Case 12,230: Zoilamérica Narváez vs. the Nicaraguan State
On March 4, 2002, Nicaragua’s new government accepted an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights commendation
to reach a "friendly agreement" with Zoilamérica Narváez. It was tacit admission that the state had indeed violated her rights by denying her access to justice. That the commission admitted her suit, heard her testimony and proposed such a settlement was in turn tacit acceptance of the truth of her accusations.
Zoilamérica made the following declaration just before going to
Washington to testify before the commission.
I decided to make my public denunciation only five days before I did so on March 2, 1998. I was a prisoner of desperation and anguish at the time, but I’ve celebrated that day like a second birthday ever since. I celebrate it as the day I took off a mask and was able to break with a history that had scarred my life. Like any birth it was difficult, and in my case, the most difficult and painful part has been the rupture with my mother and my brothers and sisters. The day I denounced the sexual abuse to which Daniel Ortega had subjected me I opted for myself. For many years my silence had protected my mother and my brothers and sisters, but I could no longer continue opting for them by remaining quiet.
I must admit that I thought what would follow was going to be easier. Maybe I was naïve, but I expected nothing like what actually happened. If you remember, my first denunciation was a very brief public letter saying I had decided to stop being Zoilamérica Ortega and start being Zoilamérica Narváez. At that time I was only thinking about asserting my new identity to break a family tie that continued condemning me to Daniel Ortega’s sexual abuse and harassment. By reclaiming my surname, I wanted to put an end to a family and political loyalty that had kept me in a state of humiliation.
I thought I would have to do nothing else apart from that letter. I thought my mother would recognize what I said, that she had felt affected by what had happened and would take my side. I even thought Daniel Ortega was going to recognize it. At that point, I wasn’t planning any of the steps I’ve since had to take. Just the letter and that would be it. I obviously knew there would be disbelief and adverse reactions, but as the most important thing to me was for my family to recognize what had happened and I thought I was going to achieve that, nothing else really mattered.
But they didn’t recognize it; they attacked me. So I had to continue taking one more step after another, and with each one came another form of abuse, until I came to see that the whole political and institutional system was protecting Daniel Ortega and leaving me unprotected. In 1999, having spent 16 months visiting the National Assembly and hoping that Daniel Ortega would be stripped of his immunity so he would go to court and enable me to demonstrate my charges, I decided to resort to an international tribunal, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
When I went to Washington for the first time in October 1999 to present the commission with my suit against the Nicaraguan state for the denial of justice, I thought, ‘How far I’ve had to come….’ Now that I’m returning to testify at the hearing, I’m thinking the same thing and wondering, ‘What else is there to say, if I’ve already said everything, if I’ve been repeating the same thing for years, hoping they’ll allow me to demonstrate that I told the truth?’ The main obstacle to my recovery is the lack of an open legal space to demonstrate the truth of my charges, because that is what has forced me to continually turn back, remember the past, talk about what happened to me. The judicial process is always very painful for a survivor of abuse as it is prolonged and full of obstacles, and we must retell the story with each new step, opening old wounds, reliving the fear and experiencing the nightmares again.
After I made the first denunciation and accused Daniel Ortega in the national courts, new chapters of abuse were added as the state branches and institutions became accomplices of the sexual offender. That is what I denounced before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission because the Nicaraguan state is obliged to guarantee access to justice for all of its citizens and because Nicaragua signed the Belem do Pará Convention in 1994, thus pledging to prevent, eradicate and sanction all forms of violence against women, including sexual violence. The obligations it assumed by signing that convention include the fact that the Nicaraguan state must also protect those of us who denounce the sexual abuse we have suffered.
Following my denunciation, the Nicaraguan state was obliged to open a satisfactory investigation and allow me to participate in a transparent judicial process. Had it done so six months after my denunciation, in line with its duties and commitments, I would never have been left defenseless against Daniel Ortega’s power, as I have been during these past four years. The process would have been difficult and painful, but even if Daniel Ortega had not been punished, I wouldn’t have felt so defenseless had the state acted, had some kind of conclusive judgment come out of that process—which I’m sure would have been favorable to me. I would have felt protected and would have been able to bring the history of abuse imposed on me since I was a girl to a legal close.
But the state became an accomplice of the way that Daniel Ortega chose to handle the case, first by hushing it up and then by closing it. Daniel claimed immunity in 1998 and remained in a state of immunity and impunity until 2001 so as not to be investigated. After almost four years of that, he renounced his immunity in December 2001, claiming that the statute of limitations prosecuting the crimes I had accused him of had lapsed. He was able to act that way because he had gained enough time to prepare all of the conditions he needed to avoid being investigated, judged or punished, to avoid anything from happening. Between 1998 and 2001 he built up a political pact that guaranteed, among other things, the placing of people totally loyal to him in the judicial institutions. He renounced his immunity only after an electoral contest in which he re-launched his image though a campaign that ignored the serious nature of my charges and went so far as to present him as a family man. This implied that it was no longer necessary to clear up or even go on denying my denunciations and that the accusation should simply be put in the past and forgotten as if it were devoid of any importance.
Daniel Ortega went to court in December 2001 strengthened by the "political pardon" by which his fellow parliamentary representatives and practically the whole of the Nicaraguan political class and institutional structures had protected him during the campaign and over all those years. If the state had acted to allow me to present evidence and witnesses a few months after my denunciation, when the public was listening to me and was moved and interested in knowing the truth, while he could only defend himself by claiming that what I was saying was part of a political plot, everything would have been different.
What has happened is serious. My case demonstrated how the Nicaraguan political class and most of society has learned to coexist with a sexual offender. This degree of not only political but also social impunity has set a seriously negative precedent. Unfortunately we have grown used to expecting very little from our leaders, which is why I don’t believe that those who voted for Daniel Ortega in the past elections necessarily don’t believe me or reject my arguments. I believe they were pushed to the point of believing that sexual abuse is less important than corruption and felt it was not such a serious problem for a sexual offender to end up as President of the Republic.
The government, the state, bears a great deal of responsibility for this social impunity. The fact that it didn’t allow me to go through a judicial process deprived society of a learning process. However painful it may have been for me to expose myself to the extent that I have, certain lessons can be drawn from my telling this story and trying to demonstrate it: lessons for families, lessons about how to look after children and how to confront similar problems. Many more lessons could have been drawn from the trial that never took place. However, the state chose another path, trying to hush up the issue, hide it, and it lost that opportunity. This precedent encourages the crime and creates a favorable atmosphere for it to be covered up by the silence of the abused and the impunity of the abusers. Seeing how the state branches protected the accused and the country’s leading figures were quite happy to continue living alongside a sexual offender sends a very negative message to society, particularly to those who abuse and those who are abused and have thought about talking and denouncing. International opinion, in contrast, demonstrated much greater awareness.
Judge Juana Méndez’s decree prescribing the crime in favor of Daniel Ortega in December 2001 was an attempt to demonstrate to society and to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that there was no denial of justice, as though proof of denial of justice depended on a piece of paper or a sentence. How can 19 consecutive years of sexual abuse be extinguished by a "trial" like the one held in December, which lasted for less than a week and in which I wasn’t allowed to say a single word or make a single declaration, let alone present any witnesses or evidence?
The accused party at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission is the Nicaraguan state, not Daniel Ortega. Enrique Bolaños has inherited this problem and the person responsible for that legacy is Daniel Ortega, due to his lack of responsibility, coherence or integrity. The Nicaraguan state is being judged in an international court as the result of the personal failings of Daniel Ortega, who could have avoided this situation by assuming his responsibility. It is an unprecedented case in the Inter-American system, because those that normally come before the IACHR are brought against particular states over actions committed by institutions or legislation, making it difficult to identify a particular person as responsible for the criminal situation. In my case, the sole person responsible is quite clearly identified, while as the victim I was totally willing to demonstrate the veracity of my story to my country’s courts. All of this is evidence of just how cowardly Daniel Ortega really is: my case could end in the conviction of the whole government as the result of one man’s sexual crimes.
I’m not Daniel Ortega’s political adversary. I just started a legal process against him because of the crimes he committed against me as my adoptive father. This process turned against the Nicaraguan state because it protected him and denied me any judicial arena in which he could have defended himself had he so wished.
I have always used all means I could to keep my case from being politicized and I regret the fact that I am listened to and provided with certain spaces only because it is considered political—because of the person accused. If my denunciation and this case have been politicized it has not been my fault; I have the right to denounce the abuse committed. Its politicization is Daniel Ortega’s doing because he has used the mechanisms of political power at his disposal to protect himself and hidden behind a political party, the FSLN. The FSLN has politicized the case because it did not know how to separate itself from its leader’s criminal attitude, choosing instead to cover up for him and endorse him to the point of launching his presidential candidacy, despite the serious accusation pending against him.
The fact that Daniel Ortega committed these sexual crimes against me while President of the Republic and head of state and even committed them in other countries, thus violating the laws of those particular countries, is an aggravating factor. Clearing up these events would set a national and even international precedent. International laws are increasingly sensitive to the protection of women and the sanction of sexual crimes. Incest has even been compared to torture, although I personally regret that such a comparison has to be made to draw attention to this crime. Society should recognize just how important and serious sexual crimes are in their own right.
Sexual abuse against girls and boys was also recently qualified as a form of terrorism, because it seeks to cause the same reaction as political terrorism: fear and submission. In many countries, the justice system is much more sensitive to such crimes than in Nicaragua. Some even define incest as sexual abuse committed by an adult against a girl or a boy due to a privileged position of power, not just limiting it to the existence of a blood relationship between the adult and the child. Some countries also do not have a statute of limitations for bringing prosecutions for incestuous sexual abuse because it is quite clearly understood that it can take a woman many years to understand what happened and even more to denounce it. In some countries proof of the psychological injury to girls and women is considered enough evidence given the understanding that incest is a crime that takes place within the home and is therefore very difficult to prove through the use of witnesses.
Unfortunately, corruption is only understood as the abuse of state resources by a public official for personal benefit and the crime is only linked with economic benefits and financial crimes. In my case, Daniel Ortega committed acts of corruption because he used the mechanisms of state, political and military power that he controlled as President of the Republic to encircle me, silence me and create suitable environments for himself. What happens at home should not be less important than what happens in the street. To make the tragedy greater, the immunity law that protects crimes of economic corruption from being sanctioned also protects sexual crimes in Nicaragua. I hope that the current debate over the immunity law will lead to this being reformed so it no longer covers sexual crimes.
I also hope that the new government will prove capable of rectifying the actions of the previous government, which not only protected Daniel Ortega and left me unprotected, but also presented the IACHR with three written documents containing distortions and even lies about what had happened in my case. It went so far as to insist that I was responsible for failing to gain access to the courts because I had not insisted enough to the relevant institutions and had not exhausted the legal recourses. I hope the new government will assume its responsibilities in this case. The IACHR orders states to rectify human rights violations committed against its citizens and orders damages to be awarded to them for the violations they suffered. In my case, having been unable to demonstrate in the courts and to Nicaraguan society that I told the truth has created a permanent suspicion toward me that has made it difficult for me to live in my own country.
I hope the government will now be able to open up negotiations to identify the obstacles that I confronted in my search for justice and then reform and correct everything necessary and thus rectify such a negative precedent. I hope it will be willing to review the extent to which existing legislation facilitated my lack of protection. If this is done, it will be proved, among other things, that the immunity law was a fundamental obstacle to my accessing justice. It will also be proved that the statute of limitations was another important obstacle and that the relationship between this and immunity favors the criminals. This process should also lead to the needed legal and institutional reforms so that other survivors do not come to believe that talking about abuse in order to exercise their rights, access justice, demonstrate the truth of their stories and vindicate themselves as full and dignified women is a crime. They should be offered an easier path than the one I had to tread. I hope that an agreement with the state, which would mark the conclusion of my case at the IACHR, would also be a sign that the prevention and eradication of sexual violence will be a priority issue for the new government.
I also have a civil suit pending requesting the reversal of my adoption, but I haven’t achieved anything in this area because the judge to whom I presented it determined that I couldn’t reverse the adoption and remove the surname Ortega until the penal case had been proved. Now that they have closed the penal case in Nicaragua due to the statute of limitations, I cannot reopen the civil case to recover my father’s surname. I would have to prove that my adoptive father abused me, and they won’t let me prove it. In addition, I found out when I set out on this path that Daniel Ortega adopted me in 1986 through a court case and that I could only reverse the adoption and recover my surname through another court case, which they won’t let me pursue. The laws have thus left me in a terrible Catch 22 situation. When I go to the IACHR to accuse the Nicaraguan government of complicity with Daniel Ortega, I have to travel with a passport and documents bearing the surname Ortega, which I consider offensive and a continuation of the abuse.
Whatever happens in the international process at the IACHR, I cannot allow this case to be closed, because that would amount to closing the option of many other women to talk and to feel that justice is being done in their case. My struggle is no longer against Daniel Ortega, it is against the precedent that my case created through the complicit action of the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch and the country’s whole political system.
I particularly want to keep this case open by working with other victims and survivors. The word "survivor" recalls the pain and the past that we have survived, and expresses our desire to start living. It is hard to explain what incest has done to us, that "something" that annuls our vital energy as if the internal motor of our desire to live were turned off. We survivors frequently lose the will to live. After breaking the silence, grabbing hold of life ends up being our most important task. Because we were dead at the time the abuse took place, it is a very difficult struggle to overcome the tendency to return to that state of annulment, in which we are prisoners of the habit of sadness, and become optimistic people instead.
I have learned a lot in my professional life by working with ex-combatants, because they are also survivors—survivors of the war of the 1980s. After making the denunciation, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the stories of many women, and many men, too, who are survivors of sexual abuse that took place when they were girls and boys. Meeting them and listening to them has given me a lot of strength, just as it has to see that they are strengthened by what I have to say. Each time I listen to a survivor I feel like I am looking at myself in a mirror, which both causes me pain and strengthens me. That’s what happens to us survivors, and is why it is so important to identify ourselves as survivors and meet up to share our difficulties in healing, the painful family ruptures, the best therapies for rebuilding ourselves, the construction of alternative ways of living that give us hope and the will to stop surviving and start living. This is an urgent task in Nicaragua and one I want to dedicate myself to from now on.