“Toying with Human Dignity” — A Letter from Inside an Ortega Prison

John Cerna


John Cerna is a Nicaraguan engineering student and one of the student leaders who participated in the revolt against the regime of Daniel Ortega that began in April 2018. Photo: AFP.
John Cerna is a Nicaraguan engineering student and one of the student leaders who participated in the revolt against the regime of Daniel Ortega that began in April 2018. Photo: AFP.

I'm writing these words from a cell inside La Modelo prison in Nicaragua.

Almost everyone knows me as “Tigrillo.” In 2018, when the student protests broke out, I was a student at the National Engineering University. I was finishing up my fifth year of Civil Engineering school and they expelled me for joining the demonstrations. I almost died during those first few days after the police opened fire on me at close range.

Later, I joined the occupation of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua, where I was helping to support the medical space. From then on, I began living as if I was being hunted. I was able to continue my studies at the Central American University (UCA), despite suffering medical complications not only from being targeted personally, but also from the frequent roundups of other compañeros. Students like us have been the most persecuted during this current crisis.

I am twenty four years old, and like many of those imprisoned here with me, my only mistake was having grown up believing in the possibility of a country where I might have a chance to get ahead through my own work, and not through “the party.” I was captured on February 28 of this year during a “national intelligence” operation. But I didn’t make it easy for them, and I was able to send out an SOS and let people know what happened. They accused me of drug trafficking, a crime which I did not commit, but in the country of “normality,” what can we do other than risk being killed for aspiring to something more. They sentenced me to twelve years and 6 months.

I share a cell with regular convicts—men accused of rape, femicide, drug trafficking, robbery. There are between 18 and 24 inmates per cell. We cook on a mud brick with an electric heating element. Sometimes they give us 15 minutes of “sun,” but we spend most of our time locked up inside.

In my first days here, I would dream of receiving a “nube,” or “cloud” (a message written on paper) that said, “We have secured your release.” Then I would wake up, still a prisoner, still stuck behind these rusty bars.

The conditions I’m living in now are worse than what my comrades reported to us two years ago. Prisoners from various cell blocks have died from “respiratory complications,” or some other excuse, but never the virus.

The authorities eventually took measures in response, but they were too late. Every day, they spray our cells with the insecticide cypermethrin; they take our temperature and photograph us; we are not provided medical consultations, much less medications. They ration our food.

They dismantled the old folks' cell block after three elderly prisoners died in mid-May, and then they improvised a pardon to free the others. The situation is so serious that even the prison staff are dying of COVID-19, but, out of necessity, those who remain continue to work. Visits are now restricted and limited to one family member per inmate.

The system affects us all in similar ways and is rotten everywhere. Regular inmates are stuck mid-trial for long periods of time; they are unjustly accused and charged; their benefits are cut, and if they’re returned it’s because the authorities hope to ingratiate themselves with their families. They are toying with human dignity. “Prison has also changed since 2018,” I heard one of the guards say one day.

My dad died three weeks before I was captured. In my last conversation with him, he told me, “You have great ambitions… Even though I’ll never understand you.” I replied, “I’m going to earn two degrees for you.” The only thing he wanted was to see me have a better future. He was my hero.

Unfortunately, it is the youth—Darío’s “divine treasure”—who must now suffer the fate normally reserved for the oldest among us, just as everywhere in Latin America they are suffering. Just as Neomar Lander suffered in Venezuela and Alvarito Conrado suffered here. I once told someone that my greatest fear is that I’m “not doing enough.”

Days before being arrested, I was with a friend who had been beaten down—by the crisis, by other problems, by depression—when we almost drowned. We had gone to the coast to clear our minds and help him get some destructive ideas out of his head. A hundred meters from shore, unable to stay afloat, sinking down into the water, he discovered that he wanted to live. We were rescued by some fishermen. I always try to help my people however I can.

At the beginning of this year, I cried for Valentina “Toretto,” a compañera de lucha who was with me at the occupation of the Rigoberto López Pérez rotunda in front of the UNAN in 2018. As she would later write, during those first few days of struggle, in that rotunda, we thought the dictatorship was dying. Valentina ended her own life on January 6 of that year. Three Kings’ Day. Shortly before, she posted a farewell letter on her blog, in which she wrote:

The truth is simple: I’m tired of suffering and of seeing people suffer. I'm done dodging bullets every day at the barricades, and I can't think of anything to do that’s as important... The freedom and social equality that was claimed through anarchy in 2018 doesn’t seem feasible for my country. I’m a realist. I am living in a dictatorship, but my life is my own, and I don’t have any reason to go on dreaming about all the corpses I’ve seen. I don't want anything more to do with little classroom meetings and smarmy speechifying; the performative morality of that political game has reduced everything to reflections of ego and longings for power. That’s all that’s left.

Now I’m trying to help the kids in crisis, because it’s been hard for us. They send me messages—them out there and me in here. “You shouldn’t be there, and deep down you’re not,” someone wrote in one of the messages. And yet, here I am.

Among the worst things I have ever felt is the pain of a life slipping away through my own hands, like when I held Chester Chavarría at the UNAN in Managua, or when they left my cousin to die because at the time, in July 2018, public hospitals preferred to give blood to the government's wounded than to oncology patients.

Where is the peace and love that the dictatorship’s media is always going on about? How much will they continue to take from us at the cost of their own miserable interests? The late Tomás Borge said it best: “We can lose everything, but never power,” ignoring that three-quarters of the voting population is under 40 years old, and are aware of everything that has happened.

The day they “cleaned up” the UNAN, I told the Cardinal Leopold Brenes, at the Church of the Divine Mercy, “What are you going to negotiate with your executioner? The manner in which he kills you?”

Some 37 out of the nearly 100 political prisoners here have been “prioritized” for medical reasons, and they’ve brought us in to get checked under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But really this is just a way for them to make sure their “bargaining chips” are alive and “well.” On one occasion, I spoke with the head of the Committee, who told me that they were there because the “authorities” asked them to be.

It’s been four months since my arrest, and I have yet to receive any care for my respiratory deficiency, my broken rib that still hasn’t healed, my chronically dislocated shoulder, and some buckshot still lodged in my left temple—a souvenir from the struggle.

We are not a bargaining chip that can be traded for the absolution of crimes against humanity. This is how they want to sell it to the world, by creating an amnesty law, ignoring all the damage that’s been done. Nor do we want to be released only to live in fear and under conditions of a police state, with cops on every corner. To be honest, I want Nicaragua to be a place where my children don't have to live like I have.

We’ve tried to negotiate our release, but there are interests at stake. Private enterprise insists on playing a dual role—they haven’t wanted to confront the regime. The real “national strike” has yet to happen, and they won’t openly admit that since their profits depend on their employees, they have everything to lose. At some point their business dealings will have to be reported to the government, and as the saying goes, unos a la bulla y otros a la cabuya—some to the bustle, others to the hustle. Business owners are among those who have taken advantage of the situation for their own benefit.

There are more than one hundred thousand Nicaraguans who were forced to leave their communities, not knowing where they were going, who have survived hardships, who are waiting to be able to return home, with guarantees of non-repetition and promises that the state will watch over them—that their safety comes first. Achieving this will require a complete accounting of what happened, transitional justice, reconstruction processes at all levels, holding the murderers accountable for the harm they’ve caused, electoral reforms, and university autonomy. At the moment this seems like a utopia. But one day, the day will dawn. Un día será de día.

Today it’s our generation’s turn to make history. From prison, I am now the one who says what in another time, faced with another dictatorship, Carlos Fonseca once said: ¡Yo acuso a la dictadura! I accuse the dictatorship!

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