The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2023 61 A media helicopter hovered nearby for live coverage. Families, friends, and diaspora gathered beyond the sliding airport doors, clutching blue and white Nicaraguan flags. b Because the operation occurred outside the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, the Nicaraguans didn’t qualify for refugee funding. Instead, they relied on volunteers and organizations that compressed lessons from 2021’s massive Afghan resettlement into mere days. More than 350 employees from State’s kaleidoscope of bureaus had volunteered just hours before to serve in an undisclosed crisis response. Some escorted the evacuees to a nearby hotel ballroom that became an ersatz Ellis Island. The Foreign Service Institute’s Spanish teachers interpreted so first responders could understand each freed prisoner’s personal needs. Staffed with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, Virginia and Fairfax County emergency responders, and various nongovernmental organizations, the ballroom was a 24-hour haven for acute medical response, meals, winter coats, cell phones, toiletries, onward travel, and ecstatic reunifications. After six days, all 222 passengers had departed, embarking on new lives in 25 states. Much work remains. NGO partners are continuing case management. Teams in Embassy Managua and Embassy San José are helping the interagency reunite families amid intensified regime repression. Shortly after the prisoners were airborne, Ortega’s regime stripped citizenship from all 222, as well as 94 other Nicaraguans, seizing their property. The international community condemned it as a human rights violation and continues to call for Nicaragua’s return to democracy and the rule of law. No one involved will ever forget the freedom flight. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the operation as a “model of what diplomacy can achieve for human rights and democracy in the most difficult circumstances.” Then–Director for Central American Affairs Patrick Ventrell lauded the U.S. response. From the moment the regime made the offer to Ambassador Sullivan to release the prisoners, Ventrell said, there was no hesitation in how to respond. “Our only discussion was what size plane and how to land it,” he said. Watching the freed Nicaraguans step from the Dulles escalators and out the sliding doors “was probably the most extraordinary moment in my entire career,” Ventrell said. “You design a policy, have a breakthrough, and—this is the moment why we do it all.” n