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The poet Gioconda Belli is one of more than 300 Nicaraguans stripped of citizenship


Over the past few years, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has increasingly consolidated his grip on power. He has used violence to crack down on dissent. He's shut down newspapers and jailed dissidents. Now he's beginning to employ a new tactic. He has stripped more than 300 political opponents of their citizenship, a move the U.N. says violates international law.

Gioconda Belli is one such Nicaraguan who has had her citizenship stripped. She's an acclaimed poet and political activist, and she joins us from exile in Madrid, Spain. Thank you so much for being with us.

GIOCONDA BELLI: Thank you for having me.

PERALTA: So, Gioconda, on a practical level, your passport is now no longer valid. But I mean, this feels bigger than that. It feels like a symbolic gut punch. How do you see it?

BELLI: Well, I cut my passport on television last week. My passport doesn't make me Nicaraguan. I mean, there are 6 million Nicaraguans in the country, and half of them, at least, do not have a passport. I mean, my passport is issued by a government I do not recognize, a government that has stayed in power through rigged elections, including the absurdity of the 2021 elections when every candidate who announced they were running was arrested, and they outlawed any political party that represented any real opposition. So it's really a government that has no legitimacy. So my passport has no legitimacy. And of course, they have no right to strip me of my nationality.

PERALTA: You fought alongside Daniel Ortega to overthrow a dictator in the '70s. Ortega has now been Nicaragua's leader for more than 25 years. Why do you think that President Ortega is taking this action now? I mean, what's the motivation?

BELLI: Well, I think since 2018, when people revolted, and it was very clear that people were tired of this intention of the Ortega government to perpetuate himself and his family in power. So people went out on the streets. And in that protest that was not very big, they began killing people, and they began hitting and beating the few protesters that were there. And people saw it on their phones. And then they began - the students hid in the campus of the university, and they set up sniper that began shooting the students.

And so it was - this kind of enraged the whole of Nicaragua. And people came out on the streets, and it became a huge revolt. And because of that, I think they became afraid of people. So since then, we have lived a reign of terror. That's a truth.

PERALTA: Gioconda, you've written a lot about how much love and how much heartbreak Nicaragua has given you. Would you mind reading a few lines for us?

BELLI: I want to - you know, I thought of reading this poem that was how I feel about being stripped of everything. It's called (speaking Spanish) in Spanish. It's "Banished," no?

(Reading) I have no place to live. I chose the word. My books were left behind - my home, the garden, its hummingbirds, the massive palms named Bismarck for their imposing presence. I have no place to live. I chose the word to speak for those who are silenced, to understand the rage that nothing can appease.

PERALTA: So, Gioconda, I grew up in a refugee family, and my parents always called Miami (speaking Spanish) - the exile.

BELLI: Yeah.

PERALTA: And they always dreamed of going back home to Nicaragua. They always missed the little things, like gallo pinto or sitting down with neighbors to gossip and - on those little wooden rocking chairs. What is it that you miss the most about your homeland?

BELLI: Oh, I miss the landscape. I miss the smell, the trees, the air. You know, I have a very symbiotic relationship with Nicaragua. And it's like my body and my soul come together when I am there. You know, like, I remember when I lived in the States for a while, when I would fly back into Nicaragua, and I could see the green below, it's like my soul and my body came back together, you know? So it's a place I miss, my friends - I miss the sound of the voices of people, the laughter, the easy sense of humor that people have. Yeah. And, you know, not much of the food...

PERALTA: (Laughter).

BELLI: ...I have to admit.

PERALTA: Do you think there will ever be a day when you will be able to see that landscape again?

BELLI: Absolutely. Let's say I turn 90. I don't think they are not going to let me go in. So I don't know. I think, you know, whether dead or alive, I will be on Nicaraguan soil. And if I am dead, I will become a tree. I will become earth again. And it would be the Nicaraguan earth.

PERALTA: Nicaraguan poet and political activist Gioconda Belli. Thank you for speaking with us. (Speaking Spanish).

BELLI: Thank you. (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.