By Daina Beth Solomon
SANJOSE – When asked about the three days she spent in a Nicaraguan prison in 2018 for protesting against President Daniel Ortega, Tania Cadena pointed to white scars on her arm and forehead, then pulled aside her lips to reveal a missing molar.
“It felt like three thousand years,” said the 24-year-old former medical student, who is now living in exile in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.
For Cadena and many other young people who fled Nicaragua in the wake of the 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests, Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term this month means they feel they still cannot go home.
The Nov. 7 election was derided by the United States and other countries as a sham after Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, jailed political rivals ahead of the vote.
Cadena said she was arrested at a safe house in capital Managua in 2018 where she was hiding with other student protesters, and accused of terrorism, vandalism and arms possession.
While being held in the El Chipote prison in Managua, Cadena said she was beaten and raped by about 30 police officers, who she said poured hot melted plastic on her arm. Then two-and-a-half months pregnant, Cadena said she lost her child because of the abuse.
She said she was never charged but released after three days on condition she agreed not to leave her house.
Some weeks later, she said she slipped out through the back patio of her home and made her way to the Costa Rica border.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the details of Cadena’s case. Nicaragua’s presidency did not respond to a request for comment on Cadena’s accusations of mistreatment. The police asked Reuters to direct questions to Nicaragua’s foreign ministry, which did not immediately respond.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups say Nicaraguan authorities frequently abused prisoners during the 2018 and 2019 crackdown.
Doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they treated dozens of people showing signs of physical harm consistent with abuse and torture described by the detainees, including rape and electric shocks.
Ortega has said the accusations of torture in Nicaraguan jails are lies aimed at hurting Nicaragua’s image.
Cadena said she fears she would be imprisoned again if she were to return to Nicaragua. Since May of this year, nearly 40 politicians, journalists and other critics of Ortega have been arrested and jailed over accusations 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 is determined to finish her medical studies either in Costa Rica or elsewhere.
“I don’t want to get stuck,” Cadena said, adding that her goal is to become a heart surgeon and eventually bring that expertise back to Nicaragua. “I know when I return to my country, it will be ruined.”
For many young Nicaraguans still in the country, fear of repression is adding to worries about finding work in an economy that contracted nearly 9% over the last three years, said Nicaraguan sociologist and economist Oscar-Rene Vargas, based in Costa Rica.
He estimated that 100,000 young people enter the labor market every year in Nicaragua, but fewer than half can land jobs.
The United States logged a record 58,510 Nicaraguans entering this year, quadruple the previous high in 2019, according to Customs and Border Protection figures.
In neighboring Costa Rica, asylum applications have surged this year to nearly 40,000, with some Nicaraguans slipping across so-called blind spots in the border to avoid detection by Nicaraguan authorities. Many are the kinds of students pursuing professional careers whose presence is essential to the workforce in the longer term.
“It’s a kind of brain drain that limits Nicaragua’s potential,” Vargas said.
Jarot Rodriguez, 21, who was studying optometry at Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University, has applied for asylum in Costa Rica, where he is taking English classes.
His 19-year-old brother recently migrated to the United States, he said.
“For the people in Nicaragua, it’s give in… or leave,” Rodriguez said.
‘WE’RE A THREAT’
Ortega’s security forces deliberately targeted students during the 2018 crackdown because they propelled the broader protest movement, said Alan Guerrero, 22, a coordinator of the Nicaraguan Youth and Student Alliance.
“We’re a threat to the government and so we’re the first ones who have to go into exile,” said Guerrero, also now in Costa Rica, where he restarted his diplomacy and world affairs degree in online classes at a Nicaraguan university.
Manuel Orozco, director of the migration program at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said Ortega’s crackdown and the ongoing economic crisis risked Nicaragua slipping further down the development scale.
Poverty in Nicaragua worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, rising to 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 moving backwards rather than forwards, becoming more like Haiti,” Orozco said, noting that both countries are each entrenched in 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. The day Cadena was arrested, activists took to social media to call for her release.
Memories of the three days in 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 wants to be a doctor too, is motivation to rebuild her life.
“I need to heal myself,” she said. “I have to make a better country for her.”