Nicaraguan opposition leader and former political prisoner, targeted by the government on false criminal charges, Félix Maradiaga, is presented with the 2023 Courage Award at the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. He is joined on stage by his wife and recognised Nicaraguan activist, journalist, and human rights defender, Berta Valle, and journalist Melissa Mahtani – see below for the interview.
Melissa Mahtani: Wow, this is… Congratulations, Felix! I mean, this is a very emotional interview for me to do too. Because this time last year I was in this room. Berta was up on stage and she gave an impassioned speech advocating for your release. And you were in a prison cell. And I remember her speech vividly. And to think that now you’re sitting here with Berta, and we’re all here together, it’s incredible. I mean, how does this moment feel for you?
Félix Maradiaga: Surreal, but deep in my heart I always knew that it was a matter of time. I told myself, Mr. Ortega is close to his 80s, I have much more time than he does, but also more faith. And that’s the important part. So I must confess that I did have signals that something positive was happening; the conditions in the prison were terrible the first year and then towards the end of 2022, the other prisoners and myself started to have certain small prison conditions changed. For example, finally, after almost two years, got for the first time on a phone call with my daughter, whom I had not seen for three years.
Melissa Mahtani: So, you know, let’s go back. You spent 611 days in jail. So you were arrested in 2021. And at the time, you knew that you may be arrested, you were preparing for it. But were you prepared? Does anything actually prepare you for the moment?
Félix Maradiaga: No one can prepare you for that. In 2018, I was charged with treason and with so many other charges, there was an amnesty in 2019. I went back to Nicaragua despite those charges. I was placed in house arrest for a few months. So when I received the notice of the attorney’s office that I needed to show myself, I had that call with Berta – we recall that perfectly – I told her that I was going to be arrested, but there was a big chance that I was going to be disappeared. So I had to film a video – probably the hardest thing I’ve done – to try to explain to my six-year-old daughter, that if I got killed that it was because of my principles and ask her to forgive me for that decision. But it was the right thing to do.
Melissa Mahtani: So you you said in your speech just now that you’re not prepared to speak about the conditions in which you were placed. So just tell me, how did you stay strong in those conditions while you were in prison?
Félix Maradiaga: When you give suffering a purpose and meaning, suffering is not necessarily something that is less bearable, but at least has a meaning. So choosing this path is not easy; it is a path that I chose many years ago, even before I met Berta. I tried to avoid speaking about my personal experience, but I was an unaccompanied minor, I spent time at a refugee camp as a child, lived with foster parents as a result of civil war. When I went back to Nicaragua, I worked with child soldiers and with people who had lost their limbs because of the war. So having experienced that, my big question is why Nicaragua continues to function as if we’re in a stagnated bicycle, you know, those in the gyms that you run and put as much energy as you can, and you don’t move forward? Well, it’s because we have a failed political system based on tyranny, based on violation of human rights. And since I chose to live in a country I love, which is Nicaragua, the only way to pursue happiness is you have basic freedoms. So someone has to do this job.
Melissa Mahtani: Well, you’ve just won the Courage Award, and rightly so. But I want to say there’s a lot of courage at this stage.
Félix Maradiaga: Absolutely.
Melissa Mahtani: Because while you were in prison, your wife Berita was not only advocating, stepping into those shoes, and advocating for your release, but stepping into the mother and father role for your daughter, Alejandra. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Berta Valle: Well, first of all, I just want to say thank you to the Geneva Summit for being family now. It’s incredible when you receive love in moments where you think nothing is possible. So I appreciate being here today. And in my case, and we share this, the hardest part was to see my daughter every night asking for her dad. And the first three months, I managed to tell her that her dad was doing something else but then the truth came through a video she saw and it was just really hard, and as a mother not dedicating the time and not being emotionally always available for her, causes me a lot of guilt. Because I just thought that it was not fair for her to live what she was living. But on the other hand, I saw my daughter grow in many ways and become my strength and my supporter. So I also want to acknowledge that Alejandra fought for her daddy, as hard as I did. So, now that I see back, I’m just so grateful to see that we just grow with all that happened.
Melissa Mahtani: You know, Félix mentioned that one of the hardest things he had to do was to record a video for her, before he went into prison. What was it like for you, in just a real human angle, as a wife? I can imagine if my husband had done that, and I couldn’t see him, yet I’m watching a video of him. What was that like watching it? Probably cling on to it as well.
Berta Valle: Well, let me tell you this story and I have shared. Before getting married, we had this conversation with Félix, and he said, “Look, love, there’s something I have to tell you and it’s the fact that I’m going to be unfaithful to you with someone forever.” And he said, “That is Nicaragua.” So at that time, of course, I said, I love Nicaragua too so I don’t see any problem with that. But during our relationship – we have been married for 17 years – so I see the work that Félix has done for many years, and his political thinking, and I thought that I was clear about that. But just when we lived while we lived as a family is that I think I was transformed and I really understand now the unwavering love that he has for Nicaragua, and the purpose of that love, which is fighting for what is right, for what is good, to give opportunities to others. And so when I had this conversation before, he was arbitrarily detained, and he told me, “Look, it’s possible that it’s going to happen.”
And he gave me all these instructions; he gave me, for example, the name of our international human rights lawyer, Jared Genser, who became my angel of all of this, he gave me the contacts of the Geneva Summit and other organizations, I felt a little bit angry at the beginning. I felt like, “Oh, my God, he could have left Nicaragua and come with us, but he didn’t. He abandoned us. But then, when I go to places, speak to people, and they say, “Oh, your husband was here many years ago talking about this.” And then I talked with the victims and they say, “Oh, your husband helped us when my kid was killed.” And I just discover, in firsthand, the reason why my husband decided to go back to Nicaragua to fight for democracy and freedom. So that little bit of anger and disappointment that I had, was transformed to admiration and love and compassion for his work and hisself. So as a woman, and as a mother, and as a wife, now, I can say that, happily, this has just united us more and it’s wonderful to share as a family these values that can really transform our family, our country, and the world.
Melissa Mahtani: And that’s such a sweet story. Félix, where did this love for Nicaragua and also this foresight to leave these videos, almost with instructions for Berta, where did that come from?
Félix Maradiaga: I devoted my entire life as an academic to study our history, my country. I got tired of publishing books and articles and teaching. I decided to go and be with the many other heroes that should be also here. But I realized that the fact that I speak another language and the fact that I got to travel the world – originally, as a director of this office of disarmament, I worked at the UN for a while – some of the people that I’ve seen here, that we have the choice to be global citizens. We need to use these blessings, if I could put it in spiritual terms, in the service of others that do not know how to read and write for example, but who are abused, displaced.
Félix Maradiaga: We have here a human rights defender from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, I want to recognize Anexa, who is here and has been working and traveling, also the work to explain the journey of his people in the Caribbean. The same thing happened with me, I said, how do I put these skills to the service? And it’s misunderstood, because countries that have been abused by politicians for years, when they see you traveling and talking at the UN, they think that you are just one more diplomat who is making a living out of this. I understand that. So I see my people with love. And at some point, I had this conversation with my wife, I was working as the top executive of a Fortune 500 company in Latin America. I also worked for an impact investment firm out of New York. And I said, “Berta, this is the right thing to do. I don’t want to be this guy in my 60s saying, ‘Why didn’t didn’t I take this challenge?'” So we made this decision about 15 years ago and I don’t regret it. And I don’t regret it, because I’ve had a great partner who has understood this very difficult life. But it’s the right thing to do, once again.
Melissa Mahtani: And as you said, it was very difficult. It’s easy for us and people to look now and paint the picture with roses. But how much contact did you two actually have while you were in prison?
Berta Valle: No contact.
Melissa Mahtani: No contact?
Berta Valle: Yeah.
Melissa Mahtani: So did you know that he was going to be released?
Berta Valle: No, either. Like this news just came out the day that they were released.
Melissa Mahtani: So tell me about that day. Tell me about what you knew. And then tell me about what you knew. Just on that day.
Félix Maradiaga: Well, just before that, just to illustrate the case, this interesting thing: I’ve met in just 90 days with political prisoners from around the world, and we share our notes – compared notes with other prisoners – and in the case of Nicaragua, we never had reading materials, not even a Bible. As a person of faith, I asked for my Bible, Berta advocated for the Bible, not a Bible, no reading materials, no phone calls, no access to the outside world. So it was actually impossible to know. But we had some changes in the internal conditions of the prison as I mentioned. Then on the same day, February the 8th, a guard came to our cell and said, “Dress!” He gave me some clothing and then we boarded a bus, handcuffed, with no information about the outside, the windows were covered. And then I arrived to the airport together with the other prisoners from 11 different detention centers.
Melissa Mahtani: So you knew something was happening, you just didn’t know what.
Félix Maradiaga: And then, there was an American diplomat who I happened to recognize from my previous job, and she was trying to pretend very, she was very composed. I knew that I was coming to the US. So they said, “I need to hear you out loud: Are you willing to come to the United States? And I have given my word to Berta, that if that scenario happened, I was going to unite with her. So I got on my knees. I kissed the floor because I knew it was going to be a long time until my next return to Nicaragua, which will happen – I give you my word it will happen – and I boarded the plane.
Melissa Mahtani: And you were with 221 other people.
Melissa Mahtani: Wow, I want to talk about Ortega in a minute. But first, I want to know about that day. How was it? What happened?
Félix Maradiaga: Yes. And as we were flying, once we landed we learned that in those three hours of flight, the Ortega dictatorship had reformed the Constitution to strip us of our nationality, to take away our property and to make it completely illegal for us to go back. So Berta as well is stateless at this point, just as myself.
Berta Valle: Meanwhile, well I woke up early in the morning and during the night before family members knew that something was happening because we have this chat where we share information. But it was very confusing. And we said that this had happened before, maybe it’s just gossiping. So around midnight, I just decided to go to bed and I said, “Well, Lord, I give you my husband, take care of him. I’m so tired, I have to go to bed.”
Berta Valle: Then in the morning, I woke up very early, and I receive a phone call from someone from the State Department that we used to work with during this advocacy and he said, “Look Berta, I’m calling you to tell you that your husband is flying right now in an airplane together with 221 political prisoners, and they’re going to Washington DC.” And he said it was hard but we did it. And I just started screaming, imagine at 6 in the morning, just waking up everyone in the house. And Alejandra, she was so nervous and happy. And then after 10 minutes that I started breathing normal I asked if I should go to Washington and they said, “Yes, you should come and meet your husband.” So that was the way I learned about the release of Félix and all the political prisoners.
Melissa Mahtani: And what was going through your mind? Do you even remember now how you got to Washington?
Berta Valle: It’s really interesting, because I may say that everyone that has suffered this type of situation – with a lot of stress for a long period of time – has post-traumatic stress, and one of the symptoms is that you just don’t have memories. So I don’t really… I’m not sure how did I get from Miami where we are based to Washington, I don’t know. But, I just can remember how incredibly relieved I was and how grateful. For me it was a miracle. I was expecting Félix to get out, maybe in three, four years. And it happened. And Alejandra said something and I want you to take this phrase. We were walking through the airport, and she said, “Mom, do you realize something?” And I said, “Huh?” The most expected things happen in the most unexpected time. And I was like, “You know Alejandra, you’re so right.” So that gave me a lot of faith, to see that sometimes we don’t have hope, sometimes we are just so confused. But what we are expecting, it comes.
Melissa Mahtani: What an incredible little girl. You’ve explained this, it sounds like a movie, I can imagine you getting to Washington, you’re waiting there, the plane’s arrived. Were you nervous?
Berta Valle: I was nervous and happy. And basically, I was inspired by Alejandra. All the time, just to see her so well-behaved and excited, but well behaved. And I have this video that I recorded when she sees Félix – Félix got to the airport to pick us up – and she runs to her dad and hugged him and started crying. And I said that is the reason why everything was worth it. And now my hope and my commitment is to allow other family members to be reunited with their loved ones.
Melissa Mahtani: That is wonderful. It is such a wonderful moment. And it’s such a great note to have this conversation at the end, having heard the stories of so many people. So I just want to ask you, though, have you learned now in hindsight, what was happening in the back channels and what was happening with Ortega and the US, and what actually led to your release?
Félix Maradiaga: That’s a very important question, because one thing we know, from personal experience, is that dictators do not want to be in the spotlight. They do not want to be mentioned in Geneva, they don’t want to be mentioned in meetings in New York, they don’t want to be mentioned in press releases from the European Parliament. So when dictators see that a political prisoner becomes too much of a problem, then they may consider the release of a prisoner. It’s not a magic bullet, but I saw from every single interrogation – because I was interrogated even after my sentence, they continued to interrogate me for long hours, every single day for months and months – and every single interview was about the names of organizations. So I knew that something was happening outside, they were so concerned about the meetings of the UN, meetings of the Geneva Summit, the Oslo Freedom Forum, they had huge reports of all the traveling or the advocacy that Berta and Vicky were doing.
So I think that the lesson learned that I’d like to share is that we need to make these extraordinary individuals, who are putting themselves on the line and are now in prison, we need to make them famous in the best of ways. We need to increase the political cost of dictators of arbitrary detention. And also we need to review the international structure in terms of international treaties. One of the things that I’m working very hard together with friends such as Jared Genser, who was an extraordinary strategic mind – I need to recognize that – is that making as much noise as possible, in our case, is what really worked.
Melissa Mahtani: But I need to ask you, because do you think this is a sign that Ortega is weakening? That he had this prisoner release, or, as you said, whilst you were in the air, he changed the Constitution, he now has no effective opposition in the country. Was it kind of clever on his part? Because now he is more in control in the country.
Félix Maradiaga: Well, now he’s in trouble because he has a paranoia now. He’s detaining new people, which are members of his party, former supporters. And as sad as it sounds, when you study history, that is actually the face or the decline of dictatorships. When dictatorships are against their own supporters, when they face the possible scenario of an implosion is when they are the weakest. So the fact that they have to use not the classical populism of trying to spend a lot of money from the public budget and use their propaganda, now he’s using repression against his own people, his own supporters. So that’s a direct result of international pressure and it’s a direct result of the resilience of Nicaragua’s continual resistance. I must say that the very sad part right now is that the new face of repression is a religious persecution; they are persecuting the Catholic Church, because it’s the only institution that at this point is able to speak truth to power and that’s why we are launching this international campaign, now for the world to know that Monseñor Rolando Álvarez is in prison. He’s the only Bishop in Latin America to be in prison, simply for speaking about his faith, about non-violence, from the pulpit of his church.
Melissa Mahtani: I need to address something because it’s wonderful that you’ve been released, and we are thrilled, and it’s wonderful that you’ve been reunited. But for a lot of people who are campaigning for political prisoners to be released, you campaign, you campaign, and then they’re released, and you think fantastic, the movie ends happily ever after. But that’s not actually true. I mean, now that you’re out, you’ve both changed as people, you’ve both had profound experiences. What’s it been like readjusting to your life? And even, as we were talking before, being here, and obviously, you were thrilled to be with your family, but there’s a certain guilt of being out. Talk to me a little bit about the actual reality of life.
Berta Valle: That’s interesting. I’m going to say this from more like a routine life. And thank you for the question, because, of course, we share the obvious hard. But it’s been really interesting the last three months to have back Félix at home, especially because, we were living for three years together with my mother-in-law and Alejandra, we have our dynamic in the house, and then Félix comes and the dynamics change. And you start realizing that only when you start figuring out things. And it’s important to know that after all this work that we do as human rights defenders, there’s a private life that also has to be taken care. And we as human rights defenders and activists, we have to be aware of that. We have to take moments to rest, to think, to pray if you are religious, because it’s important to protect ourselves first and then try to do things for others. So we are in this process of seeing what are the next steps. I personally would love to have time to spend with Alejandra as a mother. I support Félix and his work, and I know that he will keep fighting to free Nicaragua.
Félix Maradiaga: Yes, thank you. Going back to your question, I think that dictators know that when they put people in prison, the human reaction is to come out with anger, bitter. So in my case, I’ve been working very hard, as I said, to do an audit of the heart, to try that my commitment to non-violence, that my compassion, my commitment to civic resistance, remain untouched. So it’s very important not to hate because if you want to build democracy and freedom out of hate, you will just replicate the same cycle.
Let us remember that Ortega was a political prisoner himself. I am the son of a political prisoner. My father was imprisoned during the Somoza dictatorship and he was a beautiful man, but he was emotionally very, very bad after his imprisonment during the dictatorship. So I think it’s very important that as a political prisoner, if we made the decision – which is very private – to continue to advocate and to be a freedom fighter, the decision may well be just to have a private life, which is okay, but If we are going to become advocates, we cannot try to trigger change through hate and anger. That’s never a good idea. We need to use our own soul and make sure that we will build something new out of compassion. Compassion doesn’t mean that we will not persecute crimes against humanity. But through the law, through the international system – not revenge – justice.
Melissa Mahtani: And so what is next for you, Félix?
Félix Maradiaga: Well, every single day in freedom for me is a joy. To see my daughter, her smile every morning is a miracle. When I see Berta, food, I’ve gained 30 pounds since November last year, the smells, the air… Everything that we see, sometimes we take it for granted. But there are people around the world, they just see a ray of light, sunshine as a gift. But on the other hand, every single day that I’m free, someone else is in prison. Every single day that I’m free, my country is suffering repression. So that’s why I have a sense of urgency. So that’s what’s next; to free Nicaragua.
Melissa Mahtani: And so have you guys actually had any time together? I mean, since you’ve been out, you’ve been on the global stage, everyone’s wanted to have an interview with you. Have you even had a chance to go on a date yet?
Berta Valle: Well, we had a weekend with Alejandra at the beach, but not really.
Félix Maradiaga: You are getting me in trouble here.
Berta Valle: At the end, yes, it would be great to have a vacation, right? We promised Alejandra to go with her to Disney because she wanted to go to Disney. But you know, at the end of the day, just having Félix at night, and sharing a moment in a meal, it’s enough, I think, in the sense that we know that we love each other and we care for each other, and we’re going to be together. That’s another promise that Félix did, at least for right now. But yes, I mean, we have been spending moments of joy.
Melissa Mahtani: No, of course, and I was joking slightly. But you know, it’s so wonderful, because this is such great news. It’s so wonderful to have you here, Félix, it’s so wonderful to speak to both of you together. And you’ve really become a symbol of hope to so many people, all of these stories that we’ve heard today, and so many people who have loved ones in prison who were in this room who are watching at home, as an example of what can change and how what you’re advocating for can really become reality. What advice would you give to those people who are currently suffering with hoping and advocating for their loved ones to come out? What piece of advice or hope can you give to them?
Félix Maradiaga: In my case, the most important part is to keep your faith up. Hope. We can lose many, many battles. It’s completely human and normal to have a bad day. But it’s important never to lose the vision, never to lose the commitment of why we’re here, and what’s our objective. So in the case of the families, they need to have a picture in their mind of that day of the release, and just keep on fighting, keep on speaking and keep on sharing their campaigns, and also to take a break when necessary.
Melissa Mahtani: And you Berta?
Berta Valle: Yes, well, I agree with everything that Félix mentioned. I like this phrase that says that I’m here because I stand in the shoulders of giants. And it’s very important to look for help, look for organizations, people that have had experience in the situation that everyone is facing – that helped me a lot.
And also faith. I truly believe in God and I feel that my strength came from those moments of praying and sometimes just feels like sorrow, but that gave me the strength to keep going. And as Félix mentioned, again, take care of ourselves, as persons so we can finish the run and the battle.
Melissa Mahtani: Well, you are both just incredible people. I want to thank you, Félix, for the courage that you’ve shown all of us. Berta, the courage that you’ve shown us, the courage you’ve shown us together, and the hope that you represent for so many people. So let’s give them a round of applause.