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Members Of Nicaragua's Opposition Consider Going Into Exile


Some other news now. Many citizens of Nicaragua face a choice - flee their country or face ever more peril. They're under pressure as President Daniel Ortega cracks down on his opposition. He's shutting down human rights groups, jailing journalists and charging protesters under anti-terrorism laws. NPR's Carrie Kahn spoke with Nicaraguans deciding what to do now.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Blanca (ph) Callejas stands at the production room floor of her family's factory just outside Granada, a colonial town popular with tourists and U.S. expats. Workers scrub down huge metal vats where they process fruit for the Callejas brand jams and preserves, a household staple in Nicaraguans' homes for the past 70 years. These days, she says, jam has become a luxury. Sales have plummeted 40 percent, but she's not giving up.

BLANCA CALLEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I know what it's like to be in exile, to be alone." As a teen in the 1970s, she said, she fled to neighboring Costa Rica for a while. She had taken up arms against the Somoza dictatorship with the Sandinista rebels. Current president Daniel Ortega was a leader in that fight. This time around, she says she won't leave her business or her employees. Her son, however, did.

CALLEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They labeled him a terrorist, a vandal, a criminal, just like they've done to all protesters," she says. Since nationwide demonstrations broke out eight months ago, President Ortega has cracked down on opponents. Hundreds have been jailed, charged with terrorism. Ortega also shuttered nine non-governmental groups, including the country's leading human rights organization. Vilma Nunez is its head.

VILMA NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm not running. I couldn't live with myself if I did. I'd feel terrible," she says at an outdoor cafe. Nunez picked this spot. Her house, she says, is watched by police.

NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "When is this all going to end? I don't know, and I may not see it. I hope I get to," she says. Nunez 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, also in his 80s. Gioconda Belli, Nicaragua's prize-winning poet, says so many people are facing the same agonizing decision.

GIOCONDA BELLI: The ground beneath our feet has ceased to be stable. When the earth shakes, you don't necessarily know exactly where to stand.

KAHN: The U.S. has imposed sanctions on senior government officials, including Ortega's wife, the vice president. But he doesn't appear to be budging, insisting he will fill out his current third term until 2021. Nicaragua's economy, though, might not last that long. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who heads the economic think tank FUNIDES, says unemployment is skyrocketing, tourism has tanked and nearly a third of cash deposits have left the country.

JUAN SEBASTIAN CHAMORRO: There's no credit in the economy. The economic situation is going to worsen throughout 2019, so that's - in itself is going to create the incentives for a lot of people to leave the country.

KAHN: He says police surround his office and routinely pull him over. He works remotely and sleeps at different houses, but he's not leaving. His cousin, however - prominent journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro - has.

CARLOS FERNANDO CHAMORRO: Going to exile has been a very painful and difficult decision.

KAHN: Adding to that grueling calculus, his mother, former President Violeta Chamorro, is gravely ill. But last week, Chamorro announced he moved his entire news operation to Costa Rica. Police had raided his offices last December. He had been warned his arrest was imminent.

C CHAMORRO: There's a moment in which you have to choose - either you wait for them to detain you and to fabricate criminal charges and take you to prison.

KAHN: Or preserve your freedom to keep fighting, he says. More than 50 other journalists are in exile in Costa Rica. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled there as refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: You can see that exodus every day and from the Costa Rican embassy in Managua as the lines of people waiting for a visa stretch the entire block. Vendors selling everything from photocopies to bus tickets fill the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: I asked this woman why she was leaving. For a little vacation, she says. She was too afraid to give her name. Two police officers followed me as I interviewed people. That's the reason, she insisted, smiling nervously and nodding her head. Another family of five with their suitcases already in hand said the same thing. They had just received their visas. They tossed their bags into the trunk of a waiting taxi, jumped in and headed straight for the border. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Managua, Nicaragua. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.