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Latin America

Dialogue gets underway in Nicaragua as names of dead read out to President Ortega

After almost a month of massive citizen protests, a formal dialogue began Wednesday between the government and different sectors of civil society, mediated by the Catholic Church. Student leaders want justice for those killed in protests, the departure of the Ortega government and the restoration of democracy.
16 May 2018 – 05:04 PM EDT
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo listen to the criticisms of society in a session broadcast live by the media in an unprecedented national dialogue. Crédito: Jorge Torres / EFE

For more than three minutes on Wednesday, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo had to listen as the names of more than 55 people killed in anti-government street protests in Nicaragua were read out before them.

As each name was read out students participating in an unprecedented national dialogue stood and answered: "Present."

" Moroni López García, presente! Franco Alexander Valdivia Machado, presente! Darwin Manuel Urbina, presente! ..... "

The president and the vice president listened impassively as the first day of talks got underway Wednesday morning at the Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima in Managua, desgined to find a way out of the crisis that has gripped the country for several weeks.

You can follow the dialogue live via the Univision News Facebook page.

"President: we demand the immediate cessation of repression", one of the student representatives, Victor Cuadras, interrupted Ortega as he began his speech. Others shouted “murderer” as Ortega spoke.

Monsignor Aberlardo Mata made a similar demand. "It is not a simple request, it is a requirement, that the police withdraw to their barracks... president, rethink with your cabinet the path you have taken. An unarmed revolution has begun," Mata said bluntly.

"The order was already given and proof of this is that the police are confined to their bases," Ortega responded before describing the police as victims of the violence, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Univision has reported several incidents of police attacks on protesters in the last few days in which at least five people died.

“Of course the deaths pain us. The death of even one citizen pains us,” Ortega added, referring to the revolutionary struggle he led against dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s.

These are the keys to the dialogue that begins this Wednesday:

How did they reach a dialogue?

Convened by the Catholic Church, the national dialogue is aimed at finding a solution to the crisis in Nicaragua, triggered by an unpopular social security reform decree that led to street protests. Although Ortega backtracked a few days later and canceled the decree, police attacks on the protesters unleashed an even bigger wave of protests and mass marches calling for the president's resignation, as well as Murillo.

The violent response to the protests by the police and paramilitary groups related to the government resulted in more than 55 deaths (mostly young people and students), hundreds of wounded and an unknown number of detainees and disappeared, according to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh).

When convening the talks, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua gave the government four requirements:

* Allow as soon as possible the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate the deaths of the protests.

* Bring the paramilitary forces under control.

* Stop "immediately and in an absolute manner" all kinds of repression against civil groups that protest peacefully and ensure the physical integrity of university students.

* Respect the dignity and freedom of public employees by not forcing them to attend pro-government events in favor of the presidential couple.

On Monday it was announced that the government had accepted a visit by the IACHR to investigate possible crimes of violence. However, despite statemenmts in favor of peace and dialogue in state-run media, police have continued to attack protesters, resulting in five more deaths.

Who is participating?

Representatives of university groups united in the April 19 University Movement, civil society and the business sector, such as the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep), the American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham) and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Funides).

The students, who took the lead in the protests and are expected to play a fundamental role in the dialogue, told a press conference on Tuesday that they were entering the dialogue with an agenda that goes from seeking justice for the victims, the departure of the Ortega-Murillo government and the democratization of the country.

Media reports named other members of the government's team, including as economic adviser Bayardo Arce, Sandinista party legislator Edwin Castro, investment adviser Álvaro Baltodano, Finance Minister, Iván Acosta, the president of the Central Bank of Nicaragua, Ovidio Reyes and the Minister of Family affairs, Marcia Ramírez.

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What role does the church have?

The church is playing the role of mediator and witness. During the month of protests, Catholic priests have played a fundamental role in mediating the crisis, they have been intermediaries with the government for the release of prisoners and have called for an end to police repression. They have also intervened in their priestly robes to keep apart riot police and protesters in some towns.

The auxiliary archbishop of Managua, Monsignor Silvio Báez, said on Monday that he sees the talks as "a last peace card" that must be played "for the good of Nicaragua."

"Our call to dialogue is not an alternative to peaceful popular pressure, it is not a capitulation to the repression suffered by the people, it is not an attempt to return to the artificial tranquility of a few weeks ago," said Báez, who has openly criticized the government of Ortega and Murillo during the crisis. "Dialogue is another door to change Nicaragua," he added.

What are the possible outcomes?

Analysts consulted by Univision News coincide in pointing out that the only peaceful solution to the Nicaraguan crisis involves major concessions by Ortega.

"It requires political will and he has to fulfill it. Because we all want a peaceful exit. Nobody wants an exit in which the country is destroyed as happened with Somoza," political analyst and ex-rector of the National University of Nicaragua, Carlos Tünnermann, told Univision News.

For their part, the students of the April 19 movement said on Tuesday that they see the dialogue as government "surrender" as a prologue to a restoration of democratic rule.

After consulting with various experts, journalist Arlen Cerda with Confidential, a digital newspaper, outlines three possible scenarios:

* a pledge of justice for the victims, plus electoral and institutional reforms to be negotiated, guaranteeing free and transparent elections in 2021, when the Ortega-Murillo term ends.

* a 'truth and justice' commission be established to investigate the deaths with electoral, institutional and constitutional reforms that lead to early elections, reducing the presidential term of Ortega and Murillo.

* no agreement, protests and repression increase. "The analysts estimate that this outcome could result in the ouster of the presidential couple, depending on the role played by other actors, such as the Army," Cerda wrote.