Nicaragua: PEN announces a regional alliance to continue its work in Nicaragua with a global impact

On 4 February 2021, PEN Nicaragua announced the suspension of its activities amid an increasingly hostile environment, due to threats and close surveillance of journalists and writers promoting literature and defending freedom of expression and critical thought.

PEN Nicaragua has been an exemplary centre and, in addition, its members have acted with admirable courage in the face of the repressive policies of President Daniel Ortega. PEN International will continue its work of defending, protecting, helping and showing solidarity with all Nicaraguan journalists and writers, said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.

For this reason, PEN International announces that it will continue working to defend freedom of expression in Nicaragua through a regional alliance led by PEN Centres in countries such as Argentina, Mexico and the United States. This global observatory will also have the support of PEN Centres in Paraguay, Canada, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, as well as sister human rights organizations.

The decision to suspend the activities of PEN Nicaragua for the foreseeable future is a consequence of the repressive policies of the Ortega government towards independent journalists and critical voices, since 2018 and exacerbated by the recent Foreign Agents Regulation Law. The law was approved by the Nicaraguan authorities on 15 October 2020, and states that "a legal framework for natural or legal persons dependent on foreign interests and funding, and who interfere in the internal affairs of the country".

Any organization or person registered with the Ministry of Interior as a "foreign agent" will be subject to close surveillance, as well as restrictions on their civic and political rights, furthermore, their personal property maybe seized. The list of foreign agents includes civil society organizations.

The political crisis that is gripping Nicaragua with increasing judicial harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests and persecution of critical journalists and writers highlights the diminishing climate for free expression under Ortega’s regime.

PEN International’s Charter states:

PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

PEN International reiterates its call to the Nicaraguan authorities to allow the free flow of information, to cease immediately the attacks, threats and persecution of critical and independent journalists, and to respect international human rights treaties such as the American Convention on Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nicaragua is a party.

OPEN LETTER ABOUT THE DECISION OF PEN NICARAGUA

By Gioconda Belli

For several years, since 2014 to be exact, I have been the president of PEN in Nicaragua. The organization that started in London in 1921 – first as a PEN Club in between a group of writer friends – found during the world wars its vocation to defend imprisoned writers and fight for the rights of those whose books were banned, or whose words were silenced by oppressive regimes. With one hundred years of existence in 2021, PEN brings together more than 40,000 writers in 140 centres around the world, under the presidency of figures such as Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, E. M Forster, Alberto Moravia, H.G. Wells, Mario Vargas Llosa, Homero Aridjis, John Ralston Saul, until the one of Jennifer Clement's today. All along, PEN has continued to honour its Charter and its humanistic principles.

Each PEN centre is autonomous and national. Its relationship with PEN International is based on adhering to its philosophy and principles in the promotion and dissemination of literature and in the defense of freedom of expression and solidarity with persecuted or harassed writers in the world.

PEN International promotes literary awards in the United States and Europe.

PEN Nicaragua, with its work, has tried to fill a lack of programs to stimulate reading and to disseminate national culture, in the country. Over the years, we have organized dozens of book forums to read and comment on books, we have held language workshops for journalists and writers, and we have warned about the violations to press freedom and to freedom of expression that have been intensifying in Nicaragua.

Our work is done by volunteers. In the past, we have hosted small projects supported by international cooperation, and developed events and programs with the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation.

Since 2018, we lost the option to apply for projects and our bank account was also cancelled, due to the fact that, although we presented the required documents and all was in order, we were not granted a certification by the Ministerio de Gobernación (Ministry of the Interior), as happened to several other NGOs. PEN Nicaragua has since then functioned to a minimum, making a huge effort to continue organising LibroForos in 2020, given that it continues to be very well received by the public.

The Foreign Agents Law, with its infinite requirements – which would even require us to have the staff that we lack – only applies in our case because we subscribe to the ideals and ethical proposals of PEN International. PEN does not impose a specific way of functioning on us, nor is there any other link but being part of this international fabric of cultural centers and support for the work of writers.

Despite the fact that our aims and work respond to humanitarian and freedom ideals, we are aware that because of this link the State would impose on us the requisite to register as foreign agents and to fulfil monthly requirements that do not correspond to the reality of our limitations. On the other hand, none of us considers ourselves a foreign agent. We are Nicaraguans who have only wanted the cultural development of our country. For these reasons, the Board of Directors that I chair and the Assembly of members have decided to suspend indefinitely the PEN Nicaragua centre.

We are saddened to take this decision, given the cultural voids that exist in the country and the constant violations of freedom of expression. However, under the conditions imposed by this law, we could not continue to operate and fulfil the independent and freedom mission that supports the philosophy of PEN centres around the world.

We have informed PEN International of our decision to suspend our membership. Each one of us, directors and members, writers, poets, journalists, academics and essayists, will continue to contribute to Nicaraguan culture as creative individuals who love our country.

On behalf of the PEN Nicaragua board of directors and its members, we thank Hispamer, the Violeta Chamorro Foundation and all those who have supported us. We appreciate the vision of future of Gloria Guardia, Vidaluz Meneses and those who founded the Nicaraguan PEN, to join this global initiative of writers dedicated to promoting the free circulation of ideas, free expression and literature, as a witness and guardian of miseries and greatness of the human condition.

President of PEN Nicaragua from 2014 until today*

Managua, Nicaragua, 4 February 2021