Nicaragua’s 72-year-old leader, Daniel Ortega, who previously ruled between 1979 and 1990, is a former leftist Sandinista guerrilla who helped overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, but who himself has become seen as dictatorial, faced a confrontation in the first national dialogue held in Managua.
Ortega opened talks on Wednesday with opposition groups in a bid to quell a month of anti-government unrest that has seen more than 50 people killed.
The Catholic Church-mediated dialogue involved representatives of university students who are leading the protests against Ortega as well as some from business groups and unions.
Ortega told the room that the aim of the talks was to ‘get past this tragic moment’ and restore ‘peace’ to the country, one of Latin America’s poorest.
He was however interrupted by student representatives calling him a ‘murderer’ and urging’an end to the repression.’
“They were students, not criminals,” the students yelled.
In his oration, Ortega said the protesters are “not little angels”, reiterating that among the dead and wounded in the clashes are also members of the police.
Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also Nicaragua’s vice-president and chief governmentspokesperson, said ‘we came here in good faith’ and urged all present ‘to think of Nicaragua.’
But student representatives in the room made clear that they want the president and Murillo to step down.
The leader of the student coalition, Lester Aleman, said “we have come to demand you order the immediate halt of the attacks. You’re the boss of the paramilitaries, of the troops, of the mobs backing the government.”
The unrest was the worst faced by Ortega in his past 11 years as president.
Rights groups say at least 68 people were killed, the majority of the protesters. During the meeting, the names of each and every person who has died during the protests were read out loud to the room and the televised audience.
In the eve of the talks, the most recent clashes between protesters and police took place in the northern town of Matagalpa, which has long been under the sway of Ortega’s Sandinista party.
The town’s mayor, Sadrach Zeledon, said one person, Wilber Reyes, was killed in attacks launched by police.
The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights spokesman in the city, German Herrera, told local TV station 100% Noticias that 35 people were injured in the clashes on Tuesday and at least 10 people had been arrested.
Also on Tuesday, in Masaya, 30km southeast of Managua, residents reported harsh repression by riot police, while in the capital, parents and students from private high schools marched to demand justice and freedom.