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Crossing the threshold of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship

Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj is an author, journalist and college professor in Guatemala and the U.S. She is the first Maya K’iche’ woman to receive her PhD in social anthropology. She has taught at  the University of Texas Austin, and at Brown, Duke and Stanford Universities. Dra. Velásquez Nimatuj is the protagonist of the Skylight film 500 Years: Life in Resistance, and serves on the board of directors of Skylight.

(Originally published in El Periódico de Guatemala)

This is a brief account of my denial of entry to Nicaragua, and the illegal detention and expulsion that I experienced on July 24, 2022.

If there is a Central American country that teaches us an enduring capacity to resist bloody dynasties turned into fierce family dictatorships, that country is Nicaragua. However, the inspiring resistance it forged throughout the 20th century with blood, conscience and example has slowly given way to the tragic reality that the largest nation in Central America is living today. The Nicaragüita of Carlos Mejía Godoy today is locked in a spiral of terror and violence that strikes all its sons and daughters and forces them to leave their homes, to take refuge in nearby or distant places, carrying with them the pain of family separation and the bitter pill of exile, which is permanent. Today that reality also impacts its neighboring countries.

That beautiful nation that showed my generation, when we were still children – in black and white recordings – that utopias, with the strength of youth and the full understanding that each era brings with it, can indeed materialize, is the one that today, in an absurd reversal of the clock of history, is one that represses its own fruits, its own flowers, the one that wants to wipe out the seeds it created and wants to prevent them from germinating. That is why it goes after anyone who dares to fly or identify with any flag that demands fundamental rights, which are only the most basic rights.  No one dares, then, to ask for more, as a punishment that cannot even be imagined will be created out of whole cloth driven by unhinged madness stoked by the fear of losing control of its tenuous hold on power.

In that nation, what was once a collective struggle for transformation has become a family struggle to control and accumulate power. This has given rise to a quasi-dynastic enterprise that has disfigured Sandino’s legacy. This is a process that is hard to understand, but there it is, showing us the miseries that dictatorships of any ideological stripe drag along with them. There is no dignity, there is no search for brotherhood, there is no cry for sisterhood, there is only surveillance and terror.

In this context, where the abyss is just one step away, it was my turn to face the jaws of authoritarianism without ever intending to.

In May of this year, I decided that the pandemic took its toll on me and that I would go to Managua to embrace a member of our extended family that I had not been able to see.  My wish was to welcome him. In May I bought my ticket, filled out all the required immigration forms and up until the day of my flight, I never received any notification from the Nicaraguan government about my 4-day visit to their country.  So I was confident and flew on July 24th.  However, upon arriving at the Cesar Augusto Sandino International Airport, the airline I was traveling on asked me to identify myself and upon doing so I was immediately handed over to a government agent dressed in civilian clothes.  The agent asked me for my travel documents and with no reason or justification took them.  He immediately took me to another area of the airport, where he and another person searched me and my luggage.

Then, I was placed in an area where I was held by the agent in charge of my detention.  From the first moment I was taken aside, I knew that my life was in danger. If my entering the country was not documented by immigration authorities, who could attest that I had been detained? The government of Nicaragua could argue that I never entered and simply disappeared and I could end up in one of the prisons where valuable lives are being extinguished.    I asked what was the reason for my detention, if I had violated any regulations or why I was prevented from entering?

All I got was silence and more silence and refusal to answer me.  The only thing that the officer in charge finally told me was that “I should never have traveled to this country”.  If indeed I should never have traveled, why wasn’t I informed during the two months between the purchase of the ticket and the day of my flight? Why did they wait until I arrived at the airport to detain me in front of the other passengers?  Part of the answer is that, on the one hand, they wanted to publicly humiliate me as if I were a criminal who could be arrested for my work related to human rights and the rights of women and indigenous peoples that I have worked for inside and outside my country. On the other hand, my captors wanted to make me feel that the power is in their hands, that my voice is not a voice, my voice does not exist and by extension, my being.

I was never interrogated, I was never questioned by the plainclothes agent, which indicated to me that they knew everything about me, they had all my information, they didn’t need to know anything. That my totally arbitrary and illegal detention was planned and directed. It was clear to me that it was me they were looking for.

The hours passed while I was in limbo, during which time I did not know what would happen to me.  The silence of the agent who was watching me and the eerie calm of his demeanor, didn’t indicate if I would be allowed to stay or if I would be expelled from the country. That state of uncertainty is a tool of psychological torture. It is a fine, cruel, and slow torture because I had no way of knowing if I could leave or if I would continue to be held against my will.

Time became infinite and that infinity was only interrupted when the calm voice of the agent approached me and told me that I would be returned to Panamá. At that moment I asked to use the restroom and with the utmost serenity he led me there, standing outside the door exerting authoritarian vigilance. Why this extreme control?  I was not going to escape.  Where could I go?  I had no way to escape, I had no travel documents, I had nothing with me.  It was absurd to think that I would run in a place full of security cameras or in a place where not even my arrival had been registered.   However, it was one more way of showing me that I was in their power, in their territory and at a total disadvantage.

On the way back I had no access to my identification nor travel documents, I never saw them. The airline was in charge of safeguarding them, and they were only given to me when I arrived in Guatemala by two agents from my country who were waiting for me outside the plane.  The complicity of the airline with both the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan governments was evident.  Did the airline have the right to retain my identification and travel documents? When I demanded the delivery of my identification documents, I was told that the airline would deliver them to me, but they did not.  What happened to the rights that we have as travelers?

My father taught me that in the midst of pain we must be able to find the beauty.  The beauty in gestures, the beauty in hope and the beauty in life itself, even if we are on a thorny path.  And the beautiful thing that I was able to feel was the love, the affection, and the spontaneous and profound solidarity that I received from so many people: relatives, friends, colleagues, professors, students, peasant brothers, comrades in struggle and dreams. Messages were sent to me from the four corners of our mother earth.  I even felt the energy of people whom I didn’t know but who raised their voices in support and told me that I was not alone.

I want to use my newspaper column this week to thank all those who mobilized in multiple ways: through radio, in the press or on social networks during my detention and afterwards.  To the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the ambassadors, to the civil society organizations of Guatemala and other countries, and to my colleagues in the universities where I have had the privilege of teaching. Thank you to the press of my country, especially to El Periódico, the newspaper and online platform where I have published since 2003, and to the international media that denounced this outrage.

Infinite thanks to the Human Rights Ombudsman of Guatemala Jordán Rodas Andrade, the Center for Justice and International Law CEJIL/Mesoamerica, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders-Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) for working to safeguard my life, to coordinate and to protect my safe return. It is clear to me that their voices were raised not just for me, but for the thousands of women and men of this beloved nation called Nicaragua, who we love so much and who cannot be heard.  This force stood up for the men and women who are denied entry to Nicaragua in order to destroy their family ties or any communication.

What I have experienced only reaffirms my commitment to fight against any dictatorship. As one of my beloved teachers would say, these dictatorships we now face regardless of their ideology, “are nefarious and their crimes are more sophisticated every day” so much so that “the number of circles of hell described by Dante in his Divine Comedy would have to be increased” to be able to portray them.

Featured photo: Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj by Melle van Essen from 500 Years

Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj

Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj is a Maya-K’iche’n anthropologist and journalist, currently a visiting professor at Stanford University. Irma Alicia is the lead protagonist in Skylight's documentary film "500 YEARS" and serves on Skylight's Board of Directors.

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