Courtesy of Leonor Zuniga
Despite the obvious distance imposed by the threat of COVID-19, the words that seemed the ripest on the lips of everyone present in the March 13 Zoom meeting with Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo were those of agradecimento.
Sociologist, former member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly and First Daughter of Nicaragua, Ortega Murillo is the subject of a new documentary titled “Exiliada.”
She first gained widespread media attention in 1998, when she published a letter which accused her stepfather Daniel Ortega, current President of Nicaragua and longtime leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), of raping her and inflicting sexual, psychological abuse and aggressive physical actions on her since she was 11.
The ensuing legal battle lasted three years, during which she asked the courts to request that the country’s National Assembly remove Daniel Ortega’s congressional immunity as a member of parliament as it prevented him from being prosecuted, according to the case’s — Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo v. Nicaragua — legal text.
The text also states that “in spite of their [Zoilamérica and counsel] repeated requests for the deputy’s immunity to be suspended, no decision was given until the case was brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”
The Nicaraguan courts, packed with allies of Daniel Ortega, ultimately rejected her charges and threw her case out, according to multiple reports from the time.
In 2007, Daniel Ortega returned to power, with Rosario Murillo, Zoilamérica’s mother, as his First Lady. In 2016, the pair were sworn in as President and Vice President of Nicaragua.
Rosario Murillo has publicly denied Zoilamérica’s accusations. In the 15 subsequent years after her accusation, Zoilamérica faced great political persecution until she eventually fled from Nicaragua in 2013 to San Jose, Costa Rica.
“I always say that exile is a process with a lot of uncertainty,” Ortega Murillo said. “It is a reality that is being built day by day, and you don’t always know how sustainable that reality is. And then, at best, stability is about defining what I want for the future; I have always wanted to return to Nicaragua and at some moments that is clearer and at other times it is further away.”
“I thought her story could be a mirror where many more people could see themselves,” said Leonor Zúniga, director of “Exiliada.” “I wanted to understand why that happened. How families can act as a structure of oppression for victims of sexual abuse.”
The film is the first ever to tell Zoilamérica’s story and began as “a thesis project,” according to Ortega Murillo.
Zúniga said the film primarily focuses on Ortega Murillo’s “feelings as a victim of abuse that has been perceived by her own family … hatred against her parents and political scandal.”
Local Nicaraguan groups, “Bay Area Autoconvocados Nica” and “Amigos de Nicaragua, Azul y Blanca,” planned the speaking events attached to screenings of the documentary around the Bay Area that were to be held at universities such as San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. The events are “postponed not cancelled,” with new dates to be announced, said Sonia Acevedo Espinoza, the March 13 Zoom meeting’s host, due to COVID-19 fears.
Zuniga said the film has also been showcased in multiple Latin American countries, along with Canada, Belgium, Spain and the Czech Republic. The events planned for the Bay Area would be the first to feature Ortega Murillo as a guest and will also be her first time in the United States.
Reactions within the exiled Nicaraguan community have been generally positive, Zúniga said. The film has not yet been able to be screened in Nicaragua itself.
“Unfortunately, due to the situation of high political repression in Nicaragua, we have not been able to present the film in Nicaragua,” Zúniga said.
Ortega Murrilo stated the filming process for the documentary focused mainly on her home life and was, at times, rather spontaneous.
“[Zúniga] decides to arrive at a date and says that ‘I will arrive X day,’” Ortega Murillo said. “And I say ‘but why’ and then she says ‘Oh, because on that day the Frente Sandinista proclaims candidates for the presidential elections’ … ‘What does that have of importance?’ … and indeed that day was an extremely difficult day for me.”
On the subject of personal reactions to the documentary, Ortega Murillo said it showed her, “Like a chapter in which one inadvertently repeats a mandate to be isolated, to be quite disconnected from the world, I refer to the world of any other woman … it also allowed me to see how my world was reduced to that and that it is a stage in which I hope to overcome, in many cases.”
Ortega Murillo said that she felt glad that others have found a sense of comfort and understanding within her shared truth. She shared an anecdote, wherein a young exiled Nicaraguan man recounted to her, aftering having seen the documentary, that “‘I feel that what I have lived, others have as well.’”
Ortega Murillo added that her story and experience have converted themselves into a “mission of life,” which can show others how their experiences are not isolated. This documentary also comes at a time when the Nicaraguan people are hard-pressed by her step-father’s authoritarian regime.
“ [The film] has had a very important sense of historical opportunity,” Ortega Murillo said. “Because it has coincided with the events of protest and death in Nicaragua. That has combined to make the documentary a space for denouncing what has happened not only to me.”
Ortega Murillo feels that her stepfather’s abuse was one of the first signs of political and moral rot within the Sandinista government. As her, now 22-year-old, denunciation of Daniel Ortega served as an indicator of “behavior of political abuse and taught us to confirm political figures better.”
Although the future of the Central American nation remains uncertain, Ortega Murillo felt hopeful while remaining aware of the great political divides within the Nicaraguan people. She stated that it should not be “a moment only for a few.”
“Now in Nicaragua we have a profound social fragmentation as well, profound, ”Ortega Murillo said. “I know boys here in Costa Rica, refugees from families who have kicked them out of their houses for being in the protests. And you also have as a result a political system, at different times, acting in complicity with Daniel Ortega.”
Ortega Murillo went on to say that Nicargua is once again undergoing a great transformation. But unlike the revolution of the late ‘70s, she felt that change would not come via a protracted war.
“No matter how much we consider this regime to be criminal, we are not going to sacrifice human life again,” Ortega Murillo said. “What we have to be careful … is to not stop being inclusive for the different political voices among ourselves [so as] to build a vision of the country that is not singular, exclusive, authoritarian … and how that is built is what we are learning.”