Dora María Tellez was one of the leading figures in Nicaragua’s Sandinista guerrilla army that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Today, after the Ortega regime arrested her in July 2021 during a crackdown on all opposition, she is imprisoned up in the notorious El Chipote penitentiary. In February, 2022, she was sentenced to eight years for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.” The account below provides a view of a remarkable career.
Dora María Tellez: Do not touch the blue sky*
Acting from vengeance, [President Daniel] Ortega has kept Dora María in isolation and now wants her sent to prison.
In the huge blue Nicaraguan sky, Dora María is, without a doubt, one of the brightest stars. Her history in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship was relatively brief, but intense, decisive, historic – the opposite of leaders with a long record, but who never did anything relevant in that heroic struggle. That is where this begins, in the mediocrity of Ortega and of [Ortega’s wife, Rosario] Murillo: the hatred, the distrust, the deception that vulgarizes everything and that today is leveling another cowardly blow, trying to judge her, humiliate her, convict her, when Dora María is one of those of the sky that should not be touched.
This is part of her story, told with the help of her account to this writer on Nov. 13, 1999.
Dora María Tellez was born in Matagalpa, on Nov. 21, 1955. After graduating from high school there, she moved to León to study medicine. I remember her in the hallways at Basic Sciences, with her hippie-ish mellow artistic look, and her sharp sense of humor – making fun of everything, especially herself. She didn’t seem to be someone who would commit herself to the struggle. She said it this way:
“I joined the [Sandinista] Front [for National Liberation] and the revolutionary struggle for several reasons: the dictatorship had characteristics that were unbearable for those with a level of awareness. The political despotism, corruption, the repression of any attempt at social organizing and mobilizing, the concentration of political power, the nepotism and tremendous poverty were the reasons why I entered the revolutionary struggle. I started out, really, in the student struggle.”
I am still the same person I was. Before, they use to say, a little bit hippie and now a little bit of a slacker; that is, a little shameless. It was also the fashion at the time. Now you don’t see people in sandals. I think that one problem is taking yourself too seriously. People who take themselves too seriously are usually people you can’t stand, because they don’t have much of a sense of life.
We were a generation more inclined to break with the past, more ready to debate, more ready to challenge, more ready to look for something new…We had an advantage: To have a big ideal, big ideals. I sense that young people today are really skeptical. It is a different generation from the one we belonged to.
She joined the student struggles in 1983 and in 1974 joined the FSLN. In 1975, she went underground, as part of a group of medical students chosen by the guerrilla organization to get trained in Battlefield Medicine in Cuba.
“It was a really intense course…We also did four months of military training.”
In Cuba, she was part of the Prolonged Peoples’ War faction, led then by José Benito Escobar, because [FSLN co-founder] Carlos Fonseca had just left for Nicaragua. At that time, not much information was released about the split in the FSLN.
In 1976, she accompanied José Benito Escobar on a journey that began and ended in Cuba. They traveled with false passports and identities.
Going through Mexico, she learned of the FSLN split. On that part of the trip, José Benito shared with her the idea of the need to go on the offensive and launch insurrections. So, upon arriving in Honduras, Dora María made contact with the leaders of the tercerista faction** and got involved in training fighters, giving classes on battlefield medicine.
“…I made contact with the leaders of Tercerismo. Daniel Ortega and Victor Tirado, Germán Pomares – El Danto – were training one of the groups that would participate in the October insurrection. And while José Benito was doing his thing, I helped in the training.
“The moment came to return to Cuba. I had to go back. José Benito had made a commitment to the Cubans not to join in the split. José Benito explained to me that the October offensive was a matter of life and death: “If there is no offensive now against the dictatorship, Sandinismo dies and the dictatorship will consolidate itself for life,” he told me. Taking that into account, I begged him to let me stay, because in the group of about 40 men that was going into combat, there was no medic. I insisted and insisted until José Benito accepted…”
On October 12, 1988, she was part of the Northern Front Column, whose mission was to attack National Guard commandos in Ocotal. The operation failed because they first ran into a patrol, which alerted the garrisoned forces, who came as reinforcements. The guerrillas set an ambush at San Fabián, surprising the National Guard, which suffered 12 casualties.
The Column was then split into two groups: one set up a camp on the Honduran border; the other, led by Germán Pomares, took action against National Guard commandos in several Somocista properties and towns.
Dora María took part in these actions. On successive days, the guerrillas launched attacks in Mosonte, October 15; San Fernando, October 25; Hacienda El Volcán, November 11; Mi Illusión, November 20; El Amparo, November 30; the taking of San Clara, December 5; the taking of Las Manos border post; and the successful ambush on the Lisupo Bridge, led by Joaquín Cuadra, December 19. They also conducted armed propaganda in Las Camelias and El Limón haciendas, January 8, 1978. During these months, Dora María lived as a guerrilla with the Germán Pomares group in the Dipilto and Jalapa mountain range.
In March, 1978, in a reorganization by the Tercerista faction, Dora María was sent to strengthen the Internal Front. She worked for a whle in Managua as part of the Ideological Training Commission…
In August, 1978, she was the political leader of the Rigoberto López Pérez company that took over the National Palace. As political leader, Comandante Dos, she took on the negotations that led to the freeing of 60 political prisoners held by the Somocista dictatorship.
After the revolutionary victory, Dora María was awarded the title of Comandante Guerrillera. In the ‘80s, she was Health Minister, and coordinator of the Departmental leadership of Managua – without a doubt, one of the Revolution’s outstanding leaders.
In 1990, she was elected to parliament as a member of the FSLN. In 1995, she quit the party and organized the Sandinista Renovation Movement Party (MRS), serving as its president for several years.
MRS members have fought within the FSLN to push it, ideologically speaking, toward a center-left position, somewhat on the model of European “third-way” parties. Later, she would tell the magazine Envío: “The reference point in this Third Way is programmatic, not ideological…The people understand the Third Way because of its different message, one of balance, of leaving polarization behind.” She openly condemned the opposition methods that Ortega employed against Violeta Chamorro’s government – street fights, barricades and violence – and demanded more democracy in the FSLN ranks.
With the FSLN now under Ortega’s control, the party’s response was a hate campaign to discredit Dora María, closing off the possibility of internal debate.
In 2008, Dora María went on hunger strike after the arbitrary and illegal cancelation of the MRS Party’s legal status. Following that, the party, in an alliance with Rescuing Sandinismo, obtained 8 percent of the vote. The strike failed, but the mobilization of its voters, and the support it built, showed that its backing had increased. This was unacceptable to Ortega’s doctrine, now focused on holding onto power at any cost. Authoritarianism rose to a crescendo, finally showing the regime clearly as a dictatorship.
In 1999, when I interviewed her on the radio program, Entre Todos [Among All of Us], I asked for her final thoughts. What she said remains entirely relevant:
“I have some thoughts about young people. The country is entering conditions that are different from those that prevailed when we were young. We have a country with poverty at 85 percent; nearly half the population earning $1.50 a day. There are 800,000 to one million Nicaraguans working outside the country. We are in a country whose main characteristic is denying opportunities to young people. That is, what remains for a young person who has completed elementary school if he can’t find work? He finds no place for himself, so he joins criminal networks or loses all hope.
“That is exactly what I want to refer to: We have contributed, or tried, to put the country on a different path than the one it is on now. Tragically, the course of politics is like a routlette wheel, which goes backward toward an attempt to mount a dictatorship. And, economically speaking, poverty has now reached an intolerable level.
“The political model we now have, and what is being assembled via constitutional changes and the Election Law, is a political model of concentrating power in the hands of the president of the Republic, who controls the judicial system, who controls everything. The concentration of power leads to intolerance, to political repression, and discourages citizen participation. I think that young people and we ourselves must be demanding, not levels of citizen participation, but citizen decision-making on the country’s major issues, not just in terms of representation, but directly.
“This is the same situation we found years ago – a situation that called out to young people. Young people face a basic quandary and have to act now. They have to mobilize, defend democratic space. Because, if not, we’re going to have to resort to a difficult course of action. When democratic space is closed, the path of armed struggle reopens. And I think that we, who joined in the armed struggle, the last thing we want is for it to start again. Because war cuts off the normal life of young people – the youthful life that we didn’t get to enjoy – or diverts it into another channel.”
Freedom for the 170 political prisoners!
Feb. 3, 2022
*The line is from a beloved poem by Ruben Darío, about a princess who dares to pluck a star from the sky
** The terceristas argued for a gradual path to socialism in Nicaragua, and for alliances with bourgeois groups.