The crimes against humanity committed by the regime of Daniel Ortega, and the grave violations of Nicaraguans’ human rights over the past year go beyond anything that Vilma Nunez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), can compare it with. The hatred and cruelty with which the dictatorship attacks those who oppose him make it clear that “it’s not only about limiting their rights. They’re also subjected to cruel and degrading treatment with the goal of humiliating the person.”
One year after the beginning of the brutal repression in Nicaragua, Nunez considers that on the topic of human rights, the balance “can only be seen as negative,” given the great quantity of the dead, missing, injured, imprisoned and exiled. However, she emphasizes that after many years of silence, citizens finally went out on the streets to demand respect for their rights.
Cenidh is one of nine non-governmental organizations whose legal non-profit status was cancelled and their installations confiscated by the dictatorship. But its president and co-founder assures that “they’re not going to silence me.” Four months after the assault on their offices, Nunez recognizes that what grieves her most is the exile of the majority of her team, because for her Cenidh isn’t the office, but the people in it.
In this interview, Nunez explains the work they’ve been doing following the confiscation of the organization that has defended the rights of thousands of people since 1990. She also reveals her skepticism about the negotiations between the regime and the Civic Alliance and laments the fact that the Nicaraguan dictator is using the international organizations to gain time while the political prisoners continue illegally locked up.
One year from the April rebellion and the violent repression from the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, what’s the Center’s balance sheet on human rights?
The balance is negative from a perspective of human rights enforcement. During this period, the violations of human rights have spiked to the extreme that Nicaragua is now considered a country where the leaders have committed crimes against humanity. That’s one of the highest negative categories that a State and its leaders can be assigned to.
How do you categorize the regime’s response to the civic protests?
We never imagined that the levels of repression and cruelty could reach the extremes that it did beginning on April 18. It appears that [Daniel Ortega] completely lost control of his character when he saw his permanence in power threatened. It’s not only a matter of the traditional repressive methods used historically by Latin American dictatorships; this dictatorial repression comes accompanied by a personal hatred. The cruelty with which they attack people isn’t about just repressing them or limiting their rights, but they also subject them to cruel and degrading treatment, with the goal of humiliating the person.
Regarding the balance sheet of the repression, Cenidh was also a direct victim with the cancellation of our legal status and the confiscation of our offices. Many advocates have also had to go into exile. How would you feel as the president of this organization that they’re trying to make disappear?
They cancelled our legal non-profit status in an illegal way. They attacked us and almost killed the young man who was our security guard, absolutely everything was stolen. But one of the most serious blows to me as the founding president of Cenidh who tried to develop a committed team, was the fact that the persecution and stigmatizing of those of us who make up the Cenidh caused them to make the decision to leave the country in order to safeguard their life.
Can people still turn to Cenidh to put in their denunciations? How are you working?
We’re working nearly clandestinely, which in itself is an aggression against us. It not only affects us as advocates, but it’s also an injury on a personal level, by limiting our possibilities of mobilizing, or meeting with whoever we want at whatever time we want. We’re limited – not only to avoid exposing ourselves to danger, but also to keep from putting the victims at risk. We’re receiving denunciations via the electronic devices and by telephone. We contribute our opinion via the different communications media, and we’re also attending to international relations, following up on the different protective measures that we’re processing, and participating in different international forums that we have access to.
A year after the social explosion, the government has imposed a de facto police state and there’s a social, political and economic crisis. In your opinion, what was gained and what was lost for the citizens this year?
We must commemorate two things. Logically, we can’t stop remembering the dead. We can’t stop recalling that April 18, the day the repression began, signifies the loss of life of the 323 victims who were killed, and that number represents only the ones that Cenidh managed to document (before being assaulted by the police). However, we also need to commemorate the people’s awakening, because I definitely believe that before that happened, the mechanisms for the defense of human rights were more or less worn out, we were facing great obstacles.
The clock is ticking on the ninety-day deadline for the full liberation of the political prisoners. What’s your opinion about the current process of releasing them from prison?
Amid all the circumstances, the situation of the political prisoners is what causes me the most anguish, it’s what hurts me most. Decidedly, it seems to me the worst cruelty. The ninety-day deadline is running out, but that’s nothing. These people (from the regime) continue playing around and doing whatever they want with the international organizations…. That man knows that he has to begin now to liberate (the political prisoners), he can’t cast doubt on the professionalism and experience of the International Red Cross who are now reconciling the lists, but he continues dead set on his course. That’s why I repeat that Daniel Ortega is holding the political prisoners as chips for exchange. He’s seeking to stretch the patience (of the other side) until the last minute.
Do you see any positive results from the negotiations between the regime and the Civic Alliance?
It’s very difficult if a mother was hoping that through this negotiation she was soon going to be at the jailhouse door to receive her son. Logically, such a mother can’t see a positive result. Maintaining the expectation of an open dialogue is becoming a double-edged sword, because in some way it leaves us hanging onto the idea that at some moment there’s going to be enough pressure, which is the only thing that will make Daniel Ortega cede.
On the other hand, these pressures haven’t manifested themselves because they’re also hoping that there can be a dialogue here. The truth is, we need to unmask this government once and for all, because they’re definitely using the dialogue to gain time; he’s using the OAS to gain time; he’s using the Apostolic Nuncio to gain time; and if we continue at this pace, soon the year 2019 will be over, and we’ll be arriving at 2020 in the doorway to another electoral fraud.
The Civic Alliance has asked for international guarantors for the negotiation, but Ortega rejects all the human rights organizations. Can there be any guarantee of respect without these organizations?
There are no guarantees, even with the presence of those organizations. We’re faced with a man who has never in his life kept his word. We’re faced with a ruler that has lied eternally to the Nicaraguan people. So, we’re dialoguing without dialoguing, it’s like we’re talking to the wall… Whoever comes will be rejected. There’s also this: we have a lot of our hopes set on international guarantors but those guarantors have no coercive powers. That’s a weakness of public international law: it doesn’t have any binding power. It can’t be an entity like, for example, the blue helmets that will enforce this or that dictate of the UN Security Council. Decidedly, Daniel Ortega is carrying things to such an extreme that only actions of that nature could resolve this problem.
You’ve criticized the negotiations between the regime and the Civic Alliance. What do you hope for concretely from that dialogue table that’s been installed at the INCAE business school?
I’m skeptical. It’s not defeatism – I want to continue being optimistic and conserving my hope, but I really don’t see that this man is going to comply. Perhaps, at times, when you’re faced with situations like this, you have to choose. I think that we can continue [the negotiation] as long as we see the political prisoners out of jail, and that means all the political prisoners. Clearly, behind that situation of political prisoners there’s a Pandora’s box, since a number of missing people that we could never count might appear from there.
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