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My Father Was a Vocal Critic of Nicaragua’s President. Now He’s a Political Prisoner

6 minute read
Aguirre-Sacasa is a playwright and screenwriter. He is the creator of hit series Riverdale.

My father, Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa, turned 77 this month. Normally, my entire family would gather somewhere in the States to celebrate his birthday with a late-summer cookout, a sheet cake and ice cream. This year, though, there wasn’t a cookout. It wasn’t one of those rare, precious times when we’re all together in the same backyard, reminiscing, catching up on each other’s lives.

Instead, we spent the day praying for my father’s release. He’s a political prisoner, fighting for his life, imprisoned 50-plus days ago for being a vocal critic of Nicaragua’s Macbeth-like President-despot, Daniel Ortega, and his Lady Macbeth-like wife–and Vice-president—Rosario Murillo.

In late July I was about to board a flight from New York to Los Angeles, where I work as a television writer and producer, when my sister called me with the news. Our parents had been driving to Costa Rica to take a flight to Washington, D.C., where my father was scheduled to have hip-replacement surgery. They’d been stopped at the border and interrogated by immigration officials. Pictures of their car were taken, and my father’s passport was confiscated. The officials told my mom if she wanted to continue with their planned trip, she could, but my father would not be joining her. My mom decided to stay.

Read More: ‘They Think They Can Silence Us.’ How Nicaragua is Waging a War on Journalists

While driving back to Managua, they were pulled over by the national police, who arrested my father and abducted him. When my mom got back to their house, it was being ransacked by men with machine guns.

An hour later, the military police issued a statement saying that my father was being investigated as an enemy of the state. He is not that. He is a husband, a father and a grandfather. A book lover, a movie lover and a horse lover. A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. A proud citizen of Nicaragua, who served as Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, then as Nicaragua’s foreign minister. The last few years, my father’s worked as a journalist and political pundit, commenting on Nicaragua’s state of affairs, including Ortega’s dictatorship. That’s what made him a target. His opinions have gotten him in trouble before—there have been warnings, threats, a short detention, but nothing to this extent.

My dad is one of many people who have been arrested by Ortega’s police in the months leading up to Nicaragua’s election in November. Operating with less subtlety than Hiram Lodge, the mustache-twirling archvillain of my show Riverdale, Ortega has been going after his opponents one by one. Those who might’ve run against him, those who were openly supporting other candidates, those who were calling for a free and fair election—students, politicians, journalists, businesspeople—they’ve been incarcerated under a bogus law specifically designed by Ortega to quash his detractors.

Our dad is being kept in Managua, in a notorious prison known as El Chipote. Our mother goes there every day, to try to deliver food, water and medicine to him. She is usually denied. She’s been allowed one short visit with my father, which was recorded. My father had lost weight; he was somber, confused. He didn’t know what was going on in the world or with his case. He told her to stop trying to send him anything, since nothing was getting to him.

Two days after my mother visited him, my dad was formally accused of committing acts of conspiracy and treason. Now that he’s been charged, his incarceration is indefinite. Since then, we’ve heard disturbing stories coming out of El Chipote: Of how it’s freezing at night; of how the lights in cells are kept on 24-7 to disorient the prisoners; of how it’s infested with mosquitoes; of prisoners being starved; of COVID-19 spreading through the jail’s population.

I’m not a political person. When I was growing up, Nicaragua and its troubles were things my parents debated with other adults in the living room, while I read comic books and paperback horror novels in my bedroom. It was an unfolding story on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, which we watched as a family, before turning (more happily) to Jeopardy!

The last few years, when my dad would e-mail me his latest political think piece, I’m ashamed to admit that I often only skimmed it. Since his arrest, I’ve been missing him acutely—I miss our conversations, our arguments. So I’ve gone back through my e-mails and read every single one of his articles, over and over. And though I hate that it’s taken his illegal imprisonment to get me to this point, I now more clearly understand what he’s been fighting for all these years.

It’s simple: My father wants Nicaragua to be a free, democratic country. He believes Nicaraguans should be able to elect a representative government, to protest when they disagree with that government, and most of all, to be able to lead full, noble lives without terror or oppression. These are not extreme beliefs. Making such statements should not result in detention or disappearance. Yet here we are—and there he is, in prison, his every human right denied.

What can we do? Our options are limited. But we’ve chosen to continue beating my father’s drum. So my sister, mother, brother and I—and my father’s allies, in the U.S. and Nicaragua—are asking for help. A much more forceful and coordinated response from the U.S., the U.K., the E.U. and Canada is needed to secure the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners—and to call for free elections in November. It’s not too late to stop Nicaragua from sliding off a cliff.

Earlier this year, in March, while my dad was visiting me, I asked him if he thought he’d live out the rest of his days in Nicaragua, if he’d ever move back to the States to be closer to us, closer to his grandchildren. He considered my question and replied: “Well, I was born in Nicaragua. And there is still so much work to be done, I suspect I’ll be buried there, too.”

That may be true, but not anytime soon. And not like this.

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