Nicaraguan political leader and historian Dora Maria Téllez is free! After 20 months of imprisonment in Managua’s brutal El Chipote prison, Tellez—a legendary figure in the Sandinista revolution jailed since before the country’s November 2021 elections—was one of 222 political prisoners who were released by the Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo government on February 9 and immediately sent to Washington, D.C., on a charter flight after the United States agreed to provide asylum to the exiles.
When the Sandinistas guerrillas took over the National Palace in 1978, Téllez was second in command—the only woman among the commandos—and just 22 years old. The event marked a crucial advance in the resistance to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. (The Somoza family ruled over Nicaragua for 39 years). When Somoza fled in 1979 and the Sandinistas formed the new government, Téllez became minister of health, initiating a program that would win Nicaragua a United Nations prize for exceptional progress in public health.
Téllez, along with other prominent former revolutionary leaders, broke from the Sandinista Party in 1995—a time when the authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega was becoming increasingly apparent. She helped found the Sandinista Renovation Movement, “a democratic Sandinista party,” which was outlawed by Ortega in 2008, soon after he became president again.
Gabriel García Márquez once observed that Téllez possessed “an intelligence and good judgement that would have served her well for anything great in life.” She spoke to us by phone from Washington, D.C., soon after her release.
—Linda Mannheim and Mike Lanchin
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ML: I understand you have been reunited with your partner too, who was also in jail—how has that been?
DMT: Yes, we were in practically the same situation over the past 20 months, you know—of not being near each other. We could see each other in passing when they took us both to the Court of Appeals…. But we couldn’t talk or anything. But now….we can finally be together again. In prison we were in different wings and they never allowed us to have a joint family visit. We asked for it and our families asked for it. But we never got permission. Other prisoners were permitted to have joint family visits with their partners, but not us, no, because we were women, because they were in charge, and because of who we are.
ML: What’s your reaction to the government stripping first you and then another group of Nicaraguans of their citizenship?
DMT: I do not recognize the Ortega-Murillo Regime as legitimate or lawful because they stole the elections. And my nationality, frankly, does not depend upon them. I was born in Nicaragua, I am the daughter of a Nicaraguan father and mother and nobody can take my nationality away from me. What they can take away from me are my civil rights, but they…have taken that away from all Nicaraguans. There is not a single person in Nicaragua whose right to freedom of expression, freedom to organize, freedom to demonstrate, and freedom to elect and be elected has not been taken away…
ML: On a personal note, I went to Nicaragua to pick coffee more than 35 years ago, in solidarity. What do you think those of us who did that should be reflecting on now?
DMT: Your generation’s gesture of solidarity was natural. The selfless nature of the young people who came to offer solidarity [reached] the Nicaraguan people, who were trying to take part in a revolution in extremely difficult times. And those people are still there, and the essence of that solidarity is still there.… It is difficult to find a community that has not benefited from the solidarity of the ’80s. And that has nothing to do with the Ortega regime, right? And [the experience you had] is also a part of your lives.… That experience exists, it is there regardless of the fact that Daniel Ortega has thrown Sandinismo in the garbage and liquidated it.
DMT: I believe that releasing us, even though we have been banished, marks a turning point in the evolution of the Ortega-Murillo regime. Basically it is a recognition that the policy of repression, coercion, persecution, jail, banishment, death and confiscations has not worked [for them].… They have released us in order to be able to establish certain lines of communication at the international level, because nobody was willing to enter into a dialogue with them if we—the political prisoners—were not released beforehand. So there is a very important difference between the moment before, and the moment after, our release. I believe that in the near future we are going to see changes, which will be gradual, because the regime is also very afraid, isn’t it?… The regime fears that if they let up on the repression there could be an even greater crisis, or there could be demonstrations like there were in April 2018. But well, we are at a turning point. That is the remarkable thing about this moment.
LM: You’ve talked about how important international solidarity with the political prisoners has been. Do you have a sense of what that support might look like now
DMT: We have had a really gigantic outpouring of solidarity. Right? A lot of people have prayed for us and are praying now, are giving thanks that we were granted freedom. Many governments demanded our freedom and have also proceeded…to offer us asylum…and citizenship in the case of Spain and now Argentina.… But we have also received other kinds of solidarity—people who came to Washington, who are housing prisoners and supporting prisoners in different ways, who brought clothing because we arrived with practically nothing. That is solidarity…
LM: You’ve said the democratic left is rising in Latin America. Why do you think that’s happening now?
DMT: The Chilean government, the Colombian government, and the Brazilian government are examples of this democratic left that is strengthening citizens’ freedoms and also trying to improve the social and economic conditions of its people. We’re in the 21st century now. The 20th century was the century of dictatorships…the Somozas, Pinochet, the Argentinean military, to mention some of them, or those that ruled in Central America…. There have also been left-wing authoritarian regimes or those that have called themselves left-wing. So I believe that we are leaving behind the 20th century and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that today’s youth are much more interconnected, much more in communication…. In the past, countries could live in isolation, but not anymore. That presents the political systems of Latin America with an important choice. I believe that 21st century democracy is the only viable route for us in Latin America.
LM: You’re part of an incredibly diverse group of opposition figures who were first arrested together, then freed. What do you think are some of the strengths of that diversity?
DMT: Well, the great strength of being a diverse group is that before we were imprisoned, we emphasized our differences; in prison, we underlined our commonality, our unity, our similarities and our shared objectives…. I believe that the Ortega-Murillos are going to find that imprisoning all of us at the same time, a diverse group, will have a positive impact on Nicaragua’s struggle for democracy. Even though they wanted the opposite, it seems to me that we gained an enormous advantage being in the same prison, in adjoining cells, right?
It’s always been hard to be united; repression has divided us. And it’s also always been difficult not just to stand up against something, but to [work for] something. I believe that we now have better conditions for working together than we have had in other moments.
LM: This is a question I was asked to ask you, and I know the answer is complex. Which is: where you think the revolution went wrong?
DMT: The Sandinista revolution is not a person. It is a social political phenomenon. Social political phenomena do not make mistakes, right? You can’t say the revolution was wrong in this, wrong in that, no. But we can talk about the people who were in that revolution, at what moment they were wrong or not wrong and in what context. But we would have to define what period you’re referring to when looking at the mistakes made by those of us who were the protagonists of the revolution: after 1980 or in the 1990s? Well, this all calls for more complex answers. I will gladly give them, but another day, because this subject is indeed complex.
LM: Recently you told an interviewer that to be a rebel when you are young is wonderful, and to be rebellious when you are older is another wonder. Can you talk about being rebellious when you’re older?
DMT: I can only speak from my own experience. But let’s say that an older person tends to become more accommodating.… And basically I am happy to not become accommodating, to maintain a confrontation with an illegitimate authority, with an authoritarian model.… I like that rebelliousness, because I am happier not bowing my head at any price, and not kneeling in front of the dictatorship at any price. And that for me is very important, for myself, not for anyone else but myself. Which is what I decide: what I want to continue doing and how much I am willing to pay for it. Because it always has a price.