The protests in Nicaragua erode the pillars of support for Ortega

  A protester takes part in a protest march against the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua on May 26, 2018. Photograph taken on May 26, 2018. REUTERS / Oswaldo Rivas
A protester participates in a protest march against Nicaraguan The government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua

Thomson Reuters

By Delphine Schrank

MANAGUA (Reuters) – A rude response to weeks of protests has eroded the carefully constructed pillars of support in the world of church, army and business for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, encouraging the requests for the expulsion of the former Marxist guerrilla that has dominated politics for decades.

More than a month after changes to the Central American nation's social security system triggered protests led by students, outrage over the brutal repression in which at least 77 people died and more than 800 were injured became a daily challenge to the Ortega government.

Protesters demand that he resign, while the regional diplomatic corps of the Organization of American States said last week that it should hold early elections. So far, there has been no sign of paying attention to that call, which could end up with one of the oldest leftist governments in Latin America, a firm ally of socialist Venezuela.

It will not be easy for the loose alliance of students, farmers, politicians and academics to evict Ortega, 72, who was re-elected in 2016 with almost three quarters of the vote after limiting opposition participation.

But the Sandinista leader, whose office acknowledged a request for comments on this story but did not give an immediate response, looks more isolated and fragile than at any other time in his current 11-year term as president.

The support of the Catholic Church and the private sector is faltering. There is visible discomfort in the army, a solidly Sandinista organization built by Ortega's brother of the original rebel army that overthrew a US-backed dictator in the 1970s.


Even though the government He retreated in the social security measures after five days, the repressed discontent exploded.

"This is a civic revolution, unprecedented in my country," said Violeta Granera, a sociologist who ran for the vice presidential candidate against Ortega in 2016.

The protests, she said, were nothing less than "a national demand for a total change in the economic, political and social system".

The latest sign of fracturing came on Wednesday, when after only four days of talks, the Catholic Bishops' Council of Nicaragua suspended a "national dialogue" that had been widely seen as an opportunity for Ortega to take away the protests . making small concessions.

The Church had lagged behind its former adversary when it embraced Christianity before its return to office in 2007 as a more moderate figure who avoided hostilities with Washington and business leaders.


However, in a specific evaluation, Silvio José Baez, auxiliary archbishop of Managua, said that the government had not accepted the dialogue agenda of "democratization of the country".

On Monday, a small group of government representatives, the private sector and the church resumed closed-door talks.

Students and government authorities agreed in the first days of talks to a truce that quickly collapsed when groups of young people attacked entrenched protesters at the Agrarian University of Nicaragua, seriously injuring at least two people.

Dr. Carlos Tunnermann Bernheim, a minister of education during Ortega's first term as president in the 1980s and now a critical critic who participates in the talks, called the violence "a grave violation" of the terms agreed upon in the talks.

Every day, since then, Nicaraguans with flags have toured cities and towns. Thousands of people took to the streets again on Saturday.


At night, protesters hid behind brick barricades in the streets or walls of chairs and desks on university campuses, armed with homemade mortars for clashes with pro Ortega gangs to whom witnesses and groups of rights blamed many of the casualties


Daily blockades on the roads have made transportation difficult throughout the country, as students and farmers erected improvised barricades to damage the economy and wear down the government. The government estimates that the confusion has cost the economy about $ 250 million.

Despite the losses, many in the private sector openly support the protesters and demand a change, turning against Ortega after an uneasy alliance in recent years that has sustained strong economic growth.

In its most explicit movement, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise of Nicaragua, which represents the private sector, called on Sunday to the companies to "join the clamor of mothers, grandmothers and wives who demand justice for the murder of their beloved". "in a march on Wednesday.


"Nobody expected this violence to be the way it was and we all considered it unpleasant," said Mario Arana, a former head of the central bank and a private sector badyst.

Arana said that when business leaders realized that police shot to maim or kill, with rubber bullets pointing directly in the eyes, chests and heads, or even with live ammunition, "things started to change for all".

Arana's version coincides with the investigations of two groups of local rights and a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which on Monday reported serious violations of human rights characterized by excessive force used by security forces of the State third parties during the protests.

Following accusations that the initial police response was indiscriminate and disproportionate, plainclothes agitators are now behind much of the violence against protesters, observers say.

Ortega has publicly lamented the violence, saying that not only the opposition but also the Sandinista supporters, pbaders-by and the police have been murdered.


Ortega has consolidated his government by neutralizing and co-opting credible opposition and stalling the development of independent institutions. His wife, Rosario Murrillo, is vice president and is widely seen as a power behind the throne.

But the mbadive mobilization allowed politicians like Granera to forge new alliances between civic and political groups, including her own Broad Front for Democracy, she and others said.

However, building an effective anti-government coalition could be difficult, said Eduardo Enriquez, editor of La Prensa newspaper, one of the few independent media outlets.

"The longer we do not see the results, people will start to feel tired and disappointed," he said. "And they have the strength, the brute force, so we do not want to lose momentum."



Another base of Ortega's support is the army. But in recent days he has indicated his refusal to appear on the streets.

Privately to business leaders and then in a statement through a spokesperson, senior commanders called for dialogue and said they would not repress the population.

Former officers in mid-May held a meeting in the town of Masaya, southeast of Managua, a former headquarters of the insurrection in the 1970s against the then-strong Anastasio Somoza and the site of some of the most brutal confrontations in The last weeks.

They spoke before a noisy concentration of demonstrators, along with a group that painted a tribute stool to the newly fallen, and a few feet from a makeshift hospital tent where volunteers treated wounded protesters that they, together with the group of rights and witnesses, denied access to government hospitals.

"All of us fight against the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, then we participate in the defense of the revolution against the contras," said Carlo Breles, a former Sandinista commander. "Now we are beginning a third struggle, against the dictatorship of Ortega-Murillo."


(Edition of Frank Jack Daniel, Frances Kerry and Tom Brown)

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