The second time around, John Martínez-Picado knew what awaited him inside “El Chipote.” It had been almost a year but the spiral-shaped prison with its overcrowded underground cells and concrete beds on the floor still haunted him. He hadn’t forgotten the suffocating feeling — “as if you were going to have a heart attack,” Martínez-Picado said. He also hadn’t fully recovered from the trauma of being forced to witness guards torture his cellmates, pulling out their fingernails and cutting off their ears until they became unconscious. Martínez-Picado had known then that if he was lucky enough to get out, only to be caught again, it would be worse than the first time.
Martínez-Picado is among thousands of Nicaraguans who joined the opposition movement against the regime of Daniel Ortega in April 2018. What started out as peaceful demonstrations spearheaded by university students against a proposed reform to the pension system escalated into a nationwide uprising that demanded the resignation of the leftist president and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The ensuing crackdown on dissidents by the national police and pro-government armed groups has left an estimated 300 dead and 2,000 injured. In the following months, many more were arbitrarily arrested, tortured or disappeared, as well as criminally charged under Nicaragua’s sweeping counterterrorism law.
As many as 100,000 people have fled Nicaragua since the beginning of the crisis. The majority has sought safety in neighboring Costa Rica but the country, which is smaller than West Virginia, is struggling to respond to an influx of asylum seekers also coming from Cuba, Venezuela and African countries. For Nicaraguans escaping persecution, Costa Rica is too close to home — some have reported receiving threats on social media identifying their location.
The UN Refugee Agency anticipates that the outflow of Nicaraguans will continue to grow. But as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, they are bound to be stranded — unable to go back or move forward. So far, Daniel Ortega’s government is resisting taking restrictive measures to slow down the spread of the virus, allowing for preparations for Easter celebrations to continue and even holding protests under the slogan “Love in the Time of COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, Costa Rica, which hosts two-thirds of Nicaraguan asylum seekers and has reported 177 confirmed cases and two deaths, has closed its borders. The government is also reportedly transferring migrants from its southern border with Panama to the border with Nicaragua, where two cases have been registered, and recently announced that nonresidents and asylum seekers could lose their immigration status if they leave the country. In a recent statement, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees alerted to the risks for those fleeing war and persecution: “They need — we all need — solidarity and compassion now more than ever before.” Ongoing deportations from the U.S. also raise concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in Central America.
The U.S. Turns Its Back
There was a time when Nicaraguans hoped to find safety and open arms in the U.S., a country they were told would surely support their cause and stand up against human rights violations. That is seldom the case now.
At the time of the protests in 2018, Martínez-Picado and his wife Regina were helping transport injured students to the hospital and distributing food, water and medicine. That was enough to get him sent to “El Chipote” for 40 hours of interrogation. The couple then decided to relocate with their two sons to a different region in Nicaragua, where they started taking a more active part in the demonstrations. By then, Martínez-Picado, who is 5-foot-8 and has a bushy beard, had become a known face to pro-government groups. Following death threats and what he describes as a murder attempt, Martínez-Picado decided he would not be added to the statistics and left Nicaragua alone on September 9, 2018.
In December, Martínez-Picado went before an immigration judge in New Mexico. He explained, just like he had done to asylum officers during an initial screening that found him credible, that his opposition to the Ortega regime made him a target. He told the judge what would likely happen to him if he were sent back to his “executioners.” Martínez-Picado says the judge questioned the authenticity of his evidence of past persecution and said the situation in Nicaragua was normal. The judge then told Martínez-Picado his family would be happy to see him again and wished him a safe trip back.
“I felt like the world came crashing down around me,” Martínez-Picado says. Back in the detention center, he cried until passing out. He says immigration officials took him to see a psychologist. “I didn’t feel the need to talk to anyone. I didn’t have the strength to do it.”
Martínez-Picado went on a hunger strike twice, hoping for a miracle. But in March 2019, he was put on a deportation flight with 115 other Nicaraguans and 35 Guatemalans. That same day, he was taken again to the infamous “El Chipote” prison, a symbol of the U.S.-backed dictatorship the Sandinista National Liberation Front ousted in 1979 and where Ortega himself was once tortured. After 15 days in detention, Martínez-Picado was freed like hundreds of others arrested in connection with the protests would be in the following months, often under house arrest orders and warnings.
“It was 1,000 times better to stay in prison than to be free for the simple fact that being arrested, my family knew where I was,” Martínez-Picado says looking back. “If I were free, I would risk being killed.”
Sending People Back Into Danger
The number of Nicaraguans arriving at the southern border to request asylum has skyrocketed since protests broke out two years ago. From 2017 to 2018, apprehension of the citizens of Nicaragua went from 1,721 to 4,014. As the Central American country plunges deeper into an economic recession — the worst since the civil war in the 1980s — and all negotiation attempts between the government and the Civic Alliance opposition group have failed, Nicaraguans continue to flee.
But they are unlikely to be received with open arms in Trump’s America. Under this administration’s harsh immigration policies, asylum seekers are expected to seek protection in any other country they cross before reaching the U.S., no matter how unprepared such nations are to take them in. That transit ban makes most of the globe ineligible for asylum, including Nicaraguans, who are increasingly applying for protection with the Mexican government.
Asylum seekers are also being exposed to sexual assault and kidnapping in dangerous border towns in Mexico while waiting for their cases to be processed by backlogged U.S. immigration courts. With little to no access to lawyers, they will probably be turned away. Many won’t even get to wait in Mexico, instead being subject to fast-track deportations to Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador as part of cooperation agreements signed with these countries’ governments.
Put simply, “the goal of this administration is to destroy, defeat and shut down immigration,” Barbara Hines, a retired University of Texas clinical law professor and social justice activist said. “The asylum program of Miller and Trump is so ill-thought that they haven’t even considered the question of how it is that they are denouncing the Ortega government but sending people whose lives are in danger back to Nicaragua.”
The State Department discourages U.S. citizens from traveling to Nicaragua — placing it in the same category as Sudan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo — because of civil unrest, crime and arbitrary enforcement of laws. The U.S. government continues to publicly condemn what it calls “unconscionable human rights violations” and a “campaign to exile, jail, or kill anyone considered to be in opposition,” while imposing sanctions on members of the Nicaragua president’s inner circle, including his wife and sons, and the National Police. In early March, the House of Representatives passed a resolution without objection to increase political and financial pressure on the government of Daniel Ortega. “We stand with the Nicaraguan people on their calls for reform and a return to democracy,” a U.S. Treasury official recently said in a statement.
Such public stance hasn’t necessarily translated into sympathy for the claims of those fleeing persecution in the Central American nation. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of Nicaraguans deported from the U.S. more than doubled, reaching the record high in a decade of 2,240. They were the sixth most common nationality for deportees that year, behind only citizens from Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries and Ecuador.
For immigration law experts, the hostile treatment toward Nicaraguans represents a significant departure from previous administrations — and from a period when foreign policy played a bigger role in determining who was welcome in the U.S. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter’s efforts to imbue his foreign policy with humanitarian principles and pressure from refugee crises involving Cubans and Haitians led to the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. Besides setting the annual admission of refugees at 50,000, the law also replaced the prevailing definition of “refugee,” based on a Cold War framework, with one less grounded on ideological bias. Refugees were anyone with a fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, regardless of where their country of origin fit in the East-West arena.
Still, when Ronald Reagan took office, promising to stop the march of the Soviet Union “Evil Empire” and restore the country’s status as a moral leader, his policy toward refugees favored those coming from communist countries over citizens of nations aligned with the U.S. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration was supporting rebel groups known as contras in a covert war to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. As a result, throughout the decade, fleeing Nicaraguans were granted asylum at significantly higher rates than Salvadorans and Guatemalans, whose countries were plagued by civil wars largely funded by the U.S. They were often labeled as economic migrants rather than victims of political persecution, which led an emerging sanctuary movement to engage in litigation alleging discrimination that would eventually secure them certain rights.
In a post-Cold War scenario, welcoming refugees and asylum seekers has lost its prominence as a foreign policy tool, according to Yael Schacher, a senior advocate at Refugees International. “The U.S. has abnegated its moral leadership,” Schacher said. “We have no competition, we don’t need to prove anything.” Instead, she said, the U.S. has shifted toward a “burden-sharing” approach, which was originally intended to foster solidarity among countries receiving refugees, but has often been used to transfer the responsibility to others. That notion is at the core of the Trump administration’s push to send asylum seekers to “safe” third countries.
The outcome of immigration policies that have more to do with deterrence and control than with human rights is fewer people having a real shot at being granted protection, regardless of the legitimacy of their claims or the U.S. antagonism toward their government.
“Basically, to win asylum now, you have to be sort of a famous dissident,” Schacher says. “If you’ve participated in political protests and your family has been targeted, that’s not going to be enough.”
Following his deportation and second detention, Martínez-Picado says he was attacked by government supporters known as the Juventud Sandinista. They kept an eye on him anywhere he went. Finally, last August, their family decided to leave Nicaragua. Since the U.S. has let them down once, their plan is to go to Canada this time. But for now, because of the pandemic, they are living under a curfew in another Central American country. Their rent and internet bill are due on April 9, but they are barely making any money selling Nicaraguan cheese these days. Martínez-Picado worries they will run out of supplies soon, so they are rationing food. He also wonders what will happen if anyone in the family falls ill in a foreign country. So they clean the floors, doors and walls with chlorine and treat their hands and faces with disinfecting wipes.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, their sons had already missed two years of school. “This situation [in Nicaragua] has stolen us the chance to live in our country,” Regina said. “We’re not 100 percent safe.” They hope to one day be able to give their children a normal life. In the meantime, Martínez-Picado prays that neither his “Nicaraguan brothers” who continue to struggle nor the Mothers of April, as the relatives of those killed or jailed during the protests have become known, are forgotten.
“My biggest dream is to go back to my country to see a new Nicaragua,” Martínez-Picado says. “My wife, children, and myself have the right to live.”