The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2023 57 after long months of backdoor diplomacy. It came to fruition on Jan. 29, when Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada posed an unexpected question to then-Ambassador Kevin Sullivan, who had led U.S. Embassy Managua since 2018. Would the United States accept all the political prisoners from Nicaragua? A flurry of activity ensued. Ambassador Sullivan boarded a plane to Washington to rally the interagency response, entrusting Chargé d’Affaires Carla Fleharty and a tiny embassy team to secure regime agreement on logistics, timing, and assurance that only prisoners who freely consented would leave for the United States. Negotiations with the regime were touch and go until the last minute, when the ambassador overcame a major disagreement that had threatened to derail the entire operation. With that phone call over, Operation Nica Welcome was a go. b While the plane winged its way from Norfolk to Nicaragua, an embassy team assembled in Managua. Chargé d’Affaires Fleharty, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Ryan Reid, Information Officer Gaby Canavati, Acting Consular Chief Katie Jonas, Acting Regional Security Officer Will LaChance, and Defense Attaché Lt. Col. Dennis Rhoan climbed into a motor pool SUV, toting a large plastic crate stuffed with more than 220 freshly printed Nicaraguan passports. For prisoners with no prior passport, the regime had substituted mug shots. About half the group had been arrested in 2018, when thousands of Nicaraguans protested proposed changes to social security. Security forces squelched dissent with live ammunition, injuring a few hundred people and arresting hundreds more. Over the coming months, security forces killed more than 300 protestors—some, newspapers showed, had been targeted by regime snipers. The regime rounded up another wave of prisoners as the 2021 election loomed. Every presidential contender was arrested, seven candidates in all. Journalists, business figures, even Sandinistas who fought beside Ortega for decades, but later broke with him, were jailed. Many landed in the infamous “El Chipote” prison, in solitary confinement, without access to lawyers or loved ones. The crackdown hit close to home for U.S. diplomats. As Managua’s political chief from 2020 to 2022, Hegerle remembers hosting Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a journalist and politician, and his wife for wine and cheese one night in June 2021. The next day, Chamorro texted Hegerle just before his arrest. Then Chamorro’s WhatsApp line went silent. b On Feb. 9, 2023, the embassy team met their Nicaraguan foreign ministry contacts at Managua’s airport after midnight. Reaching the tarmac on the military side of the facility, Reid spotted police clad in balaclavas, wielding automatic weapons. Out of the darkness came the roar of a dozen Russian-made buses. The windows were covered with blankets or paper, but the diplomats could see the passengers’ profiles: hands shackled, heads down. “That was the moment it was real,” Reid said. The passengers clearly weren’t told where they were headed. Some concluded they were off to a judicial hearing or another prison. Seeing the plane, others figured they were headed to Cuba or Venezuela. Some were terrified they were about to be executed. “They seemed to have no clue what was happening,” Reid said. Left: Members from the Embassy Managua team and personnel from Washington set up to work on the tarmac at the Managua airport. In the foreground is a crate of Nicaraguan passports for the political prisoners that the government of Nicaragua turned over shortly before releasing them. In addition to matching passports to individuals, U.S. officials needed to verify that each prisoner was going to the U.S. voluntarily. Above: Diplomats and U.S. government personnel process a busload of political prisoners freed by the Ortega regime in the early morning of Feb. 9, 2023. MILEYDI GUILARTE MILEYDI GUILARTE