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What it's like to be a freed Nicaraguan political prisoner

Former Nicaragua presidential candidate Felix Maradiaga reunits with his wife Berta Valle and his daughter Alejandra, walk together after Maradiaga arrived from Nicaragua at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Feb. 9.
Jose Luis Magana
/
AP
Former Nicaragua presidential candidate Felix Maradiaga reunits with his wife Berta Valle and his daughter Alejandra, walk together after Maradiaga arrived from Nicaragua at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Feb. 9.

Updated February 23, 2023 at 3:42 PM ET

Félix Maradiaga, 46, has played many roles in life: unaccompanied minor refugee, director of Nicaragua's Office for the Reintegration of Ex-combatants (which he calls "kind of like the Department of Veteran's Affairs"), Secretary General of Nicaragua's Ministry of Defense, investor, researcher, husband, father, and political leader.

After he declared his intention to run for Nicaragua's presidency, he became something else in 2021 — a political prisoner.

Then, he and 221 other prisoners were suddenly released earlier this month. They were surprised to find themselves aboard a chartered flight from Managua, Nicaragua to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. When they landed, they found out Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had stripped them of their Nicaraguan citizenship, leaving them stateless.

Maradiaga spent his first week of freedom in high-level meetings with U.S. officials in Washington. He says: "I've been traveling to Washington for over 20 years, and I have never seen the awareness or the attention that we're receiving now." He has joined his wife and daughter in Miami, Florida.

Maradiaga spoke with NPR's A Martinez about his imprisonment, his freedom, and his decision to remain stateless rather than accept citizenship in a country other than Nicaragua.

The excerpts include some quotes from the interview that were not aired in the broadcast version.


Interview excerpts

On Ortega's crackdown on his political opponents

At the beginning we were about about 10 to 11 people in prison and most of us high profile politicians. But then, at the end of our trial, every journalist who tried to speak on the radio, on television, and every human rights activist was also imprisoned. Just because we spoke on our behalf, there were about 30 to 40 people in prison. Relatives of some of the prisoners trying to advocate for their freedom were pressured or arrested.

On Maradiaga's 20 months in prison in Nicaragua

There were 611 days. For the first year and a half, it was very tough. In the first three months, I personally lost 60 pounds. The food was very bad. I was in the dark 24/7 and without reading or writing materials, not even a Bible. We were not even allowed to make a single phone call during that time. And for the first 18 months in prison, I was not even allowed to talk to them to receive a letter from my daughter. However, on towards the nineteenth month, things had started to change a little bit in the inside. The prison conditions changed substantially. And we knew that something was going to happen.

On leaving Nicaragua

A guard came to our cell in the middle of the night, asked us to dress, put us in a van with the windows completely covered so we could not see outside. We were in handcuffs, looking down, and suddenly we were running to the airport. The guard says you have to sign this one liner. That's it. "I, — in this case, Felix Maradiaga — voluntarily leave the country to the United States." And we walk to the tarmac of the airport. And there is this team of American diplomats from the State Department and the American embassy in Managua. And they said, you are free now. I cannot describe how emotional it is.

So we boarded the plane. We remained quiet for a few minutes. And then we just sang the national anthem, started to pray, and we heard this voice of this American diplomat saying, "we know that you have suffered a lot. You are now free. We're flying to Washington, D.C. and you will see your daughter and your family."

On losing his Nicaraguan citizenship and becoming a refugee a second time

I myself was a political refugee when I was a child. I crossed the border between Mexico and the United States, fleeing from the civil wars of Nicaragua. I was 12 at the time. So I crossed the border as an accompanying minor. I spent time at a refugee camp in Texas. A couple of years later, when democracy was reestablished in Nicaragua, I went back to Nicaragua with the dream of establishing a family, establishing a life in the country that I love. Nine years later, I'm back in the U.S. once again as a refugee, for trying to run for president, and trying to establish a country in which our children would not have to go through what I went through when I was when I was a child. And now I'm no longer according to the Nicaraguan regime. Not only not allowed to run for office, but a stripped for my Nicaraguan nationality. It is very surreal.

On deciding to remain stateless

My choice is out of principle. I am Nicaraguan and I will never accept another nationality because I have the right to remain a Nicaraguan.

On what he's learned about the U.S. approach to the Nicaraguan government after meeting with Biden administration officials

it is clear that Ortega is no longer seen as a local problem. Ortega is perceived as in fact, he is as part of a global ecosystem of dictatorships, working very closely with Russia, working with China, and with other dictatorial regimes such as Cuba and Venezuela. So Ortega is a problem for the Western Hemisphere, not only for Central America. And I think that that response that we solved through our evacuation is part of the fact that Ortega is no longer outside of the radar. He is in the eyes of the world for the wrong reasons. You know, I would like to have my government in the spotlight for other reasons and not for the fact that that we have the most extreme dictatorship in the Americas at this point.

The audio version of this interview was produced and edited for air by Barry Gordemer. Kaity Kline contributed reporting and Majd Al-Waheidi edited it for digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simone Popperl
Simone Popperl is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. She joined the network in March 2019, and since then has pitched and edited stories on everything from the legacy of burn pits in Iraq, to never-ending "infrastructure week," to California towns grappling with climate change, to American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin's ascendance to the top of her sport. She led Noel King's reporting on the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Steve Inskeep's reporting from swing states in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential Election, and Leila Fadel's field reporting from Kentucky on the end of Roe v. Wade.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.