The Regime Wanted Us Imprisoned: How We Left into Exile

The scavengers of El Carmen (the presidencial residence/bunker). Threats, slander, kidnappings, and harassment of independent journalism. By PxMolina / Confidencial

By Geovanny Shiffman (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “Mom, if the Police ever come looking for me at the house, tell them I haven’t lived here for years…” I would repeatedly tell my mother every time I went to or returned from a journalistic coverage for La Prensa newspaper, where I worked.

In Nicaragua, journalism has been persecuted, censored, and criminalized by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo since 2018. By 2022, several journalists were in jail for practicing their profession, many of us had been assaulted by the Police and regime sympathizers, and three independent media outlets—La Prensa, CONFIDENCIAL, and 100% Noticias—had been closed and confiscated, and dozens of colleagues had gone into exile to avoid prison.

I would say those words to my mother almost automatically, preparing for the worst but also hoping for the best: despite the context, I never believed that the cruelty of the dictatorship would also reach me.

When I started in journalism, back in 2015, I was enthusiastic about the profession. I liked reporting from the streets, interviewing citizens, and bringing “hot” news to the public. I was happy doing my job. But the low salary forced me to change jobs to earn more money in a personal business.

The brutal repression of the Ortega-Murillo regime, starting in 2018, revived in me the need to report what was happening in Nicaragua. I wanted to be part of the generation of journalists documenting the new insurrection brewing in the country, and in 2019, I had an opportunity to return to journalism. My friend and colleague, Álvaro Navarro, opened the doors for me at his digital media outlet Artículo 66, where I resumed news coverage of the country.

My commitment to journalism was to show what was happening in that tumultuous Nicaragua. Gradually, the violence I covered came closer to me: after covering a civil protest, I was physically assaulted by Police officers; on another occasion, I was chased, surrounded, and threatened with jail. I kept repeating those ominous words to my mother.

I wrote many stories about colleagues announcing their exile, accounts of journalists in hiding, all forced to escape the regime’s clutches. “It must be tough to leave family behind,” I thought, but at the same time, I felt distant from that reality.

It may seem naive that I didn’t feel in the crosshairs of the dictatorship, as not only was I a journalist, but I had also been assaulted several times while doing my job. Moreover, I am married to Lidia Lopez, also a journalist and coworker at La Prensa, where we were part of the same team. I never thought it would happen to me, to us, until the night of July 6, 2022, when that premonition came true.

“Lidia, has the Police come to your house? They say they arrested the driver who accompanied you today in covering the expulsion of the nuns… don’t sleep at home tonight…” The warning voice to my wife was from one of La Prensa’s editors.

That day, my wife had to do a live broadcast of the expulsion of a group of Missionaries of Charity, the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, from the country amid strong repression by the regime against civil and religious organizations.

In seconds, my mind replayed all those stories of exiled colleagues who had left to avoid jail after being massively summoned by the Prosecutor’s Office a year earlier to intimidate and accuse them of false crimes.

Anxiety, fear, and adrenaline began to take over me. “We are leaving,” I told my wife. That night, we had to flee without being guilty of anything. Our dining table was left with plates of hot gallo pinto and a couple of enchiladas, the last dinner at home that we did not share.

Half an hour after leaving the house and aimlessly driving around in the vehicle, Lidia and I stopped at a gas station to plan where to spend the night. The phone rang again. It was my sister-in-law, who, through sobs, said the Police were at the house. Police patrols, motorcycles, and riot police surrounded the perimeter of the house. An excessive deployment, as if they were chasing dangerous criminals. “Tell him to come now, or we’ll arrest you!” I heard one of the officers shout at my sister-in-law through the phone.

I started the car and left the gas station desperately, not knowing what to do or where to go. I wished it was a nightmare, that I would wake up. I was in shock. Lidia tried to calm me while processing the news. I called my mother to tell her. I broke down in tears. That long night ended at the home of a family who responded to our call for help.

The next day, two Police officers came looking for me at my mother’s house. She repeated to them: “He hasn’t lived here for years.” She complied. Lidia and I stayed at the safe house. Those five days felt like an eternity. We didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat, and we just wanted to stay locked in the room. The paranoia was such that the slightest noise was associated with the arrival of the Police.

Meanwhile, the Police raided our mothers’ homes, interrogated our close ones, and maintained surveillance, day and night, at their homes, intimidating our families. These illegal raids and harassment were part of a police crackdown that reached more colleagues from the newspaper, who worked in hiding after the occupation and confiscation of the newspaper’s facilities in August 2021.

Although I was aware that the regime’s claws had reached us, I still hadn’t processed the magnitude of the situation until a colleague made me realize: “Geovanny, Lidia, are you clear that you can no longer return home? If you want, we’ll arrange your departure from the country…” I felt a cold shock. “We have no other option,” I responded helplessly.

A photo of Geovanny Shiffman and Lidia López, taken on July 12, 2022, upon their arrival in San José, Costa Rica.

In my backpack, I packed a couple of pants and shirts kindly given to me by the family who sheltered us. I also packed my two work computers. One flees with nothing or takes the minimum, the basics, what feels necessary to plant one’s feet elsewhere. For us, those machines were that.

The next morning, my wife and I crossed the southern border of Nicaragua overland through blind spots. “I breathe freedom,” I told Lidia, my voice choked, when I saw the tricolor flag and the sign that said: “Welcome to Costa Rica.”

Unlike thousands of migrants who have decided to leave the country to improve their living conditions and those of their loved ones, I did not have a farewell party with friends who, although sad about your decision to emigrate, are happy because you are pursuing your dreams. I didn’t see the “goodbye” of family members who come to see you off at the terminal from a bus window. I didn’t get the chance to give my mother a goodbye hug.

I wish I could say that after two years, I am still doing journalism, that I continue writing the story of my country that still suffers repression and abuses by two power-hungry individuals, but it’s not so. I am over three thousand kilometers from home, in the United States, in a second migration, in another process of exile, seeking political asylum.

One day I wrote for the most important and oldest newspaper in Nicaragua, and here I have folded sheets in a hotel, driven for a landscaping company, and currently work at a well-known car dealership. While these tasks don’t represent my professional ideal, especially after dedicating my life to journalism, each has been an invaluable opportunity for learning and growth. The need to reinvent myself has allowed me to discover skills I didn’t even know I possessed, and that fills me with pride and satisfaction.

We are hundreds who, fleeing harassment, injustices, and the regime’s wrath in Nicaragua, have left homes, friends, and mother’s hugs hanging for when we return when divine or earthly justice ends the oppressor. Because no dictatorship is eternal, sooner rather than later, Nicaragua will regain democracy, and we will return home, celebrate with friends, embrace our mothers, and sit at the table to share a plate of hot gallo pinto

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.

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