Publisher: I turned around and said goodbye to Nicaragua

La Prensa publisher Juan Lorenzo Holmann speaks to CPJ in Washington D.C. about his February 9, 2023 release from prison and deportation from Nicaragua. (Photo credit: Esha Sarai)

By Danae Vilchez (CPJ)

HAVANA TIMES – Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro was on the verge of sleep in his Nicaraguan jail cell when he was issued civilian clothes, taken to the airport, and told to sign a handwritten document agreeing to be deported to the United States. 

Holmann, the publisher of La Prensa, Nicaragua’s oldest newspaper, had been incarcerated since August 2021. Arrested during a widespread crackdown on the country’s independent media and accused of money laundering, he was serving a nine-year sentence in the country’s notorious El Chipote prison at the time he boarded the flight that would take him to Washington, D.C.

Along with journalists Miguel Mendoza Urbina and five other journalists and media workers who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, Holmann was among the 222 political prisoners unexpectedly released and deported by Nicaraguan authorities on February 9. He and Mendoza spoke to CPJ’s Dánae Vílchez about their experience in prison, their commitment to freedom of expression, and their mixed feelings about being forced to leave their country.

“I don’t feel totally free,” said Holmann. “Because free would be if I could be in Nicaragua, that’s the real freedom.” [Read Vílchez’s interview with Mendoza here.]

Excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity:

How do you feel after your first days of freedom?

Many mixed feelings may sound like a cliché, but I am really missing part of my family. My wife is still in Nicaragua. Here I have my daughters, who are studying in the United States. So I had the feeling of coming to see my daughters, but that I am truly leaving my heart and my wife in Nicaragua.

What was the last day in jail like? Did you have any idea that something like this would happen?

The last day in jail went like all the other days, with the same routine of getting up, praying, doing a little exercise, eating what they gave us, and eating a little bit of what they had been letting in. They call it parcels. The wardens definitely knew absolutely nothing about what was going on or what was going to happen.

I was already falling asleep when a guard arrived. He called one of my cellmates and told him to take off his uniform and put on these civilian clothes, and we looked at my other cellmate and [said] “oh, what’s going on?” After a few minutes, I asked [the guard], “What happens to me?” “Your clothes are coming,” he said, and they put us in a cell in groups of maybe 12 people. There we met a lot of “brothers of pain” [other prisoners] we had not seen [before] because we did not have access to communication between us. We were in that cell for several hours.

What happened in Nicaragua before getting on the plane for the United States?

At some point, a high-ranking officer arrived and said buses were going to each of the cells, “but please don’t ask me where they are going, because even I don’t know where they are going.”

We went out with [our hands] in plastic straps in front of us, not behind us, and they lined us up. I was the first in line on the bus, and I could see through the windshield of the bus because the side windows were covered with a curtain. Two options came to my mind. One was that we were going to the courthouse to hear a change [in our] sentences, and the other was that we would be transferred to a different prison. We took a route that looked like we were going to the courthouse. As I was passing in front of the La Prensa offices, I felt inspiration. And I said to myself, I think they are taking us to the airport.

We got to the airport, the bus stopped, and an officer got on the bus and told us we were being deported. Deported to the United States of America. And did we have any objections?

[I was told] to sign a handwritten document [that I] agreed to be deported to the United States of America under the conditions of the current law. I asked, “what are the conditions of the current law?” He told me, “sign or I take you off the bus.” That is coercion, [but] I signed.

When I was walking towards the people from the [U.S.] State department, [one of them] said, “Welcome, Juan Lorenzo, we were waiting for you.” I was astonished because he [knew] my name. The first thing I asked him [was whether] this is for real, and [what about] my wife. “Don’t worry, we will see about that later,” I was told. “They [your daughters] are waiting for you.” “Thank you very much,” I said and went in.

They had a plastic container with a bunch of Nicaraguan passports. “What is your name?” [they asked.] “Juan Lorenzo.” And then the person said “Welcome,” and he took out my passport, saying, “This is you? Well, come on in.” They took my vitals, and another officer said, “You can come up.” I said, “Well, stairway to liberty,” and he said, “Yes, that’s me.” Still, before I got on the plane, I turned around and said goodbye to Nicaragua because I don’t know when I will be able to return.

The Nicaraguan government says that they took away your nationality.

No one can take away my Nicaraguan nationality. I am going to die, and I am going to continue being Nicaraguan.

I feel very grateful to these people [in the U.S.] who have been so generous, first in accepting us 222 exiles, accepting and giving us warmth. To embrace us and make us feel loved.

I am not the first in my family to be banished from Nicaragua in the 201 years [since it became independent from Spain]; I hope that we will be the last. I hope [when] this is over, we can live in Nicaragua in peace and harmony and build the society we all long to build.

You were arrested shortly after being appointed as publisher of La Prensa. Did you ever think the job would land you in jail as a political prisoner?

When I made the decision to take the job, it was clear what I was doing. Not that my life was in danger, but [that] I was doing something that would put me in the spotlight. Obviously, I was taken by surprise when they arrested me. That [was the] same day we put out the last issue, [when I said] we were temporarily suspending the print edition [and would] continue our duty and our work through the digital media page. I believe that the government did not like the fact that we went out saying that this was the last printed edition.  

You were arrested on August 14, 2021. Tell us about what happened.

I came to work [the previous] day, like every day. The police came into my office at 11 a.m. and said, “stop everything you are doing. Close your computer and put down your phone. Get out. Come on, all out.” We were there until about 3 a.m. on the 14th. They were going through everything, taking computers, taking boxes of accounting records. They came with some customs officers to say that they were also going to carry out an investigation for customs fraud, which is absurd because they delivered everything we received from customs with the proper documentation.

I told them to let the staff out, and they all left, except for the people working in the financial department. We stayed there, those of us from the financial department.

It was said that you were tricked into going to jail. What happened?

Finally, at about 3 a.m., the police told me that [they were arranging to] send the people to their homes. They told me to go to the Auxilio Judicial [detention center] to sign some documents about [their investigation]. I got in my car with three policemen and drove myself [there.]

My wife had [tracked] my location on her phone [and] was waiting at the gate. When she saw that they were taking me there, she very cleverly brought my medication. I had had heart surgery five months [earlier] and she had the brilliant idea of taking all my medicines in a bag. What surprised me was that she began to argue with the police, [saying] “I’m not leaving here. I’m going to wait for him for a month if necessary.” She waited for 545 days.

How were the prison conditions?

Some officers were very calm, but others were a bit rude. They never hit me [but] the harm was the damage, their approach was to try and do you psychological harm.

We never had access to reading [materials], for example. We could only communicate with the person we shared a cell with. They initially put me in a cell of maybe five square meters [about 54 square feet]. [It] did not have a toilet. What it had was a hole in the floor that served as a shower and served as a toilet, so to speak, [and] a dim lamp that was never turned off. It was enough to see, but not enough to see clearly.

It was a sealed door, with a window in the center that they opened only to pass food or medicines. I did not have the medicines in my cell, but they gave them to me when I was scheduled to take them.

The medical assistance was deficient and ailments were not taken seriously. There were people with pacemakers, and there were people with serious problems in the pelvis and knees. Some people suffered from diabetes. We didn’t communicate with our families. Communication was everything to us.

(CPJ emailed Nicaragua Vice President Rosario Murillo for comment on prison conditions but received no reply.)

What were the interrogations like? What did they ask you?

There was a period when I was interviewed twice a day, [when] they would take me out at 11 at night and at 3 in the morning to ask me the same questions. Absurd things, from how La Prensa was managed, what it represented, how much subscriptions cost, and who the board of directors were. I told [them], “but why ask if you already know all that?”

The truth is that I was very reticent when it came to information. They interviewed me from August [2021] until February of the following year. Nothing [they asked me] was presented as evidence in the trial. 

Why do you think the Nicaraguan regime targeted La Prensa?

It is not only against La Prensa. It is against all independent journalism. They definitely have an allergy to freedom of expression. We have seen it throughout history [among] people who [behave like them], the first thing they do is to attack independent journalism, attack people who express what they feel, who denounce, who are asking for justice.

I left jail with a stronger conviction that I have to continue fighting for freedom of expression. The most important right is the right to live, to be born, and to be. And the second most important is the right to free expression. The first right is useless if the second is taken away from us. Freedom of expression is the greatest because it is what makes us what we are. Freedom of expression is the right to be educated, the right to learn, to know, and to discern.

What will happen to La Prensa now?

Nothing has happened to La Prensa that has not happened before [during the Somoza and Sandinista eras] and from which we have not been able to rise up. Proof of that is that La Prensa is there informing, being a tribune for people to express their feelings and their way of thinking. Being the voice of those who have no voice. We have done it in the past, we are doing it now, and we will continue doing it.

What can organizations like ours and the international community do?

Continue doing what they have been doing so far. Do not give up, do not get tired. Not only for Nicaraguan journalists but for journalists who are being persecuted anywhere in the world. We must continue to fight for journalists who are not allowed to exercise their right to inform.

When we had that ephemeral freedom in the ‘90s and early 2000s, La Prensa denounced the abuses suffered by other journalists in other places. That is how we have to continue doing it.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times