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For One Nicaraguan Man, Vermont Provides A Haven As Crisis Spirals At Home

A finger points to a window riddled with bulletholes.
Lorne Matalon
A woman who asked not be identified points to bullet holes above her inside a church in the Jesús de la Divina Misericordia parish in Managua. The gunfire was unleashed by pro-government paramilitaries and police against students sheltered in the church."

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. Here in Vermont, there are a handful of Nicaraguans in the state legally. One wants to return home but is afraid to. 

He’s Javier Rodriguez and his life is in limbo. He’s 39, a professor who teaches environmental sciences and human rights — and the married father of a 4 year old and 6 year old. His wife and children are still in Nicaragua.

“Leaving them is the most difficult decision I’ve ever made,” he said in Spanish.

More from VPR — Repression & Lawlessness Spur Flight From Nicaragua, Those Who Stay Face Political Turmoil

Rodriguez left Nicaragua for Vermont in August. He has friends in Montpelier, and said he had to leave quickly after criticizing the government to fellow professors. In Nicaragua, professors are state employees supervised by the government.

Soon after, Rodriguez said heavily-armed paramilitaries began showing up at his house, yelling death threats. In Nicaragua right now, criticism of the government can be fatal.

“Every day people are kidnapped, arrested or they just disappear,” Rodriguez said.

Rafael Morales stands in front of his home hours after he and neighbors allege Nicaraguan police burned it down
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR
Rafael Morales stands in front of his home hours after he and neighbors allege Nicaraguan police burned it down. The motive for the attack is unclear as Morales said he is a Sandinista government supporter.

The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH), which moved its office to neighboring Costa Rica after being threatened, states that about 600 people have disappeared between April and August 2018.

A recent United Nations report says the government of President Daniel Ortega has created a climate of terror that uses systematic repression of dissent. In a move that surprised no one in Nicaragua, the report’s authors were immediately kicked out of the country.

“My supposed crime was being at four marches," Rodriguez said. Since April, the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) say at least 318 people have been killed, all but a few by police and paramilitaries.

Rodriguez said Nicaragua has become a police state: “Today in Nicaragua even thinking against the government is a crime that they call terrorism,” he said.

Ex-guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva seated on a bench with a sign. At right is a close up of his leg that has rubber bullet wounds.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR
Ex-guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva made a sign for a demonstration stating: 'No more dictatorship, Ortega resign.' At right are wounds on Silva Grijalva's leg inflicted by rubber bullets that he and others allege were fired by government paramilitaries against unarmed protesters.

There are educational ties between Vermont and Nicaragua. Students from several high schools — including Randolph Union High School, St. Johnsbury Academy and Stowe High School, among others — have traveled there to live with Nicaraguan families, visit schools and soak in a fascinating culture.

Those trips are on hold for now. Rodriguez hopes that changes.

“Nicaragua’s evil government won’t last forever,” Rodriguez said.

He’s one of 30,000 people who’ve left the country since April. Human rights workers in Nicaragua said approximately a thousand people have begun the process of asking for political asylum in the United States. However Rodriguez said that even if he is granted asylum, his plan is to return home.

“I want to help rebuild democracy in Nicaragua,” Rodriguez said. He doesn’t think that’ll happen tomorrow.

Relatives of jailed political dissidents line up to pass food to their imprisoned loved ones.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR
Relatives of jailed political dissidents line up to pass food to their imprisoned loved ones. The government has criminalized public protest of any kind. Inmates say they receive rotten, often inedible food.

Simmering discontent with corruption and repression in Nicaragua reached a boiling in April 2018. Since then, university students have led marches to condemn what Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said in an email is a government that is “widely known to be corrupt.”

In addition to those who have been killed, there have been hundreds jailed as political prisoners. Hundreds more have just vanished. Police are now going house-to-house looking for students, but students aren’t backing down.

“This government is finished,” said one student.

And that is what Rodriguez is hoping for. However he’s glad to be in Vermont right now.

“I’ve met the best people in Vermont,” he said.

Lorne Matalon is the 2016-2017 Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a Vermont resident. Prior to his fellowship, he was the Texas correspondent for the Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of NPR member stations focused on the Mexico-US border and Latin America. He is currently a contributor to CBC Radio and files regularly for Marketplace.
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