50.50: Opinion

Meet the Nicaraguan women fighting for democracy from prison

Despite the ‘farce’ of Sunday’s elections in Nicaragua, women jailed for challenging the Ortega regime offer hope for resistance

Dánae Vílchez
5 November 2021, 2.44pm
Top row, left to right: Karla Escobar, Julia Hernández, María Oviedo, Esperanza Sánchez and Ana Margarita Vijil. Bottom row, left to right: Suyen Barahona, Violeta Granera, Cristiana Chamorro, Dora María Téllez and Tamara Dávila

When feminist lawyer and politician Ana Margarita Vijil knew her detention was imminent, on 12 June, she recorded herself sending a final message: "Nobody gives up. Daniel Ortega will have to go away.” Minutes later, police arrived at her home, beat her up and then took her to prison.

My home country of Nicaragua is holding elections this coming Sunday, 7 November. But we already know who will win. President Daniel Ortega, in power since 2007, is going to secure another term after months of using repression, censorship and imprisonment to force the opposition out.

Starting in May, the government has arrested seven presidential candidates and at least a dozen activists, including ten prominent women.

These women are human rights defenders, feminist activists and political and social leaders. Their names: Cristiana Chamorro, Dora María Téllez, Támara Dávila, Ana Margarita Vijil, Suyen Barahona, Violeta Granera, María Oviedo, Esperanza Sánchez, Julia Hernández and Karla Escobar.

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Vijil, who recorded herself just before her arrest, is being held in the notorious El Chipote prison, in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. It’s known as the “torture prison”. Her family reports that she has been subjected to isolation and physical and emotional abuse, and has lost a lot of weight.

Dora María Téllez, a historian and political leader, was also arrested on 12 June – the same day as Vijil. Téllez is also a former commander in the Sandinista guerrilla movement; she became an icon in the 1970s after leading major military victories when she was a young woman, fighting alongside Ortega to defeat the Somoza dynasty.

She’s been a minister and legislator for the Sandinistas (FSLN) and also founded an independent political party. Now 66, she remains an outspoken critic of her former comrade Ortega. Her family said that she is underfed and mistreated in prison.

Támara Dávila, a feminist psychologist and political activist, was arrested the day before Vijil. The police confiscated her family photos and a book where she recorded her daughter’s growth.

"They are using her motherhood as a way to torture her," Ana Lucía Alvarez, Davila’s sister, told me. “Támara is constantly told she is a bad mother who has neglected her daughter.”

Female political prisoners endure a double hardship – for being women and for being critical of the government

Alvarez (who is also related to Vijil), explained that women political prisoners endure a double hardship – for being women and for being critical of the government.

They are usually kept in isolation and frequently interrogated, mocked and humiliated for their sexual or gender preferences, and for having to abandon their children while in detention, according to Alvarez.

Repression and corruption under Ortega

President Ortega embodies patriarchy, authoritarianism and corruption, the three heads of the Cerberus-like entity that has eaten an entire country. A former military commander and one of the leaders of Nicaragua’s successful Sandinista Revolution – which overthrew the dictatorship of the Somoza family in 1979 – he retaliates against anyone who dares to oppose his rule.

He has dismantled democratic institutions and taken full control of the judiciary, police and military. He has stood for repeated re-elections that have been greenlit by the courts he controls. During anti-government demonstrations in 2018, he ordered the massacre of at least 325 people.

Ortega spouts a left-wing discourse, but is a crucial ally of conservative groups. In 2006, while opposition leader, he personally ordered his party to vote for an absolute ban on abortion, to please the Catholic Church. He won the election that year.

As if this were not enough, Ortega was accused by his step-daughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, of allegedly raping her repeatedly for several years since the age of 11.

In 1998, when Narváez described the ordeal she had gone through, her mother, Rosario Murillo, took her husband’s side and was rewarded with increased political power in his regime. Now she is the vice-president and the government’s spokesperson.

As Jennie Lincoln, senior adviser at the Carter Center, once said, democracy is dead in my country. With opposition candidates excluded from this Sunday’s elections, opposition group the National Coalition has called for people to abstain from voting and to “stay at home”.

Hope despite imprisonment

However, the women who have been arrested still manage to offer a tiny glimmer of hope.

“Being in jail is my contribution to the freedom of Nicaragua,” Ana Margarita Vijil told her sister during one of the two visits she was allowed.

Ana Lucía Alvarez says the women are high-spirited and, in the only two family visits allowed since June, have told their relatives they will resist. “We have found them strong. Even in this situation, they are trying to find ways to resist,” Alvarez said.

Using the hashtag #QueLasLiberen (Set Them Free), feminist groups in Nicaragua and across Latin America are asking for the immediate release of these women and denouncing Sunday’s elections as “a farce”.

"We need to weave webs of support,” Alvarez said. “This fight is for freedom and justice in Nicaragua, and we need the women of the world to raise their voices with us.”

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