Berta Valle, wife of the Nicaraguan political prisoner Félix Maradiaga, speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami, October 2021 (Courtesy of the Oslo Freedom Forum)

Notes on a gathering of democracy leaders and human-rights activists

Someone says to me, “Jay, this is Andrei.” I say, “Hi, Andrei.” Then I look at his name tag, which includes his last name. My eyes widen. My heart skips a beat or two. He is Andrei Sannikov, the Belarusian statesman and former political prisoner. He was a presidential candidate in 2010. For his troubles, he was imprisoned and tortured almost to death. I wrote about him at the time (and about the Belarusian situation in general).

To see him alive, standing, well, laughing — it is very moving, I must say.

He tells me something like this: “I once met on the street someone I had been in prison with. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re alive!’”

Sannikov’s autobiography is called “My Story.” He has a lot to say, a lot to relate. An interesting, emblematic, and brave life.

• We talk of various things, he and I. A quick sample:

Over the years, I have interviewed a fair number of people who crossed from East to West, in Soviet times. Musicians, in particular. They have all said the same thing: “I couldn’t stop staring at the food. Marveling at the food. I did not take pictures of cathedrals or statues or parks. I took pictures of the food.”

Sannikov chuckles and says, “That’s what they censored, in Soviet times: images of supermarkets in Western movies.”

• I meet another Belarusian, Tatsiana Khomich — whose sister I have just been writing about, unfortunately. Tatsiana’s sister is Maria Kalesnikava, a democracy activist who has just been sentenced to eleven years in prison. Rather than go into exile, she tore up her passport.

Last month, I wrote, “There was a phrase I used many years ago (with regard to young Cubans who were trying to practice independent journalism): ‘unfathomable courage.’” That phrase very much applies to Maria Kalesnikava. Whose family is doing all they can to help her.

• I am at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which this year is being held in Miami. (This has to do with travel restrictions and related matters.) At this gathering, no one cares whether the tyranny is red or black. All they care about is that tyranny be opposed and defeated, and that freedom prevail.

• As it is moving to meet Andrei Sannikov, Tatsiana Khomich, and many others, it is moving to meet Gulchehra Hoja. I have interviewed her, but only via Zoom. For my piece about her, published last May, go here. That piece is headed “A Uyghur Daughter, and Journalist.” The subheading is, “Get to know Gulchehra Hoja, who works for Radio Free Asia, and whose relatives are in the concentration camps.”

It is an added pleasure to meet Gul’s husband and three children. They are enduring a lot. As much as the Uyghurs in China now? No, but exiles and relatives have their own burdens — as you can imagine.

I want to share a quick, happy picture:

Gulchera Hoja and Jay Nordlinger

• There is a panel on myths of the Cuban dictatorship. I am to moderate it. One of our guests was to be Carolina Barrero, a Cuban art historian and activist. But she has not come to Miami. Why? Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the artist and political prisoner, has gone on hunger strike. Carolina and others have joined him in solidarity.

The things people do. The sacrifices they make. Extraordinary.

• Maria Werlau has joined us — one of my favorite people. She runs the Free Society Project, otherwise known as “Cuba Archive.” She and her project are a great source of information about Cuba: particularly the victims of that dictatorship. Go here.

Also joining is Vincent Geloso, an econ prof at George Mason — and an expert on the Cuban health-care system. This is one of those myths that float around the world: the glory of Cuban health care. On the contrary, it is a disaster.

• Leopoldo López? He is out of prison, and out of Venezuela, in fact. He made a daring escape a year ago. He now lives in exile in Spain. I have done a podcast with this formidable man: here. A piece on him is to come.

• There will also be a podcast with, and a piece on, Masih Alinejad — one of the blithest, bravest spirits I have ever met. She is an Iranian-American journalist, the recent target of a kidnap plot by the Iranian regime. She has wild, wonderful hair. It symbolizes her freedom. In fact, her autobiography is titled “The Wind in My Hair.”

Can I show you a quick picture I snapped?

Masih Alinejad

• “What’s this panel about?” someone asks. One of the panelists answers, “Putin, bad.” I love it — for it gives me a memory.

I worked at The Weekly Standard in the mid-1990s. Someone would ask Fred Barnes, “What’s your piece about?” Fred would answer, “Clinton, bad.”

• The title of the panel is “The Long Tentacles of Putin’s Dictatorship.” The Russian strongman oppresses people at home, true. Not content with that, however, he makes all sorts of trouble abroad: from simple disinformation to outright murder.

I moderate three experts, one of whom is Maria Pevchikh. She is a Russian investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist. She has worked alongside Alexei Navalny, now in prison. Maria remarks on Navalny’s bravery, which is truly stunning. But her own bravery is pretty stunning itself.

Another panelist? Molly McKew, who is an expert on Russian disinformation, “hybrid warfare,” and all the rest of it. She has the Kremlin’s number, in short. You can read her at

Our third panelist is Casey Michel — pronounced “Michelle,” not “Michael,” as in the late congressman from Peoria, Bob Michel. Casey’s website is here. He is an expert on things financial: how and where the oligarchs sprinkle and park their money, etc. Let me give you two biographical facts about him.

He was the northernmost male Peace Corps volunteer in the world — serving at the Russia-Kazakhstan border. And he is married to the editor of Teen Vogue.

Beat that, as Bill Buckley would say.

• A friend of mine tells me about her mother, who is convinced — by what she reads, watches, and listens to — that Vladimir Putin is a great champion of the family, religion, and Western civilization. There is a lot of that going around. I’m afraid that this attitude — this misunderstanding, this illusion — is unshakeable.

• “I’m Fatou, from the Gambia,” a lady tells me. Of course she is! I know her. I wrote about her in 2014. Let me quote:

Fatou Jaw Manneh is a lady both fiery and serene. I know it sounds contradictory — it is contradictory — but that is the impression she gives. She commands respect, certainly mine.

Yes. FJM is a journalist and foe of dictatorship. “Both fiery and serene” is right, I still maintain. Also, she is beautifully — splendidly — dressed. I wish I had a picture for you.

Furthermore, I love that she says “the Gambia.” Once, as an editor at National Review, I received a manuscript from Paul Johnson, the great English historian and journalist, who spoke of “the Lebanon.”

• Hillel Neuer is here — the brainy, gutsy lawyer from Montreal who runs UN Watch, in Geneva. One of the things he keeps an eye on is hypocrisy: hypocrisy regarding human rights (and you can imagine how busy he is).

Someone asks him, “Is it expensive in Geneva?” “No,” he answers, “not if you don’t buy anything.”

• Speaking of money: Someday, I will get a handle on bitcoin. I will get up to speed on it. At the Oslo Freedom Forum, there is much enthusiasm for bitcoin — almost an evangelism — as a freedom tool, and a moral-good tool.

I bet my friends, the enthusiasts, are right.

• In the course of the Forum, I meet a young man who is a tech whiz and entrepreneur. His name is Matt Mullenweg. And he did no less than develop WordPress — which is what National Review Online uses every day.

Very affable, unassuming fellow. Naturally, I Google around. Matt is very smart, very rich, and very philanthropic. What a wonderful story. May a million Matt Mullenwegs bloom forever.

• Another guest here at the Forum seems rather shy. Her name is Hatice Cengiz, and she is a Turkish academic. She did not want to be an activist, but this vocation was thrust on her. She was the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi — murdered by the Saudi state in October 2018. He had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, to obtain documents he needed for his marriage. They killed him there.

To hear what Hatice Cengiz has to say is — affecting. She has gone through an experience that very few will.

• Félix Maradiaga is one of my favorite people. So is Edipcia Dubón. They are Nicaraguans and democrats. I wrote about them in 2019: “Nicaragua in Hell: Ortega’s crackdown and the people who resist it.” After being in exile, Félix returned to Nicaragua and ran for president. With the other candidates — Ortega’s other opponents — he is in prison, in terrible, inhuman conditions. Edipcia is in exile, doing all she can for her fellow Nicaraguans. She is here at the Freedom Forum.

She wants to begin a campaign called “Be Human.” Simply be human, she pleads with the regime. Give the prisoners food. Proper food. Give them medicine. Let them sleep, instead of keeping the lights on 24 hours and interrogating them constantly. For God’s sake, just be human. If you can’t — if you will not — release the prisoners, at least be human.

Berta Valle is Félix’s wife. She is a well-known television journalist. She, too, is a guest here at the Forum. It is very moving to meet her — and to talk with her about Félix. Like Avital Sharansky and many others before her, she is campaigning for her husband’s freedom. Indeed, for his very survival.

I love and admire these people, greatly.

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