Despite the obvious distance imposed by the current pandemic, the words that resonated on the lips of everyone present in the March 13 Zoom meeting with Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo were those of agradecimento.
Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, sociologist, former member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly, and First Daughter of Nicaragua, is the subject of a new documentary titled “Exiliada,” where she opens up about her alleged sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega.
Ortega Murillo 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.
Now 22 years after first reporting the abuse, this film is the first ever to tell Zoilamérica’s story.
“I thought her story could be a mirror where many more people could see her,” said Leonor Zúniga, director of “Exiliada.” “I wanted to understand why that happened. How a family acts as a structure of oppression for victims of sexual abuse.”
Local Nicaraguan groups, “Bay Area Autoconvocadxs Nica” and “Amigos de Nicaragua, Azul y Blanco (ANAB),” planned the speaking events attached to screenings of the documentary around the Bay Area that were to be held at universities such as SF State and U.C. Berkeley last month. The events however are “postponed, not canceled” due to COVID-19, with new dates to be announced, according to Sonia Acevedo Espinoza, who hosted the March 13 Zoom meeting.
The film has also been showcased in multiple Latin American countries, including Canada, Belgium, Spain and the Czech Republic, according to Zúniga. 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, according to Zúniga. But the film has, as of yet, not 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.
A history of repression
What followed after Ortega Murillo first made her story public was a 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 legal text “Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo v. Nicaragua.” The text also states “in spite of their [Zoilamérica and council] repeated requests for the deputy’s immunity to be suspended, no decision was given until this 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.
After being elected president of Nicaragua in 2007, Ortega returned to power, with Rosario Murillo, Zoilamérica’s mother, as his First Lady. Rosario Murillo would later rise to the position of Vice President in 2016.
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’s a reality that is 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’ve always wanted to return to Nicaragua, and in some moments that seems close, and at other times it’s further away.”
Ortega Murrilo said the filming for the documentary focused mainly on her home life and was, at times, rather spontaneous. One day, Zúniga arrived at Ortega Murillo’s home on the day the Sandinista Front candidates announced their presidential elections. “And indeed, that day was extremely difficult for me,” Ortega Murillo said.
Ortega Murillo said that her story and experience have converted themselves into her “life’s mission” , 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.
“I’ve had a very important sense of historical opportunity,” Ortega Murillo said. “Because it has coincided with protest and death in Nicaragua. That combined made the documentary a space to show that this didn’t just happen to me.”
Ortega Murillo felt that her stepfather’s abuse was one of the first signs of political and moral rot within the Sandinista government.
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 just for some.”
“Right now in Nicaragua, we have a deep, deep social divide,” Ortega Murillo said. “I know young men, here in Costa Rica, who were kicked out of their homes by their family for participating in the protests. And the result is that you have a political system, in distinct moments, acting in complicity with Daniel Ortega.”
Ortega Murillo went on to state that Nicargua is once again undergoing a great transformation. But unlike the revolution of the late 70’s, she felt that change would not come via a protracted war.
“Even though 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 of … is to not exclude the political voices amongst ourselves so that we can build a vision of a country that is not unique, exclusive, authoritarian … and how it is built, that is what we are learning.”