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Poet Gioconda Belli On Nicaragua In The Time Of COVID-19


Many of the usually bustling public spaces around the world are empty as people are encouraged to huddle indoors. But Nicaragua's leadership has taken a different approach. Parties and festivities have continued, some with maskless nurses dancing in parades and singing songs about handwashing. Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli says the government's response belongs in the darkest annals of magical realism. She talked with Noel.

GIOCONDA BELLI: We live in a surreal reality in Nicaragua because the government has insisted that this pandemia is not the worst thing that could happen to us, that it's, you know, like a cold. It's going to be like a flu. And it's - you know, during the week before Easter, they had all kinds of events - marathons, you know, dances, beauty contests, gastronomic festivals. I mean, they tried to get people to gather together. And they are still doing it.

And then we learned that, at the hospitals, they were not letting the doctors wear masks because they would scare people. And nurses and doctors in hospitals were not allowed to wear the masks until last Monday. After Easter, they decided to let them wear the masks. And I know this for a fact because I talked to a doctor. And he explained to me what had happened. And they finally decided to let them use the masks as of this last Monday.


That seems wildly dangerous, wildly irresponsible. Why would Daniel Ortega's government do that?

BELLI: Because they don't want people to think that the situation is too serious and that they would have to lock themselves up, because they want the economy to continue growing. Sometimes, things like this make you believe that there is something very wrong with these people, you know? It cannot be that they are so blind that they do not see what's happening in the world. And that they would want, in Nicaragua, to have the doctors not use masks is incredible. But that's what's going on.

KING: I read earlier that the government also ordered children to go to school. Are parents sending their kids to school? Are people looking to the government and saying, OK? You guys tell us what to do. But we know better.

BELLI: No. That's the second, you know? They are doing what they feel is better. And, you know - but people are sending - some people are sending their children to school, of course. I mean, a lot of people send their children to school because they began classes again after Easter.

KING: One of the things that Ortega's government says is that we just don't have that many cases in this country. We haven't had that many deaths in this country. Are they telling the truth there?

BELLI: We don't think so because there is, like, a kind of, you know, citizens observatory. They are kind of - keep calling people. People are calling them, telling them when there is somebody who is sick. What we do know is that it doesn't make any statistical sense what the government is saying.

KING: You and I are talking almost exactly two years after Nicaraguans went out into the streets frustrated with the government and demanded that President Ortega step down. At this point, two years later, security forces have arrested many people. Security forces have killed hundreds of people. And tens of thousands of people, if not more, have fled Nicaragua. At this point, how strong is the opposition to Daniel Ortega?

BELLI: Well, they stopped the opposition at gunpoint. So the opposition is still there. But it cannot move, practically. You want to do a march here or a rally, you come out on the street. And immediately, you are surrounded by police and riot police, but by the hundreds.

KING: You are a member of this opposition. Have you ever been arrested or threatened with arrest?

BELLI: No. I haven't. Not yet (laughter).

KING: You've been lucky, it sounds like.

BELLI: Well, you know, I have a name here. And so they have been very careful to not - how can I say - touch poets. Poets are revered in Nicaragua. And that's what has protected me.

KING: In the days when the revolution was underway in the 1980s, what was the appeal of the Sandinistas to ordinary Nicaraguans?

BELLI: We had a dictatorship that had lasted for 45 years, a dynasty, you know? - a tyrant, and then his two sons. And we were in a situation of extreme poverty. He was a bloody and repressive dictator. And after the earthquake in 1972, he stole, you know, the human aid that came to Nicaragua. And everybody found out about this. And so that was the drop that filled the cup. And so since then on, the powerful economic forces decided to split from him. And they began to help the efforts to topple him.

KING: You said something so interesting there, which is that the dictator, Somoza, was undone because he mishandled a crisis. He mishandled the aftermath of an enormous, violent, very deadly earthquake. Do you have reason to think that if Daniel Ortega mishandles COVID-19, it could be the end of him?

BELLI: Yes. I do. Well, I think, you know, the way they're handling COVID is so blatantly wrong. And people are seeing that. It's like you feel that you're in the hands of crazy people.

KING: You are one of Nicaragua's most prominent poets. Have you written anything about this time, the time of COVID-19?

BELLI: You know, I have a daughter who lives in Portland, Ore. So I wrote a poem for her when I saw - you know, it was a shock for me to see her dressed in this protective gear. I'll read a fragment because it's a little long.

KING: Sure.

BELLI: My daughter, Melissa, a doctor specialized in family medicine, in natural and integrative medicine - a young woman who, as a child, cried for the homeless and, in her first year in med school, for the dogs she operated and the guinea pigs - sends me a picture where she looks like an astronaut ready to open a hatch and step into space. Here I go, she writes in the caption. And there she goes, my kid, into the cold pandemic planet on a rescue mission.

KING: Gioconda Belli, that was absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

BELLI: OK. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "THE SORROW BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.