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Latin America

Dialogue resumes in Nicaragua: will Ortega agree to early elections?

After almost eight weeks of violence and 160 deaths, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega appears ready to make concessions. But many say only his immediate resignation will bring peace.
15 Jun 2018 – 11:14 AM EDT
The national dialogue between the Nicaraguan government and civil society in Managua. Crédito: EFE-EPA/Bienvenido Velasco

A day after the streets of Nicaragua's main cities were paralysed by a national strike, talks appear set to renew on Friday between the embattled government of Daniel Ortega and opposition groups to end a bloody eight-week old political crisis.

The Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua is due to unveil Ortega's answer to a proposal that could bring about early elections next year that would force his from office more than two years before his term ends in 2021.

"We will be releasing to the national and international community the proposal we presented to the president and the letter he has sent us with his approach, which we will submit for debate to seek consensus," the conference said in a statement.

Human rights organizations say more than 160 people have been killed in street protests and a ruthless crackdown by police and pro-government paramilitaries since the demonstrations began April 18, initially over a social security reform that raised taxes

Government opponents are demanding the resignation of both Ortega and his wife, vice president, Rosario Murillo.

The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, an umbrella group comprising private sector groups, civil society, students and farmers, have said they would only rejoin the dialogue if Ortega and Murillo agree to step down. Talks on the crisis, the bloodiest disturbances Nicaragua has seen since the 1980s, were suspended on May 23 due to a lack of progress.

Since then, roadblocks have gone up across the country, and cities across the country have witnessed pitched battles between heavily armed police and opponents, mostly students with home-made mortars.

The announcement of Ortega's decision comes after three days of secretive meetings with the U.S. Ambassador Laura Dogu and Caleb McCarry, a special envoy of U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

U.S. officials have said little about the meetings. In a statement, the U.S. embassy in Managua described them as "a good faith effort" to help all sides "find a peaceful solution to the democratic crisis."

A State Department spokesperson told Univision News, "We do not discuss private diplomatic discussions." Corker's Senate office did not respond to message from Univision seeking comment.

Ortega informed the U.S. delegation of his willingness to hold early elections, according to Medardo Mairena, a peasant leader and coordinator of the National Council for the Defense of Land, Lake and Sovereignty.

No specific date was mentioned, although some sources consulted by Univision News said ideally, they would be held in the first months of 2019, before the April 18 anniversary of the protests.

Ortega would remain in power until that date, allowing time to implement reforms to the electoral system to repair the damage to the country's institutions under his 11-year autocratic rule.

"Ortega is proposing to advance the elections, when we are asking for his resignation," said Mairena in a statement to local media. "If he agrees to bring elections forward, that he allows them to be supervised, with all the guarantees, that is an advance," he added, although he insisted that Ortega should first resign with elections to be held later.

It remains uncertain if at this stage early elections are a viable option because of the mounting death toll and continued acts of repression by Ortega's ruling Sandinista Front government.

"It's too late. They are committing crimes of state, it is a carnage, "said Gonzalo Carrion, with the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). "The people are not going to end the rebellion until they (Ortega and Murillo) are gone," he added.

"It's amazing how the situation has deteriorated since the weekend," said Edmundo Jarquin, a leader of the political opposition, and former presidential candidate, referring to the mounting death toll, widespread roadblocks and attacks on police stations.

"Ortega's response to the meeting with the episcopal conference last Thursday, has been a greater repression," he said, referring to Ortega's efforts to restore control of the country by trying to forcibly remove roadblocks and restore commercial traffic. "He has not succeeded despite more deaths and injuries. It is obvious that early elections are not enough, and the dynamics of the conflict have led to more and more sectors asking for his resignation," he added.

One option, might be the resignation of Murillo as part of the transition to new elections. Murillo is even more unpopular than her husband and her removal might go some way to assuaging the anger on the streets.

However, in the event Ortega and Murillo are forced to resign, it remains unclear who would govern during the transition, raising the specter of even greater chaos. A political-military junta could be appointed. much like existed after the 1979 revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza, and which ironically included Ortega as one of its five members.

The Nicaraguan Army, which has remained neutral during the conflict, should now take on a more active role to restore peace, one the Sandinista Front's former top commanders, Luis Carrión Cruz, told the online newspaper Confidencial.

"When this began and the Army declared that it was not going to intervene, that was seen as a positive statement, because it was assumed that ... this was a civic struggle, a political struggle," he said. "But Daniel Ortega has unleashed the horror; arming civilians and giving them a free hand to repress," he said.

Ortega had complicated his own future by allowing the repression to last so long, and intensify, according to Mario Arana, a businessman and former Central Bank president. "That has inflamed the people even more," he said.

On the one hand, early elections would avoid creating a power vacuum, allowing time to negotiate the necessary guarantees and conditions, with international supervision that could make a transition viable, perhaps with restrictions on Ortega's presidential powers, he said.

"But, it's a bit late and many believe that he has to go and maybe even leave the country altogether," he added.

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