Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Salinas Maldonado had a phone call that changed the course of his life. In December 2018, months after he was beaten by a mob of Sandinista party followers and suffered threats through social media and in person, he received a warning that he would be the next journalist imprisoned by orders of the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo.
"That day I was with a neighbor, who is a Nicaraguan writer, we were talking and having a drink, when she received a call from an editor who told her that he had information that that night they were going to come into my house and they were going to throw me in jail. When she hung up, I received a call from a former commander of the revolution who also had links with the army and she told me: 'Hey, you have to leave your house today because I have information that the next journalist they’re going to arrest is you,' Salinas Maldonado told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
That same night, he reported what was happening to the Spanish media of which he was a contributor from Managua (of the newspaper El País), gathered his things and took refuge in the house of some relatives until he could arrange his departure from the country.
"At the airport, they took my passport and held me for a few minutes. I was very nervous and until I got on the plane and they closed the doors, I couldn’t breathe. That will be five years ago next December," said the journalist, who has been in exile in Mexico since then.
Salinas Maldonado describes part of his experience as a journalist in Nicaragua in the introduction, and also under the character of Nacho Oleiros, in his book '¡Yo soy la mujer del comandante!: Rosario Murillo, la eternamente leal [I am the comandante's wife: Rosario Murillo, the eternally loyal one]', published last March and now available in bookstores and in electronic format.
Although there are touches of his personal life in the book, the text is entirely dedicated to the figure of Rosario Murillo, poet and current vice president of Nicaragua who has been the companion of President Daniel Ortega for more than 40 years.
Since Ortega's return to power in 2007, Murillo became a fundamental axis of his administration. She has been the president's right hand, controlling state media and creating attacking campaigns against the press and independent media.
"The character of Rosario Murillo always caught my attention. So I started to learn about who she was, what she had done, what her background was... Years later, in 2016, a Guatemalan magazine, which no longer exists, by the name of Contrapoder, commissioned me to write a profile of her and that was like the first big profile that was written about this figure. This profile was very successful in Chile, in Colombia, it was translated into Italian and I was even invited to Italy to speak about Rosario Murillo," he said.Salinas Maldonado continued writing and following up on Murillo, especially during the 2018 protests in Nicaragua where some 400 people lost their lives. "The first one to give the order to attack these protests was Rosario Murillo. That was when she became the main character of my coverage."
While in exile in Mexico, Salinas Maldonado was contacted by the editorial director of Penguin Random House who proposed to turn his coverage of Murillo into a book. However, the publisher wanted something more than a comprehensive feature story or a journalistic book.
"Rosario Murillo is a character so bizarre, so fascinating, so mystical that she had to be recreated in literary terms. In Latin America, there is no one similar to Murillo. To me, it was a great challenge because I do journalism, I have always written journalism, I have never done literature. So the agreement we reached at the end was that everything that would appear in the book would be real, but I could take some liberties in writing it," he said.
The result was a book that would fall into the category of what is known as fictionalized reality, where a researched reality is presented through the use of narrative liberties. In the book's introduction they make that clarification, "although many parts of the book have been adapted to a literary story, everything is based on real facts."
"This is a biography based on real events, but also an attempt at literary storytelling that allows the reader to digest well a story as terrible as this one because we are talking about a toxic family, about terrible abuse against a child [referring to the sexual abuse allegations of Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, Murillo's biological daughter and Ortega's stepdaughter, against Ortega], about terrible State violence. It’s an outrage, it’s a bomb in terms of history. I think this literary tone, a bit like a novel, helps the reader swallow all this horrible stuff," the journalist said.
Nicaragua has become a country without journalists. Under the Ortega regime, especially in the last five years, Nicaraguan media workers have suffered raids, theft of raw materials and supplies, threats, exile, and even banishment.
When Salinas Maldonado lived in Nicaragua, he was editor of the independent news outlet Confidencial. He also hosted a television talk show where, during the 2018 protests, mothers of murdered youths appeared demanding justice.
Salinas Maldonado currently continues to work for El País, of Spain, from Mexico, covering Central America and has obtained Mexican residency. And although he was not among the journalists whose nationality was stripped away, he cannot travel freely. "My nationality was not stripped away, but I can't travel, I don't have a valid passport. That is, I can't leave Mexico now. The book will be presented at the beginning of May in Costa Rica and I have to do it virtually because I cannot travel," the journalist said.
Salinas Maldonado feels privileged to continue doing journalism and to have the support of a well-known newspaper. However, he confesses that coping with exile has been a difficult process that has led him to suffer depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. "A lot of resentment builds up. But, as journalists, we cannot let spite cloud our judgment and keep us from doing our job honestly," he said.
Although a second book is not a certainty, Salinas Maldonado hopes in the future to be able to tell in greater depth and detail the events that took place in 2018 in Nicaragua. In the meantime, he’s not done with Murillo's story. "This book, which stands at 200 pages, is an unfinished story and, in fact, I leave it open. I will continue to tell Rosario Murillo’s story, without a doubt."