AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
For years now, Nicaragua has been a country where repression is the norm. It's been condemned for crimes against humanity by the United Nations. Nicaragua has also been one of the hardest countries to report from. Reporters have been jailed. Newspapers and TV stations have been shuttered. And most independent journalists are in exile. But recently, NPR's Eyder Peralta got a rare look inside the country, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.
RASCOE: So Eyder, let's start with some context. Like, what is going on in Nicaragua that has made it so difficult to report on?
PERALTA: So in 2018, the government of President Daniel Ortega, who has ruled on and off for 27 years, faced a popular rebellion. Young people took to the streets by the thousands, and they called for his ouster. Ortega responded with violence. And that spring, by some counts, some 300 protesters were killed by police. And since then, President Ortega has tightened his grip. He threw anyone who could be seen as a challenge to him in prison. A United Nations report from March found that many of them were tortured, some sexually assaulted. That report found that Ortega's government completely shut down the country's civic space. And that means that more than a thousand NGOs, religious organizations, civic associations in the country have been closed or kicked out. So since 2018, Ortega has moved to control every aspect of Nicaraguan society.
RASCOE: But you were able to get into the country. What did you find there?
PERALTA: You know, the plan was to get a sense of what daily life was like in Nicaragua. And one of the things that has become controversial in the country is the Catholic Church. A bishop is in jail for criticizing the government. And the Ortega regime has launched a full-scale assault against the church. They've frozen assets of parishes. They've prohibited public processions. And they keep close tabs on what priests say from the pulpit. So one of the first things I did when I got into the country was go to mass. I went to a church in a town called Masaya, and that town was the epicenter of the rebellion in 2018. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
PERALTA: As I walk the town, the only reminders that a rebellion once took root here are the bullet holes left in the facades of some of the old colonial buildings. The roadblocks are gone. The horse-drawn carriages are once again on the streets. And St. Michael Archangel Catholic Church announces a mass with bells and blasts of fireworks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)
PERALTA: The priest at this parish used to decry repression from the pulpit, and now he's in exile in Miami.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).
PERALTA: Today, the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel should be paraded through the town because it's the day of her feast. But processions have been banned in Nicaragua, so the statue of the Virgin remains inside. The priest, Father Ramon Lopez, says nothing about it.
RAMON LOPEZ: (Singing in Spanish).
PERALTA: But he dives into the parable of the sower, a story about an enthusiastic farmer who sows seeds everywhere, not just in fertile land but in rocky terrain, in the middle of thorn bushes. A disciple asks Jesus, why do you speak in parables? Jesus responds...
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Because these people have hardened their hearts. They've closed their eyes and covered their ears with the purpose of not seeing nor hearing.
PERALTA: The priest says in parables, you can find truths that aren't spoken. Those who understand them are fortunate. And it sounds like he's speaking about this country, where even priests and comedians have to watch their words, but he doesn't go any further. That same Sunday, though, Monsignor Silvio Baez, the exiled bishop of Managua, gives his own homily in Miami, and he doesn't mince words.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SILVO BAEZ: (Through interpreter) We may feel helpless facing the cruelty, inhumane and ignorant of the powerful, the criminals who subdue their people. Let us not lose hope.
RASCOE: So outside the country, there's a very clear message, but inside it, it had to remain a parable, right?
PERALTA: Yeah. And I mean, that's what I found across the country. One young man whose brother was killed during the rebellion told me that he felt that there were only two choices left in the country - either stay quiet and pretend that life is normal or take up arms against the regime. And he doesn't want any more violence, and you feel that everywhere. Everything points to normal, but there's so much more going on below the surface.
I also went to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua. And back in 2020, someone threw an explosive device of some kind at one of the chapels there. It left the whole altar, including the image of Jesus on the cross, charred. And I saw an older lady there praying in front of the chapel, and on the walls, you can still see the black soot lapping up toward the ceiling. And she was crying. I introduced myself. I told her that I wanted to know what she was feeling, and she just gave me a gentle smile, and she said, I'm sorry, we don't talk about those things here. It's worth noting that we've reached out multiple times to the Nicaraguan government to give them a chance to respond. I've emailed Vice President Rosario Murillo. I've called and emailed the Nicaraguan embassies in the United States and Mexico, and they have not responded.
RASCOE: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta. You can hear more of his reporting from Nicaragua on the Sunday Story podcast today and on Morning Edition tomorrow. Thank you, Eyder, for this very important reporting.
PERALTA: Thank you, Ayesha.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENDRA QUE FLORECER LA PRIMAVERA")
LUIS ENRIQUE MIJIA GODOY: (Singing in Spanish).
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