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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame professor stands up to Ortega after Nicaraguan imprisonment 

Like most incoming freshmen, Victoria Chamorro, a student from Nicaragua, envisioned moving into Notre Dame with her parents. That dream shattered in June 2021, when dozens of armed guards and eight police patrol cars pulled up to her home to arrest her father, a pre-candidate in the Nicaraguan presidential election.

“They broke into the neighborhood,” Victoria recalled. “They were coming to take my dad.”

Victoria’s father, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, handed her his phone and asked her to delete its information. Her mother and father surrendered to police while Victoria stayed next door with her grandmother. Police ransacked the home for four hours. 

“They took everything they wanted,” Chamorro’s wife, Victoria Cárdenas, said. “It was a violation of my family.”

Three days later, Chamorro’s wife and daughter fled to Florida. His family did not know his whereabouts for three months.

Torn apart by Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua, the Chamorro family spent nearly two years isolated. While Chamorro was confined to a Nicaraguan prison, his daughter was an underclassman at Notre Dame and his wife was traveling across the globe to advocate for her husband and other political prisoners. The family finally reunited in February of this year, after political pressure from the U.S. freed more than 200 prisoners.

Chamorro family kept apart for 611 days

When Victoria began her freshman year at Notre Dame in August, she still had not heard from her father. Although she was hesitant about starting school, she wanted to follow through on a promise she made to her father.

“He told me, ‘Promise me, you’ll go,’” Victoria said.

In a Nicaraguan prison thousands of miles away, Chamorro said he was glad that his daughter continued her studies in architecture. He received this news from his sister, three months after his imprisonment.

While in prison, Chamorro was not allowed to speak on the phone with his family for more than a year. 

“Even convicted criminals have the right to see families,” Chamorro said. “I was denied a phone call.”

Deprived of food, he lost nearly 30 pounds. He said he was interrogated every day, placed in solitary confinement for a month and forbidden from reading or writing.

On Feb. 23, 2022, Chamorro’s birthday, Ortega’s government sentenced him to 13 years in prison as a “traitor to the homeland” for attempting to run for president in the country’s election.

Chamorro had no option to speak to a lawyer, and he called the trial a “farce” characteristic of dictators who seek to jail political opponents. The trial was “an attempt to break our souls and our families,” he said.

When his daughter finally had a chance to speak to him on a phone call in January 2023, she said she noticed both the toll of prison and her father’s courageous attitude.

“I don’t know if it’s a virtue or a defect, but I have a low level of fear,” Chamorro said, explaining that he could not stand by and watch Ortega win the 2021 election.

In August 2022 the regime showed the political prisoners, including Chamorro, in a “special hearing”. This was the first image Chamorro’s wife and daughter were able to see of him after 14 months of incarceration.

Throughout her husband’s imprisonment, Chamorro’s wife spearheaded a global human rights campaign. Cárdenas visited leaders and politicians in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Costa Rica, Madrid, Geneva and Brussels. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York City and the European Parliament. Cárdenas stood up not only for her husband, but also for the six other candidates who were jailed or placed on house arrest. She and another prisoner’s wife wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post and spoke on 60 Minutes.

Because of her advocacy, Cárdenas was also declared a “traitor to the homeland” by Ortega’s regime.

“I was talking as a mother and as a wife about what was happening to my family, what was happening to my husband. I didn’t even know where he was, whether he was alive or dead,” she said. “This is not politics. This is human rights.”

Though Cárdenas had no experience in public speaking or advocacy, she became a voice for political prisoners in Nicaragua, spurred to action by the harshness of her husband’s sentence and the violence of his detainment.

“She transformed herself into an advocate for human rights and liberation of political prisoners. At the same time, she was the mom of a Notre Dame student,” Chamorro said about his wife.

She said her efforts were the only thing she could think to do to respond to injustice.

“If I was not doing that, I don’t know what I would have been doing,” Cárdenas said regarding the international campaign. “It gave me a purpose. It gave me something to fight for.”

‘A way of protesting against the dictator’: Ortega imprisons all seven presidential candidates

Despite the challenges of prison, Chamorro said his convictions for freedom and democracy sustained him.

“Ortega had control of all the electoral system,” Chamorro said. “We knew that the risk of facing electoral fraud was very high, but still, we decided to go ahead with the primary process.”

Even though he was aware of his slim odds at succeeding, Chamorro and six other candidates decided to challenge Ortega in the 2021 election. When the 2021 primary candidates moved toward selecting a single nominee, Ortega responded by imprisoning every candidate.

“He just put the six of us in jail and accused us of being terrorists,” Chamorro said.

Running for president was a form of protest against the dictatorship and a way to document the extent of electoral fraud, he said. 

“It was a way of protesting against the dictator and telling the dictatorship, ‘We are democrats. We believe in democratic means,’” Chamorro said. 

When Ortega allegedly won reelection in November 2021, Cárdenas was in Washington, D.C., “denouncing the fraud” and telling everyone who would listen that the opposing candidates were in jail. 

The plan worked. In part because of his wife’s campaign, nations across the globe paid attention to the democratic fraud. But that evidence came at a cost.

“In a way, we provoked the dictator to take that action at a very high cost of our freedom for so long, almost two years,” Chamorro said. “It’s a form of fighting.”

Chamorro and his family knew the risk of opposing Ortega, but they never imagined that imprisonment would last nearly two years.

U.S. pressure frees hundreds of political prisoners, including Chamorro

Awoken by a 6 a.m. phone call from her mother, Victoria found out about her father’s release from prison while at Notre Dame.

“She could barely speak, she was crying,” Victoria said of her mother’s demeanor on the phone. “But basically, she was saying that my dad was on a plane on his way from Nicaragua to D.C.”

Victoria scrambled onto the next flight to Washington, D.C. to be reunited with her mother and father. She skipped class that day.

Chamorro said he was expecting a normal night in jail when guards ordered him to get dressed and put him on a plane with 221 other political prisoners. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. government chartered flight was part of a secret Biden administration operation to free political prisoners in Nicaragua.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez chose to remain in Nicaragua. He has been sentenced to 26 years in prison.

After 611 days apart, the Chamorro family reunited in Dulles International Airport. 

The Chamorro family embraces after nearly two years apart.

Chamorro’s wife believes her husband would still be in prison without the campaign she led.

“We needed this global pressure,” Cárdenas said. “After everything that I’d done, I couldn’t believe he was landing in D.C.”

Though Victoria and her parents cannot return to Nicaragua and lost all their belongings, she is grateful to have her family together again.

“The person that I am now is completely different from the person I was six years ago,” she said. “It’s definitely given me an appreciation and a sense of being grateful for what you have, especially family.”

Victoria said she is proud of her father’s bravery and service to his country. 

Democracy deteriorates in Nicaragua

Even before her father decided to run for president, Victoria remembers taking extra safety precautions. As Chamorro grew more involved in politics, the family moved frequently. In the months leading up to her father’s arrest, Victoria remembers threatening calls and drone surveillance over her home. Chamorro said he was beaten in the street on several occasions.

A Georgetown University-trained economist, Chamorro served in the government as vice minister of finance and secretary to the president for planning before his imprisonment. He was also part of negotiations with Ortega after a 2018 massacre that ended in the death of more than 350 people protesting changes to social security.

“Thousands of Nicaraguans went to the streets asking for a change,” Chamorro said. “The regime responded with bullets.”

Chamorro’s daughter said these deadly protests showed her the extent of barriers to democracy.

“I’ve always grown up with this notion of how dictators come and go in Nicaragua. It wasn’t until 2018 that I was awoken,” she said.

Nicaraguan mothers protest in 2018.

For many people in Nicaragua, speaking against Ortega’s regime can result in imprisonment, violence or even death. Someone who formerly lived in Nicaragua described the conditions as dangerous for anyone who makes a political statement.

Editor’s Note: To protect the safety of the person who formerly lived in Nicaragua, they are anonymously attributed.

“It is like a parallel reality. If you’re committed to staying out of politics and minding your own business … you’re in no trouble of danger,” the person said. “But anybody who wishes to engage in politics in a way that’s out of line will see strict repercussions immediately.”

Ortega’s regime carefully monitors digital footprints. Even posting on social media can result in lost citizenship or imprisonment.

Many people are leaving Nicaragua, but some cannot flee.

“There’s people that really can’t leave out of fear,” the person said. “They feel that leaving would put their family in jeopardy.”

In 2018, hundreds of Nicaraguans were killed while protesting social security changes.

University President Fr. John Jenkins also recently called attention to the dictatorship in Nicaragua, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post decrying the country’s persecution of the Catholic Church and the takeover of the Jesuit-run Central American University.

The person who formerly lived in Nicaragua said that Ortega is monitoring the church and suppressing any hint of independence.

“You’re not going to be arrested for owning a Bible,” the person said. “But at the same time, you see the government impose restrictions on religious processions in the street. They monitor what is said in homilies.”

Others, including Chamorro, have been stripped of their nationality and personal property, forced to become stateless persons.

“There’s a lot of people suffering a great deal, especially in Nicaragua that are fearful of even speaking out. In a way, I feel blessed to be able to speak out in the name of those who cannot,” Chamorro said.

‘It will finish’: Chamorro hopes to one day return to Nicaragua

Although his own imprisonment demonstrates the barriers to democracy in Nicaragua, Chamorro has hope for the country’s future.

“In history, dictators have never prevailed. I don’t know when the dictatorship of my country will finish. But it will finish. That’s for certain,” he said. “That’s a reason that keeps me moving every day to come to this office and write about what’s happening.”

After regaining his freedom, Chamorro began to look for jobs in academia. He was drawn to Notre Dame because of his daughter and his father, who also studied at the University. Representatives from the Kroc Center for Peace Studies also visited Chamorro’s home after Chamorro became involved with political negotiations in 2018.

Now a Kellogg Institute visiting fellow, Chamorro is writing a book about how dictatorship came to dominate his country. His office in Hesburgh Center is bare. Ortega’s regime seized his assets, but draped between near-empty shelves, he flies the Nicaraguan national flag. Today, that emblem — blue and white striped with symbols of freedom and equality in the center — can get a person in Nicaragua arrested.

The flag is reminder of what is at stake. Chamorro wants to create a record of how dictatorship arose in Nicaragua and how it is hurting the Nicaraguan people. Eventually, he hopes to return to his home country.

“All dictators have an ending date. We don’t know the ending date of this particular one, but it will end,” he said. “I want to be there to go back and help reconstruct democracy and freedoms in Nicaragua.”

But before that, Chamorro says Nicaragua must break through the fear imposed by Ortega. 

“We have to overcome that fear, and denounce what is going on,” he said.