Yoani Sanchez on the Mass Banishment from Nicaragua

Imprison, sentence and exchange: the authoritarian government strategy against dissidents

Nicaraguan opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, during a meeting with the press in Washington D.C. Photo from La Prensa Facebook page

Ortega is a loyal disciple of Fidel Castro, who utilized the dissenters imprisoned during Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring as tokens of exchange with the Catholic Church.

By Yoani Sanchez (14ymedio)

HAVANA TIMES – When I first met Nicaraguan opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, I knew immediately that Daniel Ortega must hate him passionately. The activist is poles apart from the old Nicaraguan strongman: hyperactive, charismatic, and an excellent communicator. This Thursday (February 9), I learned that the former presidential hopeful is among the 222 political prisoners that the Managua regime just sent into exile in the United States. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The tactic of imprisoning dissidents, sentencing them to long prison terms, and later using them as bargaining chips with Washington, the Vatican or the European Union has been a recurrent strategy among the authoritarian regimes that continue casting their dark shadows over Latin America. The Cuban regime has a Master’s degree and several PhD’s in this strategy, that has allowed them not only to put pressure on the democratic governments and obtain favors, but also to decrease the social pressure on the island.

Ortega is a loyal disciple of Fidel Castro, who utilized the dissidents imprisoned during Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring as exchange tokens with the Catholic Church and the Spanish authorities. The dissidents who were in jail 20 years ago were asked to choose between their cell bars or exile. Only a few rejected these pressures and remained on the Island. Today, two of those who stayed – Felix Navarro and Jose Daniel Ferrer – are once again in prison, where they’ve been since July 2021.

Moreover, the list of the Cuban political prisoners now numbers over a thousand people. Miguel Diaz-Canel must feel that he now has enough trump cards to cash in for succulent benefits. The signs that a game of exchange is being coordinated behind the curtain couldn’t be clearer: a number of US functionaries have recently warned that the political prisoners are an obstacle to the normalization of relations between the two countries; and Cardenal Benjamino Stella in Havana recently urged the government to free the demonstrators from July 11.

The maneuver that Ortega pulled off this Thursday may be only a preview of what his Cuban comrades are planning. A mutually agreed upon action, so that both regimes can free themselves of their critics, defuse any civic movement born from the demands for amnesty, and, in passing, receive in exchange some favor that might include economic benefits and diplomatic silences. In the case of Havana, one of the added demands could be for the Island to be taken off the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and for the regulations on family remittances and tourism from the United States to be more flexible.

Up to there, it would seem that the old tactic of “imprisoning, sentencing and exchanging” ends in a total win for the authoritarians, who always end up getting their way. This is true because – on the other side of the table – the democratic governments are willing to cede ground so that a group of people can once again embrace their family and not dry up and wilt in a punishment cell. Dictatorships can manage all those diplomatic and emotional strings. They feel superior in this terrain, because their “chips” are human lives, an element that holds little value for totalitarianism. But they’re mistaken.

The spans of time they manage to buy with these maneuvers are ever shorter; and banishment doesn’t mean the political death of their adversaries. The Castro regime itself could confirm that the repressive blow against 75 political opponents two decades ago didn’t placate the people’s discontent. That dissatisfaction ended by surging out onto the Cuban streets, in numbers and with libertarian demands never before seen. The leaders expelled from the country were followed by others and exile itself became an active agent in the formation of political criteria within the island.

Even though Daniel Ortega appears to have all Nicaragua gripped in his fist, he has just consolidated a maneuver born of desperation. Diaz-Canel may be preparing another similar move, also the child of the urgency a regime feels with a growing – and ever more public – public rejection. Neither of the two rulers can expel the millions of citizens who oppose them, nor quiet the international criticisms with these crude stratagems. They know that their dictatorships will fall, but instead of smoothing the road and opening the door to new players, they continue playing the old cards of years previous. They are the only ones they know, and the same cards that will lead them, sooner or later, to their defeat.

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