Arrested for her journalism, kept in dire conditions in a small prison cell, and now stripped of her Nicaraguan citizenship, Lucia Pineda Ubau has endured a lot.
Pineda suspects prison guards drugged her food and kept her in solitary confinement to break her will while she was in prison in 2019.
“I felt sick,” she said. “My thoughts were not clear.”
At one point, she was forced to stay in her cell for more than two weeks, surrounded by her own excrement after being denied access to a toilet.
“I was full of anxiety and with no information from outside, I fell into despair,” Pineda told VOA from Los Angeles, California, where she was attending the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last week.
“The dictatorship tried to silence the media,” she said. “But when I came out of prison after six months, I was more determined than ever to carry on as a journalist.”
Like many of her media colleagues, Pineda, who is the editor of 100% Noticias — one of the leading independent news sites in Nicaragua — now works in exile from Costa Rica.
Even in exile, Pineda is still affected by the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Pineda is among the 94 opposition voices and figures to be stripped of their citizenship last month. Eleven of them are journalists.
It follows the release from prison in February of 222 political leaders, priests, activists and other opposition figures who were flown to the United States, most without having a chance to contact their families.
After their surprise release, they, too, were stripped of their nationality.
Spain offered citizenship to these stateless exiles, and the U.S. granted the Nicaraguans a two-year temporary protection.
Analysts called the expulsion a political ploy after years of international pressure to free dissidents. But they also said it was a violation of international law.
The Nicaraguan administration has sought to quash political dissent since a 2018 wave of anti-government street protests, which was met with a violent response from security forces.
Ortega has called his opponents “traitors” whom he accuses of being behind the protests. He claims the unrest was part of a plot to overthrow him.
VOA attempted to contact the Nicaraguan Embassy in Madrid for comment but received no response.
Last week, some of the released political prisoners issued a joint statement calling on the international community to put pressure on Managua to reunite them with their families.
Life in exile
In Pineda’s case, the journalist had been living in exile since June 2019 after serving six months in jail.
Her media outlet, 100% Noticias, publishes articles about human rights, politics and economics. It was at the forefront of covering the Nicaraguan government’s violent crackdown against protests in 2018.
The news site has a staff of 15 but does not disclose the identities of its journalists for fear of reprisals against them or their families who may still be in Nicaragua.
Most of Pineda’s relatives have moved to Costa Rica. Unmarried, she says she is “dedicated to her job.”
Three years after being released, memories of prison are still painful to her.
“The dictatorship put me in cell away from other political prisoners. I was alone in a cell for 15 days. I had to defecate in my own hands. Health services did not come to see me.”
She was allowed out briefly to exercise alone and had few visits.
“Without any visits, it was traumatic. I was very anxious. I fell into despair. I tried to pray,” she said.
“It was totally absurd,” she said. “The regime tried to silence people like me. But when I came out, I went straight to Costa Rica to work as a journalist.”
Though she has escaped the day-to-day persecution in Nicaragua, Pineda said she cannot escape Managua’s repression.
“I feel better now, but repression crosses borders,” she said. "Now, they have removed my citizenship, like hundreds of others.”
Pineda said there are “only a few” independent journalists left inside Nicaragua.
Ivan Briscoe, a program director at Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization, said Nicaragua’s removal of opponents’ citizenship has left Managua isolated internationally.
“The fact that Pope Francis said the other day it was a thuggish dictatorship is a sign of how isolated it is,” he told VOA. “The pope is not given to condemning left-wing countries.”
In an interview with Spain’s InfoBae in early March, the pope described Ortega’s regime as a “rude dictatorship” led by an “unbalanced” president.
In response, Nicaragua proposed suspending its Vatican ties.
“There had been hopes when the prisoners were released of a thaw in relations, but when they were stripped of their nationalities, this was condemned even by left-wing countries in Latin America,” Briscoe said.
Among those recently released is Juan Lorenzo Holmann, publisher of Nicaragua’s historic La Prensa newspaper.
Authorities detained Holmann in August 2021, and he was later convicted of money laundering. During that time, La Prensa announced it was moving its entire staff into exile after enduring repeated raids and legal threats. Media advocates believed the charge against Holmann was retaliatory
In a televised VOA panel last month, Holmann described his sudden release, saying he and the other prisoners were removed from their cells and put on a bus.
“We did not know if we were going to be taken to another prison until we arrived at the airport,” he said. “It was then that we realized that we were going to be deported — no, expelled — to the United States.”
Holmann said being expelled is tough, but he thanked the Americans for their help, adding, “we can overcome adversity.”
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press.