Nicaragua: My Good Friday in a Bad Prison

Pain, Hope and Conviction in Prison Unit 300

Relatives of political prisoners outside the El Modelo prison. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

“I told [journalist] Miguel Mora what I’ve told several political prisoners: Miguel, the dictators think that by locking you up, they win. But instead, they lose.”

By Monica Baltodano  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – This time we arrived a little late to the Good Friday family visit at the El Modelo Prison. My sisters, sister-in-law and brother were already sitting at a table, encircling our brother Ricardo Baltodano, his large body clothed in the blue uniform of the prisoners.

This time we are in a room with a roof, not in the tents for the “special visits” of last Christmas and New Years. This time the guards allowed us to speak with political prisoners at other tables with their family members. All the prisoners are from Prison Unit 300, known as “Little Hell,” and its adjoining cells. 

My sisters had already told me that prison authorities seemed more obliging this time. We do not believe in the kindness of the regime. We know that this flexibility is just a way to improve their image.

At this moment, I wish my eyes were camera lenses to record the faces of those who symbolize Nicaragua’s struggle: Miguel, Medardo, Christian and so many others.

When we got there, the first political prisoner I saw was rural leader Pedro Mena and I hugged him, overcome with emotion…and then another and another and another prisoner, all surrounded by their families. My heart filled with tenderness as I asked them to tell me about their situation, the tortures and abuses they’ve suffered.

I make a special effort to find Miguel Mora, who is way on the other side of the room. And while going to find him I run into Tomás Maldonado, the Sandinista guerrilla leader from Diriamba. In 1979, he was seriously wounded in the attack on Presillitas, close to El Rama, but he refused to leave the region to which he had been sent by the Sandinistas, and he healed by himself and then rejoined the guerrilla war until he helped oust the other dictator, the one from which Daniel Ortega learned so well the art of cruelty.

I can see that Tomás is very thin and haggard but with a very strong spirit. I can also see that Carlos Brenes is physically deteriorating. I ask him how he feels. He tells me that he is just recovering from a health crisis that knocked him flat for two months, and from which he thought he would not come out alive.

There are no real medical services in the prisons, much less medicines. If families did not bring medicines to the sick prisoners, they would simply die. There is a dispensary, it’s true, with a doctor, but it is rare that this doctor treats the prisoners in Prison Unit 300. And when they have received medical attention, the prisoners say that they don’t feel that this doctor is being loyal to his Hippocratic oath. He eyeballs them and then gives them a prescription without doing any kind of physical examination.

The health of all the political prisoners is clearly deteriorating. And how could it be any other way? Because the chronic illnesses that they did not have when they were arrested, they are going to contract while they are here. They spend all day in cells that are just under 10 X 7 feet (2 X 3 meters), filled up mostly by their hard cement bed, a hole for a toilet, and a sink at the side in which the prisoner can wash their one uniform, one towel and one mattress cover (they are not allowed to have a sheet).

Since there is no place to sit down, for a seat prisoners use the bucket that they have to throw water down the toilet hole. In this space you cannot even take two steps. On one end of the cell, behind the toilet hole, there are clefts built at a 45-degree slant which prevent the prisoner from seeing outside and stop the air from circulating.

On the other end, the prisoner bumps into the heavy iron door. There are two small iron slots in the door: one below through which guards pass the prisoner “la chupeta” –the bag with food that many prisoners still cannot force themselves to eat–and one above that guards use to talk to the prisoner. Each slot shuts from the outside. All the political prisoners have complained that the guards slam the hatches down on their fingers when they shut the slots. These are not accidents; they do it on purpose as a punishment or when they are in a bad mood.

For maximum security prisoners, the top window clefts are always closed. When my brother Ricardo entered his cell for the first time, he nearly fainted when he saw how dark it was. This is what he told me: “When they came to take me out of El Chipote, I was happy because I thought—the living conditions are going to get better. And then when I stepped into the cell I nearly fainted in fear. It was totally dark and I could not see anything. I said to the warden ‘I won’t leave here alive!’ So he left the tiny slot in the door open so that I could look out on the hallway, where the common prisoners walk by. But all the other political prisoners were sitting in this darkness until just a few weeks ago when they began opening up the window hatches, little by little.”

The Red Cross recommended that they open the hatches, I was told.

I go to Miguel Mora’s table. I give him a big hug and ask how he is doing. He greets me the same way he always did on his TV program “100% News”: “Hello, Commander!” [Mora was arrested on December 21, 2018 when police stormed the television station, destroying and confiscating equipment, and arresting him and some of his staff, I tell him that my husband Julio López sends him warm greetings and we begin to share memories.

His family is there. He introduces me to his father-in-law. Then I say hello to his son Miguelito Mora, his young face very expressive as he sits watching from his wheelchair. I tell Miguel something I have said repeatedly to other political prisoners: Miguel, the dictators think that by locking you up, they win. But instead, they lose. You’re not only a famous journalist and a leader of independent journalism who is being persecuted, you are a leader of the Nicaraguan people. And the message that you are sending from here is very important to a people who do not have leaders they can believe in.

Miguel smiles, his skin is pale. He trusts in Nicaragua, in his god and in his own faith. But I can’t help but see the sadness in his eyes, and I am also saddened by his pain and his unjust and absurd situation. And these feelings are warranted: there are three political prisoners living in the most extreme brutal conditions in a prison—in total isolation: Miguel Mora, Christian Fajardo y Yubrank Suazo. Miguel, a born communicator and conversationalist, must be suffering enormously because of this situation.