Back in April, Nicaragua erupted in protests calling for the ouster of President Daniel Ortega – who’s ruled the poor Central American country for 24 of the past 40 years and is widely accused of turning it into a corrupt dictatorship. His security forces responded with a brutality Dr. Josmar Briones had never seen.
Human rights groups say police and pro-Ortega paramilitary groups have shot and killed more than 300 protesters – almost all of them unarmed students. “People shot in the chest, the head,” Briones recalls. “I’ll never forget it.”
Briones was a neurosurgeon in Managua when the protests began. Speaking over lunch at a restaurant here in Doral, he says officials in the regime handed down an unwritten order to hospitals and clinics: Do not attend to wounded protesters; hand them over to police.
The 40-year-old Briones is a short man with a graying beard who’s strongly outspoken about his professional ethics: “I was angry and disappointed,” he says. “We are doctors. Our duty is attending patients – no matter political issues, no matter whatever.”
So Briones and his wife Ethling, who is also a doctor, defied the order. Soon came the harassment from Ortega’s regime and his leftist Sandinista party.
“I began to receive phone calls and text messages telling me, ‘You are a terrorist, you are CIA,’” he recalls. “’Don’t attend to these dogs. Let the dogs die.’”
Briones received a protester at his clinic who’d been held in Managua’s now infamous Chipote prison. He says the man had been sexually assaulted with a military rifle. After regime officials found out he’d treated the man, Briones came home one day to find agents had poisoned and killed his family dog.
The lifeless pet “had a note in his chest saying, ‘We’re watching, dog,’” Briones says. “My kids crying, my wife crying with fear. And you feel impotent. And for what reason? I was doing what I think was right.”
Briones then discovered he was on the regime’s list of “wanted terrorists” – Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, insist the protests are part of a violent, foreign-led “coup” against him – and the doctor and his wife and two young kids boarded the next flight to Miami.
"You have two choices if you're a dissident today in Nicaragua," says Briones. "Exilio o plomo." Exile or a bullet.
They recently moved to another state because they fear Ortega agents are watching them even here – and we spoke during one of their visits to Miami as they checked on the status of their asylum application.
Thousands of other Nicaraguans in similar straits have come to South Florida since last summer, an exodus often overlooked amid the emergency across the Caribbean in Venezuela. And many more are expected as it becomes clearer that Nicaragu’s crisis – and the Ortega regime’s crackdown – could last much longer than expected, if not indefinitely.
“My friends in the community are constantly asking about attorneys for immigration cases,” says Francisco Larios, a Nicaraguan-American and economics professor at Miami-Dade College who also runs a networking website for Nicaraguan exiles called Ciudadano Equis, or Citizen X.
Larios came to Miami 39 years ago as a teenager after he was briefly jailed by Ortega’s first regime, the Sandinista Revolution – which Larios initially supported because it had brought down brutal right-wing Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. (Ortega's regime is now often compared to Somoza's). He thinks Nicaraguan exiles 2.0 have even more urgent reason to escape here.
“What is going on in Nicaragua right now is worse,” says Larios. “This is much more ruthless. The degree of cruelty surpasses anything that we have seen in Nicaragua.”
They know that all too well in the house of Pedro Espinoza, which has become a refuge for Nicaraguan exiles.
“They can stay in my house as long as they want,” says Espinoza, “‘cause I’ve been through this in the ‘80s.”
Espinoza left Nicaragua in 1990 for Miami, where he owns a landscaping business in Kendall. His father was a contra rebel who fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s.
“I don’t think Ortega’s going to go out in a civilized way,” he says. “We probably might have a civil war again.”
Which is why, when Espinoza heard Nicaraguan protesters from his rural home province of Chontales needed refuge, he took two of them into his home last month. One is Alfredo Mairena, brother of Nicaraguan land reform leader and anti-regime protester Medardo Mairena, who was jailed in July for the murders of police officers in a rural province – even though he was in Managua when they were killed.
A Sandinista judge convicted him anyway – and Monday night he was sentenced to 216 years in prison.
“The last time I saw my brother was New Year’s Eve,” Alfredo says. “It was very inhumane, a hot cell with no windows. He told me to leave Nicaragua because he didn’t want me in there too.”
Avoiding the regime’s prisons was also the reason an engineering student named Orlando eventually arrived here two months ago – escaping arrest after he’d try to help a mortally wounded fellow protester during an event last May that Nicaraguans now call the Mother’s Day massacre.
“As we marched in Managua that day we realized a sniper with a Dragunov rifle was just above us on top of the baseball stadium,” says Orlando (who asked WLRN not to use his last name, to protect family in Nicaragua.) He says the sniper then shot demonstrator Francisco Reyes in the head.
“I didn’t know how to help him,” Orlando recalls. He and another protester put Reyes on a motorcycle and whisked him to a hospital, where he died. He was one of at least 16 protesters killed that day.
A photo of Orlando holding a horribly bloodied Reyes landed on social media. A government official recognized him – and Orlando began receiving a typical public threat from the regime:
“Plomo al golpista!” he says, meaning “Kill the coup monger!” Orlando snuck out of Nicaragua last summer to Costa Rica – where tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have taken refuge – and made his way to Miami, where he too is seeking asylum.
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But rights groups worry the Trump Administration is instead detaining and deporting Nicaraguan exiles – and Nicaraguan media report many who are sent back are hauled to prison as soon as they arrive there.
“We are concerned about the [U.S. immigration] judges,” says Manuel Abaunza, a director at the Miami office of the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH), a Nicaraguan NGO.
“Some of the attorneys here who are taking care of cases of Nicaraguans have told us that judges are not understanding very well what is the real situation in Nicaragua.”
President Trump also wants to end Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Nicaraguans. Miami politicos like Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are pushing legislation to extend it.
All that matters a lot to exiles like Aradia Salgado. She worked for Nicaragua’s Supreme Court but joined the anti-Ortega protests – and fled here last year after police moved to arrest her for terrorism.
But Salgado had to leave her two young sons with her father because they didn’t have visas to enter the U.S. Working as a waitress in Lake Worth, she hopes for asylum so she can bring them here, sinces he’s certain if she’s deported she’ll go to prison in Nicaragua.
“I couldn’t even kiss my boys goodbye because I was literally running from the police,” Salgado says. “But it’s better for them that I’m here than behind bars.”
One Nicaraguan who's received asylum is Migueliuth Sandoval, who arrived here after her journalist husband Angel Gahona was killed during a protest in April in Bluefields, Nicaragua. He was making a Facebook Live report for the TV news outlet the couple ran when he was shot in the head – a horror Sandoval saw. (Warning: the linked video contains graphic violent content.)
“I was watching it at home, live,” she says. “If I had seen danger I would have called to tell him to stop.”
The regime has since convicted two young men for Gahona’s killing. But rights groups insist they were falsey accused – and that videos prove police were the only armed people in the area where Gahona was shot.
That argument was strong enough to convince a judge here to grant Sandoval asylum just before Christmas. She now works in Miami with the CPDH helping other exiles with asylum applications.
If regime forces did kill Gahona, it was an omen of the onslaught on Nicaraguan media that was to come. Since April, scores of independent journalists have been forced out of Nicaragua (some have been jailed in Nicaragua), including Wilfredo Miranda of the newsweekly Confidencial. His investigative reports found Ortega security forces had shot and killed arrested protesters execution-style.
After arriving in Miami last month, during an interview with WLRN, Miranda got word on his Smartphone that his work had won the Rey de España prize from Spain – one of world’s most prestigious journalism awards.
"This at least helps put the Ortega regime’s human rights abuses back on the radar,” Miranda says.
And, he adds, it helps make exile feel more like a show of strength than a sign of surrender.