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A rare chance to look into Nicaragua, a country that shuts itself off to journalists

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the past decade, Nicaragua has become one of the most authoritarian countries in the Western Hemisphere. For more than a year, the country has also shut out foreign journalists. But NPR's Eyder Peralta managed to get in, and he's here to bring us some of his exclusive on-the-ground reporting. Eyder, welcome. Thank you much - thanks so much for joining us.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So before we get into your reporting, can you remind us how Nicaragua got to this point?

PERALTA: So you need to know one name - President Daniel Ortega. And he led a successful revolution against the military dictatorship in the '70s. He lost an election in 1990, but he came back to power in 2007. And since then, he has done everything to remain in power. But things got really bad beginning in 2018. That's when thousands of Nicaraguans took to the streets, and they called for his ouster. Ortega responded with violence. Some 300 protesters were killed, and then Ortega bulldozed the opposition. He jailed nearly all of his opponents. He went after the Catholic Church. He closed down newspapers. Whole newsrooms are in exile these days. And immigration authorities started denying entry to foreign journalists.

MARTIN: So how did you manage to get in? And I do want to mention that you are now safely out, so we're not compromising your safety...

PERALTA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...By telling us this. How'd you get in?

PERALTA: I have a Nicaraguan passport, and I went through a rural land border. My bet was that authorities wouldn't ask me too many questions, and I was right. That's how I got in.

MARTIN: OK, so take us there. What did you see? What did you hear?

PERALTA: So one of the first places I went to was Masaya, and that's a little colonial town that was the epicenter of the rebellion in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

PERALTA: These days, everything points to normal. People are out shopping, going to church, to school, and the rebellion that once burned through these streets is extinguished. I meet Graciela, who once volunteered to treat wounded protesters in the back room of a business. She asks that we not use her full name because she fears retribution. In 2018, her whole family joined the demonstrations. They thought President Ortega was stealing elections and laying the groundwork to rule forever. She remembers her dad gave them some prescient advice.

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) My dad worked for the government, and he told us, we have to keep going. We have to fight. Ortega has to go. If not, what is coming is going to be so much worse.

PERALTA: A few months later, the government launched a ruthless attack. Graciela remembers police going house to house looking for organizers. Graciela ended up in hiding for months, and when she emerged, the uprising was a memory. Graciela tried to live her life. She got a job. She kept quiet. But even so, at one point, police raided her home. They took her things and accused her of helping to organize a rebellion.

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) And from then on, they told us, don't you dare do anything against the government.

PERALTA: At around the same time, her dad got sick. She took him to a public hospital, and there, he got even sicker.

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) I ran across the hospital. I cried. I shouted for a doctor, asking for help, and no one helped.

PERALTA: Her dad died, and hanging over her was this idea that he was allowed to die because of his politics.

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) And what could we do? We can't do anything. We live with this fear that we can't speak, that we can't complain.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

PERALTA: The neighbor turns on a faucet, and Graciela grows nervous. She takes a deep breath. Maybe they're listening. Our conversation ends there. Carolina Jimenez Sandoval of the Washington Office on Latin America calls Nicaragua a user's manual for authoritarian leaders. In Nicaragua, says Jimenez Sandoval, Ortega came to power legitimately.

CAROLINA JIMENEZ SANDOVAL: Ortega was elected, but how, then, he changed all the rules of the game to stay in power is a different story. And I think it's a story that we see repeated in many countries across the region.

PERALTA: Ortega changed the electoral laws. He captured the judiciary. He passed Soviet-style laws to destroy Nicaragua's civil society. In 2021, Ortega imprisoned potential presidential candidates.

JIMENEZ SANDOVAL: I don't know how many countries have that very sad record of putting seven presidential candidates in prison or under house arrest.

PERALTA: But perhaps Ortega's most impressive feat, says Jimenez Sandoval, is that he has proven to other authoritarian leaders in the Americas that an iron-fisted rule can survive opposition and sanctions from the international community.

JIMENEZ SANDOVAL: The main problem when authoritarianism becomes rooted is that it shows that the international system has few tools to combat these type of governments.

PERALTA: I sought comment from the Nicaraguan government about all the allegations in this story. We sent emails to Vice President Rosario Murillo, and we also emailed and called the Nicaraguan embassies in the United States and Mexico. They have not responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in Spanish).

PERALTA: In the capital, Managua, I hear that President Daniel Ortega will be giving a public speech celebrating the 44th anniversary of the triumph of the revolution. The radio is full of propaganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Suddenly, a city that had seemed normal now has police officers on every corner. New checkpoints have been erected around a stadium near Ortega's home. Only a selected few are invited to the president's speech. The rest will have to watch it on the big screen set up across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Spanish).

PERALTA: I end up at a park, and it feels like a party. People are drinking. They're chatting. And on the big screen, we see the country's dynasty. President Ortega wears a red Members Only jacket and a baseball cap. Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president, wears a flowing pink dress and matching visor. In his speech, Ortega gives a typical history lesson full of disdain for American imperialism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DANIEL ORTEGA: (Through interpreter) We wanted peace. We fought against the tyranny imposed by the Yankees because we wanted peace.

PERALTA: But Murillo is different. She delivers spoken-word poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSARIO MURILLO: (Through interpreter) How is it possible to understand that absurd chorus of snakes, of treacherous vipers, fabricators of lies?

PERALTA: It's clear she's talking about journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURILLO: (Through interpreter) How to understand those who, in shameless and diabolical pestilences, close themselves to the cosmos?

PERALTA: I look around, and almost everyone is wearing red and black, the ruling party colors. I wonder what would happen if the crowd knew I was a journalist. For a moment, I let paranoia seep into my thoughts. For a moment, I feel the weight of living here. This is a country soaked in fear. You watch your back. You watch your words. You hope that a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member won't betray you. But I realize I'm not the only one who's scared. Fear runs so deep that even the president and vice president don't trust their countrymen enough to hold a real public rally.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Managua, Nicaragua.

MARTIN: You can listen to an extended version of this story on The Sunday Story podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALLE 13'S "INTER - EN ANNUNAKILANDIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.