Nicaragua

Nicaragua Proud Series Part I-LGBT+ Existence & Resistance Inside Nicaragua: An Interview with Ebén Diaz.

In the United States, June is Pride Month. Around the world, June 28 is International Day of LGBT+ Pride. Some may ask, why June and why June 28?

 

Picture of Stonewall Uprising: Crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Joseph Ambrosini/The New York Daily News.

 

Early morning June 28, 1969: Police in New York City raided the Stonewall Inn, otherwise known as The gay bar in the city. Police frequently raided the few LGBTQ-friendly spaces in the city, and raids were so common that bar owners could find out about them in time to pay off the police. Despite how commonplace raids were at the time, police lost control of the raid on the morning of the 28th after bar attendees, LGBT+ and allies alike, started the uprising to reclaim their space and protect their home. The uprisings, which lasted days after the initial riot, ushered in a new era for the advancement of LGBT+ human rights around the world. Thus International Day of LGBT+ Pride was born.

The LGBT+ community has made great strides in achieving visibility and equal rights since Stonewall. Some countries, nonetheless, continue to repress or ignore its LGBT+ denizens. In 1992 Nicaragua (under the presidency of Violeta Chamorro) for example, lawmakers amended its Penal Code regarding sexual offenses to include Article 204, which criminalized homosexuality and effectively other LGBT+ people’s right to exist.

In an effort to repeal the law in 1994, organizers under the Campaign for Sexuality without Prejudices challenged the constitutionality of the law via an appeal to the Supreme Court. The appeal failed, but Nicaraguan lawmakers nulled Article 204 in 2008 when a new penal code written by the Nicaraguan National Assembly took effect. Therefore, at least homosexuality was legalized. To this day, however, gay marriage has not been recognized. But legality does not necessarily mean that your anti-LGBT+ neighbor will treat you the same (if you find yourself to be LGBT+ and your neighbor anti-LGBT+, of course).

 

A Pride parade-goer celebrates in Managua, Nicaragua in 2016. Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters.

 

Question: How are our LGBT+ compañeros in Nicaragua doing? In an effort to begin to answer this question, Latina Republic interviewed Ebén Díaz, an LGBT+ Nicaraguan who works in advancing LGBT+ rights in the country and in Central America.

Latina Republic: Ebén, thank you so much for your time. Can you please tell us about where you work and any current titles that you hold within your job?

Ebén: I currently work at the Thematic Network of LGBTIQ + Sexual Diversity in Nicaragua (will be referred to as the Network from here on out). The Network is a space that emerged 18 years ago in 2002. It is made up of organizations of LGBTIQ + people in the country. We have groups of trans, gay, and lesbian people, and one intersex person.

The Network emerged as an arm to another Nicaraguan organization known as the Civil Coordinator (CC), which was born in 1998 as a result of the disaster in Central America with Hurricane Mitch. Nicaragua was one of the countries most affected by the hurricane. In response to the emergency, a group of Nicaraguans founded the CC to aid those affected, and 4 years later the Network emerged as a member of the CC.

The Network by itself has no legal representation in the country. There are quite a few reasons, but probably the main one at the moment is because in Nicaragua it is not yet legally possible to register civil society organizations that work on issues for the homosexual community and register them as such.

In a perfect world, we would register the network as a human rights organization, but we cannot add  “LGBTIQ +” in front of “human rights”. It is not possible. We have that restriction by law. It is not necessarily because of homophobia. It is plain and simple that you cannot register like this because the current law does not allow it. So for that reason it was not possible to register the organization at all.

I started at the Network more than 15 years ago. I eventually became the Vice-Coordinator of the Network, and I have been the General Coordinator for a year and a half now. In this position, 

I am in charge of the Steering Committee as its President, and I’m also in charge of the execution of the Network’s strategic and operative plan. My mandate is for five years and I also have the chance of reelection if my final evaluation is ok and also if the General Assembly says I’m ok for a second and final mandate.

The Network coordinates with other NGOs in the country and in Central America that work on human rights, some specifically focused on the LGBTIQ + community. For that reason I am also in charge of the representation of the Network both inside and outside the country.

Latina Republic: You mentioned that it is not necessarily because of homophobia that you cannot register the Network as an organization, but rather because of the current nature of the law in Nicaragua. But do lawmakers necessarily want to change the law?

Ebén: On the topic of homophobia: Studies have been carried out that show that indices of homophobia stay the same or get higher (they hardly lower) in societies that are more conservative and traditional. Nicaragua is not the exception.

As a personal example, I have walked down the streets with trans women and I have noticed the difference: they do not discriminate against me because they probably see me as masculine. If a taxi goes down the street, and the person is homophobic, the two trans colleagues get told any amount of filth and vulgarity. In those instances you recognize the great level of homophobia that still exists in this country.

Now, when we are talking about lawmakers, we have politicians here who outwardly espouse homophobic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That has prevented the country from passing laws that benefit this sector of the population. In the National Assembly, there are examples of cases where representatives who are evangelical or Catholic make use of religious and faith-based arguments to prevent the approval of laws in favor of the homosexual community.

I personally have nothing against people professing any kind of religion. I believe in freedom, I believe that every human being is born free and has the right to believe what they want to believe even in the religious aspect.

What I do not agree with is the fact that religious precepts, adherence to faith, or belief in some divinity are used to prevent the approval of rights for people. If all human beings are born equal before the law (and curiously, in the eyes of God we are all equal too), how can such religious arguments be used to prevent people from having rights? It doesn’t make any sense!

The way I see it is that in Nicaragua there are unfortunately some representatives with the aforementioned beliefs who believe they are morally superior to others, and they use these types of arguments to prevent the adoption of laws that favor the community of sexual and gender diversity.

On another note, we have verified that the governments of Nicaragua since the time of Doña Violeta Chamorro have been governments that have openly managed a policy of State Homophobia and we have denounced it publicly and we will continue to denounce it.

They have not wanted to pass laws in favor of the country’s LGBTIQ + population, and worse yet, they have even dared to pass laws that have sanctioned the homosexual condition in the past. For example, the infamous Article 204 of the previous Nicaraguan Penal Code that penalized same-sex relationships, and was repealed in 2008.

 

Denis Madriz, an LGBT+ Nicaraguan protesting injustice. Photo, Somos Nicaragua, Facebook page.

 

The photo above captures an image of Denis Madriz, an LGBT+ Nicaraguan who participated in the massive protests to demonstrate the people’s discontent at the government after it announced changes to social security on 18 April 2018.  Protesters were met by violent government repression.

After participating in protests, Denis posted to social media saying that he feared for his and his family’s lives. Around October of the same year, Denis disappeared, and he was later found dead with two bullet wounds in his chest. This picture of him participating in the protests went viral on the internet, and hashtags like #SOSNicaragua and #ProhibidoOlvidar have also made rounds on the Internet

Latina Republic: Did you participate in the demonstrations that started on 18 April 2018? 

Ebén: By the end of 2017 I had to leave the country because, as I told you at the beginning, the Network collaborates with other organizations in Central America, and in 2017 we had a project with an LGBTIQ + organization in Panama. This was a pilot project between both organizations.

The idea was to see if both organizations could establish a base of collaborative work relating to sexual orientation, gender identity & expression and LGBTIQ + human rights (which after three years was possible but not in the way we expected).

The project contract required that the Panamanian org supply economic resources and the Network supply human labor and resources. As the General Coordinator of the Network, I had to go to Panama to work on the project for seven months. In the seven months of my stay there, I could only go to Nicaragua once; Three months after arriving in Panama, I returned to Nicaragua for ten days and then I returned back to Panama to finish my time there.

It was during the last three months of my stay in Panama that the social outburst in Nicaragua occurred. Unfortunately, I could not return for two reasons. Firstly, I could not break my contract with the Panamanians, or else the project would be terminated.

Secondly, after I learned about the social outburst, I spoke to my family and consulted with them about my options. We decided that the best option was for me to stay in Panama; It was the most favorable option to help everyone.

By the time the project ended in July 2018, the social outburst had already been about four month underway. While in Panama, I listened to the news every day and read Nicaraguan websites. I stayed informed and aware of how the situation in my country was evolving.

Being out of the country at that time was difficult. Being in Panama and my family being in Nicaragua felt like having my hands tied. What could I do for them? Very little. All my colleagues from the Network and other people I knew were also in Nicaragua.

I was concerned if they were well, or if something happened to them. I had very little communication with them as a result of the social outburst and the inability to communicate freely. Thank God nothing happened to them.

I do know of other groups working on LGBTIQ + issues that suffered losses. After what happened, we did an investigation into what happened and we realized that more or less 3,000 LGBTIQ + people (perhaps more) had to leave the country.

Many went to Costa Rica, but others also went into exile in Mexico, Spain, Panama, United States, Canada and other countries… and that’s only for LGBTIQ + people. More than 50,000 Nicaraguans from the general population are exiled in Costa Rica and many more in other nations where they have requested refuge.

It was difficult for me to understand the fact that I could not return to Nicaragua at that time due to the two limitations that I mentioned earlier. Two days after I ended the contract in Panama, I took a flight back to Managua, Nicaragua. Once in Managua, I couldn’t go back to my home in Masaya because the roads were blocked  by tranques, or makeshift roadblocks used as a protest tactic.

 

Picture of the tranques at an unknown location. The poster says, “Fight Hard For Nicaragua Until Rid Of The Dictatorship.” Photo courtesy of Today Nicaragua.

 

Tranques blocked the flow of traffic. Vehicles could not pass, taxis could not pass, the only thing that could pass were bicycles and motorcycles. I returned to Nicaragua with two suitcases and I was told that, “They are not going to let you pass because the road is closed.” So I had to stay in Managua for a month, and after about a month when the highway was cleared I was able to return to Masaya.

While here in Masaya, clashes began between the paramilitary groups and the city of Masaya. At that time, the government’s paramilitary forces and the National Police (which also respond to current President Daniel Ortega’s interests) captured the neighborhood of Monimbó.

 

 

Monimbó is more or less two to three kilometers from where I was. Every night for almost a week we listened to all the shots that were heard from Monimbó. In the morning we found out about everything that happened the previous night in Monimbó, how, in a massacre, the police and paramilitaries criminally decimated the civilian population without mercy.

From here you could hear the bullets, the shots. It was a very, very difficult, tense, stressful and distressing situation.

I remember that in the mornings we would watch the police patrol in front of the house, loaded with military armed to the neck with heavy weapons, and behind them were the paramilitaries who were going to a nearby fuel station, to refuel gasoline to continue attacks at night.

 

 

It was distressing, but that was the experience we went through. Although I did not live the first three months of the social outburst, I did have to live the last part of what happened. And it was really very difficult. Every day during that week we hear the residents of the neighborhood talk about all the boys who died, the people that they killed.

The news on the radio was not better: they continually gave the names of all those killed by the police and the paramilitaries.

The reports that were given at that time by the Group of Independent Experts of the Organization of American States (OAS) that were already working in Nicaragua, constantly reported that it was the paramilitary groups and the police that were killing the civilian population. Civilians did not have military weapons; They defended themselves with barricades, stones, and slingshots.

It was a very, very difficult situation.

Latina Republic: What can you tell us about how the Nicaraguan LGBT+ community showed up on and after 18 April 2018?

Ebén: As I told you, it was a difficult situation. It was much more difficult when I realized that many friends from the LGBTIQ + community had to leave the country. They did not want to run the risk of being killed or persecuted, because many of them made public their protest and/or participated in demonstrations against the government.

I could not get directly involved with the activities with the other LGBTIQ + groups because when I came to Nicaragua communication was difficult. Many of my LGBTIQ + colleagues were suspicious of phone calls, many were even suspicious of the messages that we sent them via Whatsapp or other social networks.

It was difficult to assemble a single resistance group or a national LGBTIQ + group trying to support the Nicaraguan people. I did notice some small groups that were doing it, but rather than directly engage as a group, we instead demonstrated personal action; I did so individually and with my family by going to a couple of the marches to demonstrate against the government.

We were there in the streets and marches giving support to everyone via LGBTIQ + activism. After that we could not get more involved because of the government’s violent repression of demonstrations, and because many LGBTIQ+ people had left the country so as to not expose themselves to the paramilitary and police.

What we considered more appropriate was to tell activists and people of the Network that they try to be prudent and that they do not expose themselves publicly because the government is vigilant of all the LGBTIQ + people that are participating in demonstrations.

They are branded as traitors and if they are caught, they are going to be locked up in El Chipote, a pre-trial detention prison in Managua where prisoners are tortured and suffer all kinds of humiliations and harassments.

The following paragraph contains mentions of sexual harassment and torture to LGBT+ people. The potentially disturbing paragraph is sandwiched between the below photo and the next photo that follows.

 

27 June 2018: Family members wait outside of El Chipote in Managua, Nicaragua to hear news about their loved ones. Carlos Valle/La Prensa.

 

In fact, we learned of many LGBTIQ + people, including trans women, who were captured and tortured, they did all kinds of things that are indescribable. For example, I realized one of the women was tortured, and after she was released she had to flee the country.

Another colleague told us that there in Chipote the police and paramilitaries put the barrel of a machine gun into his anus to torture him. He is now out of the country. Every time he tells us about the experience, he cries because he is obviously homosexual but remembers the rape he suffered.

You don’t do something like that! It’s a crime. He suffered from psychological torture, physical torture. Beyond the damage caused by rape, there are emotional, physical and psychological consequences.

 

This is Ulises Rivas, a well known LGBT+ activist in Nicaragua. National Police arrested him on 1 September 2019 at his niece’s volleyball game in Comalapa, Chontales, Nicaragua. He was accused of robbing a woman. After he was arrested, Ulises was taken to the municipal capital of Chontales at Juigalpa, where he was tortured. Photo courtesy of Ulises Rivas.

 

Currently, we are concerned about an LGBTIQ+ colleague from Moyogalpa, Ometepe Island. Her name is Celia Cruz (like the famous Cuban singer), and she is a trans woman. The paramilitaries seized her from her home on 21 April 2020 under the pretenses that police chief Yuri Valle wanted to interview her.

Now, they are holding her prisoner. We have known absolutely nothing about her and where they have her. What things have they done to her? Is she okay?

Three weeks ago, her mother and relatives sent us communication regarding this and we have had no information from the authorities about where they have her and under what charges they have held her. The family is in the dark.

 

Photo campaign asserting the innocence of political prisoner Celia Cruz. The top right reads, “Nicaragua, have you that quickly forgotten about political prisoners?”

 

She was detained because she was protesting against the government. She is a well-known LGBTIQ+ activist in Ometepe Island and they captured her. I think it is important that you put her name in this article, so that people know what is happening to the LGBTIQ + population in Nicaragua, that we are protesting and that we are seeing ourselves exposed to danger by the government repression of the paramilitaries, the National Police and the Nicaraguan Army, who are all Ortega’s accomplices.

(Note: This article that came out 29 June 2020 highlights lawyer Yonarqui Martinez asserting the innocence of 7 accused detainees from Ometepe Island. One of them is named Celia Cruz.)

On a lighter and positive note, I want to talk about Victoria Obando. She is not a member of the Network, rather she is from another LGBTIQ+ group in the country. She is a trans woman from Bluefields, South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region.

She was in prison for almost a year. The paramilitaries and the police captured her. She told us that she was tortured and kept in prison with the other men. They told her that she was a man and that they were going to treat her as such. They subjected her to physical, psychological and emotional torture.

She was released from prison when the Ortega dictatorship released the vast majority of political prisoners about a year ago. However, she is still in the fight. She is probably one of those who spent the longest time in prison for what happened since the government’s repression.

The government of the Netherlands, through its ambassador to Central America, awarded her the Tulip Prize for Human Rights less than a year ago. She is the only LGBTIQ + person in the country that has received this award. It is a very worthy acknowledgment to her for all that has happened to her and a very worthy distinction from the Dutch government for a Trans colleague.

She was in prison for almost a year. The paramilitaries and the police captured her. She told us that she was tortured and kept in prison with the other men. They told her that she was a man and that they were going to treat her as such. They subjected her to physical, psychological and emotional torture.

She was released from prison when the Ortega dictatorship released the vast majority of political prisoners about a year ago. However, she is still in the fight. She is probably one of those who spent the longest time in prison for what happened since the government’s repression.

The government of the Netherlands, through its ambassador to Central America, awarded her the Tulip Prize for Human Rights less than a year ago. She is the only LGBTIQ + person in the country that has received this award. It is a very worthy acknowledgment to her for all that has happened to her and a very worthy distinction from the Dutch government for a Trans colleague.

 

 

We LGBTIQ + in the country never expected that a foreign government would recognize us like this, since it is not only an acknowledgment of Victoria’s leadership and struggle, but also the struggles that the entire LGBTIQ + collective in Nicaragua has undertaken demanding freedom, democracy, respect for human dignity, a rule of law with justice and with all the minimum guarantees, under the standards of rights handled by nations and civilized canons in the 21st century.

 

Victoria Obando with the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Central America, Peter Derrek Hof. Victoria Obando is shown holding the Tulip Prize for Human Rights, while wearing her blue prison scrubs. Photo courtesy of Confidencial.

 

Featured Image Credits: Washington Blade, posted in Nicaraguan Rainbow Revolutionaries. LGBTI activists participate in a Pride march in Managua, Nicaragua, on June 28, 2018. (Photo courtesy of William Ramírez Cerda).





Alfredo Eladio Moreno | Pomona College
Alfredo is a second year student at Pomona College studying Latin American Studies. Although he has a profound background in medicine and chemistry, Alfredo hopes to nurture his knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean, and possibly mix both disciplines. He seeks to combine his passion for history and advocacy by drawing on his natural talents of storytelling and helping people realize their full potential. As a Latin American Correspondent, Alfredo is not only excited to write compelling narratives and forge long-lasting friendships, but also inspired to create actionable change through non-profit work.