'Pray For Me': Nicaraguan Priest Threatened With Death Reaches Out To Niece In U.S. | KGOU
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'Pray For Me': Nicaraguan Priest Threatened With Death Reaches Out To Niece In U.S.

Apr 24, 2019
Originally published on April 24, 2019 9:00 am

Raquel Idiáquez was cooking dinner with her uncle when she noticed something was wrong. He'd been visiting her in Seattle from Managua, Nicaragua, and that evening of April 15, 2018, he kept leaving the kitchen to take an urgent call.

"I saw him getting a little nervous and going to his phone more frequently than usual," says Idiáquez, 28. "Then he just came to me. He was like, 'I gotta leave tomorrow.' "

Her uncle, José Alberto "Chepe" Idiáquez, a 61-year-old Catholic priest and rector of the Central American University in Managua, was told that the private Jesuit university was under attack.

"He took the next flight [to Nicaragua] the next morning," Raquel Idiáquez says. "That was the last time I saw him."

Demonstrators gather during a protest outside the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, Nicaragua.
Arnulfo Franco / AP

Witness to bloodshed

Chepe Idiáquez returned home to see his country unraveling. Protests had broken out over proposed cuts to pensions and social benefits, and Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, ordered a crackdown against organizers.

Riot police shot rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition into crowds. Opposition groups, facing heavily armed security forces, barricaded streets and fired homemade mortars. Across Nicaragua, demonstrators demanded Ortega's resignation.

Ortega accused the protesters of "terrorism" and characterized civic leaders as coup plotters. At least 325 people have been killed and 550 arrested since Nicaragua's conflict began in April 2018, according to a January statement from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Nicaraguan police in riot gear riding on the backs of pickup trucks fire at university students on May 28, 2018.
Esteban Felix / AP

Catholic clergy members have given refuge to protesters. Pro-government armed groups have retaliated by ransacking and attacking churches across the country. In July, the Church of the Divine Mercy in Managua was under siege for 15 hours while students were trapped inside.

The priest Idiáquez is a witness to the violence. In a video recorded on May 30, 2018, he stands near a wounded student being wheeled off on a gurney and says, "We have to prepare to die, thanks to these leaders who are hellbent on remaining in power."

In an interview with Spanish newspaper El País in June 2018, Idiáquez said that history will know President Ortega as "un asesino" — a murderer.

An anti-government demonstrator shows ammunition taken from the police during clashes in the Nicaraguan town of Las Maderas, near the capital city of Managua, on June 6, 2018.
Inti Ocon / AFP/Getty Images

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reported, the government has raided newsrooms and expelled human rights groups. More than 55,500 Nicaraguans have sought asylum in neighboring Costa Rica since April 18, 2018, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Still, Idiáquez has decided to stay.

A long way from home

Four thousand miles away in Seattle, Raquel Idiáquez has watched the crisis unfold around her uncle.

"For the longest time, I didn't know if I was saying goodbye to him for the last time ever," she says. "I didn't know if he was going to be alive the next day."

Chepe Idiáquez has felt a responsibility to stand up for his country. But his calls for social justice have put him in danger. Raquel says her uncle — a Catholic priest — has received numerous death threats.

"He'll say, 'I'll have a really hard day tomorrow. Pray for me,' " she says.

She's close to her uncle — "like a father-daughter relationship," she says. "I send him a lot of pictures of my dog, just to give him something else to think about."

But it's the silence that has kept her up at night. Her uncle became a prominent figure in the conflict when he was part of Catholic Church-mediated peace negotiations between opposition civic groups and the government. During the dialogue, Raquel didn't speak with him. The family feared his phone lines were being tapped.

"I didn't sleep for a week," she says. "I kept having nightmares that he was going to be shot. I wouldn't go to sleep because I didn't want to dream those things."

If Chepe Idiáquez is scared, he makes sure Raquel doesn't hear it in his voice.

Chepe Idiáquez holds up a rock he says was thrown at him by a mob of pro-government supporters. He keeps the rock on his desk as a symbol of Nicaragua's political violence.
Courtesy of Central American University

Last month, before going to sleep, he sent her a recording from his iPhone: "Raquel, buenas noches," he says. He sounds calm; his words are chosen carefully. "Every day, more young people disappear. They are arrested, beaten and tortured. We are all risking our lives. I am glad that you are far away from Nicaragua."

Raquel is safe in her quiet neighborhood in Seattle, but the people around her worry. With her uncle back home in Nicaragua, it's like she's living in two places at once.

"What she talks to me about — is it's like a divided consciousness," says Serena Cosgrove, an assistant professor and faculty coordinator of Seattle University's Central America Initiative. She's one of Raquel's mentors. "You're simultaneously having to be in the life that's right in front of you, and yet you're so worried about a different life that's happening thousands of miles away."

Living this far away was supposed to be temporary: Raquel would earn her MBA at Seattle University, get some work experience in the U.S. and then return to Nicaragua. But because she shares the same last name as her uncle, she says it is too dangerous to go home.

She feels alone in the U.S., like she's trapped. "This last year has been like a prison here," Raquel says. "I really, really want to see [my family]."

"Take care of yourself"

During her interview with NPR, Raquel says her uncle might call into the radio studio. She says he is in a place where he can talk with less worry.

Suddenly, the phone rings.

"Hola. ¿Raquel?"

"Hola, tío," she responds. "Hello, uncle."

Chepe tells Raquel he's OK, but a year into the protests, the situation back home is still dire. President Ortega refuses to step down, and a second round of peace talks recently collapsed. Chepe says it's unclear what's next for one of Latin America's poorest countries.

"I want to express to the world and to people in the United States that Nicaragua is a country in which people are killed and kidnapped every day," Chepe tells NPR. "We have been living for many years under this kind of oppression, and it's not fair."

Despite threats against his life, he says he's determined to stay in Nicaragua.

"This is my obligation to be beside people who are suffering," he says. "I have to be here even though I know that I can be killed."

Before Chepe hangs up, he chats with Raquel. He compliments her fluency in English, sends her a hug and then says goodbye.

"Take care of yourself," he tells her. "Keep in touch."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Raquel Idiaquez was making dinner with her uncle in Seattle - they were making salmon, asparagus, salad - and she just noticed that something seemed wrong. He was visiting her from Nicaragua, and that evening, in April 2018, he kept leaving the kitchen to take these urgent calls.

RAQUEL IDIAQUEZ: I saw him getting a little nervous and going on his phone more frequently than usual. And he just came to me, and he was like, well, I got to leave tomorrow.

GREENE: Her uncle, a priest named Jose Alberto Idiaquez - or Father Chepe for short - is the president of a university in Nicaragua, and he had been told that his school was under attack.

R. IDIAQUEZ: He took the next flight the next morning, and that was the last time I saw him. This was way worse than we could ever imagine.

GREENE: And that really sums up the past year in Nicaragua. NPR's Danny Hajek has the story of a Central American country that has descended into political turmoil, through the eyes of one family.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: Father Chepe returned home to see his country unraveling. Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, had proposed cuts to social benefits. People were furious; students began protesting. And in a scene all too familiar in this part of the world, Ortega cracked down. Violence came to the front gates of Chepe's Central American University in Managua.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

HAJEK: Suddenly, streets filled with demonstrators demanding Ortega's resignation. NPR's Carrie Kahn covered the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I think it was this heavy-handed response by police - the killings that backfired and enraged students, brought out other workers. It was like the spark was lit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

HAJEK: Riot police fired live ammunition into crowds. Opposition groups fought back with Molotov cocktails and homemade mortars.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

HAJEK: At least 325 people have been killed since last April, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Hundreds have been jailed; tens of thousands have fled the country. Chepe saw the bloodshed. It was just a month since he'd been making dinner with his niece in Seattle; now he was speaking on video, criticizing his president's oppressive regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE ALBERTO IDIAQUEZ: (Through interpreter) We have to prepare to die, thanks to these leaders hell-bent on staying in power.

HAJEK: Four-thousand miles away in Seattle, Raquel Idiaquez has watched the crisis unfold around her uncle.

R. IDIAQUEZ: For the longest time, I didn't know if I was saying goodbye to him for the last time ever. I didn't know if he was going to be alive the next day.

HAJEK: Chepe felt a responsibility to stand up for his country, but his calls for social justice have put him in danger. Raquel says her uncle, a Jesuit priest, has received numerous death threats.

R. IDIAQUEZ: He would say, well, I will have a really hard day tomorrow. Pray for me.

HAJEK: Pray for me.

R. IDIAQUEZ: Yeah. And that's when you know, OK - So I sent him pictures of my dog just to, I don't know, give him something else to think about.

HAJEK: But it's the silence that's kept her up at night. Chepe had become more prominent in the conflict, and when he was in the middle of peace negotiations with the government, he couldn't reach out to Raquel because he feared his phone lines were being tapped.

R. IDIAQUEZ: I was unable to sleep for a week. And I keep having these nightmares where he was going to be shot. And I would just not go to sleep because I didn't want to dream those things.

HAJEK: If Chepe is scared, he's making sure Raquel doesn't hear it in his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: He made this recording on his iPhone last month. Raquel listened before going to bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J IDIAQUEZ: (Through interpreter) Each day, more young people disappear. They are beaten, tortured. We're all risking our lives, and I am glad that you are far away from Nicaragua.

HAJEK: Raquel is safe in her quiet neighborhood in Seattle, but people still worry about her. With her uncle back home, it's like she's living in two places at once.

SERENA COSGROVE: What she talks to me about is - it's like a divided consciousness.

HAJEK: This is Serena Cosgrove. She's an assistant professor and Raquel's mentor from Seattle University.

COSGROVE: You're simultaneously having to be in the life that's right in front of you, and yet you're so worried about a different life that's happening thousands of miles away.

HAJEK: Being this far away was supposed to be temporary; Raquel would earn her MBA, get some work experience and then return to Nicaragua. But she has the same last name as her uncle, so her family is telling her to stay away.

Do you feel stuck in the U.S.?

R. IDIAQUEZ: Oh, my gosh, yes. This last year has been like a prison here. I really, really want to see them.

HAJEK: For now her connection is over cellphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

HAJEK: Here we go. Hang on one second, OK?

R. IDIAQUEZ: OK.

HAJEK: During our interview, Raquel told me her uncle might call in, and she said he was in a place where he could talk with less worry.

R. IDIAQUEZ: Hola?

J IDIAQUEZ: Hola, Raquel?

HAJEK: Hola, Tio.

HAJEK: He tells Raquel he's OK, but he says the situation back home is still dire. President Ortega refuses to step down. He's accused protesters of terrorism, and a second round of peace talks recently collapsed. Chepe says it's unclear what's next.

J IDIAQUEZ: I want to express to the world and people to the United States that Nicaragua is a country in which people is killed and kidnapped every day.

HAJEK: He says he's determined to stay in Nicaragua.

J IDIAQUEZ: This is my obligation, to be beside people who are suffering, even though I know that I can be killed.

HAJEK: Before the call ends, Chepe chats a little with Raquel - compliments her English, sends her a hug, then tells her they'll stay in touch.

J IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

R. IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

J IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

R. IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

J IDIAQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: Raquel Idiaquez hangs up, hoping she'll hear from her uncle tomorrow. She still doesn't know when she can return home to Nicaragua.

Danny Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.