Political Prisoners in Nicaragua to Receive Kenyon’s López Award Honoring Commitments to Democracy

Journalist Carlos Chamorro will accept the Leopoldo López Award at a Kenyon event on May 5.

By David Hoyt ’14
Portrait of López Award winners on Nicaraguan flag

Kenyon College announced today that the Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award will be bestowed upon Nicaraguans exiled or imprisoned by the ruling regime for their efforts to establish greater democracy in that country. These include especially the seven 2021 presidential candidates currently imprisoned by dictator Daniel Ortega — Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, Arturo Cruz Sequeira, Félix Maradiaga, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Miguel Mora Barberena, Medardo Mairena Sequeira, and Noel Vidaurre — as well as Hugo Torres Jiménez, who recently died while in the regime’s custody. 

The award was created by family and classmates of prominent Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, a 1993 graduate of Kenyon, to honor his dedication to the peaceful advancement of freedom and democracy. The inaugural award was given in 2021 to Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng.

Ortega, leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), won election in a three-way contest in 2006 and has retained power through increasingly fraudulent means over three subsequent elections. His wife, Rosario María Murillo Zambrana, became vice president in 2017, and family members hold the most important seats of government. Experts at Varieties of Democracy, the foremost scholarly database assessing political regimes worldwide, have identified significant regression into authoritarianism from 2010 to 2020, particularly since 2018, when the government’s repression of massive protests resulted in 325 deaths and reports of torture and disappearances.

In advance of the 2021 presidential election, Nicaragua arbitrarily arrested the seven opposition presidential candidates specifically named in the award citation along with another 32 prominent government critics. Many were charged with treason. Last month, imprisoned presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro, together with her brother Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was convicted on money laundering charges. She was sentenced to eight years in prison while he faces up to nine. Human Rights Watch has warned that “the Ortega government has consolidated itself as a dictatorship in which there are no independent institutions left to act as a check on executive power.”   

Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Chamorro, brother of Cristiana Chamorro Barrios and Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, will accept the award on behalf of all Nicaragua’s political prisoners in an on-campus event held in Gambier, May 5, 2022. Chamorro is an influential investigative Nicaraguan journalist who was an early supporter of FSLN before turning against the corruption and authoritarianism of President Ortega. Chamorro has suffered numerous instances of harassment by state authorities and has twice been forced into exile, most recently in June 2021. He now resides in Costa Rica.

The bestowal of the award by Kenyon College President Sean Decatur will be accompanied by an address from Chamorro.  They will be joined on the stage by Leopoldo López and Berta Valle, whose husband Félix Maradiaga is one of the seven imprisoned presidential candidates.  The ceremony will conclude with a conversation between Chamorro, López, and Valle about the deep personal sacrifices often demanded by the struggle for democracy and the vital need to confront autocracies around the globe. The ceremony will bring together three of the world’s prominent exiles on the same stage.  

“Authoritarian regimes around the world want nothing more than to crush the will of all who might oppose them,” said David Rowe, director of the Center for the Study of American Democracy and professor of political science at Kenyon. “By bearing witness to the courage that the honorees displayed in confronting the Ortega regime, as well as to the suffering they now endure, we seek to give hope that their efforts shall not be in vain and share in their vision of a world democratic and free.”  

“I am honored to accept this award on behalf of many Nicaraguans that are currently in prison or in exile as a result of the political persecution launched by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship,” Chamorro said. “The Nicaraguan struggle for democracy and justice has faced indiscriminate state repression against a wide variety of ordinary citizens and leaders. As a journalist I have tried to document the civic resistance since the April 2018 rebellion and repression, maintaining my commitment to the truth, without accepting censorship or self censorship. While I might not be capable of representing the plurality and diversity of the whole of Nicaraguan civic resistance, I will do my best to speak for all those who are silent in prison.”

Leopoldo López, a founder of the political party Voluntad Popular and leader of the Venezuelan opposition, was arrested in February 2014 by Venezuelan authorities after being accused of inciting unrest during anti-government demonstrations. He spent three-and-a-half years at Venezuela’s infamous Ramo Verde prison before being released to house arrest in July 2017. He left his home in an April 30, 2019, uprising against the government of Nicolás Maduro and subsequently sought shelter in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas, later fleeing to Spain, where he now lives in exile. His current efforts focus on building a global movement of grassroots democratic activists in a world-wide struggle against authoritarian regimes. 

The Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award is administered by Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy. A selection committee including Rowe, other members of the Kenyon community and representatives of the López family determine the recipient. In creating the award, López’s classmates, family and the Kenyon community at large seek to illuminate the commitment, courage, and enormous personal sacrifices of those who struggle to uphold core principles of democracy in a world in which they are under attack.