‘Pray For Me’: Nicaraguan Priest Threatened With Death Reaches Out To Niece In U.S.

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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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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