By Daina Beth Salomon
SAN JOSE (Reuters) – Asked about the three days she spent in a Nicaraguan prison in 2018 for demonstrating against President Daniel Ortega, Tania Cadena pointed out white scars on her arm and forehead, then parted her lips to reveal a missing molar.
“It was like three thousand years,” said the 24-year-old former medical student, who now lives in exile in San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
For Cadena and many other young people who fled Nicaragua following the 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests, Ortega’s re-election for a fourth consecutive term this month means they feel they don’t. still cannot return home.
The November 7 election was mocked by the United States and other countries as a sham after Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, jailed his political rivals before the vote.
Cadena said she was arrested at a safe house in the capital Managua in 2018 where she was hiding with other student protesters and charged with terrorism, vandalism and possession of weapons.
While held at El Chipote prison in Managua, Cadena said she was beaten and raped by around 30 police officers, who she said poured hot-melt plastic on her arm. Then two and a half months pregnant, Cadena said she lost her child to the abuse.
She said she was never charged but released after three days on condition that she agreed not to leave her home.
Weeks later, she said she escaped through the back patio of her house and headed for the Costa Rican border.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the details of Cadena’s case. The Nicaraguan presidency did not respond to a request for comment on Cadena’s accusations of ill-treatment. Police asked Reuters to direct questions to the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, which did not immediately respond.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups say Nicaraguan authorities frequently mistreated prisoners during the 2018 and 2019 crackdowns.
Doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they treated dozens of people with signs of physical damage consistent with the abuse and torture described by detainees, including rape and electric shocks.
Ortega said the torture accusations in Nicaraguan prisons were lies aimed at damaging Nicaragua’s image.
Cadena said she feared that she would be imprisoned again if she returned to Nicaragua. Since May this year, nearly 40 politicians, journalists and other critics of Ortega have been arrested and jailed on charges of treason, according to Amnesty International.
Cadena has an asylum interview in Costa Rica scheduled for April, according to the official notification seen by Reuters, and said she was determined to complete her medical studies in Costa Rica or elsewhere.
“I don’t want to get stuck,” Cadena said, adding that her goal is to become a cardiac surgeon and eventually bring that expertise back to Nicaragua. “I know that when I return to my country it will be ruined.”
For many young Nicaraguans still in the country, fear of repression comes on top of worries about finding work in an economy that has contracted by nearly 9% in the past three years, the sociologist and economist said. Nicaraguan Oscar-Rene Vargas, based in Costa Rica.
He estimated that 100,000 young people enter the labor market in Nicaragua each year, but less than half can get a job.
The United States has seen a record 58,510 Nicaraguans entering this year, quadruple the previous record of 2019, according to customs and border protection figures.
In neighboring Costa Rica, asylum claims have jumped this year to nearly 40,000, with some Nicaraguans slipping through so-called blind spots at the border to avoid detection by Nicaraguan authorities. There are many types of students who pursue professional careers whose presence is critical to the long-term workforce.
“It’s kind of a brain drain that limits Nicaragua’s potential,” Vargas said.
Jarot Rodriguez, 21, who was studying optometry at the Autonomous National University of Nicaragua, has applied for asylum in Costa Rica, where he is taking English lessons.
His 19-year-old brother recently emigrated to the United States, he said.
“For the people of Nicaragua, it is giving in… or leaving,” Rodriguez said.
“WE ARE A THREAT”
Ortega’s security forces deliberately targeted students during the 2018 crackdown because they propelled the protest movement wider, said Alan Guerrero, 22, coordinator of the Nicaraguan Youth and Students Alliance. .
“We are a threat to the government and therefore we are the first to go into exile,” said Guerrero, also now in Costa Rica, where he took up his diplomacy and global affairs degree in online courses in a Nicaraguan university. .
Manuel Orozco, director of the migration program at think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said Ortega’s crackdown and the current economic crisis risked pushing Nicaragua down the development ladder.
Poverty in Nicaragua has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching 14.6% this year, according to the World Bank. It has the second highest poverty rate in the Americas, after Haiti.
“Nicaragua is going to be left behind rather than forward, becoming more like Haiti,” Orozco said, noting that the two countries are each plunged into protracted political crises with no turning point in sight.
Cadena said that despite the horrors she endured, she was proud to have stood up to Ortega’s authoritarian government, including giving first aid to injured protesters. On the day Cadena was arrested, activists took to social media to demand her release.
Memories of the three days spent at El Chipote haunt her dreams, turning sleep into “torture,” she said.
But she said the prospect of reuniting with her 5-year-old sister in Nicaragua, who also wants to become a doctor, is motivation to rebuild her life.
“I need to take care of myself,” she said. “I have to make a better country for her.”
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)