Anti-Ortega protests leave Nicaraguans liv­ing un­der the vol­cano

Frag­ile calm returns af­ter road­blocks are bro­ken up but few be­lieve un­rest is over

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUDE WEB­BER, FI­NAN­CIAL TIMES COR­RE­SPON­DENT IN MASAYA, NICARAGUA

At the foot of Masaya vol­cano in Nicaragua, shop­pers and chil­dren in school uni­form bus­tle about town. But the omi­nous rum­ble from deep inside the crater is a re­minder that it could blow at any time

At the foot of Masaya vol­cano in Nicaragua, shop­pers and chil­dren in school uni­form bus­tle about town. But the omi­nous rum­ble from deep inside the crater is a re­minder that it could blow at any time.

The same could be said for the town it­self, still re­cov­er­ing af­ter four months of protests against Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega. While a frag­ile calm has been re­stored af­ter para­mil­i­tary forces loyal to the gov­ern­ment broke up pro­test­ers’ road­blocks last month, few be­lieve the un­rest here and across the coun­try is over yet.

“Things are not nor­mal, and we don’t know whether they will get bet­ter or worse,” sighed Kenex, 32, a so­cial worker who, with his wife In­grid, was one of only a hand­ful of vis­i­tors to the nor­mally busy vol­cano na­tional park on a re­cent pub­lic hol­i­day.

Once upon a time the dra­matic vol­cano, just a 20-minute drive from the cap­i­tal city of Managua, would have drawn hun­dreds of vis­i­tors a day. No longer.

Ter­ri­fied by at­tacks on pro­test­ers af­ter demon­stra­tions against pen­sion re­form be­gan on April 18 and swiftly snow­balled, In­grid had not ven­tured far­ther than her home, her work and her mother’s house since the cri­sis be­gan.

“Peo­ple aren’t calm. It’s ter­ri­ble to have seen so many peo­ple suf­fer, so many moth­ers cry,” she said, stand­ing near the de­serted site mu­seum where a for­lorn fruit seller and sou­venir stand also had no tak­ers. “The scars are still open.”

Mr Ortega, a San­din­ista rev­o­lu­tion­ary who helped top­ple dic­ta­tor Anas­ta­sio So­moza in 1979, then headed the junta that ruled Nicaragua and is now on his sec­ond term as pres­i­dent, is un­der fire at home and abroad for a bru­tal para­mil­i­tary crack­down on civil­ian pro­test­ers. ANPDH, a rights group, says nearly 450 peo­ple have died, in­clud­ing po­lice.

The gov­ern­ment has put the death toll at 197 and blames the vi­o­lence and eco­nomic dam­age on coup-mon­gers. Nicaragua’s leg­is­la­ture, which like other state in­sti­tu­tions is un­der pres­i­den­tial con­trol, last month rushed through a bill to try pro­test­ers for ter­ror­ism.

Mariela Cer­rato’s daugh­ter, María Adilia Per­alta, jailed three weeks ago, faces trial on ter­ror­ist charges on Au­gust 24 for her role in protests in Masaya. “She said, ‘How long will they give me, 30 years?’ and started cry­ing,” said her mother, who had been al­lowed a brief re­cent visit. “I told her, ‘Yes, but you won’t serve it . . . be­cause Daniel will be out this year’.”

Many share her op­ti­mism that the protests — which are still con­tin­u­ing na­tion­wide, though in smaller num­bers — are the be­gin­ning of the end for the 72-year-old pres­i­dent. But by break­ing up the road­blocks that pro­test­ers had thrown up across the coun­try, Mr Ortega ap­pears to have strength­ened his hand. Even at this low point he has a solid base of about 30 per cent sup­port, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll.

“It’s bet­ter for him to stay, to avoid a war and more blood­shed,” said

José Ramón Cen­teno, in Mon­imbó, an in­dige­nous neigh­bour­hood of

Masaya that was both a San­din­ista strong­hold in 1979 and the last bas­tion of the road­blocks in this year’s protests. “Things are look­ing bet­ter,” he said. “For me, the ter­ror­ism was when there were road­blocks.”

The road­blocks are gone but fear per­sists.

Vladimir Gómez, a pri­mary school teacher in Mon­imbó who be­came in­volved in the protests “be­cause it was nec­es­sary”, said that only 20 of the 250 stu­dents en­rolled at his school in the morn­ings were at­tend­ing class. School hours have also been cut.

It is not just in Masaya that nor­mal­ity is only skin-deep. In Managua, “for rent” signs have mush­roomed. Bars and restau­rants are shut or empty and traf­fic is light as the econ­omy qui­etly crum­bles. “Con­sump­tion is down, there are daily lay-offs,” said Mario Arana, a former cen­tral bank pres­i­dent and fi­nance min­is­ter. “The ad­just­ment we’re go­ing to have to make is go­ing to be bru­tal.”

The gov­ern­ment has trum­peted a re­turn to nor­mal but at the same time rushed to pass dra­co­nian bud­get cuts and ap­prove the is­sue of emer­gency do­mes­tic bonds to guar­an­tee fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. In­dig­na­tion at Mr Ortega con­tin­ues to seethe de­spite the ve­neer of busi­ness as usual. “It’s like a pot on the boil with a thin lid that bursts off,” said Ms Cer­rato. “There’s no go­ing back un­til he goes.”

For Al­fredo Dávila, an out-of-work lec­turer from Mon­imbó who praises the paramil­i­taries for clear­ing out “delin­quents”, the fu­ture looks rocky.

“To say this is over, no, I don’t see it like that,” he said. “There’s a lot of ef­fort go­ing into trying to bring down the gov­ern­ment, not peace­fully but with hate.”

A masked pro­tester shoots off his home­made mor­tar in the Mon­imbó neigh­bour­hood dur­ing clashes with po­lice in Masaya in June © AP

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