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José Antonio Peraza: “We learned to respect each other” in the El Chipote jail

Political scientist Jose Antonio Peraza spent over 500 days of arbitrary imprisonment in the cells of the El Chipote jail, together with other Nicaraguan civic and political leaders. The forced cohabitation produced results the regime hadn’t intended: “We learned to respect each other, to realize that there are other ideas that are very important.”

“I believe there are people who entered El Chipote and came out very differently. The majority changed their perceptions about the other people who were there. We coexisted with a great deal of respect, affection, great admiration, and a lot of solidarity,” Peraza stated during an interview with Confidencial and its online news show Esta Semana.

Peraza was sentenced to ten years in jail for the fabricated crime of “conspiring to undermine the national integrity.” On February 9, he was released and put on a plane for the United States along with 221 other Nicaraguan political prisoners, all of them banished and stripped of their nationality.

“If there was one thing we came to understand in jail, talking amongst ourselves, it’s the profound errors we [as a people] have committed in the last 200 years. These aren’t the product of people who’ve come from outside, they’re rooted in our own hearts, and there’s where we must begin to change,” emphasized the Peraza.

In order to achieve a united opposition, Peraza stressed, the leaders must understand that civic resistance “isn’t an ideological matter.” A common agenda must be drawn up to “confront Ortega.”

“The objective we have in common,” he continued, “is to join together and generate a platform that’s an alternative to Ortega’s project – not at all a difficult matter, because Ortega doesn’t have much of a platform.”

How have the last four weeks in freedom been for you?

I haven’t rested for a single moment, because I have no wish to rest. I’m sleeping pretty well – about five hours a night – but outside of that, I dedicate the rest of my time to communicating with people, with my children, and to reflecting on what has happened that was fruitful. I’ve achieved a lot this month, although everyone has recommended I take a rest.  I’m in the process of reflecting on everything that has happened.

What were the conditions of your imprisonment in El Chipote?  What did you do to overcome the isolation?

It was a small cell with a cement platform for sleeping. There was artificial lighting, but it was in a place with no access at all to natural light. From the first day, what I did was establish a routine for myself, in the sense of getting up to meditate. I exercised. The afternoons were the longest, the most tedious; after that, I’d get ready for supper. There were some slightly lighter moments – we had people like Alex Hernandez, who’s a great actor and would tell us stories from movies or books he had read. In ways like that, we tried to find some situations that would bring cheer to our lives. We talked about what we were going to do with Nicaragua, with our lives.

The last time you appeared on Esta Semana turned out to be the day before you were arrested. Do you think they imprisoned you for exercising your right to free speech?

They never told me why they arrested me. They merely showed up, grabbed me, made me get in the police vehicle. During the ride they were asking me if I was upset. I told them: “I have nothing to fear, because I haven’t done anything wrong and this detention you’re carrying out is unjust.”

How was it sharing a cell with the other imprisoned leaders in El Chipote?

In general, it was fine. We learned to respect each other, to know that there were other ideas that were very important. I believe that there are those who entered El Chipote and left very differently. The majority changed their perception with respect to the other people who were there. It was a coexistence with a lot of respect, affection, great admiration and much solidarity.

You were sentenced to ten years in prison for supposedly “conspiring.” During the kangaroo trial, did they present any evidence to you? Who were the witnesses?

The witnesses were the police themselves, and the testimonies were precisely of the interview I had with Carlos Fernando [Chamorro, director of Esta Semana and Confidencial], and of an interview that I had with [journalist] Sergio Marin Cornavaca. [Cornavaca] had asked me if the United States could impose sanctions, and I replied: “yes, they could,” but that we didn’t know if the United States was going to make that decision. Basically, those were their great proofs of “treason to the government” and “undermining the integrity of the Nicaraguan State.”

I told the judge to impose the maximum penalty on me, if he wanted, for two reasons: because what they were doing was illegal and unjust, and because I was sure I’d never really serve out that sentence.

How did you receive the news that the regime had stripped you of your nationality?

More nonsense. I believe they made another mistake. With that decision, they’re opening the door to be tried for crimes against humanity. They don’t have a clear picture of what’s really happening in the world. It’s a profoundly decadent regime and getting out from under them is a question of time. Now, the problem is how we’re going to get out from under them, because we can’t continue with the experiences of the past. The idea is that Nicaragua must look for a different way out, not because Ortega deserves it, but because we deserve it for ourselves.

In the interview you gave Esta Semana and Confidencial just before being taken prisoner, you mentioned the need for a national confluence to confront the dictatorship. What do you feel is the principal challenge of the Nicaraguan opposition in achieving that unity?

The principal challenge is simple, and it’s the same problem as always: putting personal interests aside. This isn’t an ideological problem. The common objective is to get together and create a platform that would be an alternative to Ortega’s project. That’s not difficult to do, because Ortega doesn’t have much of a platform.

We’ll need to tell the Nicaraguan people the basic points of our proposal, and with it come to an agreement, in order to maintain a firm and cohesive opposition. From the point of view of developing the discourse, it’s very simple; but from a practical point of view, this has always been difficult for Nicaraguans.

We need leaders who are aware of Nicaragua’s terrible political history. If there was one thing we came to understand in jail, speaking amongst ourselves, it’s the profound historic errors we’ve committed in the last 200 years, and that they’re not the product of people who came from outside, they’re rooted in our own hearts, and that’s where we must begin to change.