Nicaragua remains tense on Monday after weekend protests and deadly rioting forced the socialist government to delay plans to reform the Central American republic’s pension plan, which would have led to a hike for contributions from employers and employees while reducing the government benefit. Local reports indicated that at least 30 persons have been killed, including a journalist who was shot in the head while reporting live on Facebook. Dozens have been injured or arrested. 

President Daniel Ortega, who was one of the architects of the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s, addressed the country on Sunday and assured listeners that he is willing to negotiate so that there is  "no more terror for Nicaraguan families." Protesters are demanding nothing less than Ortega’s resignation and of his wife, Rosario Murillo -- who is his vice-president. Students are leading the way in the protests, which have included arson and destruction of several buildings. Unassuaged by Ortega’s assurances, students continued on Monday to demand the Ortegas’ departure. According to Agence France-Presse, student Clifford Ramirez said, "The protests are no longer just for the [Nicaraguan Social Security Institute], it is against a government that denies us freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and to demonstrate peacefully." 

Nicaragua, while it has been relatively stable and free of the narco-terrorism that plagues its neighbors, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Ortega's government enjoys the support of much of the security apparatus and army, which is largely formed by ex-combatants who fought to bring down the government of pro-American dictator Anastacio Somoza Debayle.

The American embassy has sent non-essential personnel and families home, due to the violence. Pope Francis said on Sunday that he is “very worried” about the situation in Nicaragua. Ordinary Nicaraguans are calling on the Catholic Church to intervene, due to the historic prestige that many churchmen have gained since the 1980s. The Church has long been at odds with the Ortegas and their Sandinista allies. Local church sources indicate that a confrontation between police and protesters brought about at least one death at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua on Sunday. 

In his message, President Ortega said that the country’s social security board of directors had cancelled the changes they implemented earlier this month that were intended as a cost-savings move. Ortega announced the change in the company of business executives who oversee millions of dollars in exports and more than 130,000 jobs. 

Local media showed that shops in the large Oriental Market district, and a Walmart, had been looted. Police response was light on Sunday in comparison to earlier responses that were stronger and resulted in dozens of arrests, injuries, and deaths. On Saturday, Ortega expressed willingness to negotiate on overhauling social security, but only with business leaders. He also accused the youthful demonstrators of being swayed by an unidentified political “minority” and criminal interests.

"What is happening in our country has no name," Ortega said. "The kids do not even know the party that is manipulating them... Gang members are being brought into the kids' protests and are criminalising the protests. That is why they are put at risk."

COSEP -- Nicaragua’s leading business lobby -- has been supportive of peaceful protests against the Ortegas and the government but declared that it will not negotiate about social security until they could see a restoration of basic freedoms and and end to police violence. 

NTN24 news reported that Bayardo Siles, a student at UNAM University of Nicaragua, said that protesters will stay on the streets to demand justice for those killed by police. He said that at least 29 students have died, not counting the many who have been arrested and whose whereabouts are unknown. Stiles said, “In Nicaragua, we have official media that belong to the Ortega-Murillo family dynasty, which by conveniently manipulating information have further infuriated the people,” while adding that the official channels have undertaken a campaign to blame students who have demanded the resignation of the president and vice-president. 

On Facebook, where he is identified as Badyadigar Doraybasi, Siles gave reassurances that he is uninjured despite reports to the contrary. Spero News reached out to him but did not receive a response.
 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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