Nicaraguan journalist and wife to imprisoned presidential candidate Félix Maradiaga, Berta Valle, addresses the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On Summit Alumnus Félix Maradiaga:
“In 2019, my husband Félix Maradiaga stood here on this stage and said that he saw the “seeds of hope” being planted in Nicaragua. Today, he’s in prison.”
On being a journalist in Nicaragua:
“As a journalist, I had a front row seat to the regime’s abuse.”
“Our journalists would pitch story ideas about government scandals or corruption. And then the station owner would receive a phone call – “shut it down.””
On her husband’s arrest:
“For 84 days, I had no idea where my husband was. I didn’t even know if he was alive.”
“They sleep on cold concrete slabs without sheets or blankets. They’re verbally abused, mocked, and psychotically tortured.”
On totalitarianism in Latin America:
“In November, the regime announced that Ortega won the election. But don’t be mistaken – there’s nothing democratic about his regime.”
“Today, Nicaragua is the only country in Latin America without a print newspaper. This is a totalitarian one-party state, where dissent is not allowed and critics are silenced.”
“I know our family will be reunited one day. And I know Ortega’s regime will fall. The future of Nicaragua is democracy. And for that, I will never stop fighting.”
In 2019, my husband Félix Maradiaga stood here on this stage and said that he saw the “seeds of hope” being planted in Nicaragua.
Today, he’s in prison. And I’m here to continue his fight against the cruelest human rights abuses my country has ever seen.
I met Félix when I was X in Ciudad Dario in the mountains of Nicaragua. My hometown is named after the poet Ruben Dario, who’s famous for beautiful lines like: “Eres un universo de universos y tu alma una fuente de canciones. You are a universe of universes, and your soul a fountain of song.” Each year, we held a celebration in his honor, where the young women of the city would dress up in beautiful clothes to read his poetry. And four men would vote to decide – “Who is Ruben Dario’s muse?” That year, I was one of the muses, and Félix was a judge. Believe it or not, he gave me the lowest score of any of the judges – but I forgave him. Because after that first meeting, we fell in love.
Some months later, I moved to the capital city with Félix. I was the first woman in my lineage to go to university and I was there on scholarship, studying economics. But then, the owner of a TV station in Managua saw me in a beauty contest & he invited me to audition for his station. I had zero broadcasting experience but I got the job and for the next 12 years, I was on TV everyday reporting the news.
As a journalist, I had a front row seat to the regime’s abuse. Our journalists would pitch story ideas about government scandals or corruption. And then the station owner would receive a phone call – “shut it down.” The government censored us again & again. I felt horrible – like I was guilty of helping Ortega.
By 2016, Félix and I were both well known around the country. Me for my reporting. Félix for his human rights work & advocacy. That year, the Independent Liberty Party nominated me to represent Managua in the National Assembly as part of its National Coalition for Democracy. I accepted their offer and resigned from the TV station. But before my election even took place, Ortega’s loyalists in the Nicaraguan supreme court conveniently disqualified our political party. That same year, Daniel Ortega installed his wife as his Vice President.
Félix began investigating corruption for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy. And soon after, Ortega announced reforms to Social Security that would increase taxes & decrease benefits for Nicaraguans. Across the country, people took to the streets to protest. The police responded by violently attacking unarmed protestors. In November 2018 alone, they killed so many people.
As prominent members of the opposition, I knew our lives were at risk. So Félix and I made the impossible decision to take our 7-year-old daughter Alejandra & his mother to the U.S. Félix stayed behind in Nicaragua to continue his academic work & political activism with the Civil Society Leadership Institute. But when he testified before the UN Security Council about Ortega’s abuses, the regime issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of organized crime and financing of terrorism.” Ortega’s supporters found Félix and beat him so severely that he was hospitalized. I told him he had to leave – so he escaped to the U.S. to be with me & Alejandra temporarily.
In 2019, when the protests died down, he went back to Nicaragua to continue working as a leader in the Blue & White National Unity opposition group. In 2021, Félix announced that he was running for President in the November elections. We knew it was a huge risk, but then on June 8, Félix was arrested. For 84 days, I had no idea where my husband was. I didn’t even know if he was alive.
In August, we found out that he was in Chipote prison, along with other opposition leaders, including Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, Dora Maria Tellez, and Hugo Torres Jiménez. They sleep on cold concrete slabs without sheets or blankets. They’re verbally abused, mocked, and psychotically tortured. Félix has always been an athletic person. He practiced martial arts, he’d run 100km races. He’s one of the youngest people imprisoned – but from what we’ve heard, he’s lost 50 pounds and is painfully skinny. Roger Reyes, lawyer in prison with my husband, begged the guards for psychiatric treatment when he started losing his memory. He can’t remember the names of his daughters. Some days he doesn’t even remember that he has children at all – and he’s just 38 years old.
In November, the regime announced that Ortega won the election. But don’t be mistaken – there’s nothing democratic about his regime. He’s banned all independent political parties. He’s arrested journalists and shut down media organizations. Today, Nicaragua is the only country in Latin America without a print newspaper. This is a totalitarian one-party state, where dissent is not allowed and critics are silenced. With the help of authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Venezuela, Ortega and his family control Nicaragua’s economy, and they’ve amassed an enormous fortune. Meanwhile, our citizens live in poverty and more than 200,000 people have fled the country, desperately seeking jobs, housing, and food elsewhere.
In February, Félix was sentenced to 13 years in prison in a sham trial held not in a court, but in prison. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see him or speak to him. But I know what my husband would say – that in spite of everything, he believes in democracy, and he believes that the answer to Ortega’s violence is non-violence. Félix has always said, “for non-violence to be successful, we need international solidarity. We need attention from the world.” I ask that you don’t forget the millions of Nicaraguans suffering under this regime. I ask that you don’t forget all the families torn apart by Ortega. All the children growing up without parents.
My daughter is just a few years old and now, she’s growing up without a father. Before he was arrested, Félix called Alejandra every night to talk with her & play with her. He sent me all these short little pre-recorded videos on WhatsApp – play this video for Alejandra if she’s sad. Play this video when it’s her birthday, when it’s Christmas. He made videos for me too, saying “I miss you, I love you, I’m not there today but I’ll be there with you soon.” Every time we cry, we take out the videos & we listen to his voice.
I know our family will be reunited one day. And I know Ortega’s regime will fall. The future of Nicaragua is democracy. And for that, I will never stop fighting.
14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, April 5, 2022