CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Nicaraguan cartoonist and refugee Pedro X Molina, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2018.
Pedro describes the circumstances that forced him to leave his home and seek respite from his tormentors in the USA, an experience that echoes childhood years when his family fled to Guatemala.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Pedro, long before we considered you a cartoonist who needed help you were in regular contact with us and could always be relied upon to express solidarity with others when threatened. You’ve written and spoken eloquently about the purpose of cartoons in a society facing oppression. Explain your philosophy.
For me cartooning is much more than just a job, as a child I grew up in a country that didn’t have access to many things, because at that time Nicaragua was under an economic embargo. There were not a lot of choices to entertain yourself, so comics and humor were my major interest. But not commercial comics (superhero stuff) because those didn’t make it into my country due to the embargo. I read humor comics from Spain, Argentina and Mexico mostly, things like Paracuellos by Gimenez or Mafalda and Boogie by Quino and Fontanarrosa of Argentina, or the books of the great Rius from Mexico. All those comics had drawing and humor but also something more: criticism of their society and their governments. So looking back I think that’s what made the change for me. Maybe if I had grown up in a more conventional scene I would’ve ended up drawing superhero stuff or designing characters for videogames, who knows… But anyway, another thing that was always present at that time was censorship and a lack of civil liberties, the situation was so bad that my family ended up going into the exile (my first exile!). So in a new place, without family or friends, drawing filled a hole for me and being exposed to more freedoms outside my country I learned to never take those for granted. Back in Nicaragua I started doing cartoons, believing that it was a good marriage between my artistic interests and my interests as a critical person and a believer in freedom of speech and the press, things that were very new in my country at that time. Since then, I have always felt that there are three things that are very important in society: art, humor and criticism. And coming from a country like mine, having gained back its freedoms, every time I used to read about some other artist or cartoonist in trouble under authoritarian regimes I felt the need to say something and show support, because as an artist and a citizen I know what is to live under those circumstances. I’m still that way to this day.
Tell us about the main events in Nicaragua lately; many human rights organisations have expressed grave concerns about the crackdown occurring there.
Well, Nicaragua no longer has any of the civil liberties I mentioned, there is no respect at all for human rights and people live in fear of saying anything in public against the dictatorship of Ortega & Murillo because they can end up in jail or, even worse, a cemetery. The internet is the only place where people, can still criticize the dictatorship, albeit anonymously for the most part. Some of the journalists who went into the exile after the 2018 crisis decided to go back, two journalists accused of terrorism are now out of jail, but that doesn’t mean they have freedom. Their independent TV station is still in the possession of the dictator’s forces and the same situation applies to my colleagues at Confidencial. Our building is still occupied by armed security personnel despite our director going back and trying to assert pressure to see if the government would free our building, The fact is that we are still working from a small – and almost secret – office to keep putting out material on our website. Two of us [Confidencial staff], together with most of the journalists who had to leave the country in 2018, are still in exile.
You won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2018; what did this recognition mean to you?
It was HUGE! It helped a lot to put a spotlight not only on me – which helped me to be a little more safe, at least for a while – but also on the whole situation in my country. I got the chance to talk about it in several international forums. Also of course, we can’t forget that without it I may not have had the chance to move to a safer place outside Nicaragua when things got really dangerous at the end of 2018. Beyond that I have always admired those cartoonists who understand the role and the power of this medium, who respect it and take it so seriously, and many of the past winners of the award are in that category. So I was very honored to even be considered for it.
The offices at Confidencial were raided by the police in late 2018. What happened next?
As I said, our building is still occupied by armed forces of the dictatorship. We continue to work from an secondary site inside Nicaragua and from exile and have kept the digital news site going on without interruption. But as for freedom of press in general; El Nuevo Diario, the second largest newspaper in Nicaragua (and where I used to work before moving to Confidencial) couldn’t survive the censorship and the embargo that the dictatorship put on paper and supplies needed to work, and deciding to close after forty years. 100% Noticias, the independent TV station whose owner was put in jail for many months, is still likewise occupied by the dictatorship.
The few journalists who decided to go back are under constant harassment, surveillance and some of them have even received death threats from police officers. So I would say that things are even worse today because while all media outlets are struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic, the ones in Nicaragua must also deal with a criminal dictatorship.
Were there other ways in which CRNI supported you afterwards?
Yes! In the process of trying to get a new status to be able to live in the USA, even sending some money when they could. My biggest concern right now is that my residence in an ICORN city of asylum will end soon and my current visa will expire too and I don’t know what I’ll do after that.
Thanks to our friends in the ICORN network, you have enjoyed safe refuge in the United States. You told me before that there is a history of displacement in your own past; how has it felt to repeat it?
My first exile was in the 80’s; at that time Nicaragua was going through a civil war between the Sandinistas (funded by the Soviet Union) and the Contras (funded by the Reagan administration). I was a child back then. My father was working in the Sandinista government. He was working with poor farmers in the countryside, organizing cooperatives. After a few years, he started to notice the corruption growing inside the Sandinista govt and was very vocal about it. That resulted in him quitting his job but by the time he did so one of his friends, who was still inside the government, told him that he was already on the “black list”, meaning he was considered a “traitor” to the revolution so it would be better for him to leave Nicaragua immediately.
My father sold his old car and in a couple of weeks the whole family of nine left in a bus to the north of Central America. We went to Guatemala because we couldn’t afford to go any further. There we rented a shabby little house in a very poor neighborhood. It was very small, it didn’t have finished floors or walls, no indoor plumbing and the water would only be available for a couple of hours very late at night. We slept on a mattress right on the floor and cooked on a big empty powdered milk can over a small gas burner. I was ten years old at that time.
After a few months my father got a job in his field of work, my older brothers started working in car shops and the younger ones were then able to go to school. We ended up living there for four years. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution there was an election in 1990 and so we were able to come back to Nicaragua, but not without some hesitation; my father had a good job, was earning more and had more opportunities in his career than any he’d seen in Nicaragua, and he knew very well how the Sandinista party functioned and was pretty sure they would seek power again. But the rest of the family wanted to go back and in the end he relented.
Back in Nicaragua I finished high school and my father, seeing that drawing and art was always a constant with me during my childhood, decided to send me to college to study something related to that. He remained convinced the Sandinista party would come back for vengeance so once again he sold his car and with the money sent me back to Guatemala to study Graphic Design at the San Carlos University. His orders were to try to find myself a future there, working in advertising or something like that. But after a short while I decided to go home. My father was very angry, but he respected my choice. A year or two after I came back from Guatemala I started publishing my first cartoons in Nicaraguan media. I was then 19. And remained working there as a cartoonist until 2018.
And so here I am now, in my second exile. History repeats itself. Like my father, I had to leave Nicaragua for political reasons and because of threats, threats made by the government of the day, the same group back in power. But this time, thanks to CRNI things have been different. I’m able live in a far more decent way, without luxuries for sure, but also without problems (other than missing family and home). I am worried about what will happen next. It seems pretty obvious that I can’t go back to Nicaragua right now. And even if I were able, I can’t help thinking about my father’s experience. He was right, all the way: in his hesitance about our going back; about how his tormentors would return to power; about wanting me to build a life outside Nicaragua. He tried again in Nicaragua because we insisted, he gave up what was likely a better and secure future and of course was dismayed when I had to leave in 2018. We’ve never talked about how this experience of mine is a duplication of his. He’d be entitled to hold it against me, but he isn’t angry.
If I end up facing his ultimate decision, whether or not to leave whatever opportunities may come my way while abroad, I wonder what I will do. Should I break this cycle of repetition? Maybe I should put all this into some sort of graphic novel… or maybe that’s just my ego talking!
One of the most moving things I’ve seen you do is take advantage of the #Inktober trend to highlight the victims of state-sponsored violence in Nicaragua. How important is social media to a cartoonist trying to highlight such abuses?
In a place like Nicaragua social media is a vital space. Again, the internet is pretty much the only space with some sort of liberty in my country. Ironically, I wasn’t too much of an enthusiast until I started at Confidencial. They put pressure on me to have an online presence in social media as part of the team; we’re a digital outlet, so why not? I remembered that I had opened an account on Twitter that I never used and since at that time it was the least-used social media in Nicaragua (most of the people were on Facebook) I decided to get into it, being used at that time mostly by journalists. In 2018 I had a few thousands followers, but when the repression started to get more serious: radio stations were being burned; journalists started going into exile; newsrooms including ours were occupied; because of the killings people were not able to go into the streets to protest anymore. People started to follow journalists online to get their information and share their opinions with them, so we started seeing our numbers of followers grow very quickly. From there I decided to focus on using social media to denounce what was happening. The first thing I did was to collate the art (murals, cartoons, paintings, illustrations, songs) that was being created by the people all over the country during the protests, then to memorialise every victim of the dictatorship. I started doing the portraits of the victims using the Inktober initiative on October 2018, then again in 2019, and unless something happens I plan to continue this year. The result has been great, not only because it helped to highlight what has been happening and to help keep in our memory the victims of the repression, but on a personal level, it gave me a very intimate and special connection with the families of the victims. They started writing to me to see if I could include their loved ones in the project, sending me pictures and telling me how they were as people, their dreams, their desires, their hopes… It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.