In late July at la Frontera de Peñas Blancas—Nicaragua’s southern border with Costa Rica—approximately 500 to 600 Nicaraguan refugees were barred from reentering their country until they showed proof of a negative COVID-19 test. 

The Nicaraguan Ortega-Murillo regime did not provide these citizens access to the $150 test, a cost too great for the average Nicaraguan, or any instructions on how to get one. But two Bay Area women are filling that void. 

Nicaraguan activists Cynthia Gutierrez and Valeska Castañeda-Puerto, working in conjunction with El Movimiento Campesino de Nicaragua, started a gofundme campaign to help raise the needed funds to help administer the test to those stranded. Together, the Nica duo has raised $5,668 to date, surpassing their original goal of $5,000.

“I think like most of us, we saw what was happening at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. And of course, you know, the organizer in me just kicked in, ‘what can I do?,’” said Castañeda-Puerto, longtime community organizer, activist and UC Berkeley alumni. “We stayed up until the wee hours of the night, just figuring out the context, what is it going to take to launch…this is impacting our community. And as we know, when that happens, borders don’t exist. And it’s we, as a community, that exists. We move beyond borders. And that is how our campaign launched.”

Gutierrez, a reproductive justice organizer and doula, also went on to state how it was not just the Nicaraguan community that sprang up in support, but also the international community. According to Gutierrez and Castañeda-Puerto, as the gofundme campaign circulated via the social media platform Instagram, it afforded them a unique glimpse into how people were sharing and donating.

“We shared videos of people praying and singing, because I think it’s really important to focus on the resistance and the resiliency of our people,” Gutierrez said. “I think often this narrative of, you know, ‘people can’t help themselves’…It’s like ‘No.’ These people, nicaragüenses, we are the most resilient people and I’m very biased when I say that. We survive war and trauma and so much intergenerational abuse.”

Bay Area Nicaraguan activists Cynthia Gutierrez (left) and Valeska Castañeda-Puerto (right), working in conjunction with El Movimiento Campesino de Nicaragua, started a gofundme campaign to help raise the needed funds to provide COVID-19 tests to Nicaraguans stranded at the Costa Rican border. Courtesy: Cynthia Gutierrez and Valeska Castañeda-Puerto

On Aug. 2, Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that of the hundreds of Nicaraguans who were stranded for more than 15 days at Peñas Blancas, 169 Nicaraguans took COVID-19 tests, and 148 tested negative. Those tests were distributed by Fundación Arias—a humanitarian organization founded after Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias—who partnered with Gutierrez and Castañeda-Puerto. Those who tested negative were allowed to return to Nicaragua. Those who tested positive were forced to stay in Costa Rica with the help of local community organizations, such as Fundación Arias and Corner of Love. The report also noted that 300 of the approximately 500 to 600 Nicaraguans stranded were forced to enter through “irregular” passageways back into Nicaragua. 

This is in direct violation with the Article 31 of the Nicaraguan constitution, which states “Nicaraguans have the right to circulate and to establish their residence in any part of the national territory, and to freely enter and exit the country.” 

The Bluefields community of El Polo de Desarrollo Daniel Guido march in Punta Gorda, Nicaragua in opposition of the Canal. March 12, 2020. Courtesy: El Movimiento Campesino

Jose Alfredo, a member of the Movimiento Campesino de Nicaragua, said he thought the Ortega-Murillo regime’s silence was reflective of their general handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This regime doesn’t care about the human life of the Nicaraguan people,” Alfredo told El Tecolote. “You can see that all this for them is, it can be said, economic resources. Everything that moves has to do with their pocketbook and not prevention [of COVID-19]…At first we can see that this same regime promoted tourism.”

According to a April 6 report conducted by the medical journal The Lancet, the Nicaraguan government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date.” Vice President Rosario Murillo promoted tourism and encouraged mass gatherings of Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) sympathizers under the slogan “Love in the time of COVID-19.”   

“A leaked document from the Nicaraguan Health Ministry has underscored the probable consequences of this haphazard response. Public health officials have privately predicted that up to 32,500 Nicaraguans could test positive for COVID-19, 8125 of whom could have severe symptoms and 1016 of whom might require intensive care beds,” report in The Lancet read. “Nicaragua has only 160 ventilators available, 80% of which are currently in use. If the government’s senior leadership continues to ignore calls for strong mitigation efforts, the fragile public health infrastructure could collapse under the pressure of widespread infection.”

Some of those who tested positive for COVID-19 at Peñas Blancas are being helped by Corner of Love Ministries, a Christian organization that conducts humanitarian work with refugees in Costa Rica.

“I’ll never ever forget how horrible it was,” said Tanya Mroczek Amador, Corner of Love CEO, of that scene at the Peñas Blancas border. “The smell and all the people crying, the heat and the moaning and so many people…I’ll never ever forget it. And it was so unnecessary and wrong. Someone should be held accountable. I mean, I honestly think that the Director of Migration or someone should be sanctioned because it’s truly a miracle that no one died.”  

Alfredo went on to elaborate that much of the Nicaraguan medical system is politicized, with many deaths not being officially marked as casualties of COVID-19, but rather of “atypical pneumonia.” He also said that since the onset of paramilitary and police violence against Nicaraguan citizens, starting on April 19 2018, those who participated in anti-government demonstrations are targeted at hospitals, left unattended or left in worse conditions. 

“They went to the hospitals and they were not treated, simply because they had been protesting against the current regime,” Alfredo said. “It can be said that through the health system, they were murdered, because they were not given medical care.”

First Conference held by el Movimiento Campesino in Managua, Nicaragua. January 18, 2020. Courtesy: El Movimiento Campesino

This persecution within the Nicaraguan medical system is now being extended to those seeking treatment for COVID-19. Alfredo stated that he and El Movimiento Campesino have been working with and attempting to support doctors that have been conducting independent medical treatments of COVID-19 cases outside of the politicized medical system— by allowing Nicaraguans who have symptoms to call for medical advice and assistance. 

The government’s attempts to downplay the outbreak is so fervent that many hospital administrators forbade the use of facemasks or coverings at the pandemic’s onset in March, reported the Washington Post in July. Daniel Ortega has also, according to a report by Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial, levied a tax on ventilators, surgical masks and oximeters (devices which help measure the levels of oxygen present with blood). Many doctors, not previously known as government opponents, were fired or discharged, according to Alfredo, for speaking up or demanding more governmental action.  

This inaction has led to the deaths of some of President Daniel Ortega’s highest ranking and well-known supporters. On July 18, The New York Times reported the notable deaths of famed revolutionary “Commander Zero” Eden Pastora, Orlando J. Castillo (who’d been recently sanctioned by the United States Treasury for human-rights violations), and top police official Olivio Hernández Salguera. Those deaths are suspected of being of COVID-19.

“The irony of it all is his supporters are dying,” said Anaís Catalina Gonzalez, Los Angeles-based Nicaraguan activist and writer. “The [former] mayor of Mayasa [Orlando Noguera], huge Ortega supporter, the one who supported the witch hunts, when they started to go around and arrest and kill [anti-government protesters]…these key figures that support Ortega have been dying.”

Gutierrez and Castañeda-Puerto said that they are currently working on a forthcoming project to connect Costa Rican media, artists, and various Nica organizations, such as Voces Por Nicaragua, to humanize the Nicaraguan experience.