Interviewed by Dylan Rogers
After elections denounced by President Biden as a “pantomime”, I sat down with Berta Valle, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Félix Maradiaga (GS’19) and increasingly the voice of Nicaragua’s pro-democracy movement.
Valle didn’t ask to be an activist. After a successful career as a television anchor and producer, she made her first foray into politics in 2016, when she attempted to run against dictator Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas for a National Assembly seat, only to see her party stripped of legal status. She was catapulted into international prominence after the June arrest of her husband, and has since become a fierce advocate for his release and for the democratic freedoms of all Nicaraguans.
Valle is amiable and warm as we talk about her husband and Nicaragua’s place in a broader battle between democracy and autocracy, her voice breaking only once, though there is always certain steeliness under her clear rimmed glasses. Daniel Ortega ought be worried.
Your husband and leading opposition figure Félix Maradiaga was forcibly disappeared in June after announcing his intention to run against Daniel Ortega in November’s presidential election. What happened, and how did you first hear of his arrest?
I should start by saying that in 2018, when the anti-Ortega protests started, the persecution of our family escalated significantly.
Félix has been advocating for democracy, freedom, and human rights in Nicaragua for over 15 years. He was a university professor, and founded the Civil Society Leadership Institute. The institute aimed to promote a culture of nonviolence and enhance democratic values.
When the 2018 protests started, all of Félix’s students started calling him, telling him how the police were killing them. Félix decided to go out into the street with them, to support them, instinctively taking on a leadership role. Since then he has suffered increasing oppression, being placed under constant surveillance, later under house arrest, being publicly beaten and ultimately being arrested in June this year.
The last time I saw him in person was in February 2020. Since then he hasn’t been able to visit the US, where I came into exile in 2018 along with our daughter Alejandra and his mother.
That year, in September 2018, the opposition started organising for the 2021 elections. From that point the persecution only increased. Félix had several police patrols following him 24/7, stopping him meeting with grassroots activists outside Managua and making it difficult for him to mobilise others. Then it got worse, and he wasn’t even able to meet activists inside Managua. It reached its nadir between December 2020 and February 2021, when he was placed under de facto house arrest.
“He said goodbye to our daughter, telling her that he was going to this place where there wasn’t cell reception, but that she should know that he would always be thinking of her.”
After that, he decided to seek the presidential nomination of his organisation, Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco. At that moment, the prospective candidates from other civil society organisations all signed a document where they decided to support his candidacy, considering him the one with the best chance of unseating Ortega.
Then in May of this year the detentions started, as a way for the regime to stop the opposition running. The first target was Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, on the 2nd of June. Then followed Arturo Cruz, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, and all the other prospective presidential candidates.
Then on June 6th Félix was called in for an interview at the prosecutor’s office.
The night before the interview we had a call. Félix explained that there was a significant chance he would be arrested afterwards. At that moment it was hard, though now I really appreciate our call, because in some way it prepared me to receive the news the next day.
He said goodbye to our daughter, telling her that he was going to this place where there wasn’t cell reception, but that she should know that he would always be thinking of her.
On June 8th, he presented himself at the prosecutor’s office. He was interrogated for about four hours. When he came out the media was there, everything was recorded live. I saw him get into the car, and I said “It’s over, it’s so great he got out, he’s going home.”
But a few metres from the building his car was intercepted by a police patrol. He was violently taken out of the car, badly beaten, and then forcibly disappeared.
He was forcibly disappeared for 84 days. When I say disappeared, I mean we received no official communication telling us where he was or anything about his physical or mental condition. We assumed he had been imprisoned, but we didn’t know anything about his wellbeing. In Nicaragua when someone is detained, we assume they are in a prison called El Chipote. We started advocating for proof of life.
“His commitment is like steel. Its unbreakable.”
This happened to more than thirty other opposition leaders, including seven prospective presidential candidates. Five are now in El Chipote, and two are under house arrest. Leaders of almost every civil society organisation were arrested, businesspeople, students, even farmers were arrested before the so-called election of November 7th.
After 84 days we finally got a proof of life. Félix’s sister, his only close family in Nicaragua, was allowed to visit him for twenty minutes. We found out about his detention, and we learned that he was constantly interrogated without his lawyer, that his hearings were held in the middle of the night without any proper defence, and that he was malnourished and cut off from the outside world.
But at least we knew where he was and the conditions of his imprisonment.
What kind of conditions are Félix and the over 160 other political prisoners in Nicaragua held under?
We have been able to learn little by little about their conditions through the three visits they have allowed us during his almost six months in detention.
To enter the prison for these visits families are subjected to full body searches that include the removal of clothing and underwear. They are asked to pose for photos and videos recording their initial greeting, and even asked to remove their masks to do so. Relatives substituting for family members who have passed away or are unwell are not allowed to visit, even when formal requests are made by the imprisoned and their family beforehand. In addition, we are not allowed to show the prisoners letters, drawings, or photographs of other family members or their children during the visit.
For the first seventy days Félix was held in solitary confinement. Then he was moved to another cell together with another political prisoner. I must here emphasize that the women have been treated differently: Tamara Dávila, Ana Margarita Vijil, Suyén Barahona and Dora María Tellez are being subjected to permanent isolation. They are held in solitary confinement. The case of Tamara Dávila is a cause for alarm because her cell is completely sealed, and she has been held in these conditions since her abduction.
The prisoners are also deteriorating physically due to weight loss and lack of sunlight. Felix has lost more than 45 pounds and he is allowed to see sunlight for only fifteen minutes every ten days. My sister-in-law told me that though he looks skinny, his faith is still strong. His commitment is like steel. Its unbreakable.
No outside medical specialists have been admitted, even for prisoners with pre-existing conditions that could become life-threatening. We have not been allowed to bring in bedding, blankets, or warm clothes, so they continue to suffer from the bitter cold at night. There are inadequate lighting conditions, with the lights on 24/7 in some cells while others like Félix live in darkness.
They have no access to reading materials, newspapers, or anything that might link them to the outside world or allow them to occupy their minds. In this regard, the only thing that Félix has asked for is a Bible and a guarantee of his right to religious freedom.
The cells of all political prisoners are permanently guarded by police who threaten to prevent them from communicating with each other. Félix and his cellmate are forced to stay silent even when they are together and communicate through sign language.
Are they unable to talk because of the constant surveillance?
Exactly. The way the prison is designed it seems the police are always able to see what the prisoners are doing. They are under constant surveillance. They cannot speak freely even to their cellmates.
In the last visit on November 15 Félix told his sister that they had heard about the election, but he wasn’t aware of Ortega´s hate speech just after the election. Ortega said in this speech that those imprisoned were not “sons of Nicaragua” but “sons of bitches” or “hijos de perra”. He said that they were sons of imperialists in the US who should no longer be considered Nicaraguan.
We also learned then that apparently every time something happens to the Sandinistas, when sanctions are announced for example, there are punishments for the political prisoners, things like water being restricted.
You mention that repression increased in the runup to the elections of November 7th. Daniel Ortega claimed a resounding victory in the elections that followed Félix’s imprisonment, with the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council saying he won 76% of votes on a 65% turnout. Do those figures sound at all accurate to you?
Not at all. First, because when you have an election, the population is supposed to select the candidate they want to rule the country. That’s the basic definition of a free and fair election. What kind of an election can you have when the candidates the people want to elect are imprisoned?
“It was not an election. It was illegal and illegitimate.”
How do we know that they are the candidates the people want to elect? In the last poll, after the opposition was imprisoned, Daniel Ortega was far from the favourite candidate among voters. The polls clearly showed that the candidates people wanted to elect were not present on the ballot.
So this was not an election. It was a farce.
Second, the political parties that were meant to be part of the process, that could carry the opposition into the competition, were taken away by Ortega.
All the political parties that were on the ballot were ultimately the same as the Sandinistas. Their so-called candidates, as the independent media discovered, were Sandinistas. One was pictured wearing the colours of the FSLN while also apparently running against Ortega.
So for me it was not an election. It was illegal and illegitimate. It did not meet the required standards under Nicaragua’s constitution or international law for a genuine democratic election.
Finally in terms of turnout: most Nicaraguans did not vote in the election. They didn’t participate because they knew it was a farce. Independent organizations report abstention rates higher than 85%. Furthermore, there are over 120,000 Nicaraguans in exile.
Is it therefore unhelpful when international observers refer to this month’s events as elections? I noticed you described them earlier as “so-called elections”.
Yes, though election observers were not even allowed into the country. The ones the regime invited were described as “electoral companions”.
The Organisation of American States [OAS] and the UN Human Rights Council told Daniel Ortega to comply with some proposed electoral reforms. Among these proposals was the complete restructuring of the Supreme Electoral Council, the reform of the electoral roll and the provision of international observers for elections. Also, the detailed and immediate disclosure of results.
“How can Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who killed more than 350 people in 2018, be on the ballot in an election?”
The Ortega regime did not meet any of these conditions. They made some changes to the judges of the Supreme Electoral Council, but only their names changed, not their ideological affiliation. It was a smokescreen.
They did not allow observers from serious organisations like the OAS. Instead, they brought members of the socialist parties of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, Mexico, and other countries. It was clear they wanted to propagate their narrative of free and fair elections.
But how can Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who killed more than 350 people in 2018, be on the ballot in an election? This is what the mothers of those killed were saying. So it was not an election. It was an affront.
You have effectively outlined the extent of government repression in advance of November’s election, with the imprisonment of opposition candidates and a failure to allow independent observers into the country. Was the level of repression preceding this election an unexpected departure from past state efforts to suppress dissent? Or was the writing on the wall after Ortega’s response to the 2018 protests? Is there another moment you would pinpoint as when you saw Nicaragua’s slide into autocracy become inevitable?
For me it was clear from before. I say this as the wife of Félix Maradiaga, who has been speaking out for more than 10 years.
The first article that Félix wrote after Ortega returned to power in 2007 warned that we were “entering a dictatorship”. I have long seen my husband talking about how Ortega intended to destroy state institutions and put his people in power. And what Ortega did immediately after entering power was modify the constitution to allow him indefinite re-election.
The Supreme Court decision of 2009?
Yes. After this decision in 2009, Félix and I expected increasingly authoritarian rule.
Let me give you an example. I come from the media. I was a television anchor for many years, and then the general manager of a TV station. When I was a general manager, I used to have reporters come to me with stories, saying they had uncovered corruption in a mayor’s office or something similar. I used to congratulate them, knowing that I would soon receive a call saying their report shouldn’t be aired.
I started to get so frustrated. What I was seeing wasn’t right. So I decided to accept the nomination of Colicin Nacional por la Democracia to run for the National Assembly as an independent candidate for Managua. I left my work and decided to run. Not because I was a politician, but because I knew I could win some votes and maybe make changes. Two weeks later the government took away our political party, so none of us could run and Ortega’s wife became Vice President of Nicaragua. That was 2016. I was so frustrated because even then the international community recognised the election and the government.
“The attention Nicaragua is now receiving is a relief. People are finally listening to us.”
A lot of people tried to avoid antagonising the regime because the country was doing well, in the sense that the economy was stable, even growing, people were doing better business, there were no strikes because the regime took away the right to strike and criminalized protests. Then 2018 came.
To give you another example: Victoria Cardenas, the wife of Juan Sebastián Chamorro, and myself were recently accused of “treason against the homeland” just because we are advocating for the release of Ortega’s political prisoners, meaning that if we return home we will be sent straight to prison. That’s a personal example of how Ortega’s repression has increased over time.
You reference the disappointing reaction of the international community to 2016’s presidential race. After November’s election the US, UK, and EU all issued strongly worded statements condemning Ortega’s assault on human rights and announced new sanctions on Sandinista officials. What more can democratic nations do to stop autocrats like Ortega acting with impunity?
I must start by saying that I appreciate the attention Nicaragua is receiving from the international community.
I understand Nicaragua is a very small country, the second poorest in the hemisphere, and has a population of only 6 million. So I can understand why, geopolitically speaking, Nicaragua has not been a focus of attention in past years.
For me, the attention Nicaragua is now receiving is a relief. People are finally listening to us.
It’s not that we want others to solve our problems, but we are fighting against a dictator who is willing to do anything to stay in power, including pitting an armed government against a civil society calling for nonviolence. In this violent context, we need help, we need attention from the world.
So the support of other nations isn’t a luxury. It’s integral to the success of the pro-democracy movement.
Exactly. For us this is about human rights, about humanity. But we also understand that the regime does not speak the language of diplomacy and human rights. It speaks the language of war and tyranny.
Something that must happen now is greater coordination between governments, states, and institutions that are willing to help the Nicaraguan people restore democracy.
This is so essential because Daniel Ortega’s narrative is that the United States is the one trying to intervene in Nicaraguan affairs. But this argument is not true, because what we see is the international community as a whole condemning what Ortega is doing and trying to hold him accountable.
“It’s almost like there is a recipe for dictatorship that is being followed around the world.”
We urge the UN Human Rights Council and Security Council to convene emergency sessions to respond to the crisis. And we encourage the General Assembly of the OAS to hold the regime accountable by taking action under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as is required when there is an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order in any state in the region.
Another thing that I am currently learning is that these authoritarian regimes act as one. There was recently an awesome article –
Anne Applebaum’s in The Atlantic?
Yes! So, we must work in the same way as our authoritarian opponents. I was recently at the Oslo Freedom Forum, and I had the chance to speak to dissidents from other countries. When we talked, their situation was basically the same as mine. It’s almost like there is a recipe for dictatorship that is being followed around the world.
The meaning of democracy differs between cultures. But there is a value that is the same everywhere, and that is freedom. So, we have the international community, with all their resources to put pressure on dictatorships, but we also need to mobilise people to speak out for freedom.
You started out saying that Nicaragua is a small country, before placing it in the context of a broader battle between democracy and autocracy. Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report for 2021 was entitled “Democracy Under Siege”. Do you see events in Nicaragua as part of this narrative of democratic backsliding worldwide?
I have to say yes. In Nicaragua we don’t have democracy anymore. We are living under a brutal dictatorship where one party controls all the institutions and the whole country hangs on the wishes of a couple and their family.
Democracies are also endangered regionally. There is huge polarization, even here in the US. What I see is that in polarized electorates, voters are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan or ideological interests.
“The meaning of democracy differs between cultures. But there is a value that is the same everywhere, and that is freedom.”
I remember many years ago, maybe because Nicaragua was a post-civil war society, growing up we received lessons in school on democracy, citizenship, and the values that underpin them. I don’t see that anymore. Not in Nicaragua, because Ortega and Murillo changed the school syllabus and now use the school textbooks for propaganda purposes.
To build a sustainable democracy in Nicaragua we will need a transition period in which we reaffirm the values of democracy in our polarised society. Such an education could take place all over the world, even in the US. My daughter is in third grade, for example, and I would like to see that she is getting the feeling that she is part of the building of a better nation, where freedom and democracy are values to be protected and made strong.
In 2019 your husband told the Geneva Summit that Ortega’s repression was only helping to plant the “seeds of hope” in the hearts of the Nicaraguan people. Do you have hope for your husband’s release and for the future of your country?
I’m going to get emotional now. I think yes.
We have been talking about Ortega’s repression for years. I mentioned the abolition of political parties in 2016. I expected thousands of people to come out and protest then. But people didn’t mobilise. They preferred to stay home. Only those directly involved came out.
“Thinking of the bright, democratic future we know is possible brings me hope.”
What we saw in 2018 was totally different. Thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans came out into the streets, and we saw the largest march in the country’s history.
That is why I think Félix mentioned hope. It’s like Nicaragua experienced an awakening. People are increasingly aware that what Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are doing is not right, fair, human, or good. They understand that things have to change, and that we should be seeking to build a country where everyone can reach their full potential.
It is very painful having my husband in prison, not seeing him for almost two years because he couldn’t visit us, but I understand it is part of our calling as a family and as Nicaraguans, and that it is not going to last forever. Change will come. I just hope it comes soon, and we can rebuild Nicaragua into the country we dream it to be.
We must break the cycle of democracies and dictatorships. It is only by doing so that we can mature as a democratic society and advance freedom and justice. In this moment of darkness, we find enormous solidarity with each other. Thinking of the bright, democratic future we know is possible brings me hope.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Thank you for your time and platform.