International

Nicaragua activists crank up protests despite fears

Opposition activists are steeling themselves for three days of protests against Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, as fears mount over the brutal suppresion of dissent by government forces.

Protests against President Daniel Ortega have become a staple of every-day life in Nicaragua, particularly in the city of Masaya
Protests against President Daniel Ortega have become a staple of every-day life in Nicaragua, particularly in the city of Masaya (AFP)

Opposition activists are steeling themselves for three days of protests against Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, as fears mount over the brutal suppresion of dissent by government forces.

Demonstrators marched through the capital Managua on Thursday before a general strike on Friday and a tour of Managua's most restive neighborhoods on Saturday.

"The day has arrived to show that we're made of peace," said the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy in a statement.

Thursday's march will cover five kilometers from the east to the southeast of the capital.

But Ortega's government have announced their own counter-measure, to take place on Friday: a procession from Managua to Masaya, 30 kilometers to the capital's south, in remembrance of the 1979 Sandinista revolution that brough him to power.

A lot has changed in Nicaragua since then.

Once a left-wing guerrilla leader who took over after the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza was ousted by the Sandinista National Liberation Front resistence movement, Ortega has himself become the focus of public ire.

He first served as president from 1979 to 1990 during the civil war as US-backed counter-revolutionaries fought against the new ruling junta. But having been voted out of office, Ortega was re-elected in 2007.

His detractors accuse him -- and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo -- of establishing a brutal dictatorship.

Former friend, now foe

Ortega's annual procession to Masaya commemorates the July 19 popular uprising that ended 43-years of the Somoza family dynasty.

Masaya is now, as it was then, a bastion of opposition resistence to an oppressive regime -- only Ortega, 72, is no longer a friend but the enemy.

News of Ortega's procession has struck fear amongst the indigenous community of Monimbo, a southern suburb of Masaya, where citizens have mounted barricades to keep out government forces.

Last week in two nearby towns at least 14 people were killed after police and pro-government paramilitaries moved in to clear barricades.

"No-one's coming in, unless they kill every last one of us," a man, guarding a Monimbo barricade with his face covered by a cap and olive green shirt, told AFP.

The government is on high alert with riot trucks sent to the south east of Managua on Thursday ahead of the protest march, causing more nervousness among locals.

'Criminals and terrorists'

Protests began on April 18 initially against a pension reform program before mushrooming into a more general opposition to Ortega and his government.

The response was savage and the death toll from the subsequent crackdown has hit 264, according to figures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which denounced government "repression" of protestors.

The government has branded the activists as "criminals" and "terrorists," while Chancellor Denis Moncada described the IACHR report as "prejudiced and lacking objectivity."

The influential Catholic Church has been mediating between the government and the Civic Alliance, but has itself come under fire from pro-government supporters.

On Monday, masked pro-Ortega supporters invaded a Catholic basilica in Diriamba and harassed bishops.

The Church had proposed advancing elections scheduled for 2021 to 2019 to help ease tensions, but Ortega rejected that idea.

The Vatican has ruled out filing an official complaint with Nicaragua for the basilica invasion, and aggression against Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Apostolic Nuncio Stanislaw Waldemar Sommertag.

"The Nuncio managed the situation very well, we won't protest," Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of the state, told Italian Catholic television channel TV 2000 on Thursday.