Courtesy Reuters

On June 26, 1986, in a note just two lines long, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua notified me that our newspaper, El Diario La Prensa, was closed down indefinitely.

With this action, Nicaraguan authorities institutionalized the state’s contempt for freedom of thought, speech, private property, religion and all norms of democratic government. La Prensa had already experienced four consecutive years of brutal censorship, in which 80 percent of the material submitted for publication was suppressed every day by order of the Sandinista military censors.

I tell of this, not as a long complaint of melancholy, but rather as testimony for all democracies to take notice.

II

The case of La Prensa is evidence of the worst sort of tyranny of our time, hidden by the workings of a Sandinista propaganda network that deceives many people of goodwill in the United States and throughout the world. The extensive and suffocating daily censorship of the press is sometimes excused by world public opinion as a logical consequence, given Nicaragua’s state of war. These justifications are unfair to the Nicaraguan people, who are thereby denied their right to be informed.

The excesses of the censorship department at the Ministry of the Interior have not been clearly recognized. They are measures aimed not at national security, but at the systematic destruction of an independent newspaper such as ours, and of Nicaraguan freedoms.

At root there always has been a determination on the part of the Sandinista commanders to impose total dictatorship and prevent the most minimal expression of free thought. Just like General Anastasio Somoza, who despised anyone who contradicted him, the Sandinistas cannot tolerate a dissenting voice or the expression of a contrary political idea.

No one is indifferent to the tragedy in Central America or to Sandinista repression, but I am concerned that Nicaragua’s case has been viewed outside our country through two prisms which ultimately distort the reasons behind our struggle for a free press.

Some assert that we oppose the Sandinista regime because we want to return to Somocism. Others say we oppose the Sandinistas because we support the declared policy of the President of the United States against the Sandinista regime. But the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration is obviously concerned with its own national security interests, and Nicaraguan opinion does not count for much in the decisions made in Washington.

No one can suppose that we of La Prensa are nostalgic for the Somoza period, when we struggled with our lives to defeat the Somoza dictatorship. My late husband and editor of La Prensa, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, was one who gave his life for this cause, in January 1978. Since the time of the Somoza dictatorship, when La Prensa opposed that government’s policies, our only aspiration has been to achieve democracy in Nicaragua. Later, when La Prensa denounced the repression and abuses of the Sandinista government, its totalitarianism, its Marxist-Leninist impositions, we did so not from a desire to retreat into a past that nobody wishes to remember, but to realize the goals that had moved us to uproot Somocism from Nicaragua in the first place.

What the world has not yet realized is that we are living a new Somocism with the Sandinistas. The practical results of Sandinism have been a resurgence and growth of militarism, another confusion of state and party, corruption, press censorship, fraudulent elections, jailings and a trampling on human rights. Ironically, a revolution that began with the assassination of my husband, a free journalist, has brought with it the worst censorship that Nicaraguan journalism has ever endured. This is the colossal contradiction that should open the eyes of all men of goodwill. In the beginning we all gave our support to the Sandinista revolution because we believed that it was to be the first complete Hispano-American revolution, one which strove for justice but diminished no freedoms, achieved social democracy without the loss of political democracy. But instead they have betrayed a whole people who dreamed of being free.

First went the independent radio and television stations. Then the radio voice of the church, and now the press. By closing down the last reserve of civic opposition in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas reveal they have decided on a military solution, although they preach the opposite. They have closed the doors to dialogue and opened the doors to war.

Measures like the closing of La Prensa should unmask to the world the fallacy of the Sandinista front’s supposed desire for peace, a desire they attempt to present to groups that are negotiating in Nicaragua and are influential in shaping public opinion. We cannot believe any of their proposals to negotiate press freedoms. Freedom of the press is not negotiable; it is a right of all Nicaraguans and not the patrimony of their government.

III

This is our situation today. In Nicaragua there is no freedom except that exercised by the Sandinista front. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. But we hope that with the help of people in the United States and elsewhere, we will soon reach a regional solution to the Central American problem, a problem that has its roots in the deprivation of liberty in Nicaragua. The Western democracies need to be decisive and firm in coordinating their efforts to demand a civilized government in Nicaragua, based on the right to free elections and respect for the fundamental rights of man.

Freedom of the press is a basic criterion for determining if there is democracy in a country. My husband used to say, "Without freedom of press there is no liberty." And today, without freedom in Nicaragua, there can be no peace in Central America.

La Prensa supported the diplomatic efforts of the Contadora group of nations from their inception. We believed that its efforts would distance our country from two undesirable extremes: on the one hand, foreign intervention and, on the other, the entrenchment of a regime that is suppressing the nation’s desire for justice and democracy. Unfortunately, after four years the Contadora group has failed to come forward with a proposal that offers acceptable and workable solutions to achieve internal democracy in Nicaragua.

Perhaps if these gentlemen of goodwill would meet one day in Nicaragua and see the military hospitals of one side or the other, filled with sixteen-year-olds torn apart by machine guns, missing arms and legs, blind, or with fate uncertain even after extensive operations, they would then demand that an agreement be signed guaranteeing freedom for Nicaragua.

Behind this war—a civil war between Sandinista soldiers recruited against their will and Nicaraguan "contras" on the other side—there is a profound tragedy in which a whole people is impoverished by the loss of a great treasure: their freedom.

That is why we of the free press, loyal to our principles, believe that before all else the country must be returned to normalcy. We believe the appropriate first step must be to initiate the national and international dialogue we have desired for so long, for which my husband was struggling up to the moment he gave his life, for which we all have struggled with profound conviction for sixty years past.

  • Violeta Barrios de Chamorro is co-owner and publisher of La Prensa. In 1979 she was a member of the Revolutionary Junta of the provisional Government of National Reconstruction, from which she resigned in 1980.
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