Exiled Nicaraguan Felix Maradiaga: Catholic Church Is the ‘Voice of the People’ for Human Rights Amid the ‘Diabolic’ Ortega Regime
One of the 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners recently exiled to the U.S. speaks out about the regime’s persecution and how, in prison, ‘I had Jesus with me.’
WASHINGTON — After 611 days in Nicaragua’s notorious El Chipote prison, Felix Maradiaga found himself unexpectedly on a plane to Dulles International Airport along with 221 other political and religious prisoners who had been jailed for their opposition to the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front regime of President Daniel Ortega. The regime’s sudden release of the prisoners came with an announcement that the prisoners’ Nicaraguan citizenship was being revoked.
Maradiaga, a Nicaraguan academic and Catholic who ran for president against Ortega in 2021, is determined to continue fighting for democracy in his country. On Feb. 9, he was joyfully reunited with his wife, Berta Valle, a prominent human-rights advocate and journalist, and his 9-year-old daughter, Alejandra, who had both been in the U.S. since 2018.
Maradiaga spoke with the Register in Washington Wednesday about how his faith helped him during his time in prison and how the Catholic Church has been a “voice for the people” of Nicaragua and for their basic human rights despite terrible religious persecution. He also voiced his support for Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, an outspoken advocate of democracy, who refused to leave Nicaragua with the other prisoners and was subsequently sentenced to 26 years in prison for supposed crimes against the country. Maradiaga condemned the targeting of the Catholic Church by the Ortega regime that has included vandalism, physical attacks and the arrest of clergy.
What was your experience of being imprisoned by the Ortega regime and then suddenly exiled from the country?
Nicaragua is going through a very harsh and terrible dictatorship. In 2018, an arrest warrant was placed against me. I was able to flee the country; and once the amnesty law was passed in early 2019, I was able to go back. However, the government did not keep their word.
Despite the amnesty, I was placed in house arrest and later put into prison for 611 days, some of that time in solitary confinement, without due process; even my lawyer was arrested. He was imprisoned for 500 days. Many of the legal team back in Nicaragua had to flee the country because the government issued charges even against the legal team. I mention this only as an example of how extreme institutional erosion in Nicaragua is.
We were liberated thanks to massive international pressure under the leadership of different U.S. institutions, for which I’m deeply grateful. We did not know what was going on; but one day, in that very isolated and dark cell, the guard in the middle of the night said that we had to dress really quickly, and we were placed in a bus — with our heads down, handcuffed — full of guards. We didn’t know where we were going to be taken. We thought we were going to be taken to another prison, but, suddenly, we arrived at the airport; and once we came down off the bus, we saw a team of diplomats from the U.S. embassy, and immediately we were placed inside a plane. We were asked to sign a one-liner that said that we voluntarily left the country; and once we arrived in Dulles airport, we found out that while we were flying, the Ortega regime reformed the constitution to strip us of our nationality. So 222 of us who were in prison are now stateless.
We’re deeply grateful for the American people. This speaks highly of the “shining city on the hill.” It speaks highly of the values of freedom and democracy upon which this country was built. We know that we are living in difficult times globally, but there’s hope when we see that there are countries in the world such as the U.S., that, despite its many problems, as any other country in the world has, it’s a very strong democracy; but not only a democracy for their own citizens — it’s a democracy with open hearts to the struggles of people of Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, because this is part of a global problem.
The suffering of the Nicaraguan people is not a unique problem. It’s a problem that many parts of the world are suffering, and that’s why we need the leadership of the United States to give us a voice and help us advocate for those of us who are in the grassroots.
I would also like to highlight that our families are left behind. Many of us have relatives [in Nicaragua]. We are afraid that they may be used as hostages to avoid us speaking out. And that’s something that we need to work out: how that issue can be addressed. However, one thing we know is we will never stop working very hard, because of our deep commitment to nonviolence and to democracy, to find a solution for all Nicaraguans.
One important fact to highlight is the fact that, despite all the regime did to us, I have no hatred in my heart. As a believer, I forgive what they’ve done to us, and I hope that we can build a democratic and just Nicaragua, even for the Sandinistas, so the Sandinistas and their children can live together in a country of tolerance. We can have deep disagreements, and that doesn’t mean that our children, our grandchildren have to suffer. So that’s my life commitment, and I look forward to this new stage of my life.
How did your Catholic faith help you during your time in prison?
We were in such a dark and isolated place where even food was limited. We were not allowed to have a Bible. We were not allowed to have any reading material. We didn’t have any light. We were completely forbidden to speak. We couldn’t even pray out loud; there were guards 24 hours and cameras in front of us. So you have to dig deep into your soul; and, in my case, I remembered that when I was in high school, upon my graduation, my spiritual mentor, who was the emeritus bishop of Matagalpa, Msgr. Barni [Spotti], he in his talk on my graduation day, said, “You will face times in your life when you will not find God because you will not see him visually, but if you stop for a second and you look deep in your heart, you will find him.”
And that’s what I did: I looked into my inner self. And I knew that my wife, Berta, my hero, someone who advocated all the time for us, I knew that she was taking care of our daughter, Alejandra, that she was fighting as hard as she could with the power of her voice as a journalist. And I knew that I had many, many friends around the world. But most importantly, I knew that I had Jesus with me.
What are your thoughts on the Ortega regime’s treatment of the Catholic Church?
There’s a persecution of the Catholic Church. When the Ortega regime eroded institutions and destroyed political parties and every sign of the opposition, the Catholic Church became the voice of the people. Of course, not for political reasons, but the voice of human dignity. The only way in which I can describe the Ortega regime is it’s a diabolic regime. That’s why they are so afraid of the pastoral voices of the Catholic Church, but also of many Christians from other denominations that are also under persecution, but not as much as the persecution of the Catholic churches.
What are your thoughts on Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison after choosing to remain in Nicaragua?
He’s a good friend. He’s actually the bishop of my diocese; and precisely because I know him well, I know how strong he is, and I know without any doubt that they will never be able to break him.
He is a leader not only for us Nicaraguan Catholics, but he’s a leader of the Nicaraguan country, and he’s in prison because of his values, and he will be out. That’s the only thing I can say: We will not stop until we see Bishop Álvarez free.
What was the reunion like with your wife and daughter in the U.S.?
It was magic. I can only describe it as a miracle.