“You can’t find anyone who opposes the government,” says Eider Peralta, an international correspondent for NPR, and a native Nicaraguan journalist living in the US. “But now, I believe I won’t be able to enter my country again.”
HAVANA TIMES – On Sunday, September 10th, US-based National Public Radio’s “Up First” podcast broadcast an episode on Nicaragua. The 37-minute segment was produced by Eyder Peralta, the only international media correspondent that has managed to enter Nicaragua to report in over a year.
His story offers “a rare look inside a locked-down country that doesn’t allow [foreign or independent] reporters.” Peralta describes Nicaragua as a country where “everything points to normal,” but fear is just below the surface.” It’s a country where you can’t interview anyone in a public place, nor can you find anyone who describes themselves as belonging to the “opposition.”
Peralata, born in Nicaragua, is the NPR correspondent for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Using his Nicaraguan passport, he was able to enter and leave the country through an isolated northern border post. In a conversation with Confidencial and Esta Semana, he accepts: “I won’t be able to enter Nicaragua again. Maybe I could try again, but I know I won’t be allowed to enter.”
Peralta was born in Nicaragua, son of Nicaraguan parents who chose to leave the country for the United States during the “Contra” war of the eighties.
You were in Nicaragua before the 2018 crisis, covering news there for NPR. What differences did you find on this 2023 trip?
Enormous ones. When I was there reporting nearly a decade ago, people told me that President Ortega was putting together an authoritarian government. But truthfully, at that time I felt free. I could hold interviews in cafes, restaurants or in the parks; I could go to a market an ask any questions I wanted.
This time it was completely different. I couldn’t conduct any interviews in public – that’s a grave problem for a reporter, because we earn our daily bread going to a market, a plaza and talking with a lot of people. Right now, there’s a repression in Nicaragua that’s not discussed publicly, but it’s understood that if you do any reporting in public, they’ll put you in jail. Hence, it’s a completely different country.
In ten years, it’s changed completely. Many of the people I spoke with ten years ago were no longer in Nicaragua, so I felt the exodus clearly.
You’ve covered stories in other Latin American and African countries, some of them also under situations of restrictions and authoritarianism. How do you compare today’s Nicaragua with what you’ve experienced in other places?
Interestingly, in Ethiopia, before the revolution, it was nearly impossible to report. But even in Ethiopia, which is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, there were opposition figures. We’d get in, and we’d get in a car, and they’d tell us: ”We’ll let you out at a gas station.” From there, someone else we didn’t know would pick us up and take us to another place. We’d get in the car again, and we’d finally get to meet that opposition figure.”
In Nicaragua, everything points to normal. There’s traffic in the streets, the shops are open, the bars are full. But there’s not one public opposition figure in the country. It’s the only country I’ve reported from where you can’t find a dissenter. I’ve reported in Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe… [Nicaragua] is the only country where you can’t interview anyone in public. All the interviews I conducted, I had to carry out in private places and with a lot of care. After that, the rest is based on observation. In the ten years that I haven’t been in the country, it’s become one of the most authoritarian countries I’ve ever reported from.
“Everyone is afraid”
How would you describe the atmosphere among the Nicaraguans you talked with? In your podcast, you talk with several people who even disclose their discomfort with the regime. What are they afraid of?
I believe there’s an unspoken agreement in Nicaragua: you can live a normal life, as long as you don’t get involved in politics. You can have a conversation in the streets – without a microphone obviously – but not about political affairs.
I went to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, to the chapel there, where [in July 2020] someone threw a Molotov cocktail. A woman was there praying, and she was crying.
As a reporter, your first impulse is to ask her some questions. I told her that I was a reporter, that I wanted to know what she was feeling. She gave me a tender smile and said: “No, pipito, here, we don’t talk about those things with reporters.”
That’s the feeling I got from person after person – not when we were talking about everyday life, but when we came to the topic of politics, the Nicaraguan government. There, everyone now behaves with great care, and everyone is afraid.
What they told me is that they’ve had to live with what this government has done, and it’s on their minds. This is a government that’s put priests in jail, that’s exiled reporters, that’s exiled historic figures, and what [people] told me is: “If they can do that to people who were considered untouchable in Nicaragua, imagine what they could do to me.” That’s the fear you feel in Nicaragua.
According to the story you tell, you were in Nicaragua during the days when they celebrate the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. How did people experience that Party celebration?
The experiences are very different. You can see that the regime of Daniel Ortega has support and there are people who truly want to be there; later you notice that there are people who are there under pressure or have to be there for work. You can tell because when the President or Vice President are speaking, people continue talking, continue drinking, and they’re not paying much attention.
But it’s also clear that there’s a tremendous division in Nicaragua – not a 50-50 split, maybe 80-20. But there’s a feeling of us against them. There are also many people I spoke with in Nicaragua who feel that those left in the country have been abandoned. The people say: “It’s easy to talk from outside, but in here we have two choices: either we continue living our lives the way the government dictates, and we can more or less have a life; or we take up arms against this government.” And I believe that none of the people I talked to want to see more violence in Nicaragua.
In the last months, many of the regime’s followers have deserted, have asked for asylum in the United States. Did you talk with followers of Daniel Ortega?
In these events, we couldn’t speak with sympathizers of Daniel Ortega. We asked for interviews with the government, and we requested interviews even in the [Nicaraguan] embassy here in Mexico and in the Nicaraguan embassy in the United States, but they didn’t grant any interviews.
How do Nicaraguans inform themselves about what’s happening in the country? Do they have access to independent news, or just the official media? Because in Nicaragua there aren’t any more independent journalists.
There’s no independent news on television, but one interesting thing about the Ortega-Murillo regime is that the internet is open. That’s an enormous difference between Nicaragua and other countries I’ve reported from, where the internet is turned off and censored.
I believe that Nicaraguans do have access to the truth; the person who wants to find the truth can find it, because it’s on the internet and there are independent media sites covering from outside.
I believe that Nicaraguans understand what’s happening. What I feel is that they’re trapped. They can’t find any way to change the situation, they feel they’re in a box they can’t escape from, where there’s no option for how to change the country.
“I believe I won’t be able to return to my country”
You’re Nicaraguan, and your story also touches on your autobiography and your family’s story. How do you feel now, after having been in the country and left? Do you feel like just another exile?
I was born in Nicaragua, but my parents left during the [80s] war. As the son of Nicaraguans, I always heard the stories of the war, the stories of the revolution, the disillusion with the revolution.
In the beginning, my parents supported the revolution, but I always felt a little removed. I never felt like they’d forced me to leave my country, and I never thought that I couldn’t go back. But when I was listening to President Ortega’s and Vice President Murillo’s speeches, I began to think about what this trip was going to cost me. Realistically, I believe I’m not going to be able to enter Nicaragua again. Maybe I could try to go back, but I know I won’t be able to enter.
When I was reporting in Sudan, some seven or eight years ago, they threw me in jail, and I spent four days there. As a reporter, you always say: “I’m going to go back there. I’m going to continue doing my work. But I’ve never returned to that country, and I’m afraid it could be the same with Nicaragua. I think it’s the first time that I really feel like my parents, who have a country they long to return to, who long to live there, who’ve always wanted to return, and I don’t know if that’ll be possible.
What impressed you most about the Nicaraguan people you talked to? Did what you saw in Nicaragua give you any sign of hope?
Honestly, no. What I saw is a government completely dug in, a government completely in control, and in these situations, you can never foresee what could happen.
I’ve seen Omar al Bashir in Sudan fall from power after 40 years, when a whole bunch of kids went out on the streets, boys and girls, and many women who promoted that change in Sudan. So, to say that in Nicaraguan nothing can ever happen, these things are very hard to predict.
But what I saw was a regime that is well entrenched. I was looking for signs of economic crisis, for example, and I didn’t see it. The shops are still full, people continue buying. I was there for the opening of the movie “Barbie,” and one of the shopping malls was completely full of people. I believe that what happens in a lot of authoritarian countries is that when people don’t see any way out, they decide they’re just going to live their lives. In a lot of ways, that’s what’s happening in Nicaragua.
How has the NPR audience reacted to your story of a country that has closed the doors to the Nicaraguan press and to the international press as well?
The response from our radio listeners has been very good. [Tuesday, September 12], I received an e-mail from a woman who told me: “Eyder, you opened my eyes because I have a whole bunch of friends who go to Nicaragua for vacations, who have houses on the beaches, and they’ve never talked about what’s happening there. And I ask myself: ‘Are they going around blindfolded?’” But I believe it’s the same thing I told you in the beginning: in Nicaragua, if you land there, everything points to normal. But the abnormal is just one inch below the surface, it’s right there, and I think that what makes this story – which maybe contains nothing new to Nicaraguans – is that it reveals that place to an international public.”
There’s also been a very harsh response on Twitter (now X), from those who support the government of Daniel Ortega, saying that it’s propaganda, it’s all a lie.
The memory of the 2018 government violence
Some of the people you spoke with in your report don’t maintain either the 1979 revolution, now marking 44 years, nor the 1990 transition [when the FSLN was democratically defeated, and Ortega had to step down] as their historic reference. They speak about April 2018.
Yes, that’s what’s in their memory and that’s what has driven home the fear. With the people I talked to, what has been etched in their minds is a government who went out on the streets and violently repressed people.
That all sounded very familiar to me. I spent time covering the Congo, an incredibly violent place, where different rebel groups vie for control of different parts of the country. And what the rebels told me is that they’d enter a town and the way to take control of it was with a lot of violence. They killed people and burnt down homes, and what those rebels said is: “the next time, we arrive with just a package of matches, and we do nothing more than show the people the package of matches, and they’d all stay quiet.”
I think that’s how 2018 colored Nicaragua. It was an explosion of violence from the government, which taught the people what they’re capable of. And that’s what remains in the people’s psychology.
What happens one day after you broadcast your podcast? Will Nicaragua disappear from the international news? Will the world continue looking the other way?
Yes, and I think that’s the challenge for us journalists. I cover Central America for NPR, and now I’ve ended up in the same position as all the other journalists – I have no possible way of entering again. So, producing reports that have an impact on the United States public is much more difficult.
Reporting from Costa Rica or Honduras is very different than doing it from inside Nicaragua, and that’s the challenge. As a journalist, I always feel a commitment to continue working, trying to tell those stories, because they’re important. It’s the only thing we can really do as journalists – continue telling the stories as best we can.