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Nicaraguan political prisoner is flown to the U.S. after spending 611 days in prison

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega in recent days has stripped more than 300 of his political opponents of their citizenship. Felix Maradiaga is one of them. For years, he worked on reintegration efforts of Nicaraguan guerrillas and has served as the country's defense minister. Now he's one of more than 200 individuals who've been exiled to the U.S. Maradiaga has been out of the government since Ortega came back into power in 2007. But his civil-society work continued until a few years ago, when the opposition was gaining momentum.

FELIX MARADIAGA: A massive civic protest in 2018 - I was part of that protest. Eventually, in 2021, the movement - the blue-and-white National Unity Movement - decided that I should represent that movement in a broad coalition. So I tried to run for president. And Ortega put us all - all the candidates in the primary election - in prison.

MARTÍNEZ: Imprisoned together, cut off from the world, Maradiaga and other religious, civil-society and political leaders had no idea what was ahead.

MARADIAGA: At the beginning, we were about 10 to 11 people in prison, and most of us high-profile politicians. But then every journalist who tried to speak on radio, on TV, every pro human rights activist were also put into prison. Toward the end of our trial, there were about 30 to 40 people in prison just because of speaking on our behalf. And relatives of some of the prisoners who tried to advocate for their freedom were placed into arrest. An arrest warrant was placed against my wife and also against Victoria Cardenas, the wife of Juan Sebastian Chamorro, so they had to flee the country.

MARTÍNEZ: How did you hold it together?

MARADIAGA: Well, we had different emotional phases of all this very long journey. In the first three months, I personally lost 60 pounds. I was in the dark 24/7. I had no reading or writing materials, not even a Bible. We were not even allowed to make a single phone call during that time. However, towards the month number 19 - I was there for 20 months - they start to feed us very well. They allowed the families to see us more frequently, and prison conditions change substantially. And we knew that something was going to happen.

But we never imagined that one day guards will suddenly come to our cell in the middle of the night, ask us to dress, put us in a bus that - with the windows completely shut down and covered so we could not see outside. We were in handcuffs. We looked embarrassed. Suddenly, we arrived at the airport, and the guard says, you have to sign this one-liner that said, I - in this case, Felix Maradiaga - voluntarily leave the country to the United States. And we walked to the tarmac of the airport, and there is this scene of American diplomats from the State Department, and they said, you are free now. I cannot describe how emotional it is. And I've seen that in movies. And, you know, we never imagined, as a Nicaraguan, that a foreign government would come and take us to a free land.

So we have boarded the plane. We remain quiet for a few minutes. And then we just sang the national anthem, start to pray, and we heard this voice of this American diplomat saying, we're flying to Washington, D.C. And it's very hard to describe this reflection with something that, for me, is very powerful. I, myself, was a political refugee when I was a child. I crossed the border with Mexico, fleeing from the civil wars of Nicaragua. I was 12 at the time and 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 life in the country that I love. Twenty 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 a child. And now I'm no longer - according to the Nicaraguan regime - not allowed to run for office but stripped from my Nicaraguan nationality.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, who told you that the president had stripped your citizenship from you? I know you signed a paper, but who told you that that was going to happen to you and to the 221 other people exiled with you?

MARADIAGA: Daniel Ortega himself - as we were flying, he gave a press conference during a cabinet meeting. And in something that can only be described as Orwellian, the Nicaraguan Congress, which is fully controlled by Daniel Ortega, reformed the Nicaraguan Constitution to strip our - from our nationality 232 people in the plane and 94 other members of the Nicaraguan political opposition, including the expropriation of all our assets. The government has taken all our property.

MARTÍNEZ: You've made several visits to Washington, D.C., in the past in various capacities - as a government official, a researcher. What was this visit like for you when you were released and made it to Washington, D.C.?

MARADIAGA: Two points. First, the Ortega of today has nothing to do with the Ortega of the 1980s. And some people in Washington - not only in Washington - in other capitals of the world - had some idealistic ideas of the Sandinistas of the 1980s. So it was hard to explain that this was a new type of dictator - more sophisticated, someone that tried to pretend to be democratic, that pretended to hold elections but was controlling all aspects of Nicaraguan government, taking full control of the media, taking full control of the justice system.

But going directly to your question, in this last trip, 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 is 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 we have the most extreme dictatorship in the Americas at this point.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Felix Maradiaga. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega sent him to prison for treason for 611 days because he wanted to run for president.

Felix, thank you very much for your story.

MARADIAGA: Thank you for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAR GAZER AND SLOH ROU'S "BIRDS OF THE WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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