The Atlanta-based Carter Center is sending a mission to Nicaragua to offer its help in talks to resolve a political crisis after more than 40 people - mostly students - were killed in massive protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega.
The student-led protests erupted last month after Ortega ordered an unpopular reform of the social security system, raising taxes and reducing pensions. Outrage over the brutal crackdown by police and pro-Ortega youth groups led to massive anti-government rallies demanding those responsible be brought to justice.
The government's behavior has also led to widespread calls for the resignation of Ortega, and the vice-president, Rosario Murillo, who is also his wife.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center is one of the world's leading election observer groups, beginning its work in Central America in the late 1980s. It is a non-profit organization that “seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health,” according to its website.
The delegation, which arrived in Managua on Sunday, is being led by Jennie Lincoln, director of the center’s Latin America and Caribbean Program and a longtime expert on the region.
"Our two-day visit includes an intense agenda of meetings with all sectors of society interested in dialogue, as well as those on the fringes of the dialogue process, including the Catholic Church, the government, university students, human rights groups, all political forces, the private sector and the international community,“ Lincoln told Univision News.
“We are interested in hearing from all sides in order to support the dialogue in any way that serves the interests of the Nicaraguan people. The Carter Center has a long history of observing elections in Nicaragua and President Carter will be closely following these developments."
The death toll in the protests is the worst bloodshed Nicaragua has seen since the end of a civil war between the Sandinista Army and U.S-backed Contra rebels in 1990.
Ortega was one of nine Sandinista guerrilla 'comandantes' who toppled U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He led Nicaragua until a shock election defeat in 1990, and then regained the presidency in 2006.
Carter famously observed the 1990 elections in Nicaragua where Ortega was beaten by an opposition coalition led by newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro. Carter is credited with helping persuade Ortega to accept an orderly transition after a decade of war and one-party revolutionary Sandinista rule.
Ortega has since backtracked on the social security reforms and the Catholic Church agreed to mediate a dialogue between the government and its critics. But uncertainty surrounds who will be invited to participate.
The Sandinista-dominated National Assembly last week approved the creation of a Truth, Justice and Peace Commission to "clarify" who was responsible for the deaths. But critics of the government say they don't trust the assembly to produce a fair outcome.
The Sandinistas control every branch of government and Ortega, 72, has given no sign he is willing to cede power. At a rally of government loyalists and state workers last week in Managua, he struck a combative tone.
“Unfortunately the same people who incited the war before are inciting violence once again,” Ortega said, seeking to stir up ideological passions over the civil war of the 1980s. “Once again the sowers of hate have made a deep wound in the heart of the country," he went on.
Thanks to the support of cooperation from socialist ally Venezuela, Ortega has presided over a decade of above-average rates of economic growth and anti-poverty programs which made him popular with the poor. It's unclear how much that support has eroded because of the protests.
Carter, 93, who was a one-term president from 1977 to 1981, has dedicated a large part of his work as an ex-president to improving U.S. relations and the prospects for democracy in the Americas.
The Carter Center has observed four elections in Nicaragua, including Ortega’s return to power in 2006, but it was shut out of the 2016 elections after Ortega banned all observers, other than those he hand-picked.
Calling that an “attack on the international community,” the Carter Center said at the time that Ortega had rejected “an opportunity to confirm Nicaragua's adherence to democratic standards of electoral processes.”
The center has remained involved in Nicaragua, including activities with civil society, political parties, human rights groups. However, the Sandinista Front declined all invitations to participate in its events.