Consensus appears far off as Nicaragua bishops hold crisis talks

Nicaragua's government wants protesters to remove road barricades before holding a national dialogue or having international groups enter to support negotiations

Managua (AFP) – Nicaragua’s influential Catholic bishops on Friday tried to kickstart dialogue aimed at ending a spiraling national crisis that has left at least 165 people dead, but government and representatives of civil society remained deadlocked over the conditions for mediation.

In morning talks, the clergy urged embattled President Daniel Ortega to allow delegations from international human rights bodies into the Central American country to launch independent probes into the violence — a proposal backed by civil leaders.

But the government countered that before any national dialogue could occur, and before international observers could be allowed in to “strengthen” negotiations, protesters must remove road barricades they have erected to fend off anti-riot forces.

Opposition groups immediately shot down the call to lift the blockades, and finding consensus seemed a distant prospect.

“There should be no fear or hindrance” of rights activists entering, said Managua’s outspoken auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez, saying their arrival would “restore justice by establishing the culprits of the massacre.”

“No to impunity.”

Talks unexpectedly stalled before the bishops could present their mediation proposal as well as Ortega’s long-awaited response. It was not clear when they would resume.

Nicaragua’s descent into chaos was triggered on April 18 when relatively small protests against now-scrapped social security reforms were met with a government crackdown.

Those demonstrations mushroomed into a popular uprising, with anti-government protesters facing off against anti-riot police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries.

Many activists are demanding an early presidential election — now set for late 2021 — in a bid to oust Ortega, who is serving his third consecutive term. The president has said he has no intention of leaving office.

In Friday’s morning talks, Nicaragua’s Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) raised the death toll from the months of unrest to 165. 

“We are experiencing a wave of violence the government unleashed,” Carlos Tunnermann, a civil alliance representative, said at the roundtable.

– ‘Unprecedented savagery’ –

Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, heading the government delegation, affirmed that Nicaragua was suffering “an unprecedented savagery; a wave of crimes that dismays, that frightens.”

But he stopped short of laying any blame on forces loyal to Ortega, saying police and public workers have fallen victim to the violence.

The government representatives also lamented the fact that Nicaraguans cannot go out after dark, accusing anti-government protesters of aggravating insecurity.

It is, however, widely understood in Nicaragua that the virtual curfew stems from fear of roving armed gangs loyal to the president, who the population accuses of plunging the country into “dictatorship.”

Violence spiked throughout the country during Thursday’s national 24-hour work stoppage. Though the capital Managua was a virtual ghost town, fierce unrest in other areas persisted

The National Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a coalition of students, entrepreneurs and other civil leaders which called the strike, denounced the violence Friday and called for mediation as a way out.

The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) estimates the country could lose up to 150,000 jobs by the end of the year if the crisis persists.

The church had launched earlier talks with Ortega but called them off after a march led by victims’ mothers last month turned deadly at the hands of Ortega-backed forces.

The Nicaraguan leader met with the Catholic bishops last week to discuss rebooting mediation after requesting a “period of reflection” to consider the Church’s proposal, but has stayed silent ever since.

Medardo Mairena, a leader of rural workers, accused the Ortega administration of “wasting time” and “mocking the process” of dialogue.