Nicaragua’s authoritarian government freed 222 political prisoners Thursday, including top opposition politicians and business leaders, and sent them to the United States in a surprise operation that eased one of Latin America’s grimmest human rights sagas.
Javier Álvarez, 68, heard Thursday morning from Nicaraguan activists that his wife, Jeannine Horvilleur, daughter Ana Carolina and son-in-law Felix Roig were among the freed prisoners. “Happy, happy, happy,” was his reaction, in a telephone interview. “This was totally unexpected. But it seems there were secret talks, and they managed this.”
Ariana Gutierrez Pinto, 28, went to Dulles Airport on Thursday morning to await her mother’s arrival. She was met with embraces from fellow Nicaraguans eager to receive the prisoners. She broke into tears. Her mother, human rights activist Evelyn Pinto, was arrested in 2021 and charged with conspiracy to undermine the government.
“It feels surreal,” said Gutierrez Pinto, who lives in Maryland. “Honestly, it feels like a dream come true because I didn’t know when this would happen.”
The prisoners had endured harsh conditions — particularly those who were held at El Chipote, a notorious prison that housed high-profile politicians and activists. They were denied visits with their spouses and children for months. Many were not permitted to have books or writing materials; family members said one detainee was reduced to reading and rereading the label on a tube of toothpaste. The prisoners had little access to sun or fresh air. Some lost considerable weight.
One prisoner, Hugo Torres, 73, a onetime Ortega ally who later split with the Sandinista leader, died in captivity a year ago. That raised fears that other prisoners could perish from untreated medical conditions or inadequate rations.
Several of the prisoners had planned to run against Ortega in 2021 elections but were detained before the balloting. Ortega, essentially unopposed, cruised to a fourth consecutive term.
Nicaragua’s Judicial Council confirmed Thursday that the 222 prisoners were deported, saying they had been declared “traitors” and would be permanently deprived of their political rights, including the freedom to run for public office. The National Assembly later passed a constitutional reform that allows the government to strip “traitors” of their citizenship, according to local media reports.
The freed prisoners included some of Nicaragua’s best-known opposition politicians. Among them was journalist Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro and a presidential aspirant herself in 2021. She had been under house arrest.
Other onetime presidential hopefuls released Thursday included her cousin, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, and the Harvard-educated academic Félix Maradiaga. Chamorro told The Washington Post that when the plane took off, the former prisoners burst into their country’s national anthem.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” he said. The prisoners were at last free. But “we were leaving our home country,” unsure when they could go back.
Maradiaga said he had barely any communication with his family in 20 months. Standing outside the Virginia hotel where the former prisoners were taken Thursday afternoon, he wrapped his arms around his 9-year-old daughter, Alejandra. “She was 6 the last time I was able to see my sweetheart,” Maradiaga said kissing his daughter’s head.
The hotel lobby buzzed with people eagerly waiting to be reconnected with loved ones. Tissue boxes were laid out on a table labeled “Registry for Nicaraguan families.” Slowly, ex-prisoners were released into the lobby, where they were met with embraces and tears. Family and friends witnessing the moment on video chat screamed with joy.
Students who helped coordinate nationwide anti-government protests in 2018 were also on the flight to Washington. “Our friends have been freed,” the Nicaraguan University Alliance exulted in a tweet. The alliance said they included student leaders Lesther Alemán, Max Jerez, Mildred Rayo and Miguel Flores.
Michael Healy, 61, a U.S.-Nicaraguan dual citizen and the former head of Nicaragua’s top business council, was among those released. He was jailed in October 2021 on allegations of money laundering and terrorism. His family called the charges spurious. Also freed was Dora María Téllez, a top guerrilla during the socialist Sandinista revolution in 1979 who later became a fierce critic of Ortega.
Two prisoners who were offered the chance to board the U.S.-chartered plane declined to leave Nicaragua, officials said. One was Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, a Roman Catholic bishop in the central province of Matagalpa, according to Nicaraguan media reports. Friends of the bishop have said he preferred to remain a prisoner rather than go into exile. He has been charged with conspiracy and spreading false news, allegations that church leaders have called absurd.
A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration had offered for some time to take the prisoners. “As a general rule, we don’t like to do that,” he said — the United States prefers that the other government allow the detainees to remain free in their own country. “But the fact is, the humanitarian situation was so severe for this group” that authorities made an exception.
While the United States and Nicaragua maintain diplomatic relations, ties have long been adversarial. The Nicaraguans surprised the U.S. Embassy in Managua a few days ago by saying they were prepared to send the prisoners into exile, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
It was unclear why the increasingly dictatorial Ortega, 77, made the move. Washington has steadily imposed new sanctions on Nicaragua’s government, targeting its leaders and industry and restricting visas for top officials and hundreds of Ortega’s supporters. But the U.S. official said the release of the prisoners was not tied to any easing of sanctions. “There was zero quid pro quo,” he said.
Will Freeman, a Latin America fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Nicaragua was coming under growing pressure not only from the United States but from Latin American countries to release the prisoners. For the Nicaraguan government, Freeman said, “this is mostly about buying some breathing room internationally.”
Ortega said in a nationally televised speech on Thursday evening that his wife Rosario Murillo — who serves as vice president — had suggested sending the prisoners into exile. He denied asking Washington for anything in exchange. Ortega has accused the United States and other Western governments of financing opposition groups. “These people are returning to a country that has used them … to sow terror, death and destruction here in Nicaragua,” he said.
A senior Biden administration official said all of the prisoners who left Nicaragua consented to travel and that the U.S. government was making medical and legal assistance available. The official said each person was prescreened and vetted, including by the FBI.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the mass release “marks a constructive step toward addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue.” But U.S. officials said they would continue to push for the restoration of democracy.
A number of political prisoners remained in Nicaraguan prisons — 38, according to one Nicaraguan advocacy group. As recently as Thursday, the opposition daily La Prensa reported that two of its workers had been sentenced to 10-year prison terms on charges of undermining the government. It vehemently denied their guilt.
Ortega was a major figure in the Sandinista revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Ortega was president from 1985 until 1990, when he lost a reelection bid to Violeta Chamorro. Since returning to power in 2007, he has steadily tightened his grip over Nicaragua’s judiciary, legislature and electoral machinery.
Ortega crushed a nationwide anti-government uprising in 2018, the beginning of a new wave of repression. Nearly all of his political opponents were jailed, as were leaders of the business community, human rights activists and, unusually, Catholic priests. The government has shut down universities, independent media outlets and around 3,000 nongovernmental organizations. The repression has contributed to a spike in irregular migration; more than 164,000 Nicaraguans were detained on the U.S. border in fiscal year 2022, more than three times as many as in the year before.
Recently, the government started jailing family members of its perceived opponents. In September, police attempted to arrest Álvarez, a former Sandinista rebel who had been assisting the families of political prisoners. But he had already fled his home. So security forces detained his wife, daughter and son-in-law, even though they were not involved in political activity, Álvarez said. Last month, they were sentenced to long prison terms.
Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Yasmeen Abutaleb, John Hudson, Luis Velarde and Trish Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.