Nicaragua’s feminist exiles

25/11/2019 - 21:10

Refuge. The documentary ‘Exiliada’ explains the ordeal of Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter due to the pressure she was subjected to after denouncing the sexual abuse she suffered at Ortega’s hands.

The story of Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, the adopted daughter of Daniela Ortega, president of Nicaraga and leader of the Front Sandinista, is one of many cases of gender violence within families that have gone unpunished. What is worse in Zoilamérica’s case is that she had to flee due to the pressure she was subjected to after she had denounced it. The young Nicaraguan film director Leonor Zúniga tells the story in the documentary ‘Exiliada’, which is being shown at different venues around the country. Feministas Autoconvicadas organised the screening of the film at the Casa Amèrica in Barcelona, with a post-function discussion with the director, in exile herself because of the documentary.

Sexual violence is very common in a country which looked like it would change the rules of the game, not only in terms of class struggle but also in terms of gender relations. We still remember the women guerrilla fighters championed by the Sandanista revolution. The total impunity of Daniel Ortega’s sexual abuse of Ziolamérica break down this utopia and show the way into exile for anyone denouncing sexist behaviour rooted in Nicaraguan society.

Threats and pressure forced her to give in and go to Costa Rica

Beyond impunity: exile for denouncement

The Sandanista leader was denounced by her daughter in 1998, when Ortega was no longer the head of the government but, according to her, at a time when he continued to have a lot of power. He managed to prevent the trial taking place until the crime was prescribed. Later, when he was once again president, he orchestrated a series of threats and pressure that would cause Zoilamérica to give in and go to Costa Rica. Zúniga’s documentary seeks to narrate the parallel between sexual abuse and the abuse of power, as well as how the family is often one of the main causes for the perpetuation of the heteropatriarchal structure as this behaviour cannot be reproached, let alone denounced.

So much so that Zoilamérica’s mother, Rosario Murillo, who denied the abuse from the outset and defended Ortega, was one of the accusers and even asked for forgiveness for having a daughter who had “betrayed the revolution”. Ortega was the revolution.

Spain received 1,368 requests from Nicaraguans for international protection in 2018

Nicaragua, a country to flee from

Ortega and Murillo returned to power in 2006 and pursued a path which was at odds with the Sandinista values of freedom and democracy. Today’s Nicaragua is governed by them in autocratic fashion, where anyone disagreeing with the couple’s decisions often ends up with a prison sentence. The case of Zoilamérica is just one of many where people have had to leave the country due to the government’s slide towards authoritarianism.

In the last few years, particularly since April 2018, following the repression of mobilisations against the social security reform, estimates put the number of people leaving the country at tens of thousands. Spain recorded a sharp rise in the number of Nicaraguans requesting international protection in 2018, with 1,368 applications compared to 31 the previous year.

Magaly Castillo is one of them. A Nicaraguan refugee living in Barcelona, she took part in the session following the screening of Zúniga’s documentary at the Casa Amèrica. She too wanted to denounce sexual abuse, suffered by her cousin at the hands of another relative. She explains that her first exile was from her family. “It’s not that they didn’t believe me, they wanted me to keep quiet to maintain the supposed family peace. The silence they asked of me meant I had to carry on living with him, the abuser, with no consequences. Gender violence is pandemic in Nicaragua”, she affirmed.

Feministas Autoconvocadas, the organisation that arranged the Barcelona documentary screening, came about in response to this situation in April 2018. “An informal collective with no structure and borne out of the emergency we ended up dubbing as feminist as it was the common ground for all of us as self-organised members to join the hundreds of similarly named groups springing up in Nicaragua. We organised talks, round tables, planting sessions and gatherings to denounce the violence of the criminal and patriarchal Ortega-Murillo regime”, explains one of the members, Edurne Larracoechea.

For her part, Leonor Zúniga, the director of the documentary Exiliada, aware of the danger she faced in Nicaragua from the moment her secretly filmed documentary saw the light, left the country. She insists that although it’s really tough to be far from home, now she can sleep without being afraid. The documentary about Zoilamérica has never been shown in Nicaragua.

What became of the women guerrilla fighters?

The triumph of the Sandinista revolution promised future victories for the working classes everywhere and were particularly relevant to groups of left-wing activists in Spain at the time. These victories, like in Nicaragua, would bring literacy, agricultural reform and women’s participation in public life. Progress was undoubtedly made in some of these areas in the years that followed the revolution. Yet Zúniga and Castillo both affirm that in terms of women breaking into decision-making processes this was a fallacy. The apparent change never came about: the guerrilla women carried on cooking, looking after the family and not much else. Castillo knows this first-hand as she knew some of these women. Just before seeking refuge in Spain she started at theatre group called Las Amapolas as a place for meeting, healing, critical thinking and feminist activism. She explains that some of the participants at these therapeutic gatherings, women who had been part of the Sandanista revolution, shared for the first time the abuse they suffered at the hands of political colleagues within the movement.

This feminist non-revolution is one of the current causes of the exile of many Nicaraguan women. Today’s feminist movements are one of the pillars of opposition to the Ortega-Murillo regime.