Felix Maradiaga: “We Need a Cohesive Opposition Platform”
“We learned in jail to see humanity and dignity, even in the guards.” “The first 84 days were like being in a desert.”
By Alejandra Padilla (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Felix Maradiaga, former presidential hopeful and now a released political prisoner, never imagined he’d be banished from his own country. He refuses to recognize the “arbitrary and unconstitutional” decision of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s regime to strip him of his nationality and send him into exile in the United States.
Maradiaga, who spent 611 days in Managua’s El Chipote jail, assures he’ll carry on the struggle for a “free and fair” Nicaragua, despite the difficulties of being left stateless.
During an interview for the online news program Esta Semana and the Confidencial news site, Maradiaga declared he felt “optimistic” about the future of the pro-democracy movement in Nicaragua. However, he recognized that they’ve done a “poor job” of “communicating the internal efforts for unity.”
“We political leaders probably haven’t succeeded in communicating to the outside eye that there’s great friendship between us,” stressed the released politician.
On June 8, 2021, you were detained by the police as you were leaving the Public Prosecutor’s Office where you’d kept an appointment. Could that detention have been avoided?
Detention was nearly inevitable, because since 2020 I’d already spent some months under [de facto] house arrest. The next step was jail. But even that step was necessary to maintain our struggle for a free and democratic Nicaragua.
You were the dictatorship’s political prisoner for over 600 days. What were conditions like in El Chipote?
There were 611 days in El Chipote. The first 84 days I was in total isolation, in the sense that I didn’t have any access to a telephone call, a lawyer, a family visit, so those first 84 days were like the desert.
Those first months were very difficult, but I should say in all transparency that I found refuge in my faith. At no moment did I feel alone. I knew that outside the country, my wife was carrying out an extraordinary labor of pressuring for the freedom of all the political prisoners, together with Vicky Cardenas, the wife of Juan Sebastian Chamorro. The darkness, the lack of human contact, forbidding us from speaking; no reading matter was ever allowed us, including – and I mention this because it seems to me so extreme – when the family began to bring us bottles of milk, they [jail authorities] took off the labels so we couldn’t even read those.
Did you ever think that your release, together with over 200 other political prisoners, was going to happen the way it did?
Although the conditions of the family visits were very extreme and no type of free interchange was allowed – no letters, no data – over a year ago, information from my wife reached me through a relative. This person told me it was possible they’d extradite us, and that they were going to give me a document to sign. She beseeched me, for love of our daughter, not to reject the document. She believed it was probable that I’d try not to board the airplane. Because of that, she made me swear to her, through this relative, that if that scenario came to pass, that I would get on the airplane, and I gave her my word. But I never managed to associate that discussion with the possibility that we could all get out that way.
What did they accuse you of during the interrogations? Did they tell you why you were detained? Did they present you with any evidence during the simulation of a trial?
The trial was held inside the El Chipote jail complex, and the interrogations were kept up over long months – I calculate there were probably over 400 interrogation sessions. As far as the questions go, some of them bordered on the irrational, I’d say nearly stupid. For example, they asked me: “How much did we pay the people in the marches? Who financed me for the coup attempt?
Some of these questions were truly outside all logic, but at some moments there were also other very suspicious questions, that – without having any truth to them – indicated what came later. For example, they told me I was a mercenary, that my international incidence with the UN Security Council, my trips to Geneva to denounce the events of Nicaragua, were clearly the actions of a foreign agent, and that I was going to be treated and tried not as a Nicaraguan but as a traitor.
You were cut off from all communication with your wife and daughter during nearly the whole time you remained in El Chipote. How has this family reunion been for you?
It’s been something magical. I carry a heavy weight in my heart for having gotten on that airplane and returned to Nicaragua, knowing that my daughter and my wife were remaining here, even though it was the right thing to do. [Felix Maradiaga and family went into exile in the US in July 2018, but he chose to return to Nicaragua in September 2019.]
[In jail] I wasn’t allowed even to receive a drawing from Alejandra, I wasn’t permitted any phone contact until a few weeks before we got out. The family reunification has forced me to give new meaning both emotionally and spiritually to the importance of family in this new stage of my life. I’m dedicating the greatest amount of time possible to them.
A Nicaragua for everyone
Now that the political leadership of the Nicaraguan opposition is free, what’s your vision for the future?
I’m a permanent optimist and my vision for the future of Nicaragua has always been very hopeful. I believe it’s not going to be that rapid, that it’s still going to require a lot of sacrifice. I’m committed for the rest of my life to seeing a free, just Nicaragua, where even the children of my own prison guards, the children of those who beat us, tortured us, of those who at some moment have backed the regime, all have a place within it. I believe we have to break that cycle [of violence] once and for all.
What did the opposition leaders learn in jail?
I could see a great firmness in all of them. We learned to see humanity and dignity, even in the prison guards. We responded to an insult with cordiality, to an offense with serenity, and I could note a kind of perplexity among the prison guards – like how was it possible that these people they’d painted at every turn as “monsters,” “terrorists,” “coup promotors,” spoke always with tolerance? As if we had somehow coordinated our responses.
Probably, we political leaders haven’t succeeded in communicating to the outside eye that there’s great friendship between us. I always wondered why they reported a supposed fragmentation of the opposition, when among the leaders, at least among most of us, there was always great cordiality. We’re doing a bad job of communicating the internal efforts for unity. Not only are we strengthening ourselves from within, but we must also use legitimacy and frankness to convince the Nicaraguan people of the certainty that only united can we dislodge this dictatorship.
How do you view the pro-democracy movement in the country?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m conversing with the greatest number of people I can, but I’ve also wanted to give some space to the emerging leadership, those very brave leaders who in our absence had to put themselves forward, suffering exile, jail. I’m optimistic, but I believe that there’s still a lot to do. It seems to me that the aspect where the most time should be dedicated is in consolidating a cohesive platform for the opposition.
What do you thing should be the next steps in the struggle to achieve that cohesion you mention? Can the opposition do political work from exile, banished from the country, when those within the country are living in a police state?
I suffered exile during the 80s, and I learned to appreciate the enormous value the diasporas have in the construction of democracy. In periods of crisis, unfortunately, an important number of people who have a lot to contribute leave the country. Generally, they leave because they’re forced to. How do you coordinate those of us who’ve been banished and arbitrarily stripped of our nationality, with the leaders who are still inside Nicaraguan territory, but are doing their work practically anonymously? That, I believe, is still to be defined, but I also believe it will be possible.
Fifth anniversary of the April Rebellion
How do you see the future of the dictatorship? Could a dynasty be established in Nicaragua?
The future of the dictatorship is inevitably tied to its collapse because it has absolutely no plan that’s of benefit to Nicaraguans, not even for their followers. Their own structural problems are also going to be a problem for their own internal implosion.
The problem is, how do we generate an alternative to a dictatorship that at some moment is going to collapse? There’s also the possibility that that dictatorship could survive and mutate into a Cuban type of regime, or a North Korean one.
In a month and a half, it will be the five-year anniversary of the April rebellion. Where are the university students who lit the flame of national protest?
They continue struggling, from new positions. A number of years have passed now; some of them have faced very hard times, have been jailed, have had close friends assassinated, and have also been forced into exile.
I’m impressed by the great resilience of those leaders, obviously no longer as university students, because we all know how the university leadership was dismantled in Nicaragua by ferocious persecution inside the universities. However, I have a great many hopes, because the youth were the ones who came forward, and they’re the country’s hope. They’re not the future, they’re the present.
What’s lacking in order to unify a strategy and find a way out of the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo?
We have to transcend the ideological and party lines that for many years have divided Nicaraguans, especially the leaders. I recognize that there are thousands and thousands of Sandinistas who don’t identify with Ortega. We have to transcend those walls and understand that this is a struggle of democracy against dictatorship. This isn’t an issue of being for or against Sandinista ideals. The moment that we really succeed in bringing together that proposition – that all those of us who believe in human rights, who believe in democracy, must be united, then all those who don’t ascribe to that platform of democracy, who are endorsing the dictatorship, must really be on the dark side. The side of light is the side of human dignity, that’s the side with which we’re going to defeat the dictatorship.