After taking away critics’ citizenship, a country takes their houses
By Frances Robles
Workers in bright-orange construction vests showed up at a house in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, with tools to pick the lock and remove cabinets.
Days earlier, employees from the attorney general’s office went to another Managua home and said it was now state property. The men who arrived in police trucks at a third house in the city’s wooded outskirts came with sledgehammers.
“They were ready to break down the door,” Camilo de Castro, a filmmaker whose work is critical of the government, said of the police’s arrival at his door.
De Castro and the other two homeowners, Gonzalo Carrión and Haydee Castillo, are human rights activists who are among more than 300 Nicaraguans declared traitors this year by the Sandinista government with no rights to citizenship or property.
Now, the government has started making it official in stark fashion by fanning out and seizing its opponents’ properties, including the homes of two former foreign ministers.
The campaign is a throwback to the leftist party’s first time in office in the 1980s, when the Sandinistas expropriated homes, setting off yearslong legal disputes. The country’s leader, Daniel Ortega, led the Sandinista revolution that thrust them into power and lives in a house he confiscated decades ago.
Ortega was beaten at the ballot box in 1990, but after changes to the constitution that made it possible for him to win, Ortega reclaimed the presidency in 2007. He spent the next decade chipping away at the country’s democracy by interfering with the National Assembly, elections and the Supreme Court.
Tens of thousands of people rose up against Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in 2018, accusing them of becoming exactly what they had once fought against: leaders of a dictatorial family dynasty. Government opposition landed hundreds of people in prison, and at least 300 were shot in protests.
Earlier this year, 222 political prisoners were released into exile.
The move to start seizing properties in recent days follows the confiscation of a prominent Jesuit university and the arrests of several priests. On Monday, the Sandinistas seized a private business school that Harvard University founded nearly 60 years ago. The government’s campaign signals that even five years after a failed uprising, dissent has serious consequences.
“It was not enough for him to imprison me and send me into exile in addition to stigmatizing me as a terrorist and traitor,” said Castillo, who now lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Murillo, who acts as the government spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment. She and Ortega have said they consider opposition activists terrorists for trying to overthrow the government by blocking roads, bringing commerce to a standstill and occasionally resorting to violence. Many of them, including de Castro, are officially fugitives from justice.
The international community has widely criticized the Ortega government, with the United Nations likening the government to Nazis who committed crimes against humanity.
Ortega helped lead an insurgency that in 1979 overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. A civil war ensued, during which the new Sandinista government seized the Somoza family’s many ill-gotten spoils. The confiscation was initially intended as a quest to return to the Nicaraguan people what had been stolen, by redistributing land through agrarian reform.
But the Sandinistas also took the homes of people who fled, either accusing them of being allies of the Somoza regime or declaring the property abandoned.
When they were voted out of office in 1990, the Sandinistas used the transition period to whip up legal documentation for the properties they had doled out to their cronies, a giveaway known as the “piñata.”
Experts say it will be a long road before the properties are ever returned to their owners. It took decades for people who lost their homes in the 1980s, many of whom had been or eventually became American citizens, to be compensated — and that was only after the Sandinistas no longer occupied the presidency.
It took pressure from Washington and threats of withholding U.S. aid to make a dent in the thousands of claims, said Peter Sengelmann, 87, who lost his house in 1979, presumably because his two brothers were associated with the Somoza government and later led the Committee to Recover Confiscated American Properties in Nicaragua.
“The Sandinista government paid me about a third of what it was worth, and I took it, because I thought it was better than nothing,” said Sengelmann, who now lives in Miami. “It took about 15 years.”
He was paid $85,000.
Jason Poblete, a U.S. lawyer who specializes in international property claims, mostly out of Cuba, said about a year and a half ago he started getting calls from property owners in Nicaragua who said they were being harassed with false unpaid property tax bills, another tactic the government uses to give seizures “the color of law,” he said.
The issue is likely to become a longtime sticking point as it is in Cuba, where nearly 6,000 American citizens and corporations lost homes, farms, factories, sugar mills and other properties totaling $1.9 billion when the Castros took power in 1959. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans also lost property, Poblete said, without compensation.
“The Cubans learned how to do this, and they taught the Nicaraguans,” Poblete said. “It is a more sophisticated form of political intimidation.’’
De Castro, who in the past briefly worked as an assistant to New York Times reporters, said no lawyer in Nicaragua would ever take their cases. He added that several activists who were stripped not just of property but also their citizenship planned to bring a case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the moves violated international law. Among the plaintiffs are his mother, writer Gioconda Belli, whose home was also taken.
“As long as the regime is in power, we won’t be able to go back and won’t be able to get our houses back,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to stop.”