have also faced agression and slander, falsly accusing them of being financed by the CIA to prepare a coup d’etat, something that places them at risk for being detained if they return to Nicaragua.

“A permanent contradiction” is the expression most used by Celia Navarro [ficticious name] to describe the current situation. She has returned to Madrid, where she was born, after 27 years living in Nicaragua, 24 of those involved in one of the most emblematic and active feminist organizations in the country. She arrived in July with her partner, to visit family and to rest after three months of protest in which she has been on the front lines. The fear of being detained the moment she steps foot in the airport in Managua has indefinitely postponed her return. “I feel privileged, here I am safe, with my family, taking advantage of this time to care for my mother. We have placed much emphasis on the importance of self care, as I have a lot of public exposure in my city. On the other hand, I feel like my place is in Nicaragua.  Every now and then I ask myself where I would be most useful. It’s awkward”, she explains.

In reality, impotence is the predominant feeling among the displaced as well as those in Nicaragua, where for months they can barely protest and where the activities of the social organizations have been diminished by the crisis. She points out: “My [female] companions in the struggle tell me that here I have a voice that they lack there.”

The three share a common anxiety of not knowing when they will be able to return and the need to express their activism and to feel useful while their compatriots continue to be exposed to repression and pessimism. “Between May and July we thought it would take only another little push, but now we find ourselves in a situation that will require much effort to turn around,” laments Celia.

What can feminists do that goes beyond political and moral support?

A block of Nicaraguan exiles and friends protesting in Madrid this past November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Denounce the situation of the political prisoners. “There are families that don’t have the means to buy a food packet to take to their imprisoned relatives”, states Yerling, who advocates for the creation of international brigades like those in the 70s and 80s that could offer support for immediate needs. – Have an institutional impact. Having cities condemn the Ortega/Murillo government is highly valued. – Keep talking about Nicaragua in the press and in all types of spaces. “Since if there are no deaths there is no news, it’s important to keep the situation alive. It’s encouraging,” emphasizes Celia.  Get to know the SOS Nicaragua groups in order to unite more immigrant voices and friends of Nicaragua thereby strengthening the support networks. “It gives another face to the struggle, and from those who have been here for a long time”, points out Jessica.

Did you ever imagine the level of slander and negativity that you have to face in Nicaragua as well as in Europe?

Yerling: Yes, I come from the Sandinista Front and I know how it operates.  I knew that they were going to try to squash the people’s struggle and target specific groups in order to leave them leaderless and deligitimize their voices.

Jessica: We have received threats of agression and rape, and private messages warning us of the violence we would face if we returned.  We have suffered verbal attacks in Sweden, in France and then in Spain.  If it hadn’t been for the people that supported us, there may have been physical violence.  We saw how these groups gradually took on the same discourse, the same strategies used in Nicaragua to criminalize protest, weighing against our companions and families.

Celia: The level of virulence here and in other European countries has surprised me.  I knew that there were leftist sectors who maintain that idea of the Sandinista Front, but to act that way in front of people who are telling their story… Among feminists there are only a few of those involved in such attacks, but willing to make a lot of noise.

Yerling: What has surprised me the most has been this vestige of colonialism that nullifies us as critical political subjects and sees us as something to be manipulated, co-opted by the Empire or the political right. The idea that if we are against Daniel Ortega [president of Nicaragua] that means we are agents of imperialism negates our ability to construct our own political project that can call into question the so-called progressive governments.

In the leftist worldview they can easily group you with the opponents of the Venezuelan and Cuban governments.

Celia: Yes, this idea carries a lot of weight.

Yerling: It is a lazy analogy that doesn’t recognize the evolution and the historical details of each country and demonstrates an astounding lack of knowledge of the political reality of Nicaragua, having to do with the pacts and ties of the Daniel Ortega government with national oligarchies and transnational capitalists.

The US government doesn’t see Ortega as an enemy because he is seen as guaranteeing their economic and migration policies. Ortega launched a fierce campaign against the migrants who had arrived from the south.  One symbolic case would be that of Nilamar Alemán Mora, a school teacher from Rivas who helped an African girl get through and they charged her with human trafficking.

Celia: Nobody knows about this because no one is talking about it.  Here [in Europe] that are a lot of people over 50 whose connection to Nicragua is a memory from their youth and the Revolutionary Era. The left has suffered so many defeats that it doesn’t want to face reality to avoid frustration. But that’s a comfortable and cowardly position. I went to Nicaragua in 1989 with a feminist brigade filled with emotion and passion. I returned in 1991, the Revolution had been lost but the feminist movement reorganized and saw the opportunity to struggle for their autonomy and their own agenda. I lived everything that occurred in the 1990s and the process that led many to break with the FSLN. The people that were far away didn’t make the same rupture and continue clinging to a romantic idea which they have no desire to renounce.

Ortega and the Vice President Murillo saluted the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil…

Celia: And they have supported the governments of Honduras.  They have maintained a double discourse and completely contradictory policies, but they keep being considered among progressive governments because they have been clever.

Yerling: Those of us who came from a Sandinista background know how difficult it is to assimilate that a political project that emerged from the heat of a movement of the masses and was the last successful revolution in Latin America could have ended up as a fascist state. This implies saying goodbye to those utopian ideas that had been our ethical and political guides. I became disconnected about six years ago and it was painful, like the loss of a family member. I clearly remember the moment: I joined a peasant march where the government dispatched armed motorcyle riders with bats to attack us, with the complicity of the police. I saw one person have their arm broken off.  Afterwards, when I got home, I started crying.  My dream of the Front was gone.

Since April, how much has the presence of the paramilitary grown?

Jessica: They have gotten much stronger.  They are not legally formed, but they are concealed by the police, they are armed, and they are recognized [by the government] as an entity that looks out for the citizens. Daniel Ortega is pedaling a discourse of normalcy, but right now there is a direct, selective hunt that to me is stronger than the repression in the streets that was bloody and was visible and appeared on international media. Now there is a silence that has allowed them to regroup and arm themselves in order to besiege the capital and the bastions of the resistence. In recent weeks, rumors have been circulating that they are training these groups for a military war. Daniel Ortega is gambling on an armed civil war because that is how he can best move his pieces; he knows how to mobilize an army and he has the heavy artillary. On the other hand, the population is not prepared and does not want a war because the most recent war is still felt among our parents.  It is something we do not wish to repeat.

Celia: It’s true that there are paramilitaries in the streets all day and not only at night. We live under a state of seige after six o’clock in the evening but now they are carrying young people off in broad daylight. You get messages alerting you to raids, but you don’t know if it is a real threat or is it just a strategy to keep people terrorized so they won’t leave their homes?

Has the April Revolution afected emblematic figures like Francisca Ramirez or Monica Baltodano?

Yerling: Precisely, we folks that are in exile have a historical opportunity to direct a political project that goes behond the slogan: “Let them leave”. It entails questioning all of the structures: the nepotism, the plutocracy, the legalized vision of corruption.

Celia: It is difficult to achieve a change unless this government steps down and it’s difficult to get them out.  The external pressure is very important, but what could have really brought about change would have been internal mobilization which has now been weakened by the terror that has been instilled. Clearly, a popular insurrection was a great hope, and it’s been a number of years we’ve been thinking of how this had no chance of coming about, that they had closed off all the possibility of change. People came out into the streets because the deaths touched holy ground and we saw how they were doing away with the youth of our country. Now we must find some different routes other than the streets, to construct a broad unity among the groups that are not all that like minded, and minimal democratic conditions in order to put up a political fight.

Jessica: Even though there is a non-existent mobilization because of the repression, the women’s movement keeps fighting and searching for new ways to denounce what is happening. We have achieved great social recognition, including international recognition with regards to the leadership of peasant communities and those of African descent.

Yerling: We can take advantage of this moment to gather our forces in silence as the FSLN did in 1974 [to develop the Revolution of 1979]. Form study groups to reflect, to position the construction of a political project of the future, a narrative in which we come together, all the sectors marginalized by the political parties. It is time to set these minimum goals for a space of confluence: out with Ortega, avoid reinstalling a market extractionist project, where it’s not the elites who make the decisions in the same way the private companies have tried to do at the dialogue table.

What can you tell us about the efforts of the Nicaraguan International Solidarity Caravan?

Yerling: We have been able to achieve some alliances primarily with social movements that are our natural allies because the Caravan makes up part of the Coordination of Social Movements and Organizations of Civil Society in Nicaragua. They are putting up a broad-based attempt to demystify the government of Daniel Ortega.  I highly value the effort to approach working migrants, who until now were seen as an economic unit, like a commodity that energizes the gross domestic product but not as political beings that can contribute to this struggle.

Celia: I agree that this has been an opportunity for Nicaraguan emigrees to unite, to recognize one another and strengthen one another and have a voice. They are people who have been maintaining their families and the economy of their country, and now they are maintaining the fight, supporting those who are exiting and those who remain in the country.

I notice that the reticence of some parties and organizations to support you may be because they don’t see you as capable of achieving a change that won’t become a return to the right, supported by the United States.

Celia: What “right”? For this reason, they are the ones giving space to the right, like in Spain, where it’s the deputies of the People’s Party that talk about the repression in Nicaragua. They [left parties] can’t manage to understand that Daniel Ortega is ultraconservative in social politics and neoliberal in economic politics. The United States will be looking for the side that best soots its interests, but they have not been behind the protests. Of course I would like a radical change that moves toward a just society. But what I want now is to live in a country where I can fight for that without risking being killed or imprisoned or tortured.

Yerling: I suppose this is marked by what happened after the experiences and uprisings like the Arab Spring or what happened in the Ukraine. We should be in a constant state of alert of what can come afterward, and which are the strategies of those who will come later. The mobilization should not end when Ortega leaves, and we should continue in the streets, like an uncomfortable voice that tells those that come next: “Here you deviated, you betrayed the goals of the mobilization.” We should not be romantisizing, thinking that the uprising will be followed by a change, because that’s not always the case.  The economic elites will try to instrumentalize this mobilization.

Celia: But they can’t put it on you like a condition. “If you guarantee me that there will be a progressive government, then I will support you; if it returns to the right, then I’m better off remaining home.” How can you say that to a community that is fighting for its life? Support me so that this position that I represent can be stronger when the moment arrives that we have the ability to build a political project, but don’t ask me to guarantee it right now.

Jessica: What frustrated me was people’s coldness because you’re talking about human rights and life.  They speak from their comfort zone, from their little place back in the 80s. I understand there was no information flowing about what was going on in Nicaragua and that the 18th of April hits you like an explosion and that can be confusing. But after six+ months, with all the reports and testimonials that have circulated, you have to rethink  your position and ask if it is really to the left.

There are also Nicaraguan emigrees organizing activities in support of the FSLN.

Jessica: These are people who left Nicaragua many years ago and they don’t know the current circimstances and what we have been seeing. It seems to me contradictory, because if you were doing well, if the government was creating conditions for well being, then, why did you immigrate?

Celia: It’s always the same people, cooped up by the Nicaraguan embassy and a few leftist groups. Its maddening how the Anti-fascist Coordinator of Madrid can defend a fascist government. There were a lot of Nicaraguan migrants that went to denounce the lies, they ran them off but they had been present. And of course, both inside and outside of Nicaragua there are those who are with the government. As in al fascisms, a large part of the repression is being exercised by the poor who are snitching, making reports, making lists in the communities.

Another argument is that you opposition folks are people who are better off   

Celia: Bourgeois, pink asses… [laughter]. Look at the people in jail, look at the dead kids, what families are they from. Look at the huge marches; the argument doesn’t add up, there are not so many middle-class folks in Nicaragua!

Jessica: The people who maintained the mobilizations and the road blocks were from the poorest neighborhoods. This was evidenced by the fact that the elites did not participate.

Yerling: I want to restate what I’ve seen as the lack of humanity from the left. The same thing happened in Syria. People have come fleeing the war, threatened and criminalized people. For this left that maintains a realpolitik view of the world, human rights moves to another plane as they are more interested in the geopolitical balance, the idea of maintaining this alignment that supposedley stands in opposition to the United States.

What mutual support networks are there in Spain and how are they articulated within the social movements?

Celia: In many cities there are #SOSNicaragua groups, primarily formed by Nicaraguans who are raising funds for the material support, initially to send to Nicaragua but now for supporting the student youth who are arriving without any kind of support. There is an attempt at coordination among the feminists from Barcelona, Zaragoza, Pamplona or Galicia, it’s starting. More involvement of social movements here is needed, because most of the active people are Nicaraguans or folks with strong ties to Nicaragua.

Yerling: The feminist movements have been the ones to respond most beligerantly…

Celia: En the area of politics, yes, but the ongoing support has come from the migrant community.

Do the people who arrive seek asylum?  Do they have to demonstrate direct political persecution?

Yerling: There are people who came right away that have no documents to demonstrate that they are in a state of persecution, and they ask you for it.  These burocrats make a lot of noise.

Celia: Of course, this a global issue, it’s not like they have threatened you by name. There are people who don’t trust in the asylum process because it is not resolved quickly and they impose restrictions on you: you can’t work, they take your passport and you can’t leave…If you are a migrant and you register yourself, you can get a healthcare card; if you are in the process of seeking asylum, no. It’s absurd.  Because the process is so long, not one person [of the newly exiled Nicaraguans] has received refugee status nor has any one been denied.  You just don’t know what is going to happen.

Yerling: I met a guy in Germany who had petitioned for asylum, he was denied and told he had a certain number of days to exit the European Union. In this case, many folks prefer to remain irregular.

Jessica: As it is, while there is still no internationally declared state of emergency it’s complicated for them to give priority to these applications.  And the high-profile campaign to normalize the government may make other governments cozy up to the Nicaraguans who fall into this trap. For that reason, many people are afraid to give information not knowing what will occur.

Celia was saying that during this fight self care is highly valued.  How are you taking care of yourselves?

Yerling: There is a network of women psychologists in the Spanish state and European cities that are giving appointments over Skype to people in Nicaragua and to those in exile. There are only a few and the demand is high, but they are keeping in mind the emotional state of each one of us [women].

Jessica: These networks are making a huge effort, but the difficulty comes with each one of us, because we feel like we have to be an activist 24/7 because if not we are betraying our commrades that are in the resistence there. Sometimes I need to give myself some space but this contradiction that ‘I’m fine’ while over there things are going badly prevents me from taking care of myself.

Celia: Protection and self care are fundamental concepts to the Feminist Organization and the Human Rights Defenders Mesoamerican Initiative. We have learned a lot about how to safely manage networks and telephones. There are people that are trained in working with others, because there is a lot of pain and this has reopened the pain of the past war and once again there are divisions in families and communities… At this time of such brutality, sometimes self care has been to attend marches and scream. There was a debate among the feminists about whether we should go to the protests at the churches. Some of our companions said: “I need to go to a place with other people and scream, and if the church is that safe place, then I’m going”.

These are the self care practices that we had never imagined [laughter]. So many things from 1979 are being repeated and it seems like we’re in the same cycle, but there is a great leap forward: this is a non-violent struggle. This shows that something has changed in the political culture of the country, that we don’t have to have heroic activism. Having installed this change to the “Free homeland or death” slogan in order to say instead “Free homeland to live” means a lot.

Nicaraguan immigration authorities deported Nicaraguan feminist Ana Quirós

You might wonder how is it possible that a Nicaraguan national could be deported from her own country. Ana Quirós, director of the non-governmental organization Information and Health Counseling Services Center (CISAS), has lived in Nicaragua for more than 40 years and has dual nationality for 20 years. This past November 26th she received a summons from immigration which did not even detail the reason for the citation. Before going to the appointment, the press released a story about her fear that the government would annul her citizenship and deport her to her native country, Costa Rica, for her participation in the protests against Ortega, in which she was injured in the initial days by confrontational groups.

“It is not one’s role that assigns nationality, nor is it one’s role that can take it away, if that could be the case. I have always been committed with Nicaragua since the first time I came when I was 15 years old and the rubble from the earthquake was still fresh”, she told the press. That afternoon the Mesoamerican Initiative Defenders denounced that she had been detained and they knew nothing of her whereabouts. A few hours later, Oscar Camacho, the Costa Rican consul in Nicaragua, reported the detention and imminent expulsion of Quiros and finally confirmed that she was at the Costa Rican border.

This is not an isolated situation. Immigration also, on the same day withdrew the permanent resident status of three defenders from the Matagalpa Women’s Collective, Beatrice Uber and the sisters Ana Maria and Ana de Jesus Ara Soberriba, and they made them sign a document committing them to not participating in any political activities. They have lived in Nicaragua more than 30 years, and they were told they could apply for residency but starting from zero.

The annulment of nationality and immediate deportation of Quiros has motivated Celia Navarro, who also holds dual nationality, to request at the last minute to be sited in this article under a pseudonym without any mention of the organization to which she belongs. “This is the type of arrogant and illegal act the government is taking, and it establishes a latent fear,” she explains. In keeping with Quiros’ idea that nationality does not define her role, rather her membership within a community, Celia concludes: “Being part of this struggle has made me feel more Nicaraguan than ever before.”

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