After 545 Days Behind Bars, a Political Prisoner Sees the Light

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro is interviewed after being released from a prison in Nicaragua and flown to the United States along with other political prisoners, on Thursday in Herndon, Va.

Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro was drifting off to sleep in Nicaragua’s notorious El Chipote prison this week when the guard appeared. The newspaper publisher had been locked up for 545 days, a political prisoner in perhaps the Western Hemisphere’s most repressive country. Now the guard was ordering him to get up. Put on civilian clothes, he said.

Holmann, 56, slipped on a pair of jeans his wife had recently brought him. He was led to a line of buses filling with inmates. The vehicles snaked through Managua’s dark streets, and Holmann wondered where he was headed. To a different prison? Another “trial?”

Then his bus turned right, onto an access road into Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport. Holmann and 221 others – nearly all of Nicaragua’s imprisoned opposition – were being freed, on the condition they leave the country. They boarded a U.S. government-chartered flight; within hours, they landed at Dulles International Airport – beneficiaries of the unexpected mass release by the authoritarian government of Daniel Ortega and a secret Biden administration operation to pick them up and take them in.

“I don’t know if it’s a dream or it’s reality,” a gaunt Holmann told reporters.

The prisoners’ liberation Thursday offered a rare flash of joy for Nicaragua’s beleaguered pro-democracy forces. But for all the laughter and squeals of happiness as reunited families embraced, it also provides new glimpses into just how repressive the Central American country has become.

Today, Nicaraguans can be arrested for simply waving the national flag, a symbol adopted by protesters. The government has shut down independent newspapers and TV and radio news programs. It’s closed or expelled around 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, ranging from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to Operation Smile, which helps patients with cleft lips or palates. Security forces stop motorists and demand their cellphones to check social media activity.

On Friday, the government sentenced the outspoken Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa to 26 years in prison on charges of undermining national sovereignty. He had declined the offer to go into exile with Holmann and the others.

“The country is on the verge of becoming the Western Hemisphere’s equivalent of North Korea,” said Juan Pappier, the Americas acting deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

The impact goes well beyond the country of 6.8 million. Nicaraguans have been fleeing in record numbers, driven by poor economic conditions and the hardening of the police state. More than 164,000 Nicaraguans were detained at the U.S. border in fiscal 2022, a threefold increase from a year earlier.

Holmann’s case is emblematic of Ortega’s intensified crackdown in recent years. Holmann operated La Prensa, an opposition newspaper run by the Chamorro family. He was arrested in August 2021 and accused of money laundering, a charge he denies. He was handed a nine-year prison sentence.

Scores of opposition figures – candidates, student activists, human-rights defenders – were detained in the run-up to the November 2021 presidential election. With the field cleared, Ortega easily won a fourth straight presidential term.

Prison conditions under the onetime liberation leader can be horrific. Holmann and others held at El Chipote weren’t allowed books, newspapers, paper or pens – “not even a Bible,” he said. To keep his mind sharp, he would read and reread nutritional labels on items the guards left in his cell.

He prayed. A lot. “God, you are my captain, and my life is in your hands.”

He wasn’t the only member of his prominent family caught up in the crackdown. His cousin, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a presidential aspirant, was arrested in June 2021 and sentenced to 13 years on charges of trying to undermine the government. He initially slept on a concrete slab at El Chipote, according to his wife, Victoria Cardenas; the family wasn’t permitted to send him a mattress until December.

Rations were initially scarce. Conditions eased somewhat in recent months. But Cardenas had no contact with her husband for a year and a half. She’d fled to the United States after his arrest. Only in recent weeks, she said, were she and their 20-year-old daughter allowed to send Chamorro photos and letters.

“He couldn’t talk for two hours,” Cardenas said. “He wept.”

La Prensa has a history of battling the government. One of its first editors, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Holmann’s uncle, fiercely criticized Nicaragua’s right-wing dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Chamorro was assassinated in 1978 – prompting outrage that contributed to the dictatorship’s downfall, and the triumph of Ortega’s Marxist Sandinista rebels.

Even with that turbulent past, analysts say there’s little precedent for the wave of repression launched by Ortega in the past two years.

Among those who have been arrested or harassed are leaders of the business community and the Catholic Church, who were once key interlocutors with the government. At the same time, the Ortega government was isolating itself internationally: It expelled the Vatican’s envoy and the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Then it kicked out the ambassador for the European Union, after a delegation from the bloc demanded freedom for the political prisoners.

U.S. relations with Ortega, long adversarial, had grown more tense with new Biden administration sanctions on top of existing economic and visa restrictions. So it came as a surprise when U.S. Ambassador Kevin Sullivan received a call on Jan. 31 from Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife. There was something important, she told Sullivan, that the governments could do together.

The State Department began secret talks on the complex logistical operation to receive the prisoners. Nine days after Murillo’s call, the 222 prisoners were flown to Washington. The United States has given them two-year humanitarian parole permits.

Ortega says he demanded nothing in return from Washington. He has often accused the United States and Europe of backing opponents who want to oust him.

“Let them have their mercenaries,” he said in a televised speech Thursday.

Holmann had no idea what was going on until he was driven to the airport. “You are being deported to the United States of America,” an official told his group. “Is that okay with you?” Everyone was handed a document to confirm their agreement.

“What if I don’t sign?” Holmann asked. He was told he would go back to prison.

He signed.

Holmann’s daughter Renata, 24, grew up in Nicaragua before coming to the United States for college. She was on a train to Washington early Thursday. “I got a call from my mom that my father had been put on a plane to D.C.,” she said. “And that was the only information that she had.”

She was startled at finally seeing her father. He’d lost more than 30 pounds. He appeared to have a hernia, as well as vision problems and shortness of breath. But he was free, at last.

For Holmann, the arrival in Washington was bittersweet. As the former prisoners departed Nicaragua, the government in Managua announced it was stripping them of their political rights. The Congress then moved to take away their citizenship. The former detainees were giving up businesses, homes, their places in Nicaraguan politics.

Surrounded by journalists outside a hotel near Dulles on Thursday, Holmann recalled those he left behind – his wife, mother and siblings.

He was safe in Washington, he said. But “my family, my life is in Nicaragua.”

Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Wilson reported from Washington.