Perspectives February 6, 2024
Exile and Resistance: An Interview with Félix Maradiaga
Reflecting on the global struggle for freedom and political imprisonment as a tool of repression.
On the one-year anniversary of the momentous release of 222 Nicaraguans from political imprisonment, we reflect on the enduring impact of their struggle for democracy and human rights.
Among those freed was Félix Maradiaga, whose harrowing experience in detention underscores the persistent challenges facing democracy advocates. This conversation with Félix, a member of the Freedom House Board of Trustees since November 2023, not only sheds light on the ongoing fight for democracy in Nicaragua but also reminds us of the resilience and unwavering commitment of individuals dedicated to promoting human rights across the globe.
Freedom House: How did you cope with the challenges of political imprisonment, and how did the experience influence your perspective on human rights and democracy?
Félix Maradiaga: "Nothing in 20 years of working with former political prisoners prepared me for the inhumane conditions of Nicaraguan prison. The day I was arrested, they badly beat me, and once at the prison, we were in complete isolation. Even our trials took place inside the prison, which was a historical first in Nicaragua, because the regime didn’t want us to be able to give statements or talk to journalists. We didn’t even get drinking water—my sister had to make a 15-mile round trip to the isolated prison every day just to bring me my daily supply of drinking water. What's even worse, she had to endure significant humiliations during this process, often waiting for three hours or more to hand over that liter and a half of water.
"Inside my cell at the maximum-security prison, I had no access to reading or writing materials. I didn't even have a Bible, despite repeatedly requesting one. The guards strictly followed their orders not to engage with us, and we were prohibited from communicating with other inmates. The interrogations were grueling and took place every day. We never had any certainty about when we could get in touch with our relatives, sometimes waiting as long as three months for a brief interaction with them.
"So how did I cope? Like I said, nothing can prepare you for a situation like this. You have to look deep into yourself, into your soul, your thoughts. For me, it was a combination of three things: faith and spirituality, commitment to staying sane for the sake of my family, and the conviction that my suffering was for the right reasons. Pain without purpose is extremely difficult to bear, but when you provide your pain with purpose and meaning, it’s less traumatic. It is as Viktor Frankl said: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
Since your liberation and relocation to the United States last year, what challenges have you—and the other former political prisoners living in exile—faced in continuing the fight for democracy and human rights in Nicaragua?
"The regime confiscated all our assets and deported us from Nicaragua, which is usually a mechanism only used against foreigners, so this made us stateless. That’s the material challenge—you have to reinvent yourself, learn to survive in a new country, find a way to put bread on the table for your family, and completely reorganize your life.
"The second challenge is how to continue political opposition in exile. Not only were senior leadership from our movement deported, but also thousands of volunteers and grassroots leaders—who [the regime] then decries as traitors to Nicaragua, saying we don’t care about the people of Nicaragua, trying to sever the ties between our movements, civil society, and the people we’re fighting for. How do you reorganize from that and reconnect with people inside Nicaragua? That’s my priority, and my biggest challenge."
There are more than 1,500 political prisoners in Latin America today. How can democratic governments and international organizations best support them?
"Thank you for that very important question. The political prisoner’s greatest fear is that they will be forgotten, so one of the most important things democratic governments and international organizations can do is highlight these cases to make sure that does not happen, especially for the cases of activists who aren’t as well known, who aren’t human rights “rock stars” with many supporters ready to advocate for them.
"Second, policy makers have so many tools of international law at their disposal, and they should use them more—I’m thinking specifically of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but there are others.
"Third, provide material support to the families of political prisoners. My wife Berta was my greatest advocate while I was in prison, but it takes a lot of resources to travel to a meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington or to the European Parliament in Brussels—advocacy is expensive and needs dedicated resources.
"Finally, and most importantly: democratic governments and multilateral organizations must hold regimes accountable and ensure there are consequences for using political imprisonment as a tool of repression. Authoritarian regimes have found this new political weapon, and it is spreading almost like an epidemic. They figured out that when you put a political activist in prison, you affect not only that person, but also their family, their community, and their movement, which all have to stop speaking out on other priorities to focus on getting this activist out of prison. Political imprisonment causes immense suffering, distracts from the issues, and creates a great burden for social movements."
How crucial is civil society in supporting democracy and countering authoritarianism in Latin America? Can you share examples of successful civil society initiatives that have made a significant impact?
"First and foremost, we must take care of the vulnerable grassroots activists doing this vital work and make sure they always have a lifeline to the international community. Without that connection, activists are both less effective and extremely vulnerable. Dictators know this well, which is why they work so hard to sever ties between local civil society and the wider world—things like foreign agent laws and other mechanisms that make it impossible for human rights defenders to receive funding, training, or other support from international organizations.
"The second thing is to create a global community of democracy activists who share lessons and strategies and resources. Dictators work together—copying each other, financing each other, standing up for each other at international forums—so civil society and human rights activists must support each other as well.
"In terms of success stories, I’d start right here with Freedom in the World. This report has always looked at protecting democracy as a global challenge and shows how rising authoritarianism is a result of global dynamics. It’s a critical tool for civil society organizations. I’d also point to coalitions like the World Movement for Democracy and the World Liberty Congress, which are building global networks of freedom fighters, and the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy, which is trying to give young people in the region a way to collaborate, share lessons learned, and so on."
How can human rights advocates and supporters in democracies show solidarity with activists and dissidents in authoritarian regimes?
"The most important part is to care and to pay attention. The work that dissidents and activists do tends to be very lonely. As someone who’s been doing this for 30 years, I can tell you that when you’re on the ground, risking your life to protest for basic freedoms, the sense of being alone is really scary. When a politician in a democracy tweets their support, a total stranger from halfway across the world sends an encouraging message, or an international journalist covers your work, you know your fight is not invisible—but for politicians and journalists to pay attention to the global struggle for freedom, they need to believe that their constituents care about these issues.
"While the average citizen of a country like Nicaragua probably has no way to contact major media outlets or send a letter to their representative without fear of retaliation, someone living in a democracy can. Simply having the freedom to express support for human rights defenders in places like Myanmar, Rwanda, or Nicaragua means the average citizen can make an impact in the world just by caring and paying attention. Citizens of democracies are so much more powerful than they believe, and that is a significant responsibility."