Fighting for Democracy in Exile: My Story as a Nicaraguan Activist

Nicaragua is suffering one of the worst human rights crises in recent times.

In my home country of Nicaragua, state prosecutors just began sham trials aimed at punishing the political opposition who planned to run in last November’s presidential elections, which were widely denounced as illegitimate. I hear of these events—as I do all news from home as a human rights defender living in exile in Costa Rica. I was forced to flee the country in 2018, after the government raided the offices where I had worked as a human rights defender for nearly 20 years.  In 2022, life for activists in Nicaragua has gotten worse.

Nicaragua is suffering one of the worst human rights crises in recent times. In 2018, demonstrators took to the streets in response to social security cuts that impacted the elderly and most vulnerable. Police, some in riot gear with snipers, fired on peaceful demonstrators and unprecedented levels of violence broke out for a country not currently at war. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), between April 2018 to July 2019, at least 355 people were killed during the repression of social protests. More than 1,600 people were arrested, more than 2,000 were injured, and more than 150,000 were forced into exile or suffered forced displacement. Freedom House ranked the country as Not Free, pointing out the gradual deterioration of basic human rights, democracy, and individual freedoms. 

Nicaragua is not alone. New research from Freedom House shows that across Latin America, human rights defenders like me are increasingly at risk: operating in dangerous, undemocratic environments, we face extreme conditions, including violence, jailtime, harassment, intimidation, and psychological distress, forcing many to flee to neighboring countries. Human rights defenders are increasingly seen as the major organizing force for change; however, they are under supported and unprotected.

Twenty years ago, I began my work as a human rights defender with an internship at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), and I remained there until December 2018. When protests started in 2018, I was more than seven months pregnant, unable to join the demonstrations. Instead, I turned to documenting human rights violations, preparing briefs, appeals, preventive measures, and advocating for the victims. The documentation of human rights violations was essential, allowing us to show the world what was happening in our country at the time and pressuring the international community to act. 

In December 2018, the government expelled the IACHR and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, raided media outlets, and arrested journalists and activists. Police raided the CENIDH offices and prevented us from entering, telling us: "CENIDH does not exist anymore." Days later, officials accused our organization of being involved in the cover up of a burning of a building. Government security forces began to follow me home on motorbikes, and I began noticing police monitoring my house. Meanwhile, the government institutions we had worked with previously stopped accepting our legal defense presentations on behalf of victims of human rights violations. Within CENIDH, we could hardly speak on the phone because we knew that telephone lines were not secure. Together with their families, each member of CENIDH began taking security measures in their daily life. These attacks severely hampered our ability to perform our human rights work. 

Little by little, defending human rights became riskier. I do not remember having agreed with my husband to leave the country. I had no time to ponder my fate, the impact on our family life, or even say goodbye to my loved ones. On December 2018, I quietly left Nicaragua with a backpack on my shoulders, making the journey first on motorcycle and then on foot. I left to ensure the safety of my family, especially my 7-month-old son and 7-year-old daughter. When I arrived in Costa Rica, I was received by one of my older sisters who lives there. We cried together; not knowing how long I would stay, I figured I would borrow some of her clothes for a few weeks. Those few weeks turned into months and the months into years. 

After arriving, I connected with seven team members who had also escaped Nicaragua and gone into exile. We were all overcome with pain. I was now separated from my children and husband and felt utterly lost.

We started meeting with other organizations in Costa Rica. Our former colleagues and sister organizations encouraged us to continue working from exile. We did it as a form of resistance: if we continue our work from abroad, the dictatorship has failed in destroying our work.

This is how our organization “Collective of Human Rights Defenders: Nicaragua, Never Again” was born. We are made up of defenders in exile from Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We document the grave injustices of the Ortega-Murillo regime, assist the victims of its abuse, and work to ensure that the world knows their stories.  

Human rights defenders both inside and outside of Nicaragua live with the threat of arrest, and transnational repression, limiting their rights and safety. For those of us in exile, we have a different struggle, carrying guilt for having escaped. My job puts my family at risk. We live with the sadness of not being able to return and the frustration that no matter how hard we fight, conditions in Nicaragua do not change fast enough. 

Exile has forced me to separate from my children and my husband. What we thought would be temporary has become permanent and although we are now reunited, we have all had to uproot our lives and begin again. 

We pursue the hope that one day we will have a more humane, just, and democratic Nicaragua, with rule of law and respect for human rights. Exile means pain, and my story is just one among the more than 150,000 people who have escaped Nicaragua. It is incumbent upon governments, NGOs, and the international community to support the work of human rights defenders around the world doing the painstaking and exhausting work of advocating for human rights.