Manuel de Jesús Sobalvarro Bravo says Nicaraguan National Police took him during the early morning darkness into the courtyard of the Managua jailhouse known as El Chipote, placed a hood over his head and pressed the barrel of a pistol against his temple.
“They’d tell me, ‘Today we’re going to kill you,'” recalled Sobalvarro, an exiled political dissident. “I thought it was my last day alive.”
He then heard the hammer strike the empty chamber. This went on for five days after his arrest in November 2019 on what he says were trumped up charges of attempted sabotage.
During the first three days, National Police agents showed him cellphone videos of his children going to school. “They’d tell me they were going to kill my daughters,” he said. Sometimes he heard an AK-47 being cocked, a sound he knew well from his years serving in elite Nicaraguan units battling U.S.-backed counter-revolutionaries known as “Contras” throughout the 1980s.
He said that at one point, the barrel of a rifle was pushed into the back of his neck before it was aimed next to his head. “And they would fire,” said Sobalvarro in an interview with CBC News.
“They tried to break me, my will, my mind.”
WATCH | Nicaraguans call on Canada to open its doors:
Exiled Nicaraguans seek refuge in Canada
Stripped of their citizenship and forced to abandon their lives in Nicaragua for opposing President Daniel Ortega’s government, Nicaraguans living in exile are calling on the Canadian government to offer them safe refuge.
He recalled a National Police officer handing him a list with names of government opponents.
“They wanted me to accuse people … they would point them out, ‘Accuse them and you’ll go free,'” said Sobalvarro, 60. “I wouldn’t do it.”
He was then charged, convicted and sentenced to six years in prison in December 2019 for planning to blow up a bridge. Sobalvarro says the government of President Daniel Ortega fabricated the evidence against him and sent him to La Modelo, regarded by many to be one of the worst prisons in Latin America.
On Feb. 9, Sobalvarro landed in Washington, D.C., on a flight among 222 political prisoners exiled from Nicaragua and stripped of their citizenship by the Ortega government. The move rendered the exiled political dissidents essentially stateless, with the UN Refugee Agency saying it contravened “human rights law.”
Sobalvarro, whose case was taken up by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, said he’d like the opportunity to possibly come to Canada and begin a new life.
During the 1980s, many Nicaraguans fled to Canada to avoid the war with the Contras.
“I make a call to Canadian authorities that you open your doors again,” said Sobalvarro, who became a lawyer after his more than decade-long military career. “Please open the doors so we have this option.”
Nicaraguans in Canada issue call for help
He is currently staying with his brother near Austin, Texas. The U.S. is allowing the 222 freed political prisoners to stay for two years on humanitarian grounds. Spain has also offered them citizenship.
A group of Nicaraguans — some now Canadian citizens, others recent arrivals forced to leave their homeland — are calling on the federal government to also allow them to come to Canada.
“Provide these people and their families with a safe place to settle if they wish, by granting them permanent status,” said a Feb. 13 letter, sent to Global Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser.
“Many of our compatriots have no family in the United States and are currently in a hotel without knowing where to go.”
Fraser’s office sent CBC News an emailed statement saying it could not comment on individual cases due to privacy concerns.
Global Affairs said in a statement in late February that it was “appalled” by the Nicaraguan government’s “decision to strip these individuals … of their citizenship and political rights.” The statement said the government would continue to work with UN agencies and allies on how best to “provide support.”
Canada’s government has, in the past, engaged in quiet efforts to pressure Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista government by suspending aid to the Latin American country, according to a 2018 Global Affairs memorandum obtained by CBC News under access to information in 2019.
WATCH | Canada quietly cuts off funding to Nicaragua:
“Canada is one of the top five largest bilateral donors to Nicaragua, with an overall assistance program of approximately $20 million per year via all aid channels,” the memo said, noting that actions taken at the time included suspending all federal payments to the government of Nicaragua.
At the time, a Global Affairs official told CBC News the aid suspensions were kept quiet to give Nicaragua a chance to respond to Canadian pressure without appearing to be acting under duress.
The decision to leave
Nicaraguan neurosurgeon Dr. Jairo Gutiérrez was among the signatories of the letter sent to Global Affairs. He crossed into Canada through Roxham Road in Quebec early one Saturday last March.
The decision to leave came after he received death threats from unknown numbers, in direct messages over social media and, ultimately, from the fists of two assailants he said attacked him one day in February 2022 as he stepped out of a pharmacy in Managua, the capital.
“I remember that first punch they gave me,” said Gutiérrez, in an interview from a Montreal apartment.
“They broke my glasses … I was bleeding.”
Gutiérrez, 42, said he was marked as a suspected traitor who faced prison or death if he remained in Nicaragua under Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front party.
He said the government targeted him because he provided medical care to Nicaraguans injured in anti-government demonstrations — often from gunshot wounds — and to opponents of the government who were denied access to the health system.
“I did attend them because I’m not the one to decide, I’m not going to attend to you because you’re Sandinista or not,” he said.
He left behind his medical career to find a way to keep providing for his family. He now does janitorial and renovation work in Montreal while he studies to gain medical accreditation in Canada.
“It wasn’t easy. It was hard. It was just so hard … I lost everything. All my hard work. Everything,” he said.
Fleeing political persecution
Federico Aguado Matuz, 61, also signed the letter. A former member of the Nicaraguan military, he joined the Sandinista-led revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Ortega was one of the revolution’s leaders
“Daniel Ortega is the same dictator as Somoza,” said Matuz. “A stronger dictator.”
He fled to Canada with his family in September 2018, leaving behind a hotel and rental properties and a vegetable farm, crossing through Roxham Road after he said one of his close comrades in the anti-government movement faced arrest on terrorism grounds.
“Please help Nicaragua,” he said.
Aguado Matuz witnessed government forces shoot demonstrators during a May 30, Mother’s Day march in 2018. Those images are still seared in his memory, often drawing him back to the moment he held a young man, just 15 or 16 years old, who was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head.
“I don’t understand how you do that to other people, you know? I don’t understand … so many young people lose their lives,” he said.
“I have my friends, my people in Nicaragua. I need to fight for these people.”
The year 2018 saw over 300 people killed in anti-government demonstrations and hundreds more jailed, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Since then, local and international human rights organizations say the Ortega regime has crushed dissent, imprisoned political opponents and changed laws to shore up his power.
Jose Alejandro Quintanilla Hernandez said he comes from a family of Sandinistas and was a member of the party until he quit in 2016 after becoming disillusioned.
“Sandinismo today, unfortunately, means death, persecution, exile, anti-democracy, tyranny, repression, everything negative you can have in a country,” said Hernandez.
A former leader in the opposition movement, Hernandez, 32, was jailed for a second time in 2021 as a threat to national stability and was among the 222 prisoners exiled to the U.S.
A chance to rebuild
Hernandez said he would like the chance to come to Canada to rebuild his career and complete university studies.
“I have friends who left in the post-2018 period for Canada and they tell me it’s an excellent place,” he said.
“We don’t have any citizenship at the moment. I am not sure what type of support Canada is considering.”
José Antonio Peraza, a 56-year-old academic, newspaper columnist and one of the 222 exiles, said he believes Ortega freed the political prisoners hoping to ease U.S. pressure on the regime.
He said Canada can play a major role in helping Nicaragua as it faces another national election in 2026.
“Canada has a lot of prestige in the Americas and worldwide,” said Peraza, whose son lives north of Montreal, in an interview with CBC News from Washington, D.C.
“It’s very important, the position of the Canadian people, the Canadian government,” to oppose and pressure Ortega, he said.
Neither the Nicaraguan Embassy in Ottawa or Washington, D.C., responded to a request for comment from CBC News.