Documentary Pulls Back Curtain on Dictatorship in Nicaragua

'Hurts to Breathe' Overcomes Censorship, Shows Daniel Ortega's Barbarism

Nicaraguans live under repression, violence, and intimidation due to the vicious Sandinista dictatorship. (Sebastián Díaz)

Lee en español.

Nicaraguans live under repression, violence, and intimidation due to the vicious Sandinista dictatorship. However, the regime attempts to portray itself as a democracy through fraudulent elections—not that many observers are fooled. Attempts to oppose the official narrative are a recipe for jail time, exile, or assassination, as highlighted in a historic documentary.

In 2018, the Daniel Ortega regime tried to reduce pension generosity from the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS). This led to massive demonstrations against the regime. After three months of heavy-handed repression by the police and paramilitaries, at least 355 people were killed and 235 ended up in prison.

Due to harassment of the press in Nicaragua, Mexican Journalist Otoniel Martínez of Aztec Informative Force infiltrated the country as a tourist to record the documentary Hurts to Breathe (#DueleRespirar). He took a bus from Costa Rica to Nicaragua in July 2022. His objective was to confirm whether the accusations of abuses by the Ortega regime were true.

Risking his own life, Martínez captured on film the totalitarian nature of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Álvaro Conrado, a teenager shot in the neck by law enforcement officials in the 2018 protests, said the phrase that became the name of the documentary. Conrado later died because the regime prohibited medical care for injured demonstrators.

The documentary conveys the raw and inhuman reality that dissidents experience on a daily basis. Nicaragua has been completely subjugated to a husband-wife dictatorship that is trying to become a dynasty. However, Hurts to Breathe sends a powerful message to the Central American tyrants: there are brave people willing to resist.

An Omnipresent Regime

The tour guide leading Martínez through Managua—who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal—asserts that the regime’s presence is visible everywhere. He contends that the Sandinista dictatorship has established a police state, in which civil liberties do not exist.

When watching the documentary, the first thing that stands out is the red and black flag of the incumbent Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) across Managua. It flies next to the Nicaraguan flag, as if it were part of the national identity. Martínez’s guide explains that everyone who wants to avoid police searches carries the FSLN flag. “If I am being searched and [police officers] see the flag, they say ‘this guy is one of our own,’” so they let anyone carrying the flag go free.

The documentary illustrates how, in every neighborhood, there are regime informants who are in charge of identifying dissidents—akin to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. One of these informants talked to Martínez on camera and pointed out the dissidents of the neighborhood, whom he claims to know. The informant says dissidents should leave, otherwise their bodies will end up in plastic bags and their heads on display at the top of a mountain. He claimed this was “not a threat, but a promise.”

With pictures of events brimming with people, the regime shows a façade of legitimacy and popularity, where it repeats the motto “the people’s president.” However, the dictatorial couple of Ortega and Rosario Murillo only hosts closed-door events, with authorized participants. The self-proclaimed president, supposedly reelected for a fourth time with over 75 percent of the vote, is unwilling to organize mass events even during the centenary of the Sandinista revolution.

According to independent pollster CID Gallup’s data, over 60 percent of Nicaraguans reject the Ortega-Murillo regime. Given the regime’s persecution of dissidents, answers to this poll likely understate discontent. According to the Latinobarometer, an independent poll in the region, Nicaraguans are the most afraid to freely express their opinions.

Eliminating Dissidents

The dictatorship has dismantled any free press and has described dissident journalists as terrorists and enemies of the state. Between 2007 and 2022 the regime closed 54 news outlets—radio, television, and print—by canceling licenses, seizing properties, and occupying studios with military personnel. While foreign journalists face stiff barriers to entering the country, dictatorship’s propagandists are free from persecution.

After the documentary aired in August 2022, the Nicaraguan Congress—a puppet of the regime—approved a law that forbids people from producing audiovisual and cinematographic material without regime authorization. À la North Korea, the regime also approved a restriction on tourists entering the country with filming equipment. The dictatorship aims to isolate the country and stop people from exposing its criminality.

In the documentary, a dissident explains to Martínez that people are afraid of speaking out because they risk losing their jobs, houses, or ending up in the regime’s torture centers. Every dissident tries to stay low key, exiled, or self-censored due to fear of reprisal.

Isolating a Nation

Martínez entered the Church of Divine Mercy, which served as a refuge for students of Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University during the 2018 demonstrations. The church is filled with bullet holes and heavy-weapon damage caused by the regime’s paramilitaries. Church authorities have not fixed the damage because they claim it is evidence of the dictatorship’s brutality.

The Catholic church of Nicaragua has been a strong ally of dissidents against the regime, which is why she has become another target for the dictatorship. The Ortega regime has jailed over a dozen Catholic church authorities.

Dictator Ortega has described jailed dissidents as “sons of bitches of yankee imperialists.” Former political prisoners in Nicaragua—including students, activists, journalists, and priests—have in turn said the regime’s jails are torture centers.

The regime’s latest horrific move has been to declare jailed dissidents “traitors of the homeland.” This led to the dictatorship’s seizure of dissidents’ properties and stripping them of their citizenships. Although 222 dissidents were deported to the United States, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez refused to abandon his country. The Sandinista-controlled Appeals Court in Managua sentenced Álvarez to 26 years in prison and stripped him of his citizenship. The regime’s actions seek to break the spirit of every dissident.

Martínez, via his documentary, has courageously exposed the Ortega-Murillo regime to the world. Nicaragua has been kidnapped by cruel tyrants, a dictatorial couple with no plans to let go of power.

Andrés Sebastián Díaz Ponce

Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.

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