It was June 8, 2021, when Juan Sebastián Chamorro was taken from his home in the night. Chamorro was one of six Nicaraguan presidential candidates to be arrested and imprisoned by the government. After what Chamorro described as a “fake” trial with no witnesses, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison and put in solitary confinement. After 20 months as a political prisoner, Chamorro was released but is now a political exile at Notre Dame, writing a book in defense of democracy and human rights.
Chamorro explained that he ran for president as a political act of defiance against Daniel Ortega, the current president of Nicaragua, who is in his fourth consecutive term after imprisoning at least 40 competing political opponents and committing widespread electoral fraud. According to the U.S. Department of State, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana, exercise total control of the government and are responsible for human rights violations, arbitrary and unlawful killings, punishments, arrests, torture, threats of violence and the suppression of anti-governmental sentiments.
Chamorro described the current civilian experience in Nicaragua: “All rights are being violated. You cannot assemble, you cannot speak freely, there is no independent media in the country … You cannot express any political views, if you wave the national flag in the streets you will go to jail — because of the protests in 2018, everybody was waving the flag, so it’s a sign of rebellion for the government.”
In addition to the near impossibility of winning the election, Chamorro knew that running for president posed risks. But his family could not have expected the magnitude of the consequences.
“A couple of weeks before he got detained, my dad told me it would be a couple of weeks or a couple of days at most,” recalled Chamorro’s daughter Victoria, who is now a junior at Notre Dame. Little did his family know that for three months, they would not know where he had been taken, nor would they have any contact with him until Jan. 1, 2023. His daughter and wife fled to the United States soon after he was detained.
Ortega had been the president of the country in the 1980s and, according to Chamorro, reclaimed the title in 2006 by fracturing the liberal party and winning the election by a small margin. Since then, Ortega “has unconstitutionally held the presidential title through political power and control of the state,” Chamorro said.
In 2018, Ortega proposed social security reforms, prompting protests among the elderly and eventually students. “The people were responding to an accumulation of social and environmental problems. Then, in one protest, the police killed 60 people,” said Chamorro. The protests led to a harsh crackdown on all forms of political protest, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds and shootings of many in subsequent protests.
At the time, Chamorro was the director of a major economic think tank when he was called by the Catholic Church to be a business representative in a dialogue to bring an end to the political crisis. Chamorro then became the executive director of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a coalition demanding justice and democracy for Nicaragua. Giving Ortega an opponent was the culmination of Chamorro’s political activism in the country. His arrest, along with the arrest of 40 other political leaders, was a statement for the international recognition of the human rights violations in Nicaragua.
On Feb. 9, 2023, after 611 days in jail, 222 political prisoners were put on a plane from Nicaragua to the United States. Chamorro was one of them. “I believe I was free through a miracle,” said Chamorro. “They had no intention of freeing us, but it happened.”
In the United States, Chamorro’s wife, Victoria Cárdenas, had organized an international campaign for the liberation of the political prisoners. Chamorro said, “Political prisoners are always a problem for a country because there's always sanctions and international pressure. The dictator wanted to get rid of us because of pressure.”
When Chamorro’s daughter Victoria received a call in her dorm room at 6 a.m. on Feb. 9, it was her mother calling to tell her that her father was on a plane to D.C. “I was in a state of shock. I could not believe what was happening,” said Victoria.
Victoria had spent her first two years at Notre Dame thinking of her father every day. She tried to put herself in his shoes and thought, “Would I want my daughter to be suffering, or would I want her to be doing well and enjoying her first year in school and finding new friends?” The limited connection with her father inspired her to enjoy the present. “Life can change in a matter of seconds,” she said.
Still, the distance fostered a spiritual connection between father and daughter. Through letter correspondence, the two agreed to unite in prayer every Sunday at the same time, Victoria at the Grotto and her father in his cell.
“Once he was out, our relationship was transformed completely, there was a deeper connection, despite being apart for so long,” Victoria said.
When asked how he was able to make it through his experience in prison, Chamorro said, “When you’ve been a victim of that, you start praying more and more intensely to get a closer relationship with God. You start asking why God has put you in this situation. I am sure all prisoners ask themselves, ‘Why was I subjected to this?’ Most times you don't understand.” Chamorro took comfort in the Suscipe, a prayer of St. Ignatius:
“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess.
Thou hast given all to me.
To Thee, O lord, I return it.
All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will.
Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
This prayer gave him strength in the state of dispossession. “While I was there I didn’t understand why I was put there by the will of God, but now that I am here being in freedom, talking to my former cellmates, I understand the path that God has put in front of us,” Chamorro said.The purpose that came out of the turmoil, for Chamorro, is to “be able to tell the story, to bring memory of the abuses, and to be fighting for freedom and re-enforce my beliefs in the rights of freedom and democracy.”
Chamorro had done his undergraduate studies and graduate studies in the United States, so coming to the U.S. was not new. Chamorro is grateful for the education that brought him to Notre Dame. “It's like being given by God a new birth, a new opportunity. I tend not to worry about what I left behind, what I lost, but another opportunity,” said Chamorro. “Some things that are never guaranteed are your freedom, your life, and your family; and I have them, so I feel fortunate.”
“When you’re going out of a situation like mine, being able to enjoy even the snow and the cold weather, the blue skies, it’s a privilege,” Chamorro said. “I feel really happy every day to listen to music, talk to people, read, learn, write.”
Many of the other political prisoners who were on the plane with Chamorro have not been so lucky. The U.S. has given work permits and the possibility to seek asylum to these released prisoners, but most people participating in the political movement don’t speak English and were not prepared to be exiled from their country.
Chamorro finds himself in a unique position here at Notre Dame as a visiting fellow in the Kellogg Institute. Next year, he will publish a book in English about his experience. He said, “We are fighting for something we shouldn’t be fighting for. Democracy and freedom should be things that everybody should be entitled to in the world to enjoy. In my country those rights are violated every day.” Chamorro wants the world to know that “there are people in prison because of their beliefs and their thoughts,” and “the U.S. and other countries have a responsibility to defend human rights.”
Chamorro sees a solution in non-violent, grassroots movements. “There’s a common strategy among dictatorships throughout world history to infringe fear into the population,” said Chamorro, “because fear leads you to inaction. The first thing to recognize is the strategy, the next thing is to overcome the fear.” Chamorro believes that activism must weaken the pillars of power upheld by the dictator. “All dictatorships have fallen as a result of their support collapsing — that is going to happen in Nicaragua sooner or later,” Chamorro said. “The authoritarian government in Nicaragua is not a dominant political party. Rather, it is a family, a dynasty in control … An important message is that their current followers are going to be instrumental in their downfall,” said Chamorro.
“When you have a situation of injustice, of repression, there is a moment when all these forces get together and they explode. I hope they won’t explode in violence but rather protests, peaceful movements, rebellion,” said Chamorro. “My country is an extreme case of a destruction of rights and freedoms, but that can happen in different levels of intensity to many other countries in the world, including the U.S.”