Ortega, bishops discuss Nicaragua violence but fail to reboot talks

Demonstrators protect themselves from tear gas and bullets in the flashpoint Nicaraguan town of Masaya -- violence in the country since April has left at least 134 people dead
AFP

Managua (AFP) – Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops on Thursday met with President Daniel Ortega over reviving stalled talks to quell a political crisis rights groups say has left 134 people dead — but emerged from the closed-door meeting without a formal plan to head back to the negotiating table.

Ortega requested a “period of reflection” to consider a proposal from the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference (CEN), which said the bishops had presented “the pain and anguish of people who have suffered in recent weeks” during the “frank and sincere meeting.”

The CEN did not elaborate on the details of its plan, but in a statement said it “reflects the feelings of many sectors of Nicaraguan society” and was awaiting a reaction from Ortega, whose leftist administration is linked to the bloody unrest.

Silvio Jose Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, said Ortega “asked us for a period of reflection to give us an answer, which we asked he give us in writing” — after which they will consider the feasibility of renewed negotiations.

Bishops had called off the talks last week after a crackdown on a protest led by victims’ mothers left at least 16 people dead, and said they would not resume until the government ends the repression.

The opposition had hoped Ortega would commit to ceasing violence and agree to resume dialogue on a democratization process for the country, former diplomat Carlos Tunnermann, who represents civil society in the broader talks, told AFP.

Prior to Thursday’s discussion, vice president and official government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo — Ortega’s wife — said “we are going to that meeting to define the point, the agenda, the mechanisms, to work for peace.”

– ‘Blatant disregard’ of rights –

The meeting came as the United States upped pressure on Ortega’s government by imposing visa restrictions on police and other officials linked to repression.

“The political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, shows a blatant disregard for human rights and is unacceptable,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Nauert did not name the individuals, but said they included national police and health officials, along with others at the local level — “those directing or overseeing violence against others exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights said 134 people had been killed in the violence since protests started on April 18.

“We have counted 134 deaths up until Thursday,” the center’s secretary Marlin Sierra told AFP.

The dead included four young people killed late Wednesday in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in the towns of Chinandega and Nueva Guinea. 

Press reports said an armed group of pro-government supporters had attacked students who were attempting to block traffic heading to the Honduran border.

– Move up elections? –

The Catholic Church has agreed to act as mediator to try to resolve a crisis that began with protests against social security reform, but later blossomed into widespread rejection of Ortega, who has been in power continuously since 2007.

One of the key demands of Ortega’s opponents is for 2021 elections to be brought forward to hasten his departure after 11 years in power. A related demand is the renewal of the electoral authority, which is currently in the hands of the ruling party.

“We are confident that they can convince Ortega to have a much more open attitude,” said a student protest leader at the National Autonomous University, which has been leading opposition to the leftist leader.

On Tuesday, the general assembly of the Organization of American States approved a declaration “in support with the people of Nicaragua,” which urged Ortega and Nicaraguans alike to engage in constructive dialogue to address the crisis and prevent further violence.

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