Ortega offers talks as death toll in Nicaragua protests climbs

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s  (pictured) government faces the challenge of reining in its police force and ending violent street protests which have claimed 27 lives.

Ortega has offered to hold talks with a leaderless opposition on other issues after he dropped the pension reforms plan on Sunday.

What started as a protest over pension reforms last week snowballed into a public movement against rising poverty and economic inequality and marginalisation of opposition amid an authoritarian and dynastic rule by Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo who is the vice president.

The pension reform was aimed at bridging a $76 million deficit in the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. It was expected to increase employer and employee contributions but reduce overall amount of pensions by 5 per cent

Thousands of workers, pensioners, ordinary citizens, students, farmers and even businessmen staged rallies in the capital Managua and the northern cities of Esteli and Matagalpa protesting against police repression and demanding the resignation of Ortega and Murillo. Such marches have been rare in a country where army keeps protesters on tight leash.

For days, students armed with stones clashed with riot police in the streets. On Monday, police raided the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, the epicentre of student protests, for the second consecutive night.

Business leaders took out peaceful marches after announcing their withdrawal of support to the Ortega government.

Ortega was stunned as he had never seen such mass protests during his 11 years in power. Sensing the mood of the people, he dropped the pension reforms plan on Sunday and offered to hold talks with protesting groups. But protesters are leaderless and Ortega faces a difficult situation.

Murillo has promised to free all arrested protesters. But the government remains silent on the protesters’ main demand of reining in the police.

Western countries have raised concern over the violence gripping Nicaragua. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for restraint and lifting of curbs on media.

Four television outlets channels were taken off air on Thursday, although three of them were restored later. A journalist Miguel Angel Gahona was shot dead by a suspected police sniper in the coastal city of Bluefields on Saturday. Since the protests began, some journalists were attacked or temporarily detained and their equipment stolen. Streets are tense with armed men guarding their shops against looters.