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About the Author

Magda Guillen Swanson graduated from Harvard in 2002 and received a certificate in Latin American Studies from DRCLAS. She now lives outside of Philadelphia with her family. Since returning to the United States in 2017, she has worked at the intersection of private investment and philanthropy at a major US-based grant-maker. Although she is no longer a student, ReVista is publishing her essay in Student Views to illustrate how the alliance among Harvard students remains strong. For further information about the Felix Maradiaga situation, check out https://www.gofundme.com/f/legal-defense-fund-for-nicaraguan-poc

From Harvard to a Nicaraguan Jail Cell

The improbable journey of the latest victim of Daniel Ortega’s roundups

 

“I know Harlingen.”

Felix Maradiaga cleared his throat uncomfortably, and I detected a nearly imperceptible deflation around his shoulders, a sudden, invisible weight bearing down.

We were seated at a right angle to one another on the expansive tiled patio belonging to a family of Nicaraguan oligarchs openly critical of the Ortega government. The heavy, humid evening air of Managua was made tolerable—even pleasant—by the wildly spinning fans overhead, and the entire tableau had the air of a European salon. Imported Italian red wines, served chilled; recited lines from a Darío poem; bawdy jokes; the Washington Consensus.

A few quiet seconds passed as the convivial conversation around us ascended in a crescendo of laughter and then fell away. A sharp inhalation, and then Felix continued, “I know Harlingen. I had the worst experience of my life there.”

The author’s three-year-old son visiting the Masaya volcano outside Managua at dusk (he is now eight, same age as Felix’s daughter). Photo courtesy of Magda Guillen Swanson.

My mind clicked through various scenes, possible connections hypothesized and discarded in rapid succession as I tried to piece together this impossible linkage between us: my small and unremarkable Texas hometown, nestled along the border with Mexico, and this clear-eyed, cerebral, and sharp-witted Nicaraguan man that I had just met.

“I don’t tell many people this story, but I know Harlingen very well. When I went up north, I was just a kid. My father died, so my mother sent me. The Border Patrol found me and brought me to an old building next to the bus station. I can still see it,” he told me.

And in that moment, I could see it, too: the long line wrapping around the front entrance of the Greyhound bus station in Harlingen on Saturday mornings, the enormous Texas sun just starting its ascent toward its daily summertime assault position. Illegal immigrants stood in faded T-shirts with American cartoon images, black patent leather shoes and dusty jeans, clutching small backpacks with their few belongings. It was such a commonplace sight in my youth, that I never absorbed its meaning until I’d left and realized that such scenes were not at all typical in other parts of the country.

Felix paused again. “You know, I was just 12 years old. I was treated like a criminal there.”

The central plaza in Granada; the grey cinder block structure is a ‘wifi’ hub, and the young people strewn around it are taking advantage of the free internet connection. Photo courtesy of Magda Guillen Swanson.

In a few sharp strokes, I heard about the overweight female Border Patrol officer that harangued Felix for hours; his midnight journey overland in a Greyhound bus to an unknown family in Florida identified by his mother back home in Nicaragua; the frequently empty refrigerator there, and his steadfast commitment to returning to his homeland. His graduate degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, his work at the United Nations, his much longed-for return to Nicaragua and his devotion to its future.

The story was unwrapped quickly—no lingering on the details—and yet the depths of sadness and triumph contained within it were almost too much to bear. I was silent for a long while.

Later that evening, as our driver ferried us back to our hilltop home just across the Carretera Masaya from our hosts, I turned to my husband and said, “You know, if there’s any hope for Nicaragua, Felix needs to become its President, and Berta its First Lady.”

 

***

It has been less than a decade since we moved to Nicaragua with an international NGO, and I lived in Managua for nearly two years. While there, I bore witness to a country whose long and bloody history of insurrection, rebellion, foreign intervention and oppression inured a kind of political schizophrenia. The winding paths of Nicaraguan political identity—rife with internal contradictions, modern-day Nicaraguans themselves identifying as both victors and victims—cannot be easily understood, even by someone like me with a long familiarity and education in Latin American history and politics. (Fortunately for me, I discovered Stephen Kinzer’s excellent Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua  shortly after arriving there. The book became my de facto field guide to daily interactions, and I am eternally grateful to the author for so deftly assembling Nicaragua’s vast and vastly painful political history onto just over 400 pages.)

My time in Managua was an object lesson in living with cognitive dissonance: it was not merely the colossal juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots that rattled my consciousness; inequality is very much a given anywhere in Latin America. Rather, the cycle of freedom and oppression has scarred the population in a way that I have never observed before or since: for Nicaraguans, the future is just a mirror looking back on the past. Freedom won is not freedom secured; it is merely the next stop on the train line. The stops following are anyone’s guess.

An evening scene in front of the Dario hotel in Granada. Photo courtesy of Magda Guillen Swanson.

How do you build a country on the promise of a brighter tomorrow if the population eyes the future with such distrust? Who are the patriots, and who are the enemies?

 

***

As I write this, my friend Felix Maradiaga (HKS 06) is among several political prisoners arrested for the crime of running for president. These individuals are imprisoned indefinitely in Managua by Daniel Ortega, whose latest machinations to secure the political future for himself and his family are among his most cruel and ambitious since returning to power. His agenda in this regard is sweeping: his political enemies are imprisoned for “hate crimes,” punishable by life sentences. He has silenced the media and social networks. And he has broadly defined individuals working under any ties to a foreign organization as “foreign agents,” granting his government expansive authority to track, control and seize assets deemed to be under foreign influence.

And what an opportune time for Ortega to swing for the fences. After all, the world is distracted by a global pandemic, the White House is reeling from a massive immigrant-refugee crisis at its own border, and the United States’ own sacred democracy was nearly toppled by a foaming-at-the-mouth mob rallied from within the Oval Office by a demagogue. Glass houses, indeed.

I don’t know what the future holds for Felix, his wife Berta or their young daughter. But I do marvel at his devotion to a country that has stripped so much from him and his wife, and his optimism that another future is possible there—a future that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

An evening scene in front of a church in Granada. Photo courtesy of Magda Guillen Swanson.

***

The largest outdoor market in Central America rambles across several labyrinthine city streets in the heart of Managua. El Oriental is infamous, its catacombs the place to find all manner of goods and services—legal, illegal and otherwise. While stationed in Managua, US State Department employees are warned to stay away, but accompanied by our driver, I ventured deep into the abyss several times in search of tropical flowers for my home as well as quality pieces of Nicaraguan handicrafts, far away from the garishly painted wooden knick-knacks of the tourist-ed parts of the city (few as there were).

I emerged once loaded down with about a half dozen large handled bags woven from colorful plastic strands. They are ideal beach bags, and the color palettes are unusual and beautiful in their complex patterns.

In showcasing his wares to me, the shopkeeper at El Oriental pointed up towards the hills surrounding Managua and informed me, almost slyly, “You know, these baskets are made by prisoners as a way to make money to pay for food.”

And there it was. The Nicaraguan condition made manifest: imprisoned by the past, creating small bits of beauty from common objects in order to survive.

A passenger ferry boat to the island of Ometepe. It’s a bit difficult to see, but there are massive “Ortega for President” billboards along the entire length of the dock. Photo courtesy of Magda Guillen Swanson.

by | Jul 2, 2021

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