Nicaraguan vi­o­lence spi­rals as Ortega stays silent on pro­posal

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD - Ju­lia Rios and Maggy Don­ald­son

RIOT po­lice and pro­gov­ern­ment paramil­i­taries on Mon­day at­tacked bar­ri­cades manned by anti-govern­ment ac­tivists in the Nicaraguan cap­i­tal, plung­ing neigh­bour­hoods into vi­o­lence and chaos in an at­tempt to stamp out a twom­onth-old up­ris­ing against Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega.

The govern­ment of­fen­sive launched overnight into the early morn­ing comes as Ortega en­ters his fifth day of si­lence regarding the Ro­man Catholic Church’s pro­posal to re­sume talks aimed at calming the po­lit­i­cal crisis.

Bursts of gun fire re­sounded through the streets of Man­agua as tele­vi­sion footage showed tur­bu­lent scenes of armed se­cu­rity forces on foot and in trucks chas­ing young men away from street bar­ri­cades. Ac­tivists at­tempted to push them back by throw­ing rocks and set­ting off home­made mor­tars.

The vi­o­lence ap­peared to have cooled by mid-af­ter­noon, a few hours af­ter Sil­vio Jose Baez, an aux­il­iary bishop of Man­agua, had urged res­i­dents to stay in­side their homes.

“It is very dan­ger­ous be­cause of the pres­ence of vi­o­lent gangs,” he wrote on Twit­ter. “Don’t risk life in vain.”

The protests that be­gan April 18 over con­tro­ver­sial pen­sion re­forms have ex­ploded into a mass ef­fort to pres­sure the pres­i­dent’s exit.

At least 145 peo­ple have died in clashes with se­cu­rity forces and armed gangs loyal to Ortega, ac­cord­ing to the Nicaraguan Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights (CENIDH), which also said over 1,000 had been in­jured.

Govern­ment se­cu­rity forces early on Mon­day swept into seven neigh­bour­hoods, force­fully clear­ing bar­ri­cades on the main Juan Pablo II Av­enue that con­nects the cap­i­tal’s north and south, ac­tivists said.

Pro-Ortega armed civil­ians mean­while broke down bar­ri­cades that res­i­dents had built in ad­ja­cent streets to “pro­tect” them­selves from rov­ing gangs.

‘Se­vere demo­cratic crisis’

The block­ades – which are guarded by mostly young men wield­ing sling­shots and mor­tars – are found on nearly 70 per­cent of roads, crip­pling trans­porta­tion and com­merce in more than half of the coun­try’s de­part­ments.

Sim­i­lar at­tacks in the city of Se­baco, 90 kilo­me­tres north of Man­agua, left one dead on Sun­day, ac­cord­ing to the CENIDH.

Po­lice mean­while said that 15 hooded in­di­vid­u­als at­tacked a po­lice post in Mu­lukuku mu­nic­i­pal­ity in the Caribbean north of the coun­try, killing two of­fi­cers and one gang mem­ber. One po­lice of­fi­cer was also kid­napped.

In Leon, 90 kilo­me­tres north­west of Man­agua, civic groups called for work stop­pages and school clos­ings for 24 hours to protest the govern­ment’s re­pres­sive ac­tions.

Ortega, a leftist who has held the pres­i­dency since 2007, has re­mained silent since last Thurs­day’s meet­ing with the Church, when he re­quested a “pe­riod of re­flec­tion” to mull the bish­ops’ me­di­a­tion pro­posal.

The US Em­bassy in Nicaragua re­leased a state­ment Mon­day voic­ing sup­port for Church-led di­a­logue, say­ing Caleb McCarry, a top staffer of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, had trav­elled to the coun­try on Satur­day to “dis­cuss the se­vere demo­cratic crisis”.

He along with Am­bas­sador Laura Dogu met the pres­i­dency and bish­ops as well as a civic al­liance, the state­ment said.

“The US re­spects Nicaragua’s sovereignty and un­der­stands that the ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion to the cur­rent con­flict must come from Nicaraguans,” the state­ment said, adding Washington aimed to “re­spect­fully sup­port” talks “in a way that is help­ful and ac­cept­able to all par­ties”.

Also on Mon­day, Nicaragua’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Freight Car­ri­ers (ATN) an­nounced the sus­pen­sion of all na­tional and in­ter­na­tional ship­ments be­cause of the block­ades, which have stranded some 6,000 trucks.

“Di­a­logue is the only vi­able so­lu­tion for Nicaragua to come out of the crisis,” the as­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent Marvin Al­tami­rano told jour­nal­ists.

‘Lan­guage of re­pres­sion’

Nicaraguans have taken to the streets en masse to de­mand the ouster of Ortega, who first came to power in 1979 at the head of a com­mu­nist junta in­stalled by San­din­ista rebels who over­threw a US-backed govern­ment. A ma­jor po­lit­i­cal force for the bet­ter part of four decades, he is now serv­ing a third con­sec­u­tive term as pres­i­dent due to end in 2022.

A key de­mand of ac­tivists is to bring for­ward the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and at­tempt to vote him out, but Ortega shows no signs of loos­en­ing his grip.

As part of the talks pro­posal bish­ops had pre­sented the leftist leader with a plan to ex­pe­dite the poll and in­sti­tute elec­toral and con­sti­tu­tional re­forms.

Re­pres­sion has con­tin­ued at equal if not greater in­ten­sity since that meet­ing, with four deaths re­ported in the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties Man­agua, Masaya, Se­baco and Jinotega re­sult­ing from pro-govern­ment at­tacks on ac­tivists.

Dur­ing last week’s meet­ing with Ortega, Bishop Baez said he voiced that “us­ing only the lan­guage of re­pres­sion in Nicaragua re­sults in mov­ing fur­ther from re­al­ity”.

It “ag­gra­vates the po­lit­i­cal crisis and the pain of the peo­ple, and serves to de­stroy the na­tional di­a­logue”, he said.

INTI OCON/AFP

Anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tors carry hand-made mor­tars, as they stand near a bar­ri­cade dur­ing protests in the town of Masaya, near Man­agua, last week.

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