Lesther Aleman and the Hope for Change in Nicaragua

Former political prisoner, Lesther Alemán

He was the target of hatred and viciousness by police and interrogators “for having questioned the commander” at the national dialogue in 2018

By Carlos F. Chamorro

HAVANA TIMES – Immersed in a process of self-healing, reaffirmation, and rediscovery, Lesther Alemán seeks to recover the lost time with his family, while defining his plans for the future, from his exile in the United States. 

“The physical complications persist. Mentally, I think I am stronger after this experience,” says Alemán, after his first four weeks in freedom. 

Alemán recalls his 584 days in jail, from the isolation of the first months, the hatred and viciousness with which he was treated by police and interrogators who accused him of “having questioned the commander in the national dialogue, and of having “disrespected the State of Nicaragua,” to the time spent with other political prisoners, which allowed him to build deep human ties.

I believe that in prison, “we reached the stage that we needed to reach before forming an alliance, before the construction of a political platform, and that was to talk to each other,” says the 25-year-old. 

In this interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, Alemán admits the very high human cost that the young university students who led the April rebellion have had to pay, and advocates for a reorganization of the youth in the pro-democracy movement. “April is still alive until justice is achieved, the truth of what happened in Nicaragua is known, and the families obtain reparations,” he says.

How have these first weeks of freedom been, exiled in the United States after 584 days in El Chipote prison?

At times there are feelings of being out of place; like falling without a parachute from a great height, but with the excitement of being with your family, seeing them again, and being able to interact with them. These days are to heal with them. Also to give them the feeling that I am well, after so many days without hearing from me, and without being able to interact with me in my father’s case. My mom did see me a little more frequently, but also with limited time, and she didn’t know if I was being honest with her.

In addition to being able to interact with my family, I was also able to reorganize and position myself in the midst of this mess that exile means. It’s the feeling of having the runway [of the airport] in front of you – which means freedom – but you leave your life, you leave your development, you leave your growth, and in my case, I left my mother and part of my family in Nicaragua, so there were contradictory feelings, both of joy and of sadness, that they had made that decision on our behalf. 

How is your physical, mental, and spiritual health? During your time in prison, it became known that you had different ailments. 

At one point I began to limp, and that has resulted in persistent pain in my femur and hip. The physical complications persist. The doctors of the Judicial Assistance Directorate, which we know as El Nuevo Chipote, limited themselves to providing basic medicines: if you were in pain, they gave you acetaminophen, but there was never any specialized attention, so the challenge is to assess my physical health.

Mentally, I think I am stronger after this experience. With great lessons. Valuing every detail of the day, no matter how small. Time and freedom today are priceless to me. If I didn’t have it before, imagine after having experienced silence, isolation, and above all prison for more than 584 days.

The hatred of police and interrogators

During your capture, the policemen were particularly aggressive and violent towards you. Did they express what the reason was for that viciousness?

In their mind, they were facing one of their worst enemies, because there was a feeling of anger, of hatred, against me, to such an extent that there was no moment – during my capture and in the interrogations as well – where they did not tell me to repeat to them what I had told Ortega. They would say, “How are you going to question the man [Ortega]? How are you going to question the commander? If you have the b…, say it to me.” 

The cruelty during my capture, which I did not want my mother to witness, was anticipated by the hatred I knew they had for me. At the interrogations, they told me that I had ‘disrespected the State of Nicaragua’, meaning Daniel Ortega and what he represents to them. 

The other thing was that I had been so disrespectful, that the Nicaraguan families felt offended to such an extent that they wanted to ensure that I was in prison and the country would finally have had answers – according to the investigators – that the 385 deaths in the framework of the protests in April 2018, were an overreaction of Daniel Ortega after I had challenged him.

The argument of the interrogators was that Ortega acted that way, after I had challenged him at the dialogue. That was the level of viciousness with which they questioned me, telling me that if everything had not turned out as it did in the first national dialogue, Ortega would not have been so crude and so bloodthirsty. 

Did they accuse you of another specific crime? Because they accused you of conspiracy, they condemn you for alleged conspiracy and undermining national sovereignty. What did the interrogators want to know?

First of all, who had trained me, who had coached me, and how much funding I had received. All within the framework of the absurd. They accused me of being a direct operator of the bishops, especially of His Eminence Cardinal Leopoldo [Brenes], as well as of Monsignor Rolando [Álvarez] and Monsignor Silvio [Báez] who were the ones who – according to interrogators – had trained me in national politics, because international politics, the ‘war and military training’, was provided to me by the CIA from the age of ten, according to a photograph they provided at the trial, which was taken at the entrance of Disney Park when I was that age.

According to them, from the age of ten I was trained by the CIA, and in 2018 they handed me over to the bishops so that they could finish giving me the last political reality lessons. 

Was that said to you in the presence of a judicial authority who convicted you with that ‘evidence’?

It was in the presence of [judge] Nadia Tardencilla. The lady accepted a photograph from Disney when I was ten years old [as evidence]. She accepted airline tickets that I had as a souvenir, like the first ticket with which I traveled in 2010. 

She also accepted, in the most unhinged way, interviews that had nothing to do with the alleged crime, to the point of saying that they had no reason to accuse me of the crime of conspiracy because I had not conspired. She declared me innocent of conspiracy because she found me guilty of being the direct and material author of the crime of undermining national sovereignty. 

She requested two interviews with you that were used after an interview with Univision. After an interview with you about the student movements, she asked for all of that material to be included, to prove the crime of undermining national sovereignty.

That mock trial took place in 2022. You had been in prison for more than six, or eight months by then. How were your first months in solitary confinement, and how did you deal with it?

Looking back, we will never be able to compare the first months with the last ones. They were a trial by fire, part of a deliberate strategy to break us mentally, to damage us to such an extent that I was not allowed to speak. I was not allowed to talk to my cellmates or those closest to me. I was not allowed to pray or read.

During one of the interrogations I asked for a book, and they told me that a book was “dangerous for me”. Then I asked them to let me have the medicine from home – this was in the first four weeks – and they said it had not arrived. That they were not going to give it to me, because my mother didn’t even remember me. That she never came to ask for me at the gate. That I never had a defense attorney ask to see me. 

For four weeks I had no toothpaste or toothbrush. I had no deodorant, no change of underwear, and no soap to bathe with. I ate with Miguel Mendoza for 40 days, without a spoon, on red and black plates, so that there would be no mistaking where we were. 

In those first months, I seemed like their new toy because the interrogations were about three times a day; two of them in the early morning.

We were totally cut off from our families for the first days. I asked for information to know what had happened to my mother after my capture, but they would not provide it. I was able to find out until they allowed that express visit, which was used as proof of life. 

The lack of access to time, to know the time; whether it was day or night, was part of that deliberate strategy to break us, to drive us crazy, but I remember saying with Miguel Mendoza: “we cannot give them that pleasure. We must come out stronger and stronger”, and although they forbade me to pray, I even sang, to distract my mind.

I was always thinking about what my first memories were; who my family was, or I tried preparing my master’s thesis or for a doctorate… I gave that exercise to my mind at all times, although I had absolutely no access, to the point that my hand trembles when I write, and I continue to limp.

Lessons learned in prison

What did you learn from living with other political prisoners, when you were able to get to know your cellmates, all from different sectors or groups of this diverse pro-democracy movement?

I think that we reached the stage that we needed to reach before forming any alliance, before the construction of a political platform, and that was to talk to each other. Not with everyone, because we did not have the opportunity to talk and I think that was the greatest precaution they [the prison guards] took, that we did not all talk to each other. But with those with whom I shared a cell, I found human testimonies, a more human facet of politics, including those who held positions in office at some point, and they also learned about me.

So yes, we found resilience and strength in each other. I think that the space to know their lives and anecdotes strengthened the bond of being able to see someone and shake their hand without putting an ideological current of thought first. I also hope that they have also lost their prejudices towards our behavior as young people, our causes, our struggles, our energies, and many times even the boldness that is typical of our age.

The university students who led the April protests have paid a very high cost for the repression. You and many others have been in jail. Others have been exiled and lost their university degrees… Today the students are dispersed into different groups. How do you see the role of young university students and workers in the future in this pro-democracy movement?

Daniel Ortega has taken it upon himself to undermine the young university student, the peasant, and the ordinary Nicaraguan. The young have had to pay with their lives: those who were assassinated, those who were imprisoned, as well as those who were forced into exile.

The objective of these measures on the part of Ortega is that we do not engage in public spaces; that we do not get involved in activities that will bring a solution to Nicaragua, but the challenge, besides the dispersion in so many groups, is also in the territories. Where are the young people? Scattered around the world. We are facing a brain drain crisis from Nicaragua, of manpower with a lot of potential, and that hurts me.

The challenge is to know who you can count on; the reorganization of these student, youth, political entities, and political movements. Although they have torn us from our roots, which is a university, a community or a neighborhood, now we must organize ourselves wherever we are to introduce ourselves as an alternative, as young people for change in Nicaragua, and contributing – without condescension because of our age – with the high visions and expectations we have.

I long to be free but in Nicaragua. I long to build my career and my heritage in Nicaragua. That happens to many of us, but we see that Nicaragua is increasingly becoming a swamp for our dreams and desires as young people. If at one point you were forced into exile for political reasons, the most reasonable thing to do is to continue our efforts to build an alternative to solve the political crisis in Nicaragua.

In a month and a half it will be five years since the April Rebellion, and the crimes remain unpunished. The United Nations has just confirmed that there is evidence to prosecute Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo, and the entire chain of command of the State, for crimes against humanity, but the country continues to live under a police state and in impunity. How do you see these five years of the April Rebellion?

The first thing is that I am going to contradict anyone who says that April is over. As long as the families of more than 300 Nicaraguans are awaiting justice, and Nicaraguan society is awaiting reparations, we cannot talk about turning the page and ‘looking forward because a future awaits us’. I leave that argument to those who want to defame a just cause.

April remains alive until justice is achieved, the very truth of what happened in Nicaragua is known, and the families receive reparations. Regarding the report presented by the UN, it is good that such an international organization is speaking about what really happened.

In addition to healing, and getting involved in this process of hope for change, do you have personal plans? You received a university degree at the UCA, do you plan to work as a communicator or continue studying, what is your aspiration now?

The first thing is to overcome the limits we have in these conditions, because our immigration status is uncertain. I have part of my family here, and I am very concerned about those who do not have someone in the United States, or who are around the world and have no family either. It is extremely complicated what we Nicaraguans are going through.

Personally, the first thing is to reach a spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical balance, so that I have no problems or untreated consequences, together with the frantic desire to study and to learn. Especially because since prison, one of the impulses – after loving God, loving my country, and loving my mother – was to think about my thesis. I was looking for hypotheses of where to go with my research for my thesis in the field of communication.

I want to have a career within the field of communication -which I am passionate about, and I am devoted to it- but within these personal goals I don’t plan to look away from Nicaragua at any time, because I would be denying myself, because Nicaragua is something that I live and feel.

As a professional, I have the challenge of reaching a certain stability at home, because it’s necessary, and at my age, we want to eat the world. We must recognize Nicaraguan journalism, communication, which has been a window of hope for Nicaragua. To those men and women who despite any cost have had to inform.

I wanted to work in communication, and it was a crime in Nicaragua. Then I wanted to do politics, and it also turned out to be a crime, so every plan I make for my life is complicated, but I must also recognize your effort to defeat censorship every day. At every (prison) visit there was some analysis that was extracted from Esta Semana, from some editorial that you had made, and that for me is to be admired.

Thank you also because you have been an impulse in my career. You were a cathedra before I met you, and although the regime thinks otherwise, I came to know you personally only in 2018. Every success that you or any communicator achieves, is a success for the field of communication in Nicaragua, and gives greater visibility to our crisis.

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