Managua (AFP) – Nicaragua was sliding into unchartered territory on Tuesday with protests against longtime President Daniel Ortega swelling to outpace a robust police crackdown in which at least 27 people have been killed.
Nearly a week of unrest has violently exposed public resentment of the 72-year-old leftist leader and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is the vice president.
Relatives of US Embassy staff have been ordered out of the country by the State Department in a sign of international alarm at the turn of events.
Looting has also broken out, prompting shop owners to guard their premises with weapons.
Sparked by pension reforms unveiled last Wednesday, the protests have since grown and taken root across the country to include long-simmering grievances over political stagnation, economic frustration, and Ortega and Murillo’s distant and authoritarian style.
While students have led the street protests that have degenerated into stone-throwing clashes with police firing weapons, other groups have made their opposition to Ortega felt.
That was in evidence late Monday, when tens of thousands of workers, pensioners and ordinary residents marched in the capital Managua to demand an end to the repression against protesters.
The peaceful demonstration was called by business leaders who have withdrawn their support of Ortega because of the violence used by his security forces.
“Out! Out!” yelled some of the marchers, echoing the students’ demand that Ortega and Murillo step down.
Similar marches took place in the northern cities of Esteli and Matagalpa.
– Ortega taken aback –
Ortega has been taken aback by the worst anti-government protests he has faced since being returned as president 11 years ago after a prolonged period in opposition.
On Sunday he canceled the pension reform, and has offered to hold talks to calm the street tensions. Murillo on Monday promised to have arrested protesters freed.
But so far they have refused to bow to demands to rein in the police.
Late Monday, officers raided the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua — the nexus of the student protests — for the second night running, AFP photographers witnessed.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights has given a death toll of 26 since last Wednesday. One of the fatalities was a Nicaraguan journalist shot in the head over the weekend while covering the chaos in a city on the country’s Caribbean coast.
Murillo added another death to the count on Monday. She said a police officer succumbed to fatal injuries sustained in Sunday protests.
Street protests are extremely rare in Nicaragua, where the army maintains a very tight grip on public order.
“We are not going to go into any dialogue as long as those arrested have not been freed, as long as the repression does not end, and as long as the conditions aren’t there for talks,” Michael Healy, the head of the national farmers’ union, told AFP.
“The protests are no longer just about the INSS (social security office), it is against a government that denies us freedom of expression, freedom of the press and to demonstrate peacefully,” 26-year-old political science student Clifford Ramirez told AFP.
It was unclear where the wave of unrest could go.
The protesters have no identified leaders, making it difficult for Ortega to hold talks with that movement. The opposition has become toothless under the president’s long reign.
– International alarm –
The Vatican, the United States and the European Union have all condemned the violence gripping Nicaragua.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for restraint and urged Ortega’s government to “ensure the protection of human rights of all citizens, particularly the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
The crumbling support complicates Ortega’s strategy of wielding power, which involved left-wing rhetoric recalling his past as a Sandinista rebel leader coupled with business-friendly policies.
Under his watch, Nicaragua has avoided the crime plague seen in northern Central American countries where gangs are rife. It has also put in solid economic growth, yet it remains one of the poorest nations in Latin America.
The pension reform was aimed at reducing a fast-growing $76 million deficit in the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), which is projected to run out of money as early as next year on its current path.
The discarded changes would have increased both employer and employee contributions and reduced benefits.
Even though that reform has been taken off the table, Ortega is still facing a reckoning, the target of public anger that, now unleashed, is showing no signs of diminishing.