Juan Sebastian Chamorro: Ortega Can’t Cancel My Nationality
Victoria Cardenas urges relatives of the remaining Nicaraguan political prisoners: “Don’t lose hope! We’ll continue fighting” for their freedom.
HAVANA TIMES – After countless meetings to plead, request, and demand support for the liberation of her husband Juan Sebastian Chamorro and a legion of political prisoners whose numbers grew week by week, Victoria (Vicky) Cardenas, like many other relatives of the political prisoners, can now say she succeeded.
Her husband, an economist and former aspiring presidential candidate, recognizes her tireless work advocating for his freedom. He admits feeling absolutely grateful to his relatives and to a nation and international community that never forgot them, until the majority – 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners – finally saw the light of freedom. The price they paid, however – at least for now – is the right to be in their own country.
In terms of the “trial” which ended with Chamorro’s being sentenced to thirteen years in prison, and the dictatorship’s stated intention to strip the prisoners of their Nicaraguan nationality, he says he can’t even feel offended. In the first case, because it took place through a process so clumsy and absurd, that it can’t even be taken seriously. In the second, he’s convinced that no law can take away his pride at being Nicaraguan.
These are some of the impressions the released prisoner and his wife, Victoria Cardenas, described during an interview they offered to Carlos F. Chamorro. Due to the censorship that reigns in Nicaragua, the interview was broadcast on the online television news program Esta Semana, streamed over YouTube and Facebook Live.
Juan Sebastian, Victoria, how does this family reunion feel after 611 days in jail?
Victoria Cardenas: 611 days of separation, of pain, of a difficult path in which, day after day, I was in motion, seeking the liberation of Juan and the rest of the political prisoners. Knowing what happened two days ago, reuniting with Juan, being able to embrace each other with my daughter, and seeing all these people, many of whom I didn’t know, all this fills me with a feeling of gratitude, of strength, of pride, that I can’t completely describe to you.
Juan, before being in the El Chipote jail, you were under de facto house arrest
JSCH: De facto house arrest for eight months, and afterwards the police abduction on June 8, 2021. It’s been a very long odyssey. I really want to thank this woman for everything she’s done for me and for all the prisoners. I feel very proud. These last few days, along with all the other things we have to catch up on, I’ve been greatly surprised by all the details of the campaign [she waged], which I had learned somethng about in the family visits. The relatives told me: “Vicky has grown a lot in terms of human rights issues. I see her declarations, and all the things she did for me and for all the political prisoners, and I can’t believe it. I’m really grateful to her. For the rest of my life.
You’re recovering your freedom, but at the same time you’ve been banished by the dictatorship. Victoria has been banished as well. She has an accusation against her meant to keep her from returning to the country.
JSCH: That’s right. We’re going to remain here in the United States for as long as necessary. Our daughter, who I left as a recent high school graduate, is now in her second year of college in the United States, majoring in architecture. That’s going to help a lot, so the three of us can be here together. I shared with all my fellow prisoners the difficulty of not seeing my daughter or my wife in any of the visits, because [Vicky] had a warrant out for her arrest. I never thought I was going to receive the blessing of being with her, although I also see the suffering of my own brothers and sisters who have been separated from their families, from their children.
The cost of maintaining political prisoners
Why did Daniel Ortega release you, at a moment of increasing repression in the country? Many of us thought there was no short-term solution, yet, all of a sudden, he releases 222 of his political prisoners.
JSCh: I see it as a combination of factors. The “political prisoner” factor was something that held enormous weight. Ironically, he hasn’t gotten that weight off his back, because he’s still left with Monsignor Alvarez as a political prisoner, plus the other 39 who were left in their cells.
I believe the international community played a fundamental role, and the family members – Victoria, Bertha [Valle, wife of former prisoner and presidential hopeful Felix Maradiaga] – all the family members who were outside of Nicaragua, somewhat removed from that repressive wall, and who carried out lobbying work that was fundamental at an international level.
The last time I interviewed Jared Genser, your lawyer, he said: “The dictatorship is going to release the political prisoners; they’re going to free them when they can no longer maintain them. When the cost becomes too great for them.”
JSCH; That’s what I believe happened, and a really want to thank Jared for the tireless work he did. Above all, for his sense of an objective to reach, an idea that was imprinted on Vicky so she was able to maintain her strength and hope for the liberation of all of us.
There’s a precise pattern that repeats itself, a very helpful observation that someone with [Genser’s] experience, who’s seen cases in China, who’s seen the case of Leopoldo [Lopez] in Venezuela, who’s seen cases in Cuba, and all parts of the world, could make. He helped greatly to orient the work, and to note what things were predictable or unpredictable. In that sense, I believe his work towards the release of all the political prisoners was very valuable.
Life inside prison…”one day at a time”
Were you prepared to spend time in jail? Were you prepared for those over 600+ days in jail? How did you endure the isolation?
JSCh: In reality, it’s an experience that’s very difficult to live through. It’s hard to describe all the things that go on there. To feel yourself totally stripped of all possibilities of mobilization; that your life depends on a prison guard… it’s a sensation that, really, you can understand only by being there. There are some ideas going around about how you can prepare yourself better, but no one can be prepared for that long a time of imprisonment.
I kept up a daily routine. “One day at a time,” we advised each other. We formed a supportive community among everyone in the cell. Even though we couldn’t talk to each other, we figured out ways to communicate amongst ourselves. We learned to use sign language and other techniques, and when we needed our spirits raised, there was always someone who encouraged us.
Despite all the denunciations, the dictatorship never allowed us to read. That made our time there more painful, because I practically spent 20 months doing nothing.
The day before the police came for you, you had been given an appointment to appear at the Public Prosecutor’s office, supposedly for an interview regarding your status as former director of the NGO Funides, and a fabricated investigation into money laundering. They captured you, they searched your house, and finally accused you, found you guilty, and sentenced you for alleged conspiracy against the national sovereignty.
JSCh: That’s correct. They [the police] appeared around 7 at night, and there were four tortuous hours of their searching all through the house, which was also very traumatic for Victoria. I didn’t manage to see that part, but I was told how hard it was for her to have these police in the house, with no type of legal search warrant. That procedure indicated that, from the very onset, the entire process was already completely flawed and utterly illegal. It ended, equally flawed, with our banishment.
How did you feel during that assault, and what were you thinking about at that moment?
Victoria: It really was traumatic. First, to have them take Juan away in such a violent manner; having so many armed police jumping over the walls into my house; having him disappeared in that way; and then to remain with them for four hours, while they went through ever drawer, every corner of my house, without knowing what was going to happen with my future. In that moment, I decided that I wouldn’t go back to my house while Juan remained gone. Our family spent 611 days apart. A year and a half totally without communication. Not a phone call, not a letter, not a video call. Absolutely nothing! That was the most difficult part for me, for my daughter, and for Juan, because everything’s hard, but the lack of communication is a horrifying psychological and emotional torture.
They carried out a simulated trial in which you were accused of conspiring against the national sovereignty and of treason to the homeland. How do you feel about that accusation of treason, coming from a regime that lacks all legitimacy?
JSCh: It was all so inept and so illegal that it never even inspired me to feel offended, because it was all such an absurd farce. The session in which they imposed 90 days of pre-trial jail time on us took place at three in the morning, and from that moment on, all the hearings were in the jail itself. In other words, the jail illegally served as a courtroom. That’s where we were sentenced, and that’s where were we to do our time, something that’s totally illegal.
In the case of Funides, they never found anything. The millions they spoke of didn’t exist, and the accusation collapsed under its own weight. In reality, they didn’t find any kind of evidence against anyone. For example, the “evidence” that brought them to sentence me to 13 years is one-line I wrote on a chat. That “demonstrated” that I was part of a criminal organization.
Now you’re free, but you’re also banished from Nicaragua. The government plans to strip you of your nationality. I understand that they’re even ordering the Registry offices to erase the birth certificates of all the banished political prisoners.
JSCh: Nationality is an inalienable right. No decree can take it away. I feel as much a Nicaraguan today as I was a week ago. Like I told you: this began with illegalities and is ending with this process of our banishment – another absurd illegality. It simply makes evident the hatred with which they operate. The truth is, it doesn’t worry me much, in the sense that I feel as Nicaraguan as always.
A lot of time to dream about a new Nicaragua
What did you think about in jail? What country did you think about in jail, without having a chance to write, to have a pencil, a piece of paper, to read a book, to reflect, discuss, debate with other people? What kind of a country did you imagine?
JSCh: We were able to hold some very quiet conversations with the others in our cell. I believe that there’s a lot of agreement that it must be a country where the topic of justice is fundamental. That the strength, the rule of Law, must never again be disrespected. Also, the topic of reelection… I think that among all of us there, we defined four or five topics as the basis of what must be done in Nicaragua in order to transform it into the country we want.
The cost of attacking the Catholic Church
The verdict and sentencing of Bishop Alvarez has caused more international shock and impact …
JSCh: It wasn’t in Ortega’s plans to have the Bishop make such a courageous decision to remain, to refuse to leave the country. That’s what triggered his venomous reaction of sentencing him to 26 years in prison, which I’m sure won’t last very long.
How do you think that type of action impacts the regime’s followers? This brutal persecution of the Bishop – does it have any kind of support among the Sandinistas themselves?
JSCh: I believe he didn’t measure the cost among his own people. Nicaragua is a very religious country, very Catholic, and regardless of ideology, they’re people who follow their pastors. This very harsh treatment of Monsignor [Alvarez], can only weaken them more. It’s going to generate more division within his own ranks. I’m sure that many Sandinistas are saying: “This is now reaching inhuman proportions.”
Sometimes miracles happen
What did your jail time leave you with?
JSCh: In the first place, an experience that will stay with me my whole life, and that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The separation from the family is the hardest thing. You’re stripped of your capacity to move, to do things, and you’re totally dependent on a jailer, because not only are you a prisoner, but they also are controlling what you can say, the lack of reading material, the more than 400 interrogations over this whole period, even after being found guilty and sentenced. That’s what I’d put down as the most negative aspects.
The positive is to have reached a great inner peace, which gave me the capacity to be closer to God. To pray every night with my cellmates, a sense of community that we created amongst ourselves. A sincere affection, a sense of sharing experiences that are going to be with us for life, and that make you think a lot about your life – where you’ve arrived at, and what you want to do.
The people who are watching this interview in Nicaragua, despite the censorship, know we’re living in a police state, where there’s no freedom of assembly, not even for religious processions or to attend a church. There’s no freedom of demonstration. There’s no freedom of expression much less civil liberties in Nicaragua.
JSCh: On Wednesday, at 11 pm, I was asleep in bed in a jail, and hours later I was on an airplane. That is, things happen. And that experience, that miracle of freedom, is something we can’t lose sight of. Miracles happen. We’ve seen it. Obviously, we’re speaking of a very cruel and hard dictatorship. The work (ahead) isn’t easy, but I believe it’s possible. I have faith that all this is going to change.