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Americas

Nicaragua’s Ortega blames US conspiracy for deadly unrest, as he marks anniversary of Sandinista revolution

More than 280 protesters have been killed in recent months, during a crackdown on what President Ortega called a coup attempt

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 1:41pm

Nicaragua’s veteran President Daniel Ortega claimed Thursday to have beaten back a US-backed “conspiracy” to topple his government, as he marked the 39th anniversary of the left-wing revolution that first brought him to power.

“It has been a painful battle. Painful because we have confronted an armed conspiracy financed by internal forces we know and external forces,” he said, after days of lethal offensives against protesters.

He accused “the North American empire” of being involved in the attempted “coup d’etat,” alongside rightwing domestic business chiefs.

The 72-year-old leader, standing by his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, and the foreign ministers of Cuba and Venezuela, addressed thousands of supporters waving flags of Ortega’s ruling Sandinista party in a Managua esplanade.

The supporters, some there with their children, sang along to a Spanish rap version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance as they hailed the president and his spouse.

Three months of unrest in what used to be one of Latin America’s safest countries has seen more than 280 people killed, most of them protesting youths.

Ortega’s supporters spoke of their loyalty and gratitude to Ortega. Some, though, also expressed regret at the killing of student protesters.

“It’s sad about the young people who died in the protests,” said a 65-year-old former Sandinista fighter, Manuel Ruiz.

He, like other supporters, blamed the United States for fomenting the unrest. “They fell stupidly, they were used. But us, nobody will use us.”

But other residents not attending the rally openly voiced their wish to see Ortega go.

“We’re sick of the government. How can they do that to the students?” said one 17-year-old, Camila Orozco, sitting by a service station in the capital.

“This old man should go to hell. Here we don’t want to see him.”

The sentiment has become entrenched after Ortega deployed police and paramilitaries to shoot at student protesters and to this week to violently seize a city, Masaya, that had been a hotbed of opposition.

Carla Patricia, 28, said: “The situation will calm when he goes. There’s nothing to celebrate today, just ridiculous peasants who are being paid to party.”

“Before, we celebrated with joy. But this government has massacred, murdered and arrested a lot of people,” said a taxi driver and former soldier who gave his name as Gerardo.

Ortega did however receive full-throated support from a fellow Latin American leader: Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s similarly embattled socialist president who shares Ortega’s hostility toward the United States.

Maduro tweeted: “We congratulate the heroic Nicaraguan people … Today, against imperial aggression, Nicaragua’s government has defeated the terrorist and coup-driven plot.”

The bloodshed of the past months has caused Ortega to lose vital support from the private business sector, whose cooperation had allowed Ortega to reign with relative stability for years.

“Nicaragua will not be a viable country for peace and development as long as the current regime stays in place,” the influential CACIF business group said Thursday, also demanding Ortega leave power.

International condemnation has stepped up against Ortega, with the US and the Organisation of American States calling for an end to the crackdown and backing activist demands for early elections in the poor Central American country.

The United Nations’ human rights office says Ortega’s regime has carried out killings, torture and arbitrary detentions.

The Nicaraguan government dismisses the claims as warped by antagonistic media. It insists it is fighting a “terrorist” plot aimed at toppling the government.

But Managua’s auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez, a prominent voice raised against Ortega and Murillo, tweeted: “A state cannot proclaim itself victorious over its own people that it has oppressed and massacred.”

The Thursday anniversary was to mark the 1979 victory of the Sandinista revolution that resulted in Ortega ruling for 11 years, before losing the presidency in a 1990 election.

He returned to power in 2007 and proceeded to sweep aside anybody who could challenge him, while tightening his grip over the legislature and the courts.

The moves increased perceptions he had turned into an autocrat just as bad as Anastasio Somoza, the US-backed dictator his Sandinista revolution toppled.

In April, an attempt to cut benefits in a reform of the cash-strapped social security system triggered protests that quickly spread as resentment at Ortega and Murillo spilled over.

Melvin Sotelo, a Nicaraguan sociologist, said the uprising happened because Ortega had closed off all other avenues of dissent.

“Nobody can keep a country submissive through force. It’s a question of time,” he said.