Carlos Chamorro and Berta Valle, activists fighting for democracy in Nicaragua, traveled to Gambier this week to participate in the events surrounding the Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy award bestowal ceremony. Chamorro will accept the award on behalf of political prisoners in Nicaragua at an event in Rosse Hall tonight, where he and Valle will engage in conversation with Leopoldo López ’93 H’07, the award’s namesake. The Collegian spoke with Chamorro and Valle Wednesday afternoon.
Both are fighting for democracy and human rights in their home country of Nicaragua from exile. In 2021 Chamorro escaped arrest and fled to Costa Rica. That same year, Valle left for Miami following her husband’s arrest. Nicaragua — which was classified in a 2022 report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute as the most authoritarian regime in the Western Hemisphere — has been under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega since 2007.
During an uprising in 2018, the Ortega regime killed hundreds of protestors. According to Human Rights Watch, it has detained 36 critics since May 2021 alone. Of these, seven are presidential candidates, including Chamorro’s siblings Cristiana Chamorro Barrios and Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, and Valle’s husband Felix Maradiaga. One candidate, Hugo Torres Jiménez, died in prison.
Valle, who was joined at the interview by her young daughter, considers herself a human rights defender. In Nicaragua, she worked as a TV news anchor and station manager. In 2018, when she and her husband observed the repression that followed the uprising, they knew they had to act. “We decided to be part of this movement as a family,” she said. “We saw all the crimes, all the assassination that year. The human rights organization registered more than 355 people being killed by the regime, by the police and the military. When you see that, it’s hard not to feel a responsibility.”
Then last June, Maradiaga was arrested. “He was taken out of his car right after an interview at the prosecutor’s office. He was beaten and he was disappeared for 84 days. So at that moment, I had to step out and start calling for the release of my husband,” Valle said. She went on to describe that while her motivations are very personal, she also feels a more general responsibility to the cause. “I feel that when you are in a position where you can help others, it’s something you must do.”
“It’s really hard because it involves a lot of emotional involvement. But it’s also worth it in the sense that you know that you are doing what is right and what is fair,” Valle said. She explained that her situation is hardest on her daughter, as they have not been able to communicate with her husband since his arrest almost a year ago. And this was not the end of the persecution her family has faced: she also shared that recently, her parents came to visit her in Miami, and when they attempted to return to Nicaragua, the regime blocked them from reentry and they were not allowed to board the plane.
As a journalist, Chamorro faced fierce persecution from the Ortega regime. Reports Without Borders recently ranked Nicaragua 160th out of 180 countries on their 2022 World Press Freedom Index. This is a sharp fall from 2021, when Nicaragua was 121st. He is now in exile for the second time, having escaped two operations to detain him: one in 2019 and again in 2021. Chamorro spoke about the difficult decision to go into exile — to stay in Nicaragua and be silenced under Ortega’s dictatorship or to flee and have the ability to speak out freely.
“Do I wait for them to take me to prison, or do I leave and go to exile, which is a painful decision? If I’m going to do that, it’s because I’m going to speak. I’m going to work 24 hours [a day]. That’s my motivation,” Chamorro said. “If we have the recovery of the democracy, maybe my stamina will be much more normal. But now, I have to do this.”
For Chamorro, after the loss of certain freedoms including that of mobility, freedom of the press remains as a last mechanism of resistance. For him, it is critical to keep sharing the stories of what is happening in Nicaragua alive through his reporting. “It’s not that we’re going to change a dictatorship, but it’s an act of resistance,” said Chamorro.
He further emphasized that the fight for democracy is a collective one, and he is just doing his part. “The minimum that I can do as a journalist is to keep my commitment to report the truth or not to accept censorship. I’m not saying that I’m going to provoke that change — it’s not just one individual, one media — it’s a collective process,” he said.
Beyond being interpersonal, democracy is also an international struggle. Chamorro spoke about the intersections of the struggles for democracy in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. “We are sharing experiences, learning from each other, seeing each other in the same mirror.”
He then turned to issues beyond Latin America: “At this moment, everyone who has a commitment to democracy and freedom is focusing on what’s happening in Ukraine,” Chamorro said. Ortega, as well as the authoritarian leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, claim to support self-determination and national autonomy but are allies of Putin and support the invasion of Ukraine.
Chamorro said that Nicaragua needs the support of the international community to restore democracy, but that this alone will not be enough, as the dictatorship can withstand international pressure if it maintains domestic support. At the same time, internal resistance alone is not enough — Chamorro pointed to the 2018 uprising, when there was internal pressure but not the necessary international attention. “You need to have some kind of synergy or simultaneity between internal and external pressure in this challenge of our democracy,” he said.
When asked about the future, Valle too reflected back on the 2018 uprising. “It was very spontaneous, in the sense that people saw the injustice and everybody came out and said ‘Look, this cannot be going on anymore.’ And people took to the street, and people were willing to even give their lives to stop the regime,” she said. “This started because people wanted freedom. It was really a feeling of people fighting for their rights.”
Now, says Valle, the regime has even more of an impact on people’s everyday lives. “A lot of people are starting to criticize the government because of the way [it is] affecting them directly,” she said. She said this has the potential to prompt people to rise up against the government, similar to the protests in 2018, this time with greater attention from the international community.
Chamorro and Valle will participate in the Leopoldo López award bestowal ceremony tonight at 7 p.m. in Rosse Hall. Chamorro will give an acceptance address, followed by a conversation between Chamorro, Valle and López about the fight for democracy.