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The Vandal Poet

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Under the threat of death, a young Nicaraguan activist flees to the United States while leaning on poetry and faith

“We are watching you.”

“Your garbage poems are not coming to overthrow commander Daniel [Ortega, president of Nicaragua].”

“Death to the traitor trying to overthrow the government.”

The text messages were endless. So were the rocks thrown at his family’s home. The young Nicaraguan faced a choice. Stay and continue to protest against injustices in his country or go. It was mid-2018 and Nicaragua was convulsed by anti-government protests.

From Calm to Conflict

The young Nicaraguan is from Jalapa in northern Nicaragua. Twenty-five in 2020, he studied tourism and hotel management at the Universidad Politécnica de Nicaragua (UPOLI) in Managua, the capital. From 2014 until 2018, he and his family had a small business that organized events in Jalapa. The local government hired their small business to organize the annual corn festival in Jalapa. The young Nicaraguan gave cooking classes and prepared candidates for the competition to crown the best corn farmer. In early April 2018, he and his family were contracted for this festival again. In addition to these work contracts, the young Nicaraguan’s aunt was mayor of Jalapa. His connections to the government ran deep.

In April 2018, however, Nicaragua exploded. The fire at the Reserva Indio Maiz was seen as an act of government negligence and corruption. Additionally, there was outrage at the pension reforms that would cut retirement benefits. Protests began which led to violent confrontations, threats, which then mobilized more people on both sides. The country divided quickly.

Enraged by the events, the young Nicaraguan began protesting and soon thereafter canceled his contract with the local government to express his displeasure with the national government’s actions. The local governments in Nicaragua are often controlled by the ruling Sandinista party of President Daniel Ortega. President Ortega and his party were the target of the April 2018 protests.

In May 2018, the young Nicaraguan began writing poems to protest the Sandinista government. He published his poems on social media and began receiving the threats referenced above. His brother was surrounded and threatened with a gun at a bar in October 2018. This was the last straw. This brother and the young Nicaraguan, now the self-proclaimed “Poeta Vandalico” (Vandal Poet), decided to flee to the United States across Central America and Mexico. Poeta Vandalico and his brother left three sisters, a nephew and his mother. It was a very difficult decision to leave but necessary to save their own lives.

For the short distance to the Honduran border, the government police followed Poeta Vandalico and his brother. After crossing into Honduras, however, they were able to get to the U.S. border in 11 days. Once in the United States, Poeta Vandalico and his brother applied for asylum at a time when the Trump administration made obtaining asylum more difficult than ever.

The Twitter profile picture for Poeta Vandalico featuring the Nicaraguan flag.

Faith Will Get You Through

As part of the Trump administration’s policy toward asylum seekers, once a person has applied for asylum they are often kept in a detention center until their hearing (previously, they were likely to be released until their hearings). As a result, Poeta Vandalico spent 17 months in a detention center awaiting his asylum hearing.

“No one is prepared to be locked up, this I can assure you. However, if you know that your life is in danger if you return to your country, you have to withstand being locked up so that you can save your life,” Poeta Vandalico said. “I knew that the asylum process was going to be long. I only got through the detention with help from God and with the force of my own desire.”

Poeta Vandalico described his 17 months in detention as a trying experience for which he is ultimately thankful. “It was a time of uncertainty and fear [...] but also a chance to learn many great things and get closer to God, my brother, and to learn that the good things always take time in coming.”

Poeta Vandalico and his brother ultimately won asylum in court. He read a poem called “Sentimientos” (see the photo below) to the immigration judge in his final statement and cried as he read it.  

This is the poem Poeta Vandalico read to the judge at the end of his asylum hearing. The first letters of the stanzas on the left side read "NICARAGUA LIBRE POR SIEMPRE" (Free Nicaragua Forever)

Friends Sent Back

While locked up, Poeta Vandalico made many other friends from Nicaragua. Sadly, many could not withstand the indeterminate detention. They gave up their asylum fight and returned to Nicaragua. “When they heard that I finally got asylum, many of my friends who went back regretted that they gave up,” said Poeta Vandalico.

I asked whether he believes the U.S. government is trying to make life hard for asylum seekers that they just give up. “It is definitely a strategy of the U.S. government to lock you up for an extended period so that you will give up your asylum claim and go home [...] However, I hold nothing against the U.S. government. I know that the asylum process is long. I only got through the detention with help from God and with the force of my own desire,” replied Poeta Vandalico.

Poeta Vandalico said that the United States is a country that respects human rights and allows people a voice so “one can be human.”

The Future

While Poeta Vandalico and his brother are safe in the United States, everyday away from his family in Nicaragua is painful. His family has a new small business selling crafts, professional makeup and acrylics. Although they no longer depend on the government for contracts, pro-government sympathizers have attacked their business with rocks and the local government has overcharged their taxes.

Poeta Vandalico is confident that the Ortega/Sandinista regime will fall one day, saying, “Hitler fell, so of course this government will fall [...] There will just be a long road ahead with a lot of garbage to pick up.” As a show of faith, Poeta Vandalico says he believes in “divine justice rather than justice on earth. [Divine justice] will come in good time.”

Poeta Vandalico currently works in the southern United States as a carpenter’s assistant, a job in which he had no previous experience. He does not reveal his real name on social media so Sandinistas do not bother him in the United States. He no longer uses his old accounts from when he lived in Nicaragua. He has started a new life.

Although his life and profession are new, Poeta Vandalico still writes poems about Nicaragua and his patriotism. He posts the poems to his Twitter account @PoetaVandalico and is followed by many people within the anti-Ortega movement. His dream is to publish his poems in a book and return home to a Nicaragua that has a free and democratic government.

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