Bianca Jagger on State-Sponsored Violence in Nicaragua "They Would Shoot at the Throat and the Head to Murder the Protesters"

Human rights defender Bianca Jagger is heavily critical of the president of her homeland, Nicaragua. "Daniel Ortega is a murderous dictator," she says, adding that she doesn't believe he will ever hold free elections.
Interview Conducted by Jens Glüsing in Mexico City
President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo in Managua.

President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo in Managua.

Foto: AFP

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Jagger, you grew up in Nicaragua when dictator Anastasio Somoza still was in power. Some critics have compared the regime of Daniel Ortega with the terror of the Somoza years. Is that comparison justified?

Jagger: Ortega is far worse than Somoza, although Somoza was also a ruthless and brutal dictator. Ortega is holding the Nicaraguan people hostage. We are talking about a criminal dictator who has committed crimes against humanity, who murders and oppresses his people. Anyone who opposes him can become a victim of relentless persecution – they can be kidnapped and held hostage or imprisoned. During the last two months, his police and paramilitary forces have kidnapped and are holding hostage 30 leaders, including seven presidential candidates, de facto eliminating any meaningful opposition leadership.

DER SPIEGEL: Who are these prisoners?

Jagger: They represent politicians from all political orientations. They are members of civil society, women, students, poor farmers, journalist and members of the private sector. We don’t know if they are in jail, or if they are even alive, because no one has seen them. Ortega has denied access to the Red Cross, to their lawyers, to humanitarian and medical assistance and to their own families. Among them are two prominent former iconic Sandinista leaders who participated in the struggle against Somoza and who also took part in an operation to free political prisoners from Somoza’s jails: Hugo Torres, known as Comandante Uno, and Dora Maria Tellez, who goes by Comandante Dos. Ironically, Ortega was one of the prisoners that was liberated. Today, over 150 political prisoners are being held in his prisons. During my recent testimony in U.S. Congress, I made a request to Daniel Ortega to allow me to visit the political prisoner in the jails of Nicaragua. Forty-two years ago, in early July 1979, Somoza reluctantly allowed me to visit the Managua prisons with the Nicaraguan Red Cross.

About Bianca Jagger
Bianca Jagger, born in 1945, grew up in France and lives in London. She is the founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, of which she is the president. She is the Council of Europe's goodwill ambassador for the elimination of the death penalty and board member of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International.

Bianca Jagger, born in 1945, grew up in France and lives in London. She is the founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, of which she is the president. She is the Council of Europe's goodwill ambassador for the elimination of the death penalty and board member of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International.

Foto: Jorge Torres / EPA-EFE

DER SPIEGEL: For quite some time, you have been supporting the opposition in the country. Have you ever felt any sympathy for the Sandinista revolution?

Jagger: Of course I did, as did millions of people throughout the world. I lived in Nicaragua until I left to study political science in Paris. As a student, I participated in demonstrations against Somoza. We saw the revolution as an alternative to dictatorship and believed that this revolution was going to bring freedom, justice and democracy. I grew up under the Somoza dynasty; it was not just a dictatorship, it lasted 39 years. I became aware that I was living under a repressive regime through the eyes of my mother, although she was not a politician but a housewife. She was the first person who taught me about human rights and women’s rights. Through her, I learned the meaning of freedom, justice, the rule of law, democracy and freedom of speech.

DER SPIEGEL: How great is your disappointment today?

Jagger: I feel betrayed, as do, I’m sure, millions of Nicaraguans and people throughout the world who believed in the Sandinista revolution. Daniel Ortega is not a revolutionary leader. Daniel Ortega is a murderous dictator. We’re not talking about left and right. We’re talking about right and wrong.

DER SPIEGEL: Ortega has called presidential elections for November. Do you think a free election is possible?

Jagger: I have never believed that Ortega will allow free and fair elections to be held in Nicaragua.

DER SPIEGEL: Why not?

Jagger: In 1990, when the Sandinistas were voted out, I was an observer in Nicaragua. I wanted to see who the people were going to vote for, so I went to the markets and outside of churches, where street vendors sell fruits and sweets. They talked about the economy and they talked about compulsory military service. I came out thinking Daniel Ortega was going to lose the election.

DER SPIEGEL: What was his reaction?

Jagger: I asked to meet him, and I told him: "Comandante, you’re going to lose the election.” And he looked at me as if I was out of my mind. He never thought he could lose. I’ve always been convinced that Daniel Ortega will never run in an election that he might lose.

DER SPIEGEL: How did he manage to return to power in 2007?

Jagger: He has held fraudulent elections in the past. He has made deals with corrupt politicians and with the most powerful families in the country in order to stay in power – he realized that he couldn’t go after them. That’s why he introduced neo-liberal policies. In return, they allowed him to dismantle all the legal and democratic institutions in Nicaragua and to change the constitution so that he could be president for life. That shows that it doesn’t matter to him if policies are left or right. He only cares about staying in power.

DER SPIEGEL: He never was a democrat?

Jagger: Daniel Ortega is not an eloquent or charismatic politician, and he certainly was not the most brilliant among the Sandinista leaders. But he and his brother co-opted the leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). He has never been a visionary, he was not an intellectual, he has never been a great politician. He was a bank robber, not a hero. He didn’t even fight in the struggle. He was in jail.

DER SPIEGEL: How did he manage to stay in power for so long then?

Jagger: Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who knew Nicaragua quite well, once made some comments that now sound quite prophetic. He said that if the U.S. launched a war against the Sandinistas, it would give them an excuse to build up their military arsenal and rely on their military capability to rule the country – with the excuse that their national security was threatened. Maybe there was truth to that. That’s why they had such an enormous military budget. When you start thinking that the national security of your country is at stake, you can put people in jail very easily. You can introduce laws that clamp down on freedom and democracy. Daniel Ortega understood that well.

DER SPIEGEL: At what point did you turn away from the Sandinistas?

Jagger: There were two issues that sounded the alarm for me. When they jailed the leaders of COSEP, the private sector association of companies, and when they began the relentless and brutal persecution of the Miskito indigenous community. My mother, who believed and supported the revolution at the beginning, became disillusioned much earlier than me, because she was in Nicaragua. At first, I thought she was wrong, but she was right.

DER SPIEGEL: Many people justified the Sandinistas’ behavior by arguing that the U.S. was financing and supporting the Contras, who were rebelling against the Sandinistas.

"They would shoot at the throat and the head to murder the protesters."

Jagger: In the 1990s, when President Violeta Chamorro began to promote the demobilization of the Contras and the Contras began to return to Nicaragua, I went to the Honduran border to film a documentary and to meet some of the Contras to understand their side of the story. Sometimes in life, we have an idea that things are black and white, wrong and right. I then understood how many of the Contras were poor farmers, campesinos, who had been oppressed by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government. But also, they were oppressed and exploited by the wealthy Nicaraguans who were leading the Contra war. On both sides, though, it was the campesinos who were dying, those on the side of the Sandinista government and those on the side of the Contras. And I had to accept that maybe I had not fully understood how complex the Contra war was. Of course the Contras were wrong, and I will always oppose foreign intervention. But the campesinos in Nicaragua were the real victims of Daniel Ortega and of the American intervention.

DER SPIEGEL: What do the farmers think of Ortega today?

Jagger: In 2017, Amnesty International issued a report called "Rights for Sale,” a report on the inter-oceanic canal and how the policies that Daniel Ortega and his regime had introduced unjustly targeted the campesinos. The government wanted to evict them and confiscate their land. The campesinos were the ones who really understood how damaging the inter-oceanic canal would be for Lake Nicaragua. The campesinos have been victims of Daniel Ortega and his army. They have persecuted and murdered the campesinos, and the farmers are still being persecuted by Daniel Ortega’s police and army. In 2017, I went to a remote area of Nicaragua to join thousands of campesinos, and an extraordinary campesino leader named Doña Chica Ramirez, for a protest.

DER SPIEGEL: You also supported the university students who protested against Ortega in 2018.

Jagger: In 2018, I was in Nicaragua to support the launch of Amnesty International’s report "Shoot to Kill.” The report documents how the Ortega regime employed snipers and used weapons of war against the demonstrators. They would shoot at the throat and the head to murder the protesters. Hundreds of young students were killed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that crimes against humanity were perpetrated in Nicaragua in 2018.

Bianca Jagger at a protest march in 2017: "The campesinos have been victims of Daniel Ortega and his army. They have persecuted and murdered the campesinos, and the farmers are still being persecuted by Daniel Ortega’s police and army."

Bianca Jagger at a protest march in 2017: "The campesinos have been victims of Daniel Ortega and his army. They have persecuted and murdered the campesinos, and the farmers are still being persecuted by Daniel Ortega’s police and army."

Foto: JORGE TORRES / EPA

DER SPIEGEL: What became of the student movement?

Jagger: Many were killed, and hundreds were expelled from their universities. Many of the students had to flee the country. Many are in Costa Rica and other countries, where they are unable to attend university.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you still in contact with some of the former leaders of the student movement?

Jagger: Yes, of course. I still get phone calls from them. They say: "Please help me,” or sometimes: "They’re going to get me killed.” Many call me from Costa Rica because they don’t have any funds to study. A mother of one particular student recently called me because her son was about to be deported from the U.S. He had been in jail in Nicaragua before, and he would be put in jail again. So yes, I feel powerless and I have many sleepless nights thinking: What can I do to help them?

DER SPIEGEL: And what can you do to help them?

Jagger: The way I can help is by writing reports, by documenting their situation and by appealing to governments. I try to give them a voice and I’m active on social media. Inside Nicaragua, it is very difficult, and many journalists have had to leave the country. My foundation does not give grants. We document human right violations.

DER SPIEGEL: Ortega is also persecuting doctors. Why?

Jagger: In 2018, when they were killing students and protestors, the Nicaraguan health minister issued an order that those students or protestors who were wounded should not be given medical treatment. If doctors disobeyed the orders and provided medical attention to the wounded, they were fired. At least 500 hundred doctors have lost their jobs as a result. It’s perverse and unspeakable for this regime to think that doctors should be fired for doing what they’re supposed to do – namely treating people who are wounded, regardless of their political beliefs.

A newspaper selle in Managua in 2020: Doctors who announced the true number of coronavirus victims are threatened.

A newspaper selle in Managua in 2020: Doctors who announced the true number of coronavirus victims are threatened.

Foto: Jorge Torres / EPA-EFE

DER SPIEGEL: Three years have passed since then and the regime is still persecuting doctors. Why?

Jagger: Early on, Daniel Ortega tried to pretend that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Doctors weren’t even allowed to wear masks and they weren’t given any personal protective equipment. They have to buy it themselves. Doctors who try to alert the population about the dangers of the pandemic and urge them to take protective measures are targeted by the regime.

DER SPIEGEL: He didn’t see the pandemic as a serious threat?

Jagger: He held beauty pageants and urged people to hold gatherings. He wanted people to believe, particularly potential tourists, that everything was normal in the country.

DER SPIEGEL: Has Ortega ever reacted to your criticism?

Jagger: When I was with Amnesty International in Nicaragua in 2017 and 2018, I called him a traitor to the revolution. I looked into the cameras and said: "You should be ashamed!” I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since then. I don’t think I would be able to do that now and stay alive.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the role of Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo, who he installed as vice president?

Jagger: She chose to stand with Ortega against her own daughter, Zoilamérica, who has accused him of sexually abusing her for several years when she was a child and an adolescent. It is unthinkable for me that the mother of a young girl, who was sexually abused by a dictator, would choose to stand with the perpetrator of that crime instead of defending her daughter. Rosario Murillo has been instrumental in the persecution of Zoilamérica and essentially saved Ortega from going to jail. In return, he named her vice president. She is the co-conspirator in all the egregious crimes and human rights violations that have been committed in the country. She’s the accomplice of Daniel Ortega. They run the country together. Both are responsible for crimes against humanity.

DER SPIEGEL: She leans strongly toward esoteric beliefs. Many say she is crazy.

Jagger: I don’t care what she’s into, to be honest. The only thing I care about are the murders they commit. She and her husband are a great danger for the people in Nicaragua and for the international community. How do you deal with a couple whose behavior is utterly irrational? There is no logic to anything they do. They have even insulted countries that could play a mediator role, like Mexico, Argentina, Spain and Canada. The day before a debate on Nicaragua was to be held in European Parliament, they abducted a possible presidential candidate and several campesino leaders. Either they are completely ignorant and unaware of what’s happening in the world, or they are in total defiance. Or they are just completely unhinged, which is what I think. There is no limit to what they will do to stay in power.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain this behavior?

Jagger: As a human rights defender, I have dealt with war criminals, perpetrators of crimes against humanity and dictators. They are afraid of losing power because they would lose the legal immunity they have while in power. They know they will be held accountable before the law as soon as they lose power.

DER SPIEGEL: How can Europe and the U.S. help the people of Nicaragua?

Jagger: I’ve been asking the international community to look at the corrupt justice system that is at the service of Daniel Ortega. They should impose individual sanctions, which would avoid doing harm to the general public. The U.S. have withdrawn entry visas for 100 people, that is a first step. The European Union recently imposed sanctions on eight individuals, including Rosario Murillo and one of her sons. The U.S. should also suspend Nicaragua from the Central America Free Trade Agreement an include a clause requiring respect for human rights and the protection of the environment. The European Union should do the same with its trade agreement with Nicaragua.

"It is important to conduct research on where is the wealth that Daniel Ortega has accumulated."

DER SPIEGEL: Is it possible to put pressure on Ortega and his family individually?

Jagger: It is important to conduct research on where is the wealth that Daniel Ortega has accumulated. Doing so was instrumental during Somoza’s tenure.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there any possibility of establishing a dialogue with this regime?

Jagger: In negotiations with the Vatican in 2018, Ortega agreed to release political prisoners and agreed to other concessions. He then released the prisoners, but then he put many of them back in jail and mocked all the agreements he made. How can you trust a dictator like Daniel Ortega? You are not dealing with an honest broker.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think there could be an armed revolt against Ortega like there was against Somoza?

Jagger: The Nicaraguan people have made a choice. They don’t want to engage in armed struggle anymore. They already fought a revolution once, and it didn’t work: They ended up with another tyrant. More than 50 000 people died. We fought a dynasty and then we ended up with a dictatorship that is worse than the one that came before. The people want to have a non-violent, peaceful, civil insurrection.

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