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A rare, exclusive glimpse inside the authoritarian nation of Nicaragua

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the past decade, Nicaragua has become one of the most authoritarian countries in the Western Hemisphere. And for more than a year now, the country has also kept foreign journalists out. But NPR's Eyder Peralta managed to get in, and he's on the line with us now to share a bit of his exclusive on-the-ground reporting. Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us a little bit about what you saw and heard there.

PERALTA: So what I really wanted to do was get a sense of everyday life, and what I found is that on the surface, everything points to normal. Shops are open. They're stocked. People go about their daily lives. But once you dig just a little bit, you find that this is a country that lives in fear, and everyone is afraid of the ghosts of what this government has done. And this government has thrown a Catholic bishop in jail. They've thrown revolutionary heroes in jail. They've exiled Nicaragua's greatest poets and writers, and they've shut down a historic newspaper. And in 2018, they also opened fire on protesters. And all of this has just created this unshakable sense of uncertainty. And 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.

CHANG: Well, how freely were you able to move around and report?

PERALTA: We were able to move around freely. We were not able to report freely. I had to keep a low profile. I had to be careful with the people I interviewed. And I couldn't just show up to a market to ask questions. So I had to find creative ways of getting some truth. I went to a comedy club, for example.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: And, you know, I'll tell you. This guy got on stage. He looked nervous. It was his first time on stage. His hands were a little shaky. And he asks, how's everybody doing? And the crowd, of course, says, great.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And what he's saying is, you fricking (ph) liars. No one lives great in Nicaragua. And the audience is sort of stunned.

CHANG: Wow.

PERALTA: There's awkward laughs, and then the comedian backs down. He says, OK, OK, I'll stop. This is dangerous. I want to get back home safely. It was a joke but not a joke. And what it tells you is that Nicaragua has become a place where even comedians have to watch their words.

CHANG: Yeah. Wow, that's fascinating. Well, Eyder, I know that you were born in Nicaragua. When was the last time you were there? And what was it like being back?

PERALTA: So the last time I was there was 10 years ago, and there were murmurs that President Ortega was building an authoritarian state. But I still talked politics with poets and writers in cafes, out in the open. I felt free. But this time, it was different. All the poets and writers I spoke to the last time have left. They're among the 600,000 Nicaraguans who have left the country in the past few years.

And, you know, I went to a couple of government celebrations, and I also traveled a lot of the country. And the feeling that I got is that the government is in complete control of Nicaragua. And this is a country that is also polarized. The vice president, for example, calls her foes snakes and treacherous vipers. They play songs that taunt the protesters. And the exiles, the opposition that has been banished - they don't want anything to do with the government. I talked to Felix Maradiaga, for example, and he's the most prominent opposition leader outside Nicaragua. He's exiled in Miami. And I asked him if there was any chance of a political solution with Daniel Ortega. And this is what he told me.

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

PERALTA: The president of Nicaragua, he says, only understands the language of violence.

CHANG: That is NPR's Eyder Peralta, who was reporting from Managua, Nicaragua. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And you can catch more of Eyder's reporting from Nicaragua on NPR's Up First podcast. 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.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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