Wendy Mercedes Quintero, born in León, Nicaragua, in 1977, is a journalist and activist with the Nicaragua Nunca Más Human Rights Collective, founded from exile by lawyers and defenders who belonged to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), an organization that, since 1990, has promoted and protected human rights in Nicaragua.
Following the social outbreak that left 355 dead in 2018, the government increased repression against social actors and outlawed the activity, until February 2023, of 3,245 organizations, including CENIDH, and most activists had to go into exile, among them Wendy Quintero.
“We try to document the events that occurred in Nicaragua, so that it serves the historical memory and so that new generations know what happened here,” explains Quintero. “We demand transitional justice, even if decades go by; so that what happened will not happen again; the families will not tire of demanding justice,” adds this communicator with 27 years of experience, who is also vice president of the women’s network of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Wendy Quintero is from León, where the poet Rubén Darío was born and where Nicaragua’s first university was founded. Twenty minutes from the Pacific, it is a conservative, Catholic region, but also socialist and Sandinista. A land of contrasts, he says, in which “the modern and the traditional coexist.” “I was born into a simple and very Catholic family. I was marked by the Catholic school where I studied, in which they had a strong emphasis on social justice, on fighting for our rights,” she recalls, about a period marked by those leftist priests, those of liberation theology, who opposed dictators and earned the respect of the people.
On a personal level, she recounts a childhood marked by the conflict that, from 1980 to 1990, followed the fall of the Somoza dictatorship. It was a very difficult time. We lined up to receive food every 15 days, as happens in Cuba,” she exemplifies. Among her family members, she does not forget her uncle, whom they hid so he would not be taken to the Patriotic Military Service, which was mandatory, nor his grandmother, Doña Mercedes, who exchanged soap, oil and eggs for other indispensable foodstuffs.
“I’m from the eighties. We had just finished the confrontation to overthrow the Somoza dynasty and entered the Nicaraguan war, between the Sandinistas and the Contra [as the US-funded counterrevolutionary movement, which brought together Somocistas and anti-communist conservatives, is known]. Like all my generation, I grew up in this environment,” she explains.
In 2018, for denouncing the crimes of Daniel Ortega’s second term, Quintero had to go into exile in Costa Rica. She spent three years separated from her daughter, also forced to leave her life, friendships and university, and now, united, they face many of the traumas that accompany people fleeing repression. “This kind of suffering is not seen, but it is an anguish that marks you,” she acknowledges. Nevertheless, she still has the strength to fight: “There are close to 200,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica alone, many more in other countries such as Spain and the United States, and we will continue to demand justice for the people killed and the political prisoners in Nicaragua”.
With more than six million inhabitants, Nicaragua is a Central American country bordering Costa Rica in the south and Honduras in the north. It is the second poorest country in an extremely poor region, second only to Haiti. A country of volcanoes, coastline and exuberant nature, Nicaragua has not had a respite of peace in the last century: the long-lived dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty, the war of the 1980s and the devastating Hurricane Mitch of 1998 were followed in the 21st century by the global economic crisis and the repressive autocracy headed by Daniel Ortega. Like his brother Humberto, Daniel Ortega was a figurehead of the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the armed organization that brought down the Somozas in 1979. Ortega was chosen to lead the transitional junta. Ortega was chosen to lead the transitional board. This gave him public presence and, in 1984, in the first democratic elections, he was elected president, in a mandate marked by the civil war and the collapse of the USSR.
Erosioned by corruption, Daniel Ortega lost the following elections to Violeta Chamorro, widow of the director of the newspaper La Prensa Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated in 1978. It was with her that the conflict with the Contras ended. After a period of reconciliation, the following liberal governments were characterized by corruption. The figure of Arnoldo Alemán stood out during this period. In 2006, the society, fed up, trusted again in Daniel Ortega.
In his second stage, far from the original Sandinist movement, reconverted into a Catholic believer, Ortega consolidated his power, changed laws to remain in office and centralized decision making in his close nucleus, including his wife, Rosario Murillo.
After years of abuse of power and constant denunciations of electoral fraud, social discontent erupted in April 2018, over a reform in Social Security. In the three months of clashes, society challenged the Government, which had never before faced such protests. The government responded with virulence: hundreds of arrests and 355 deaths were recorded. A dialogue table was established which put an end to the violence; however, once the negotiations were concluded, Ortega began a new repressive phase: he outlawed critical media and social organizations and persecuted and imprisoned those who participated in the protests.
In the 2021 general elections, Ortega’s FSLN won 75% of the support, the best result in its history. “President Ortega was elected to a fourth consecutive term in November[de 2021], amid an escalating crackdown on critics and political opposition. Many governments in the region and in Europe stated that the elections did not meet the minimum guarantees to be considered free and fair,” Human Rights Watch noted in its 2021 report.
In this context, many Nicaraguans try to escape, and that is why they are the second community that registered the most asylum requests in 2021: more than 100,000, only surpassed by the Afghans. “At the end of last year, the Association of Journalists and Independent Communicators of Nicaragua counted more than 180 exiled journalists. In addition, the Government has closed the media and, out of fear, a good number of professionals have stopped practicing journalism. There is no place where society can denounce, because there are no human rights organizations either”, denounces Wendy Quintero, perplexed by Ortega’s latest move: stripping 316 people of their nationality.
When the Sandinistas came to power, did people have faith in Ortega?
The Sandinistas were the spearhead, and people like Dora María Téllez [former FSLN commander and, since 1995, an enemy of Ortega] organized to overthrow Somoza, but the revolution could not have happened without the support of the people, who were united. What happened in the 1980s? The Sandinistas began to make mistakes, abuses of power, they “cubanized” Nicaragua, and then, there was a war between Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, with families divided between and the Sandinista momement and the “Contras”. And this is happening again: there are families with Ortega and families that support the opposition.
Was there never a reconciliation?
No. In the 1990s, Mrs. Violeta [Chamorro] initiated a peace process and granted amnesties. In my opinion, it was a mistake, because the wounds were not really healed. I am going to tell you about the community of Camoapa, where I lived. There they were anti-Sandinistas. In the eighties, the Army devastated that area, but so did the Contras. Both sides committed massacres. The poor peasant, in the middle of this conflict, ended up being the victim. They killed those people and there was never a real healing process. This is what happened in other areas of the country as well. We need to address historical memory and initiate a process of justice, not revenge, that also encompasses what has happened since 2018.
Ortega eliminated the legal provision limiting presidential terms. The world found out in 2018, but since when is he an autocrat?
There were people who in 2006 voted thinking ‘we are tired of corruption, of liberals, this cannot be’. Since this person made great changes in his first stage, he was given a second chance. However, Ortega began to restrict certain freedoms. For example, freedom of the press. Then came new deceptions and now he dominates the Supreme Electoral Council, the Supreme Court of Justice, the National Assembly and the Executive. Everything is centralized in his figure. There is no independence, nor a true rule of law, and that is why they create laws against opponents. I have never been a member of a political party and, for defending human rights, I am considered an opponent. In Nicaragua, if the laws were respected, they would not be in power.
And you would not be in Costa Rica.
Exactly. People were tired. The peasants, who were losing their land, had been protesting for years against the Interoceanic Canal project. A month before the 2018 outbreak, Nicaraguans expressed their discontent over the management of a fire that broke out in the Indio Maíz biological reserve, one of the most important in the country. In April 2018 came the trigger, when the elderly began to protest against reforms in Social Security, and the Police intervened. Then, the university students joined in, and everything got out of control. The police tried to put an end to these demonstrations, and the young people began to cut the main lines of communication, highways and roads, and to take over their own universities. The police, by order of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, began to commit murders. And then the situation got even more out of control, cities were isolated for three months. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which did an analysis in 2018 and part of 2019, counted more than 355 people killed. Most of them did not have a weapon; I myself went to the marches and all we did was walk and sing.
A dialogue table was established which Ortega betrayed.
The Civic Alliance was an impulse to try to put an end to impunity and establish a dialogue; the situation could not be solved with weapons, we could not go back to the eighties, nor to the seventies, because the majority did not agree and simply asked for the laws to be respected. Many sectors were integrated in the Civic Alliance: human rights organizations, students, workers, peasants, religious, all were there. Ortega used dialogue, but soon after he started to put people in jail, including people from the Civic Alliance; he just wanted to have enough time to reorganize and control the cities. In 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and in this 2023, Ortega was passing laws to suit himself, such as the cybercrime law, the foreign agents law and the Sovereignty law, and he also reformed others, to the point of taking away the nationality first of 222 people, and then of 94 people. But everything is illegal: he disguises reality.
Among the stateless are the writer Gioconda Belli, the president of CENIDH, Vilma Núñez, the journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Bishop Silvio Báez and the former Sandinista guerrillas Luis Carrión and Dora María Téllez. The opposition of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refused to go into exile and is still imprisoned, stands out. Why does Ortega prefer them to go into exile?
Because of the international repercussion and the political weight these people represent, but Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who has decided to stay, is spoiling Ortega’s plans. He endured two weeks under siege by the Police in the dioceses of Matagalpa, he was condemned without respecting the judicial procedures, his nationality has been taken away and he is imprisoned in a country that does not recognize him. He is in limbo, and we have no news about him.
In his second stage, Ortega allied himself with the anti-Sandinista Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, and, among many conservative measures, prohibited therapeutic abortion. Is there a schism between the ecclesiastical hierarchy and bishops like Alvarez?
Obando himself officiated the marriage of Ortega and Murillo, who were married by civil law. Many people respected him, before he died, even if his position was regrettable: he backed Daniel Ortega. Now, in the 2018 protests, bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua helped many people, opened the doors of the churches to avoid massacres. However, money has bought consciences and some bishops who are with the regime cannot speak of compassion and justice. With the case of Monsignor Alvarez, the Catholic hierarchy has remained silent; there is a division, despite the persecution against religious freedom.
On the other hand, this union between the Catholic Church and Ortega shows how things can change. After Ortega came to power, he banned therapeutic abortion, which had been in effect for over a hundred years. It is a game of thrones that affects many, many women who died because they could not get adequate treatment. Women have been the first to be attacked in Nicaragua, and then peasants, students, artists, lawyers. Many people have been tortured, and we cannot forget the more than 355 people murdered. Their families deserve justice.
In the protests, Ortega was compared to Somoza.
He is beyond that: he takes away nationality, he persecutes the Church. In last November’s elections he stole all 153 mayoralties. Even in Camoapa, which is anti-Sandinista, he supposedly won for the first time. We are facing an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship that does not mind killing, imprisoning or banishing its citizens.