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article imageCrisis deepens in Nicaragua a year into anti-Ortega protests

By Julia RIOS, Denis ROUSSEAU (AFP)     Apr 16, 2019 in World

Nicaragua's opposition has called on its supporters to defy a police ban and protest against the regime of President Daniel Ortega to mark the anniversary of the "civil and peaceful insurrection" that left 325 people dead last year.

Since then, the central American country has descended into crisis in part due to the government's brutal crackdown on protesters, with some 800 people jailed and tens of thousands exiled.

Economic recession and US sanctions have weakened the government, but Ortega is clinging onto power nonetheless.

Protests, initially against pension reform, broke out on April 18, 2018.

But a heavy-handed response by security services left 325 dead, mostly opposition supporters, over the next four months.

The opposition has called on its supporters to take to the streets on Wednesday to mark the occasion, but police have refused to authorize a street demonstration.

"The only thing they have left is a monopoly on force, as well as a bit of nepotism and corruption," Manuel Orozco from the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank told AFP about the government.

Ortega, 73, was caught off guard by the protests, led by various groups including students, demanding that he step down and call early elections.

But the former guerrilla leader, who first came to power in 1979 after contributing to the fall of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, has refused to budge.

- Sent into recession -

Despite a police ban on street demonstrations  Nicaragua's opposition plans to hold marches
Despite a police ban on street demonstrations, Nicaragua's opposition plans to hold marches
Maynor Valenzuela, AFP/File

"Unfortunately, there seems to be no trace in Nicaragua of the state law institutions," said Claudia Paz y Paz, regional director of the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil).

Before the crisis began, Ortega was sitting pretty in the polls with 65 percent support in the country of 6.2 million people, thanks in part to annual growth of 4-5 percent, the best in Central America.

According to the World Bank, poverty was down from 29.5 percent to 24.9 in 2016.

But the troubles have sent the country into recession after gross domestic product fell 3.8 percent while 294,000 jobs were lost, according to Nicaragua's central bank.

The business owners association says those figures are actually 4.0 percent and 400,000.

Tourism, which had been booming thanks to Nicaragua's positive security reputation, has been one of the hardest hit sectors.

For 2019, the International Monetary Fund is predicting another 5.0 percent drop in GDP, the worst in Latin America after Venezuela (-25 percent).

- 'On the edge of the abyss' -

The economic and social situation in the country is "unbearable," according to former guerrilla Dora Maria Tellez, now part of the opposition, who slammed the fiscal and social security reforms recently enacted by the regime in a bid to contain a $310 million budget deficit.

"The country is on the edge of the abyss," said sociologist Oscar Rene Vargas, blasting the government for having "closed all the valves of the democratic game, by acting very violently."

To make things worse, Managua is subject to US sanctions aimed at cutting it off from international loans.

Venezuela's crisis has also deprived Nicaragua of crucial oil aid, worth $4 billion since 2007, according to the Central Bank.

And Nicaragua risks being shunned by the Organization of American States while the European Parliament has called for the application of progressive sanctions that could see the country excluded from the trade agreement between the EU and Central America.

Yet analysts insist it is unlikely that Ortega will be forced into acquiescing to opposition demands and bringing forward elections. He controls all government institutions.

Negotiations launched at the end of February with an opposition alliance of students, business leaders, peasants and civil society have ground into a deadlock.

But political analyst Eliseo Nunez warns that Ortega would be wise to cast an eye on ally Venezuela.

Conditions are such that "even with harsh repression, he can no longer prevent his exit from power," said Nunez.

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