ADDED 06/21/2018

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua suspends peace talks as the political crisis deepens

FROM 06/21/2018 | America Magazine

BY Jan-Albert Hootsen

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In the second month of Nicaragua’s bloody political crisis, masked anti-government protesters have set up more road blocks and barricadesacross the country. Police and paramilitary groups allegedly linked to the government continue to attack perceived enemies of the regime. And on Monday, Catholic leaders in Nicaragua announced that they were again suspending talks with the government. After the failure of the latest attempt by the church to establish a dialogue, President Daniel Ortega seems more isolated than ever, and there is not even a short-term solution to the violence in sight.

According to the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, Mr. Ortega failed to honor an agreement that he would invite the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the situation in the small Central American nation. It was the second time the church walked away from the negotiating table; a previous attempt to negotiate with the government was suspended on May 23.

Mr. Ortega failed to honor an agreement that he would invite the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the situation.

The suspension is yet another setback in a political crisis that continues to deepen. According to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, more than 160 people have been killed since Nicaraguans first took the streets in April to to demonstrate against proposed social security reforms. A violent crackdown on protesters by law enforcement—and by gangs observers say are linked to the government—has escalated the demonstrations into nationwide protests against what many Nicaraguans say is an increasingly authoritarian Ortega regime, even after the government canceled the controversial reforms.

“Ortega has controlled and manipulated all the institutions for years,” Ileana Lacayo, a journalist and activist from the city of Bluefields, told America. “They control the Supreme Court, Congress, the judiciary, but they have lost all legitimacy.”

Critics like Ms. Lacayo say that Mr. Ortega has turned Nicaragua in a would-be dictatorship since an election victory in 2007 restored him to power. He had previously led the Sandinistas’ revolutionary junta, and he had served a first term as president between 1985 and 1990.

A violent crackdown on protesters has escalated the demonstrations into nationwide protests against what many Nicaraguans say is an increasingly authoritarian Ortega regime.

Over the past decade, critics say that Mr. Ortega has manipulated elections, co-opted the Supreme Court and banished opposition lawmakers from Congress. Mr. Ortega has eliminated presidential term limits and named his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president. It is widely believed that he expects his wife to succeed him in the next presidential election, scheduled in 2021, which few critics expect will be fair.

Over the past two months, Mr. Ortega’s soft authoritarianism has turned into violent repression. According to the opposition newspaper Confidencial, law enforcement and members of an alleged government-sponsored paramilitary group set fire to a home in Managua on Sunday in retaliation for a family’s refusal to allow its third floor to be used by government snipers. Five members of the family died in the fire.

In early June, one city after another was hit by strikes and fighting between protesters and supporters of the governing Sandinista party. The protesters’ main tactic has been to close down roads, aiming to strangle the economy and force Mr. Ortega to make concessions.

The western city of León, Nicaragua’s second-biggest, has been most affected, with an estimated 400 barricades across the city.

The protesters’ main tactic has been to close down roads, aiming to strangle the economy and force Mr. Ortega to make concessions.

“It was extraordinary how quickly the roadblocks were built,” Father Aberlado Tobal, a priest in the parish of Sutiaba, told the Catholic News Service. He said that after a video showed armed government soldiers driving through the city, “all over town, local people began to rip up the paving stones and build barricades.” Within half a day there were more than 100 barricades just in the Sutiaba neighborhood.

Father Tobal said he has had to mediate local conflicts where Catholic laypeople are caught up on opposite sides of the battle.

“Daniel Ortega should listen to the clamor of the people,” he said. “The situation needs to be resolved soon or the winners will be common delinquents.” He said his greatest fear is a slide toward generalized crime and violence. Before April, Nicaragua was considered the safest country in Central America.

“My parishioners are calling for the law of God to be respected, that lives are spared. But we also see supposed Catholics on the side of violence. I believe they are not Catholics in truth, they”re Catholics in name alone,” he said.

“The situation needs to be resolved soon or the winners will be common delinquents.”

Despite the violence, opposition to the government has only intensified. Last Thursday, a general strike emptied streets across the country. It was largely supported by the private sector, a former reluctant ally of the regime. On Monday, a coalition of activists called for protesters to expand the road blocks.

Mr. Ortega, and his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo, seem increasingly isolated, but they show few signs of backing down. Many observers believe the president’s position has become unsustainable, but few see a quick exit from the crisis.

“I hope there will be a solution in the next few months, but we don’t really know what will happen,” said Gioconda Belli, a novelist and poet and one of Nicaragua’s most respected intellectuals. “Ultimately, everything will depend on Ortega, on whether he will get a clear idea of what’s going on.”

Ms. Belli says she has little faith in the president’s ability to reach an agreement with the opposition, citing his stubborn nature. She has known Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo for many years; in the early 1970s, she joined the Ortega-led Sandinista Front for National Liberation, which ousted the dictator Anastasio Somoza in the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. Over the years, however, she became disillusioned with Mr. Ortega and is now one of the regime’s fiercest critics.

“He was always irritable, a man of few words, a complex character,” she told America. “He tends to only listen to what he wants to hear, and he never speaks to anyone. When he leaves his home, he does so with a huge security detail.

“When the crisis started, it took 10 days before he even publicly addressed the situation…. [Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo] keep saying the protests are the result of imperialism, that the right is behind it,” Ms. Belli says. “They’re playing one half of the country out against the other. They want to provoke a war.”

Many Nicaraguans believe foreign pressure might be key to convincing Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo to back away from more violence and seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but the international response has been slight so far.

“There are few countries in the region that appear to be able to exert pressure on Nicaragua,” said Mike Allison, a political scientist and expert on Central America at the University of Scranton.

Eric Farnsworth, of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Council of the Americas, said that little should be expected from the United States. “The U.S. is going to take a light-handed approach with Nicaragua,” he told America. “We’re consumed with North Korea and Venezuela; it’s tough to consider this White House wanting to jump in with both feet.”

Additional reporting from Catholic News Service.

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