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Nicaraguans in exile: voices Ortega can’t silence

Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica denounce the state-sanctioned violence in their home country and the backsliding of most people’s rights there

Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica denounce the state-sanctioned violence in their home country and the backsliding of most people’s rights there

Katherine Estrada Téllez

29 de diciembre 2021


Citizens have a right to protest, but in Nicaragua exercising that political option will result in persecution, leaving you with two options: repression or exile. In the last three years, Costa Rica has received over 100,000 Nicaraguans, each arriving with few belongings and a life uprooted in haste.

From that new terrain, the exiled denounce the state-sanctioned violence in their home country and the backsliding in rights for the majority. They also denounce the regime’s alliances with religious conservatives and the degradation of the basic agreements that sustain a democracy. This is the background for Las Resistencias Fundamentales [Fundamental Resistances], a special report coordinated by Latfem Feminist Journalism on the many forms of resistance to ultra-conservativism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Repression or exile

Xaviera took refuge in a safe house, following the “clean-up” operation that the government of Daniel Ortega ordered in Carazo on July 8, 2018. That “operation” involved the violent dismantling of the barricades protesters had put up and mas arrests. In that moment, Xaviera decided she needed to leave in order to safeguard her life. “I didn’t have time to process anything, I couldn’t say goodbye to my daughter or cry,” she recounts. “By the time I was fully aware of what was happening, I was already moving through the brush, looking for a way to cross into Costa Rica.” Her life didn’t fit in the backpack she’d put on to begin her journey, ten days after the repression began.

That year was the most significant in Nicaragua’s new millennium. Fourteen years of slowing percolating discontent finally burst the dam. On April 18, 2018, a political and social crisis broke out when thousands took to the streets to protest social security reforms that had been agreed upon by the government of Daniel Ortega and the International Monetary Fund. That April awakening then led to months of sustained protests and demands that the president resign.

The crisis intensified when the government ordered a crackdown by the police and paramilitary. The death of 328 persons has been well documented, mostly protesters shot down by snipers between April and September 2018. There was also an undefined number of missing persons, plus others who went missing temporarily when they were detained without notice. There were also thousands of wounded, over 150 political prisoners, and tens of thousands displaced.

Those euphoric beginnings, the political exercise of making oneself heard through protest, was converted into constant worry. From that time on, what is today called the “Ortega-Murillo regime” stripped social and political figures of their nationality, annulled the legal status of political parties and civil society organizations, jailed journalists and shuttered independent media outlets.

Costa Rica became the destined second country for Nicaraguans, and the exile population there has increased exponentially in the last three years. Costa Rica’s Immigration Agency indicates that between 2018 and October 2021, the country received 103,350 asylum applications from Nicaraguans. Forty-one percent of these are women.

Like Xaviera, Iris and Nuriz crossed over into Costa Rica via Nicaragua’s southern Rio San Juan region at the end of 2018. They were impelled by the police persecution to choose between two options: repression or exile. They entered Costa Rica through unmarked border crossings, over paths worn by others on foot, with little money and the fear of being intercepted by the soldiers in the zone. They each carried only a backpack with the items they needed to survive for three months. At that moment, they had no notion how long their exile would last.

Xaviera Molina, political exile in Costa Rica. Photo: Ximena Castilblanco Morazan

Xaviera entered the pathways leading to the porous border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica accompanied by other young people from her Carazo department, also fleeing repression. In contrast, Iris crossed over alone. As soon as they arrived on the Costa Rican side, they presented themselves at the Peñas Blancas border station to ask the Costa Rican Immigration officials for asylum. Nuriz left at midnight, with her daughter in her arms, and took a boat down the San Juan River, arriving on Costa Rican soil in the El Chiles area at dawn, where her sister was waiting for her.

“I fled to save my life.” “You can’t protest there; you can’t march because they arrest you.” “I never imagined leaving the country in order to protect my land, defend my rights.” The three exiled Nicas might all have said these things, but the first assertion came from Xaviera, the second from Iris, and the last sentence were Nuriz’ words.

For these women, the immigration process has meant beginning all over again from nothing. Some of them stayed with family members when they arrived, others with friends or in shelters where they were offered temporary lodging. Their choices were dictated by their fears of spending the little money they had in a country that’s a lot more expensive than Nicaragua, and where they had no sources of income.

Nicaraguan’s ability to resist from exile saved their lives and confronted them with new scenarios. They had to deal with many immigration obstacles in order to legalize their situation in the country. Costa Ricans’ xenophobia puts immigrant women at a disadvantage. It’s common to hear of humiliations or abuses suffered in their workplaces. Some were deceived by the working conditions promised them and were at risk of human trafficking. Others  found no other work options except offering sexual services. An endless quantity of limitations hinder their integration into the country.

During these three years outside of Nicaragua, women have constructed networks and built collective strength. Many have also identified as feminists. During this same time, exiled women watched the feminists and their organizations inside Nicaragua being put under siege, and subjected to arbitrary actions, aggression and stigmatization. In that context, resisting became a daily practice, a commitment, a mission, in the time that could be found between studying, working and taking care of oneself. Xaviera, Iris and Nuriz didn’t know – couldn’t know – in April 2018, that their exercise of resistance would transform them into active, empowered and resilient women.

Nuriz Sequeira, rural Nicaraguan leader in exile. Photo: Ximena Castilblanco Morazan

Nuriz, 37, works in the rural camp of Upala, in the north of Costa Rica. She created this project one year after arriving in Costa Rica, after a long period unable to find work in the capital, and suffering from the xenophobia common among Costa Ricans in San Jose. That situation motivated her to join together with three other rural immigrants and rent land they could cultivate to make a living, as she had done in Nicaragua.

Now the rural camp is a self-sustainable area that shelters over fifty family units. They’re trained there to improve the processes of cultivation and agricultural production. They also have areas for reflection and emotional healing. Nuriz and Francisca Ramirez, another rural leader, have forged alliances with organizations that support and accompany migrants, such as Cenderos, RET International, and others, to have access to trainings and workshops on gender violence, sexual and reproductive health, economic autonomy and mental health.

Within the camp, they created a group of rural women called “the women of Upala” to promote the products they grow and produce. The space is vital for the economic stability of each one of the women. Parallel to this, for eight months they’ve been working with Cenderos on a shelter for female victims of violence and for refugees. Nuriz never stops. She wants the women to recover their trust and hope, their autonomy and the desire to project themselves, as she herself has done.

Xaviera, 27, faces a very different reality. She has dedicated part of her life in exile to recovering her daughter. This brought her into close contact with the bureaucracy and the violence of the Nicaraguan government. When she was forced into exile, she left her daughter in the grandparents’ care. Up until then she had raised her child. But after nine months away, she faced a legal battle, with no due process guarantees, in which she lost custody of her eldest daughter. In March 2020, she managed to reunite with her daughter in Costa Rica, and the girl now lives with her mother as a refugee. Despite having international protection, she currently faces a new suit for the International Return of Minors.

She was able to deal with this legal process thanks to the networks of friends, who became sisters in exile. They stand with her and embrace her with their knowledge and tools. That network helped her seek support among other women’s collectives, who in turn connected her with legal specialists. Every point in the network sustains the rest; a web that draws its strength from vulnerability and interdependence. It’s here that she met Iris.

Iris Barrera, feminist activist in exile. Photo: Ximena Castilblanco Morazan

Iris is 28, and in Nicaragua was part of a feminist group called “Las Venancias”. Upon arriving in Costa Rica, she discovered the collective called Las Rojas and continued her activism with them. Her trajectory has been similar to that of many exiled feminists, both longstanding activists and those who recently joined the movement. The Costa Rican collectives were preparing to receive and integrate the refugees, and also to accompany the personal and political processes that exile signifies.

Together with Xaviera, Iris and other Nicaraguan women formed a women’s network they call la Red de Mujeres Pinoleras [“Pinoleras” is the regional nickname for Nicaraguans]. Their organization provides a space for resistance and resilience. What began as a space to meet and listen to each other, to converse about politics and common concerns, branched into a “feminist exchange network” to improve the members’ economic stability. They exchange clothes, accessories and utensils, while also interchanging ideas and knowledge.

This led to yet another creation, the “Pinolera Fair”. This brings together more than 40 cottage industries of the exiled Nicaraguan women. Every month, the event attracts entrepreneurs from all parts of the Costa Rican territory. Nuriz is one of those who attend, traveling with the “Women of Upala” all the way from the north of Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border to San Jose to offer their products and reconnect with other exiled Nicaraguan women.

Being organized has been key to these three women. The “Pinoleras” women’s network, like the “Women of Upala” have become points of reference for the immigrant and exiled population, and for Costa Rican and international organizations.  Little by little, they’ve gained their space of participation.

Demonstration for the liberation of the female political prisoners in Nicaragua, held near the Nicaraguan Embassy in Costa Rica. Photo: Ximena Castilblanco Morazan

At the end of 2020, different women’s collectives in Costa Rica converged to form the “Feminist Coordinating body against Femicide and Impunity”. Iris now forms part of this group. These spaces have helped women recover the sense of security they lost in Nicaragua. They now go out on the streets of Costa Rica with confidence in the justice system, and they’ve lost their fear of making denunciations.

On November 25, for the third consecutive year, these Nicaraguan women joined the march commemorating the International Day against Violence against Women with a demand of their own: the liberation and an end to the solitary confinement of the political prisoners in Nicaragua. They also demanded full clarification of the 65 femicides that had taken place in 2021 up until then in Nicaragua and denounced the impunity and terror the Ortega-Murillo regime has imposed.

What in 2018 was repression from the state security forces in Nicaragua, became in the years following the consolidation of a police state with a political surveillance apparatus and the asphyxiation of citizens’ rights. Between 2020 and 2021, the Ortega government took measures that – in the words of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights – “hinder people from organizing, associating, participating politically, and freely expressing their opinions.”

It’s also a misogynist regime, that’s been an accomplice to machista violence and an ally of conservative pseudo-religious ideas, which promote the stigmatization of trans women and limit women’s control over their bodies, forcing them into mediation with their aggressors. Their objective is to “discipline” – shut up all dissidence and undermine the pillars of pluralism that are essential for democracy.

Demonstrations are forbidden, human rights organizations are raided and searched, journalists and opposition leaders are imprisoned, independent media outlets are closed. Those in jail are held or released according to the government’s whims, and are utilized as political pawns.

In the face of these many forms of violence in Nicaragua, the voices of these women resound forcefully from their Costa Rican exile They’re proof that solidarity is transnational, as is the fight against misogyny, xenophobia and transphobia, and that for every authoritarian regime there are alliances resisting. “Freedom for the political prisoners!” screams Iris, from the streets of San Jose.

This article was originally published in Latfem.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times


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Katherine Estrada Téllez

Katherine Estrada Téllez

Periodista nicaragüense exiliada en Costa Rica. Se ha especializado en la cobertura de temas de migración, género y salud sexual y reproductiva. También ha trabajado en Marketing y Ventas y ha sido Ejecutiva de Cuentas.