Dora Maria Tellez Is Back after 605 Days in Solitary
“Having Monsignor Álvarez locked up is going to blow up in Daniel Ortega’s face”
I see myself where I always have been. I am standing up for Nicaragua, in the recovery of our freedoms and our rights.
By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – On February 12, one year after retired General Hugo Torres died as a political prisoner of the dictatorship, Dora María Téllez describes the martyrdom of her former comrade-in-arms for the 1978 assault on the National Palace as “the most terrible evidence of Daniel Ortega’s perverse hatred, because Hugo Torres risked his own life to get him [Ortega] out of jail” in a guerrilla operation carried out on December 27, 1974.
“I am in tremendous mourning for Hugo, and perhaps I will only resolve it when I can stand in front of his grave”, says the former political prisoner, now free in the United States, but banished from her country after having spent 605 days in a solitary confinement cell in the El Chipote jail.
“One day some lines from St. Teresa of Jesus’ poem came into my head: I live without living in me, and in such a way do I hope, that I die because I do not die. I felt so deeply identified with that woman in that dark cell where they would not let us read or write, that I think for the first time I understood that terrible phrase, I live without living in me. That’s how I felt.
It shows in Téllez’ face and in the fragility of her body the external damage caused by imprisonment and her 21-day hunger strike to demand the end of solitary confinement and other conditions. But her sense of humor is intact and she makes fun of the judges, prosecutors and interrogators for taking Pedro Infante records as “proof” of her alleged conspiracy against national sovereignty when officials raided her house and took her prisoner on June 13, 2021.
The former guerrilla, historian, and political leader of the group Unamos, considers that Ortega lost his battle against the political prisoners, “because we were able to resist more. They’re the ones who are crazed by their obsession with power. They’re destroying the country, forcing a massive exodus of Nicaraguans, and yet they weren’t able to break us.” Téllez warns that the arrest and 26-year prison sentence given to the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, will blow up in the dictator’s face.
“What does the regime hope to gain from the sentence they imposed on Bishop Álvarez? Do they think they are going to break him? They’re not going to break him. That it’s going to bring him to his knees? He’s not going to kneel. That Alvarez is going to beg to get out of there? He’s not going to. This is a game that Ortega has already lost, and this particular political prisoner is going to blow up in the regime’s face,” says Téllez.
The following conversation with Dora María took place outside the Westin Hotel, near Dulles Airport in Virginia, where the 222 political prisoners who were deported and stripped of their nationality by Daniel Ortega are being temporarily housed. Téllez also spoke about her future: “I see myself where I always have: standing up for Nicaragua, to get back our freedoms and rights. Daniel Ortega taught us something very important in that prison: that we [the political prisoners] had more important things in common than the differences we’d had. We went in with more differences, and we came out with essential things in common. That has created a lot of tolerance and a feeling of unity, and it’s flying back into Ortega’s face like a boomerang.”
The complete interview was broadcast on Sunday, February 12 on the program Esta Semana on Confidencial Nica’s YouTube channel and through Facebook Live.
Dora Maria, how have these first 48 hours of freedom after 605 days in jail been for you?
Lots of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, it’s gut-wrenching to be expelled, forced into exile, stripped of our nationality. It’s illegal and unconstitutional [because it’s not legally possible to strip a Nicaraguan national of his or her nationality]. And then there’s the freedom we have here, thanks to the government of the people of the United States. But we have the right to be free in Nicaragua.
The way to reconcile these emotions is to be able to be free in Nicaragua. But I understand why Ortega was afraid of us being free in Nicaragua. He is afraid of what will happen if citizens have civil liberties and civil rights, if individuals and organizations exercise freedom of expression. Ultimately, what Ortega is showing us is his fear.
The latest news is that they are eliminating the birth certificate records of the political prisoners who have been forced into exile.
(Laughs.) That makes me happy, now I can change my age. But seriously, I don’t recognize any decree that tries to take away my nationality. I was born in Nicaragua, to Nicaraguan parents. There is no amendment to the Constitution that says that they can take away the nationality of someone born in Nicaragua, and I certainly don’t recognize the power of the Ortega-Murillo family to do that.
A daily regimen of torture: “They wanted us to go crazy”
How would you describe the system of isolation, of solitary confinement to which you were subjected during these 605 days?
The whole system at El Chipote is one of total deprivation. No right to anything except to eat, resolve physiological needs, exercise, and talk with your cellmate, although the four women who were subjected to solitary confinement didn’t have a cellmate, so we were condemned to total silence the whole time.
The only time we could talk was with the officers who brought us food or gave us water or brought us medicine. Essentially all human activity –socializing, reading, writing, any type of recreational activity– was totally forbidden. We couldn’t go out into the corridors like you can at the Modelo prison. We were prohibited from having any kind of verbal exchange between cells. Prisoners couldn’t see their young children [at family visits]. And the women were treated the most cruelly.
I still can’t totally figure out the reason for this level of hatred. I always come to the same conclusion, that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are afraid of us. But what’s their logic? Did they want us to go crazy? Kill ourselves? Break us emotionally and psychologically? Get us to come out of there completely nuts? Well, they weren’t able to achieve any of that!
The worst case was that of Tamara [Dávila]. She was in a sealed cell with a metal door. The only thing she could see were the hands of the person who served her meals through the slit. The prisoners in the neighboring cells couldn’t even say “good morning”, under threat of being subjected to punishment. These are extreme cases of extreme cruelty.
Where I was, the jail cells were in constant darkness. There was a light bulb five meters up, which only allowed you to see the palm of your hand. The lights in the corridor –there were hardly any of them– were eight meters high. Even if you wanted to read the ‘great books’ we had –the labels of the drinks [our families provided]–, you couldn’t read them, even if you got close to the bars of the cell.
The clinical psychiatrists I have interviewed, who are knowledgeable about prison systems, say that this is torture.
Totally. I told this to all the interrogators of the Auxiliary Judicial Police, the regime’s political police [at El Chipote]. They’re people loyal to Ortega’s party and to the Ortega-Murillo family.
I told them: “This is a system of torture.” They answered: “Did you say there’s torture here?” “Of course!” I said. “Psychological torture, emotional torture.” It was not physical torture, at least for me, although there are accusations of physical torture, and of rape, that have not been cleared up yet, nor have the authorities wanted to investigate. I told the director of [El Chipote], Commissioner General Pérez Olivas, and he said: “All these accusations are false”. So I said, “If that’s so, Commissioner General, call the IACHR [Inter-American Commission on Human Rights], and invite them to come and investigate. It’s that simple!”
Doctors say this kind of torture, which some call “white torture”, leaves severe physical and emotional damage and after-effects. How did it impact you?
I feel I have a lot of defenses. Maybe because of the kind of life I led when I was younger – clandestinity, and all that. I did three hours of exercise a day. I walked up to eight kilometers – 80 times around the cell for each kilometer. So I injured my feet, and then I injured them again, and my knees hurt, but I had to do those three hours to get through the morning and stay healthy.
I can sleep well anywhere. I don’t care if there’s noise, if people are shouting or singing or whining, it’s not a problem. I don’t have digestive problems, except for some reflux. I did have a terrible reflux crisis. I almost lost my voice completely, so much so that they had to give me permission to eat honey – because the doctors had given me prednisone and it didn’t work–, to try to get rid of the inflammation and restore my voice a little. I’ve pretty much gotten it back.
I have in my head the list of all the health problems in my wing, the men’s wing. Sleep disorders of people who couldn’t fall asleep, who woke up at three o’clock in the morning, to think, to cry, to pray, to suffer. Some forgot their children’s names, going a year and a half without seeing them. Digestive disorders. Eating disorders. Skin problems due to lack of sunlight. Depigmentation. Anxiety disorders, depression. Allergies. Migraines. Sciatica. A huge list of problems. And the consequences are yet to be seen, how each of us will be able to recover and heal.
605 days like St. Teresa of Jesus: “I live, without living in me”
How did you cope with the isolation, the loneliness, the darkness?
The darkness was scary. I am a person who needs light. My energy depends on the sun. That darkness was unbearable. I would come in from the yard, and in order to get to the toilet in my cell, I had to wait 20 minutes to be able to even see it. I even hit the wall a bunch of times because I couldn’t see it in the dark. It took 20 minutes for my vision to adjust to be able to see anything. A week ago I tripped over a chair that I didn’t see, I just didn’t see it.
Being in the dark also caused me to have balance problems, which I still have. I would walk in a line, crossing back and forth. The officers sometimes told me: “Dora, walk along the straight line, in the center”. I would say, “Look officer, if you can get me to walk that line, I’ll give you a prize, because I can’t walk in a straight line. I just go all wobbly.” I’m having to walk carefully now because I’m having balance problems.
Most of the guys were constantly dizzy and took medication for it. The darkness changes the way the body works. I asked one of the doctors, “Please, doctor, is there any research on this list of disorders?” “Frankly, I don’t know,” she said. “We don’t study any of this in medical school.” This is torture, and it’s deliberate. It’s not true that they don’t know. It’s deliberate, and that’s why I told them, time after time: “These are problems you are causing. You can’t tell me you don’t know.”
I have talked to some ex-prisoners who were in solitary confinement for a short time. They said: “I was in there for three days, and it was driving me crazy. How could you stand it for 605 days?”
I managed to get through the mornings with my three hours of exercise. Then I’d take a shower and wait for lunch. But the afternoons were terrible. I describe those most difficult times as purgatory, a place where things happen, where you contemplate your pains, your problems, scenes from your life, other scenes, even scenes of someone else’s life.
“One day some lines from St. Teresa of Jesus’ poem came into my head: I live without living in me, and in the same way I hope that I die because I do not die. I felt so deeply identified with that woman in that dark cell where they would not let her read or write, and I think for the first time I understood that terrible phrase, I live without living in me. That’s how I felt.
“The political prisoners held out longer than Ortega”
In June 2021, when the police raided your house, and you were captured with Ana Margarita, could you have avoided being arrested? Could you have left the house?
Yes, because we had been warned. We were warned with enough time [to leave]. Each of us made our decision separately, and it was “We are not going to flee. He’s not going to force us to flee the country, and he’s not going to force us to go underground. If he wants us to be prisoners, let him take us prisoner”. And that’s how it went. We were sitting in our rocking chairs, eating cookies, and a huge deployment of armed folks arrived in combat positions with AK rifles, kicking down the doors.
I don’t know who they thought they were going to capture. Maybe Chapo Guzmán? But when at the trial they asked about what they found during the raid, the officers who had conducted the raid said that they had found no evidence of anything. But they had taken things like music records. So I asked one of the interrogators: “Lieutenant, explain to me what Pedro Infante’s music has to do with all this, because they took Pedro Infante records.”
It was a disproportionate, abusive use of police force, all to find nothing because there was nothing to find. What did they think they were going to find? We were there, sitting in rocking chairs, waiting for them, because at five in the morning the police van had parked outside, and I saw it and said: “In a little while they’ll come for us, but they’re not going to get us to flee the country.”
Did you think incarceration would be a temporary step?
Incarcerating political prisoners is always temporary because it’s unsustainable. No one, in any regime, has been able to keep political prisoners in jail, because it always explodes. They become a heavier and heavier burden, more and more uncomfortable, more and more problematic, and that’s what happened to Ortega.
It was like he wanted to pick a fight: “Who can hold out longer? Those who are inside, the women I’ve put in solitary, or me?” And he wagered that he was going to win that battle. But we held out longer. They’re the ones who are crazy. Crazy with hatred. Crazed by their obsession with power. They’re destroying the country, forcing a massive exodus of Nicaraguans, and yet they weren’t able to break us.
In fact, Ortega wasn’t able to get a single prisoner to ask for clemency in exchange for joining the ranks of his regime. A failure, a total failure! Ortega lost the fight he had started, believing that his hostage game was going to work in his favor.
“I am mourning tremendously for Hugo Torres”
This Sunday, February 12, marks one year since Hugo Torres died in prison. How did you learn about Hugo Torres’ health crisis and his death? How did it impact you?
He was in that same gallery, in cell six. I was in cell one. He was in pain. He was very healthy: he took vitamins, exercised, and was very optimistic about the situation. One night, at about 10:30, I was awakened by a loud noise. I saw movement around cell six, and then I saw a young officer, tall, strong, carrying someone in his arms, and it was Hugo, who was completely unconscious. His left arm was limp. His head was down, completely unconscious.
That was a horrible shock, and I waited for him to come back from the clinic. After about two hours, he came back walking very slowly, and the officer helped him. From then on, they gave him a chair, then a wheelchair the next day. They said that it was because of a medication that had a bad effect on him. That’s when his suffering due to lack of medical attention began.
From then on, Hugo’s health deteriorated, and within a week his condition got serious. He was already in a wheelchair, and they sent us all for tests: glycemia, anemia, etc. One or two days later, they took him away in an ambulance and kept him in the police hospital.
He died in prison, and that is the most terrible evidence of Daniel Ortega’s unnatural hatred because Hugo Torres once risked his life to get him out of jail. He should have let him go home to die, surrounded by his children, with his family, but for him to die in prison, permanently guarded, without free access to his children… that is absolutely inhuman.
I have a tremendous mourning for Hugo actually, and maybe I will only resolve it once I am in front of his grave.
Interrogations and a mock trial
Your only contact with another person, your only chance to speak, was at the interrogations. What did the interrogators want?
The interrogators wanted to know who headed the rebellion of 2018. They had the strange conclusion that the leaders had been the Episcopal Conference and the United States and that the ones who carried it out had been the non-governmental organizations, the ones who gave training courses, the media, the political parties, the women’s movement, the youth movement, the peasant movement, and that the other big hand behind it all was Unamos (Unión Democrática Renovadora).
So, between the United States, the Episcopal Conference and Unamos, this whole gigantic conspiratorial plot had been set up. I always told them: “you bought Daniel Ortega’s story. If Daniel Ortega says that, it’s for political reasons. He says it because he has to say something, but why are you buying his story? Where did you get the idea that training courses unleash civic insurrections?”
The big questions were how many training courses have you given? Where have you given training courses? How much do the media pay you for giving interviews? How do you get interviews with the international media? When do you call them? What condition do you give them? Have you received money from the United States? Have you talked to CIA agents?
They are children – not political police investigators – with a huge fictional story, and they believe that it happened. And when it comes to presenting ‘evidence’ at trial, they have nothing. They prosecuted someone a few days ago, and since he didn’t have a Twitter account, they created one for him. Since he hadn’t tweeted – because he didn’t have a Twitter account – they tweeted while he was imprisoned in El Chipote, and since it was too complicated to tweet, they copied a tweet from Cristiana [Chamorro] and changed the header, and with that ‘proof’, eight years in prison!
In the mock trial you had, did you have a chance to speak?
Yes, at the end. I said two things: they are accusing me of asking for sanctions against the State of Nicaragua. I have not asked for sanctions against the State of Nicaragua: I asked for sanctions against Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, and do not tell me that Daniel Ortega is the State of Nicaragua, because if Daniel Ortega is driving a car and crashes, does the State of Nicaragua crash, or does Daniel Ortega crash? Do they take away the driver’s license of the State of Nicaragua, or of Daniel Ortega? Are the children of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo children of the State of Nicaragua, or children of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo? So, the State of Nicaragua is a different thing. Have I called for sanctions against Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo? Of course! That is the first thing.
Second: you accused me of undermining the State of Nicaragua, but those who should be on the stand of the accused are Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. They have destroyed the institutions, denaturalized the judicial system, turned the Police into an instrument of repression, and used the Supreme Electoral Council to steal elections. They are the guilty ones, prosecute them!
“Hurry up,” the judge said to me.
“Jailing Monsignor Álvarez will blow up in their face”
The day you were released and banished, when Ortega gave all those explanations, he said that Monsignor Rolando Alvarez did not want to accept the banishment, then attacked and insulted him. Then, he brought forward the trial that was scheduled for the next Wednesday and condemns him to 26 years in prison in an express trial. What impact does that condemnation have on Monsignor Alvarez?
I see a process of continuous madness, which gets worse every day. What does he intend to get out of Bishop Alvarez’s conviction? Does he think it will break him? It’s not going to break him. That it’s going to bring him to his knees? He’s not going to kneel. That Alvarez is going to beg to get out of there? He’s not going to.
That’s a game Ortega has already lost. It’s a matter of time, and it’s going to backfire because Rolando Álvarez is not a delinquent bishop. He is not a bishop who is involved with drug traffickers. He is a bishop linked to his people, a bishop with a strong voice, with strong leadership. There are no entanglements there: he is a political prisoner, and that political prisoner is going to blow up in their face again.
Some ex-officials that we interviewed left the Government without presenting their resignation and are now requesting asylum in the United States. When asked why they made that decision, they answer: “Because of the persecution of Bishop Alvarez, and against the Catholic Church, and because of the surveillance in the parishes”.
That’s right, but the public officials also know they [the government] will go after them at any moment, and they all say to themselves: “when is it going to be my turn? Do I wait or not until they get to me? I better get out,” so they get out quietly. This is a crisis within the power apparatus. These are the deep decomposition processes of the Ortega-Murillo power structure.
On the other hand, they did not manage to make people forget about Nicaragua at a national level. They were not able to put up a cloak of silence, so they lost that round. There was no remedy, and they were faced with two serious options: the suspension of Cafta, and the cancellation of Nicaragua’s Swift number, which has to do with the operation of the bank for international transactions. That is crippling.
Ortega has done something that Cuba has done before: expel political prisoners, forcing them into exile, and in this case, he is forcing the entire political, civic, and national leadership out of the country. Is it possible to lead a change from outside the country?
What is happening is that, with modern communication technology, the concept of “outside of the country” no longer exists. I can be in Matagalpa, or here, and I can still communicate with everybody. Ortega cannot control that, and that is why he has been so desperate for the control of social networks, digital media, and for control of the Internet. That is throwing them off completely: they cannot establish the silence that was established in Cuba.
There is no way to stop the struggle of the people for their freedom. It has never been possible to stop it. No one has ever been able to do so.
He has the opportunity to take a different approach. They can still think about it. Let’s see what they decide, but with the decision they made with Bishop Alvarez, it seems that they do not want to take another road, but I repeat: the Alvarez thing is going to blow up in their face. Big time. There is no escape.
The lessons of prison: “a boomerang for Ortega”
How do you see the future, after these first 48 hours in freedom?
I see myself where I always have been. I am standing up for Nicaragua, in the recovery of our freedoms and our rights. The rest, let’s say the practical conditions, are not clear to me yet. I have no idea because exile poses a problem of finding a place to live, a place to settle down, to stabilize post-prison conditions. To heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and continue.
I have to make all these decisions, but I want to take a week, ten days, to think about it, talk it over, and see what is best. There are several options. The Spaniards have offered Spanish citizenship, and I believe there are several former prisoners who would go for it. I am very grateful to the Government of Spain, and to the Spanish people for this decision, and I believe that it will be very useful for those (political prisoners) who do not speak English, who have no other options, and who could find work quickly.
In this diverse ‘community’ of political prisoners, which includes people of diverse political, economic, and social origins, all victims of this act of cruelty and repression, do you have a joined identity for the future, or is everyone going to go their own way?
Right now, everyone is looking for a way to settle somewhere, but we are all establishing our contacts; trying to find out how we are going to stay linked so that in the near future we can reestablish a relationship around Nicaragua because everyone wants to continue doing something.
Daniel Ortega taught us something very important in that prison, and that is that we had more important things in common than the differences we had. We went in with more differences, and we came out with essential things in common, because Ortega put us there, because he saw us as equals.
Yes, we are equal in the aspiration of the struggle for democracy, although we are different in a lot of other things, and that has created a lot of tolerance, a feeling of unity, and a lot of awareness of what we have to do to contribute to the unity of all sectors in the country, to recover our freedoms and rights, with tolerance, with mutual support, with solidarity, and that was thanks to the shared experiences in prison. It lasted long enough for us to be persuaded of that. It’s very important and it will come back to Ortega like a boomerang.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by its staff.