The Sunday Story: Rare Look Inside Nicaragua dictatorship of Daniel Ortega : Up First Today on The Sunday Story NPR correspondent Eyder Peralta travels to Nicaragua. He's the first foreign journalist to make it into the country in more than a year. He traveled to his home country to get an inside look at what life is like for people living under what some call the newest dictatorship in The Americas. He found a country suffocating in fear and he found his own family history repeating.

The Sunday Story: A rare look inside locked-down Nicaragua

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and this is The Sunday Story. Today we're going on a journey, one that starts deep in the mountains of Central America, along the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. NPR's Eyder Peralta traveled to a remote border post to try to enter Nicaragua, a country that has kept all foreign journalists out for more than a year. And here you are, Eyder, trying to get in.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah. And, I mean, I was definitely nervous about what I was doing. I know journalist colleagues who have been turned around at the airport just because they're journalists. And this is also a country that has thrown journalists in prison.

RASCOE: And so why did you think that you would be able to get in when so many other journalists had failed? Is part of it because you were at such a remote area trying to cross the border?

PERALTA: Yeah, that was definitely part of it. But I also had a golden ticket.

RASCOE: So - OK, a golden ticket, you say.

PERALTA: Yeah, I...

RASCOE: So what was that?

PERALTA: I was born in Nicaragua. I have a Nicaraguan passport. And Nicaraguan immigration authorities had been scrutinizing foreigners, so my bet was that they wouldn't pay too much attention to me. And also, my family was encouraging. I mean, everyone else I spoke to kept telling me that this trip was a stupid idea, that you're going to end up in jail, but not my mom and not my grandma. And, you know, they had survived a dictatorship and then a civil war in Nicaragua. In the '80s, my grandma ended up on this side of Honduras, in these mountains, after she fled fighting in her hometown. And what she told me was, if you move carefully, if you don't draw attention to yourself, it's doable. And both my mom and grandma were right.

RASCOE: Well, moms and grandmas, they know. Yeah, they know. So what happened when you were at the border? What happened?

PERALTA: I get there, and it just feels like I'm stepping back in time. I mean, it feels Soviet. The posters, the signage is all faded. Instead of Nicaraguan flags, there's dozens of these little red and black flags, the colors of the ruling party. And I hand my passport to one of the five immigration officials, and he hands it to another guy behind him who sits there and punches in a few things into a computer and then into a phone. And I had run through so many of these scenarios in my head. I had thought about what they would ask me. I imagined them getting mad at me, maybe taking my passport, maybe sending me back across the border. I planned for this trip for a year and, I don't know, maybe five minutes later, the immigration officer comes to me, and he hands me back my passport and it has a little entry slip in it. And that was it. I was in. I was about to walk into one of the most authoritarian countries in the world, and I didn't get asked a single question. And I'm just thinking, damn, what do I do now?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

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

RASCOE: This week on The Sunday Story, we step inside what some are calling the Western Hemisphere's newest dictatorship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

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

RASCOE: We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

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

RASCOE: We're back now with NPR's Eyder Peralta. He recently returned from a reporting trip to Nicaragua. So, Eyder, you explained the fact that you made it into the country, and even doing that was a huge feat since the government, ruled by President Daniel Ortega, has basically banned foreign journalists. You got in at a remote border post in the middle of the mountains, and then what? Like, you weren't carrying around, like, a microphone or anything, were you?

PERALTA: No, we had to get in just with a little, tiny recorder because we had to try to blend in. I had to try to - I was trying to get to Managua. It's the capital of Nicaragua and, of course, the seat of government. So as soon as I cross, I arrange for a car and we take off on this winding road.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And, I don't know, maybe it's 'cause it's my country, but the landscape is stunning - volcanoes and these coffee plantations that look like they're made of emeralds. And three or four hours later, Lake Managua emerges in front of us. And on one side of it is another volcano with smoke rising from its core.

RASCOE: And you get to the capital - like, what was the plan when you got there?

PERALTA: Well, look, Nicaragua right now - there are fewer and fewer journalists. And I took a cue from the ones who are left. I knew that I wouldn't be able to conduct any interviews in public. The Nicaraguan journalists warned me. They said, your cover is going to be blown and the government will not hesitate to put you in jail. So the plan was to keep a low profile.

RASCOE: I mean, it sounds completely dangerous, so I'm glad you're safe. But, like, what was your sense of looking at, you know, life going on in Nicaragua? What were you seeing?

PERALTA: I think what's surprising is that everything points to normal. I mean, there's police checkpoints here and there, but life keeps going. People are out shopping. They're going to work, to school. On the Saturday that I was there, the bars were packed. And so I was thinking of ways to get some truth. And I thought, let's go to a comedy club.

RASCOE: OK, so...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: A comedy club.

PERALTA: Yeah.

RASCOE: OK, in this - in an authoritarian country, you want to go to a comedy club?

PERALTA: (Laughter).

RASCOE: OK, tell me your thinking on that one.

PERALTA: I have found that often, it's an art that you can really glean a bit of truth. So I figured, if there was a place that I could find some truth telling in Nicaragua, it would be at a comedy club.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Ay, yo.

PERALTA: And so I go to this little club, and it sells beer and chicken wings. And then this guy comes onstage. He's a first-time stand-up comic, and you can tell he's nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He's kind of clutching the microphone, and his hands are a little shaky.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

PERALTA: And he asks, how's everyone doing? And everyone, of course, says, great.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK.

PERALTA: And then he asks again.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He says, great? You fricking liars. No one lives great in Nicaragua. And the audience seems stunned. Even before the awkward laughs, the comedian stands down.

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He says, that's dangerous. I want to get home. I want to sleep peacefully. I don't want to talk bad about our little country.

RASCOE: So, Eyder, I have some more questions for you. I'm sure you're not surprised by that. But right now, I'm going to hand this tale over to you so we can understand more about your journey and how Nicaragua came to be what it is today.

PERALTA: All right. So let's start in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

PERALTA: The story of what's happening now in Nicaragua begins more than four decades ago with a revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Nicaragua and the guerrilla battle to overthrow the regime of President Somoza.

PERALTA: For more than 42 years, the country was ruled by the Somoza family. They were a military dynasty, which was backed by the United States. And they ran one of the most brutal dictatorships in Latin America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Somoza, he's killing innocent people. He's - that man is crazy.

PERALTA: Then, in the '70s, a leftist guerrilla known as the Sandinistas launched an armed rebellion against the regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: In 1979, Anastasio Somoza fled to the United States, and the Sandinistas rolled into the capital city victorious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The newsreels show Managua euphoric. A young commander who had spent seven years as a political prisoner emerged as the leader of the military junta. Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista hero, was introduced on national TV, speaking in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DANIEL ORTEGA: (Through interpreter) This victory commits us to those who gave their blood so this country could be free of Somoza, free of the national guard, free of the security office, free of (non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: A few years later, Ortega ran for president and won in a landslide. The U.S. was not happy. It secretly gave money and weapons to the Contras, a group of counterrevolutionaries. So instead of ending with the Sandinista victory, the war dragged on, and Daniel Ortega was forced to hold another election in 1990. He lost this second election. Nicaraguans were tired of bloodshed, and so they chose a candidate who promised peace. After that, Ortega remained in the background of Nicaraguan politics, forging alliances with his former enemies. Seventeen years later, following two more unsuccessful election attempts, he once again became president in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: Over the next decade, Ortega consolidates his power. And he does something to make sure his rule doesn't end when he's no longer around. His children take prominent roles in government. And his wife, Rosario Murillo, a politician and a poet, becomes his vice president.

(CHEERING)

PERALTA: Less than a year later, young people take to the streets to protest changes to Social Security, but their ire then turns to Daniel Ortega. Suddenly, they demand an end to his rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

PERALTA: Daniel, Somoza - they're both the same thing, they chanted. The government responds with bullets. The protests turn into a violent confrontation.

(SHOUTING)

PERALTA: Back in 2018, the colonial town of Masaya was the epicenter of the rebellion against President Daniel Ortega. But as I walk the streets today, the only reminders of that uprising are the bullet holes left in the facades of some of the buildings. The roadblocks are gone. The graffiti insulting the government is painted over. Horse-drawn carriages are once again on the streets, and the protesters have been silenced. I meet Graciela (ph), one of the organizers of that rebellion, in the back room of a business. We're not using her full name because she fears retribution. In 2018, she joined the demonstrations with glee. She volunteered at a makeshift clinic treating wounded protesters, and her whole family was helping the rebellion. 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. By some estimates, some 300 protesters were killed during that spring in 2018.

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) I was scared, but I never, ever thought that something like that would happen.

PERALTA: Police rounded up hundreds of young people. Graciela remembers police going house to house looking for organizers. Graciela ended up in hiding for months, and when she emerged, Nicaragua had changed. She heard the message loud and clear - keep your dissent to yourself or face the consequences. So over the next year, she 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. The people who were supposed to help him closed the area and said, everyone is out to lunch.

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. I was forced to live the way they wanted me to.

PERALTA: A friend told her, if you want bad things to stop happening, join the party. Show them that you are with them. I asked Graciela, what about the rebellion? Is that dead?

GRACIELA: (Through interpreter) Yeah. I mean, the ideals are there, but people are scared. People talk, of course, at home with family, in the patios. But from the street out, it's silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

PERALTA: The neighbor turns on a faucet, and Graciela grows nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

PERALTA: She takes a deep breath. Maybe they're listening. Our conversation ends there.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

PERALTA: I'll be right back.

I was born in the Nicaraguan town of Matagalpa. It's coffee country, so the terrain is unforgiving. The mountains touch the sky and then plunge into fast-moving rivers. It's also where the civil war was the bloodiest. I wasn't born yet, but in the '70s, during the Sandinista war against the Somoza dictatorship, my parents' house was bombed. Like a lot of Nicaraguans, my family believed in the revolution. They were idealists. My dad worked on agrarian reform for the Sandinistas. My uncle was a militant. My aunt went off into the rural areas to teach people how to read. But when one civil war turned into another, they tired of the fighting. So my parents started helping young men sneak out of the country to avoid the Sandinista draft. One of their friends was tortured and killed for helping these young men. My dad received a death threat, and the Sandinistas also accused him of selling gold, which was illegal. So in the mid-'80s, they fled the country. The same thing happened with my paternal grandma. She told me that one day, the Sandinistas came to take my youngest uncle to the war, and she stopped them at the door. She told the soldiers, God gave me my son, not Daniel Ortega. And that was it. She became an enemy of the revolution. They had to leave the country.

But on this reporting trip, it wasn't the war I kept thinking about. It was 1990. That's when the civil war ended, and it was safe to come back. I was 9 years old. My parents, my siblings and I were living in Miami, so my mom booked tickets and loaded us on a plane for a visit. We landed in Managua, and there were still fighter jets in the hangars. Unlike us, my maternal grandmother rode out the war in Nicaragua, and we went straight to her house. There was no running water, very little electricity. To me, all of this felt so grim. But I remember my mom was so happy and sometimes I was too. Because there were so few lights, the nights were beautiful. I saw the Milky Way for the first time. I remember my mom screaming at us to take a deep breath, to smell the mountains, to smell home.

But the peace didn't last. And since then, Nicaragua has careened from one political crisis to another. My parents have remained in exile. They've made lives in the United States but have always dreamed of coming home. My dad bought a little coffee farm right across the border in Honduras, where he plans to retire. And he always tells me that if you head up the mountain, there's a place where you can listen to Nicaraguan radio. He always points and says, you see the mountains across the valley? That's Nicaragua. And that's the story of modern Nicaragua. This constant turmoil has left millions without a home. Just in the past few years, 600,000 Nicaraguans have left their country. And being there, I kept thinking that things are not likely to change. I kept thinking that maybe my parents may never get the chance to go back.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN FALLING)

PERALTA: As I continue my reporting in Masaya, the sun sets, the clouds gather, and the tropical rain falls. I move through the streets of the town like a bandit. In case I'm being followed, I drop my car and walk a roundabout route to Hector's (ph) house. When I meet him, he's wearing his medical scrubs. He spent decades working for the Ministry of Health. He says politics has taken over every aspect of life in Nicaragua, even the triage at the hospitals.

HECTOR: What they say is the comrades have preference. But if you get a patient who says, I'm here because Comrade So-And-So sent me, you have to prioritize him.

PERALTA: We're not using Hector's voice nor his full name because he fears retribution.

HECTOR: We provide a professional service, so it's understood that we should not have a political flag.

PERALTA: He says public workers like him are forced to attend political rallies. At the moment, he says, there is a severe lack of supplies at public hospitals - everything from gloves to pain medication - and he's expected to stay quiet.

HECTOR: It's that simple. I cannot express criticism, not to my boss, not to the visiting members of the Ministry of Health. It's that simple.

PERALTA: He tells me all this with shame. They're professionals. This is not ethical. Hector feels trapped. He says one of his bosses put it in simple terms. To earn your gallo pinto - your red beans and rice - you do what you're told or you're thrown out on the street.

HECTOR: And that's a tough choice because the street is tough. The economic situation is tough. Right now, we are simply surviving.

PERALTA: Hector's allegations are not out of step with what we heard from others. I spoke to one worker, for example, who says some private jobs require a recommendation letter from a ruling party representative. I spoke to a young activist who said a public university asked for the same to enroll. A U.N. report from March found that in 2018, the government ordered doctors not to treat wounded protesters. The report accuses the government of committing crimes against humanity. The worst part, says Hector, is that he can't even talk about this with his colleagues.

HECTOR: It's rare for me to say something sincere to someone. I prefer to stay quiet. It's better not to say it because you can't trust anyone.

PERALTA: Sometimes, he says, he thinks he can trust someone, and then he sees them on Facebook wearing the ruling party colors. I stop him. In the next few days, the government will be celebrating the 44th anniversary of the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution. I ask him if he's going to go to the big celebration.

HECTOR: Yeah. What else can I do?

PERALTA: That means that someone might see him wearing the party colors. Someone might say, whoa, and I almost trusted him. In the latest polls, just 13% of Nicaraguans identified as Sandinistas. But when you're in Nicaragua, the presence of the party hangs over the country like a heavy smog. It's suffocating. Hector shrugs his shoulders. What else is he supposed to do, he says. He feels trapped by this vicious cycle, and it's exactly what the government wants, he says. 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 Embassy in the United States. They have not responded.

Carolina Jimenez Sandoval of the Washington Office on Latin America calls Nicaragua something of 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. He used those laws to shut down media houses and imprison his foes. 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 increase (ph) 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 from the international community, The U.N., the U.S. the EU, the Organization for American States, have denounced Ortega in unequivocal terms, and they've even instituted sanctions. But in Nicaragua, very little has changed.

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

PERALTA: A senior State Department official who asked for anonymity so they could speak freely, says the world misread Daniel Ortega. When he gave up power in 1990, everyone thought he would be content to go down in history as a statesman, a leftist guerrilla fighter who peacefully transferred power and ushered in a new era of a democracy in Nicaragua. Instead, the State Department official says Ortega spent 17 years in the wilderness and he, quote, "seems to have concluded that decision only made him poor and powerless." Ortega has become a man driven by fear and a lust for power, says the official, a man who has decided he'll do anything to never return to that wilderness.

The night before the 44th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, I head to Managua's Revolution Square on the shores of Lake Xolotlan. This was the place where, in 1979, the Sandinistas rode into town victorious, on buses with their old Soviet weapons in hand, as the adoring masses cheered them on. And at the time, the guerrilleros (ph) vowed, never will this country see another dictatorship.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel - (speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: When I get to the celebration, thousands of people are gathered. The lakefront is lit up in red and black, the colors of the Sandinistas. And on the stage is the regime's official band, LiberArte. Let's be loud enough so the commander can hear you, one of them says.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Speaking Spanish)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: And they launch into a song full of bravado. It paints Daniel Ortega as a fighting rooster, armed with blades and ready for his blood sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in Spanish)

PERALTA: On this night, Ortega's regime feels in full control, and it's a world away from last February, when there was hope the Ortega regime was loosening its grip. In a surprise move, the regime freed 222 political prisoners. The government stripped them of their citizenship and then put them on a plane to the United States. Felix Maradiaga was among those 222. He was arrested in the summer of 2021, shortly after he declared he would challenge Ortega for the presidency.

FELIX MARADIAGA: I was kidnapped, taken to a maximum security prison called El Chipote, kept in solitary confinement for close to 80 days after I was beaten, kept in interrogation, life deprivation, food deprivation and few other things that I'm not yet prepared to talk about publicly. It was very, very inhumane.

PERALTA: Maradiaga spent 611 days in prison. He spent long hours thinking about his young daughter, his wife and about his country.

MARADIAGA: We all live in a cycle in Nicaragua, a cycle of hatred. Ortega himself was a political prisoner in the early 1970s.

PERALTA: And what Maradiaga realized after weeks in prison is that Ortega's ire had been broad. Maradiaga had always been anti-Sandinista, anti-socialist. But in prison, he saw many of his former rivals, Sandinistas, who had disagreed vehemently with his views. Now they were united in prison.

MARADIAGA: My sense is that we had arrived to a clear definition in which it was no longer Sandinistas against anti-Sandinistas. But it was the dilemma of democracy versus tyranny.

PERALTA: In prison, he also thought about reconciliation, how Nicaragua never had a truth commission after the war, how what he saw as war crimes were never investigated, how political polarization was papered over. In prison, he resolved not to repeat the past.

MARADIAGA: So my commitment now is to break the cycle. And the cycle is not to come out of prison with a sense of hatred, not to come out of prison searching for revenge.

PERALTA: But the truth is, Nicaragua is polarized. Some Nicaraguans in exile have openly called for the use of force to remove Ortega. And inside the country, the feeling is that Nicaraguans have two choices - stay quiet and pretend life is normal or take up arms and fight against the regime. The prospect of a political solution feels remote.

Do you think that this process can take place with Daniel Ortega?

MARADIAGA: It's impossible. Daniel Ortega only understands the language of violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The day after the celebration at the lakefront, I hear President Daniel Ortega will be giving a public speech. The radio is full of propaganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Huge swaths of Managua are cordoned off. Suddenly, a city that has seemed normal now has police officers on every corner. The checkpoints have been erected around a stadium near Ortega's home. And it becomes clear that only a select group of people are invited to hear the president's speech. The rest, including me, will have to watch it on the big screens set up across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

PERALTA: I end up at a park where the municipality has put up a tent and chairs. It feels like a party. People are drinking. They're chatting. And on the big screen, the country's dynasty is on display. 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. Like always, half her forearms are covered in bracelets. Every finger has a ring. Murillo has always been at Ortega's side. When Murillo's eldest daughter accused Ortega of raping her, Murillo believed her husband. It was Murillo who famously ordered police to hit protesters in 2018 with, quote, "everything they had." Ortega now calls her his co-president. In his speech, Ortega gives a typical history lesson, full of disdain for American imperialism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

PERALTA: But Murillo is different. A younger daughter stands behind her, making sure the pages of her speech don't fly away. And Murillo delivers spoken-word poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT ROSARIO MURILLO: (Through interpreter) We are opposed. Of course we are opposed to human decrepitude. We are opposed to the decay of the spirit.

PERALTA: She looks directly at the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURILLO: (Through interpreter) How is it possible to understand that absurd chorus of snakes, of treacherous vipers, fabricators of lies, denigrators for hire, of lies and falsehoods?

PERALTA: I think, she's talking about journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURILLO: (Through interpreter) How to understand those who, in shameless and diabolical pestilences, close themself to the cosmos, to the coexistence of all vibrations.

PERALTA: I look around, and almost everyone is wearing red and black. 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. I realize fear runs so deep that even the president and vice president don't trust their countrymen enough to hold a real public rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Nicaragua. He's the first journalist from outside the country to have made it in in more than a year. So, Eyder, you are here with me now. So, obviously, you made it out. You got in pretty easily. But was it hard to leave the country?

PERALTA: It was - much harder than coming in. I went back to that same remote checkpoint in the mountains, but this time, the immigration guys had a ton of questions. They held me up for a good hour. And then an intelligence officer, this super buff guy who was wearing street clothes and military boots, stood over me and he told me, when the immigration guys are done with you, I want you to go through me. And I have to say, that made me a little scared. He took my passport, said he needed to run some checks. And eventually, you know, after - what? - 15, 20 minutes, he just came up to me and he flipped my passport at me. He didn't say anything.

And I - you know, I don't know how much they knew about me. I think in a lot of ways, that's what's scary about Nicaragua, that everyone lives not knowing what exactly the government is capable of. I think everyone lives with the ghosts of what this government has already done. They've thrown a Catholic bishop in jail. They threw revolutionary heroes in jail. They exiled Nicaragua's greatest poets and writers. They shut down a historic newspaper. Just a few weeks ago, they closed the Jesuit University in Managua. And, of course, in 2018, they opened fire on protesters. And all of this creates this unshakable sense of uncertainty. What people in the country told me is that they're constantly thinking, if the government can do this to the untouchables, imagine what they can do to me. So maybe the government doesn't have to say anything. Maybe they can just flip your passport at you, and the message is clear.

RASCOE: Eyder, are you afraid that the message that you got is that you won't be able to return to the country where you were born?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, I think that's what I'm most afraid of. And I think a lot that I did nothing wrong because the Constitution of Nicaragua protects journalists. But realistically, I know that those things don't matter. So I wonder if I'll end up like my parents, on some mountain across the border, listening to Nicaraguan radio and yearning for a country that is so much a part of who I am.

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RASCOE: If you like the deep dives you get on The Sunday Story, check out NPR's Consider This podcast. This week, Consider This brings you a look at the future of remote work, how big oil is getting into the carbon removal business and the dilemma for the NFL as it embraces big betting platforms. Listen to Consider This wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode of The Sunday Story was produced by Dan Girma and edited by Jenny Schmidt and Tara Neill. Big thanks to Emanuel Emiliano Herrera (ph), Cynthia Leonor Garza, Laura Soto-Barra and Edmundo Vasquez. The Sunday Story is made by NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit. Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer, and Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. UP FIRST is back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.

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