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Stay Or Go? Ortega's Crackdown Pushes Nicaraguans To Make Hard Choices

Feb 9, 2019

Blanka Callejas looks out over the production floor of her family's factory just outside the Nicaraguan town of Granada. Workers scrub down huge metal vats where they process fruit for the Callejas brand of jams and preserves, a staple in Nicaraguan homes for decades. She is worried about how she will pay her 50 employees.

These days, she says, jam has become a luxury.

Nicaragua has been in turmoil since last April, when President Daniel Ortega launched a brutal crackdown on opponents. At least 325 people have been killed, thousands injured and 550 arrested. In December, Ortega expelled international observers who were invited into the country to look into allegations of human rights abuses. The Organization of American States said at the time that the expulsion of its observers "further places Nicaragua into the terrain of authoritarianism." The economy, after years of growth, is now in recession.

That has left many Nicaraguans grappling with the difficult decision of whether to stay, or go.

Blanka Callejas at her family's fruit jam factory just outside Granada, Nicaragua.
Carrie Kahn / NPR

Callejas says she's not giving up, despite her company's sales having plummeted 40 percent since the crisis began last April.

"I know what it's like to be in exile, to be alone," she says, remembering back in the 1970s, when as a teen, she had to flee to Costa Rica for a while. She had taken up arms against the Somoza dictatorship with the Sandinista rebels. President Ortega was a leader in that fight, but now many of his critics and old allies now say the leader is behaving like an authoritarian ruler himself.

This time around, Callejas says she won't leave her business or employees. Her son, however, did leave the country, fearing he was targeted by the authorities and their allies.

"They labeled him a terrorist, a vandal, a criminal, just like they have done to all protesters," she says.

The nationwide demonstrations broke out originally over pension cuts but then they widened into broad discontent with the regime. Ortega responded with increased repression of opponents: Hundreds were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism laws. Ortega also shuttered nine nongovernmental groups, including the country's leading human rights organization. The organization's head, Vilma Núñez, says she is determined to stay, too.

"I'm not running, I couldn't live with myself if I did, I'd feel terrible," she says at an outdoor café. Núñez picked this spot. She says her house is watched by police.

"When is this all going to end, I don't know, I may not see it ... I hope I get to," she says.

Núñez was jailed during the struggle to topple the Somoza dictatorship, and isn't afraid of a fight. But she says, at 80, she's too old to leave the country or her husband, who is also in his 80s.

Gioconda Belli, Nicaragua's prize-winning poet, says so many people are facing the agonizing decision of whether to stay and fight or flee.

"The ground beneath our feet has ceased to be stable ... when the earth shakes you don't know exactly where to stand," she says.

The United States has imposed sanctions on senior government officials, including Ortega's wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, but the Ortega administration doesn't appear to be budging. The president insists he will serve out his current, third term until 2021.

Ortega is one of Latin America's remaining allies with Venezuela's embattled President Nicolás Maduro, a relationship that has brought Nicaragua much scorn from the U.S. Last November, President Trump's national security adviser John Bolton included Nicaragua in a list of hemispheric enemies, along with Venezuela and Cuba, dubbing them the "troika of tyranny."

While many in Nicaragua are closely watching events in Venezuela, the two countries are not as economically intertwined as they once were. Nicaragua has moved to wean itself of Venezuelan oil and handouts in recent years.

But despite that diversification, Nicaragua's economy, one of the poorest in the hemisphere, might not hold up much longer, says Juan Sebastián Chamorro, the head of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, a think tank in Managua. He says unemployment is skyrocketing, tourism has tanked and nearly a third of cash deposits have left the country.

"There is no credit in the economy, the economic situation is going to worsen throughout 2019 so that is in itself going to create the incentive for a lot of people to leave the country," he says.

Police surround his office and routinely pull him over, he says. He works remotely and sleeps at different houses, but he is not leaving the country.

His cousin, however, prominent journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, has.

Nicaraguan riot police clear journalists, including Carlos Fernando Chamorro (center), from outside a police station as he tried to speak to the National Police Senior Commissioner Francisco Díaz in Managua, on Dec. 15. Nicaraguan police occupied the headquarters of Chamorro's news organization and of civil and human rights groups.
Inti Ocon / AFP/Getty Images

"Going to exile has been a very painful and difficult decision," says Chamorro, the editor of a news and analysis website called Confidencial.

Adding to what has been a grueling calculus in his decision to leave is the fact that his mother, former President Violeta Chamorro, is gravely ill.

Ultimately he fled, and last month Chamorro announced he had moved his entire news operations to neighboring Costa Rica. Nicaraguan police raided his Managua offices last December and continue to occupy it. He had been warned his arrest was imminent.

"There's a moment in which you have to choose either you wait for them to detain you and fabricate criminal charges and take you to prison," he says. Or you have to preserve your freedom so you will be able to keep fighting, he adds.

As many as 66 Nicaraguan journalists have reportedly fled the country as the authorities carry out media raids and arrests.

Overall, tens of thousands of residents have sought refuge in Costa Rica since April. The United Nations says hundreds of Nicaraguans have also recently applied for asylum in Panama, Mexico and the United States.

There is a daily sign of the exodus outside the Costa Rican Embassy in Managua, where Nicaraguans form long lines for visas. Vendors selling them everything from photocopies to bus tickets fill the street.

One woman who recently obtained a visa, who is too afraid to give her name, says she is leaving for a short vacation. She could see the two police officers watching all activity outside the embassy. When asked if that was the real reason she needed a visa, she smiled nervously and kept nodding her head.

Another family of five, with their packed suitcases in hand, says the same.

They have just received their visas. They toss their bags into the trunk of a waiting taxi, pile in, and take off, straight for the border.

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