MANAGUA – Before returning to Nicaragua last week after spending 18 months in exile, Nicaraguan-Italian missionary Alberto Boschi went to his local priest to make a confession.
Boschi says he wants to remain “in the good graces of God” just in case he gets killed in Nicaragua, where he’s been labeled an enemy of the Sandinista government after fleeing the country in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for a crime he claims he didn’t commit.
Boschi’s mistrust of the Sandinista government is not baseless. Upon returning to Nicaragua June 23, Boschi was detained by authorities in the airport for five hours and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship. Government critics are calling the move a “flagrant violation” of Boschi’s rights, and a continuation of the Sandinistas’ political persecution of the activist missionary.
In December 2008, Boschi was sentenced by a Sandinista judge to 1 year behind bars for illegally carrying a firearm and inciting violence against a Sandinista reporter during an anti-government protest. Boschi, a member of the left wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), claims the trial – during which no evidence was produced against him – was part of a political witch hunt based on false information.
He fled the country during the appeals process. He told The Nica Times in a phone interview from Italy that he refused to become a political prisoner in President Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua (NT, Dec. 19, 2008).
In October 2009, Boschi was pardoned in absentia by an amnesty law written especially for him and passed by opposition lawmakers. But eight months later, the law has yet to be published in the official daily La Gaceta. As a result, Boschi fears he’s still unprotected and vulnerable now that he has returned to Nicaragua to reunite with his wife and four- year-old daughter.
“I am afraid they could come into my house at 5 a.m. and grab me and take me to prison, even though there is a law of amnesty,” Boschi told The Nica Times this week.
The missionary says he’s also afraid for his life and worries that his daughter could “become an orphan” if some fanatical supporter of Ortega becomes over-stimulated by the Sandinistas’ accusations that Boschi works for the CIA and is trying to destabilize the government.
“I know that anything can happen here at any moment. What happened to Carlos Guadamuz could happen to me,” Boschi said, referring to the Sandinista dissident journalist who was shot dead in the street by a Sandinista extremist in 2004.
The Revolutionary Missionary
Boschi first came to Nicaragua with an Italian solidarity group in 1989. As a Catholic missionary, he said he was drawn here by the revolution and the fact that the Sandinista government had four Catholic priests in its cabinet at that time.
Boschi returned to Nicaragua periodically until he finally decided to move here permanently in 1994. He founded a school in Ciudad Sandino, the impoverished urban sprawl north of Managua, and became involved in other missionary work on the Caribbean coast. He eventually married a Nicaraguan woman and got Nicaraguan citizenship in 2005.
Once he had his citizenship, the missionary got involved with the MRS, a group of leftwing Sandinista dissidents that split from Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1995 and took most of the revolution’s intellectuals and ideologues with them.
In 2008, Boschi became the MRS’ mayoral candidate for Ciudad Sandino and was considered an early favorite until the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) canceled the party’s legal status prior to the elections.
But Boschi’s real legal problems didn’t start until November 2008, when a Sandinista judge found him guilty in a verdict that left many people scratching their heads. Despite the lack of evidence, the judge ruled that Boschi was guilty of illegally carrying a firearm and inciting violence against Sandinista TV reporter Antenor Peña, who was injured in the leg during an anti-government protest in July of that year.
The Sandinista media initially claimed Peña had been shot, but the judge later determined that the journalist had been hit with a rock. Regardless, Boschi, who was apparently nearby in his car at the time, was still charged with gunplay and inciting violence – two charges that carried jail terms of six months each.
Leaders of the MRS were quick to come to Boschi’s defense, claiming the missionary was being targeted as “the first political prisoner” of the Ortega government.
“He was the first person to be politically persecuted (by the Ortega government), and he’s still being persecuted,” said MRS leader Enrique Sáenz, who referred to Boschi’s detainment in the airport and subsequent loss of Nicaraguan citizenship as the “second phase” of persecution.
“Orteguismo doesn’t tolerate different political options, so they are trying to intimidate Alberto,” Sáenz said.
The MRS lawmaker said that they will exhaust all legal resources in Nicaragua’s “precarious institutional democracy” to get Boschi’s citizenship reinstated. But the missionary’s lawyer, former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, said the Ortega government’s justification for revoking Boschi’s citizenship isn’t even legal in the first place.
Nicaraguan Immigration authorities released a statement last week saying Boschi’s Nicaraguan citizenship had been revoked because he had repeatedly traveled abroad using his Italian passport, and that Nicaragua and Italy don’t have an agreement recognizing dual nationality.
Novoa, however, says there’s nothing in the law that prohibits a naturalized foreigner from traveling abroad using the passport of his or her native country. Plus, the lawyer added, Boschi had requested a Nicaraguan passport on numerous occasions, but was never issued one. So he had no choice but to travel on his Italian passport.
Gonzalo Carrión, legal advisor for the NicaraguanCenter for Human Rights, said he suspects that once the Ortega administration realized they had Boschi detained at the airport last week, they scrambled to come up with some argument to strip him of his citizenship, even if the reasoning was weak.
“They were running around and sweating to come up with this arbitrary and reactionary decision,” Carrión told The Nica Times.
The irony of the decision, Carrión said, is that the Sandinistas are revoking the citizenship of someone who came to Nicaragua to be in solidarity with the revolution. The rights activist said former rightwing President Arnoldo Alemán did the same thing when he was president in the late 1990s.
Others claim the move suggests the Sandinistas are now using state institutions to deny citizens their legal identity.
Eduardo Enriquez, the outspoken newsroom director of the opposition daily La Prensa, has repeatedly been denied renewal of his state identification card (cédula) since July 2009. Though Enriquez’s problem is with the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) and not Immigration, he said state institutions have been increasingly used to further the Sandinistas’ political whims.
“Apparently they have decided to punish those who they consider enemies of the state by denying them their identities,” he said.
Work to be Done
While Boschi’s future here appears uncertain, the missionary insists he is going to remain in Nicaragua – at the moment on a 90-day tourist visa – and continue his work on behalf of the poor.
“I am here to continue fighting for the poor of Nicaragua. I want to stay here, the people of Ciudad Sandino need me,” Boschi said.
Despite all his legal problems and the risks to his well-being, Boschi says after 16 years living in Nicaragua he feels more at home here than he does in Italy. Plus, he added, as a missionary he feels more useful in his adoptive home than his native land.
“Italy doesn’t need me. In Italy there aren’t hundreds of thousands of children outside of the school system, in Italy there aren’t people who live in cardboard houses or people without water and electricity,” he said. “I can be more useful to the cause of the poor here in Nicaragua than in Italy.”