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Students Push to Oust Nicaraguan President Ortega as Death Toll Rises Amid Bloody Police Crackdown

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At least five people were killed over the weekend in Nicaragua amid escalating anti-government protests that have engulfed the country since mid-April. More than 110 people have been killed since widespread demonstrations to oust Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began in mid-April, when his government announced plans to overhaul and slash social security. The protests, and the government’s bloody repression, mark the biggest crisis since Ortega was elected 11 years ago. In Abuja, Nigeria, we speak with Alejandro Bendaña, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations and secretary general of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry during Sandinista rule in Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990. In Managua, Nicaragua, we speak with Mónica López Baltodano, a human rights activist who is on the front lines of protests. We also speak with Stephen Hellinger, president of The Development Group for Alternative Policies.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Nicaragua, where at least five people were killed over the weekend amid escalating anti-government protests that have engulfed the country since mid-April. More than 110 people have been killed since widespread demonstrations to oust Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began in mid-April, when his government announced plans to overhaul and slash social security. Amnesty International has accused the Nicaraguan government of using, quote, “pro-government armed groups to carry out attacks, incite violence, increase their capacity for repression and operate outside the law.”

AMY GOODMAN: But supporters of President Ortega have blamed the opposition for much of the violence. Foreign Minister Denis Moncada has accused the opposition of pushing for a soft coup. Thousands have been injured, hundreds have been arrested in the demonstrations, including a Mother’s Day march where government forces opened fire on demonstrators led by the mothers of the victims last week. This is Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights President Vilma Nuñez, speaking to the Organization of American States on Monday.

VILMA NUÑEZ DE ESCORCIA: [translated] Above all, we have to highlight the brutal crackdown on the peaceful protest by the mothers, whose loved ones were killed in April, that took place on the 30th of May, when Nicaragua celebrates Mother’s Day. This violence greatly exceeds the violation of the right to life of more than 110 people and hundreds of wounded, detained and tortured people. … Only last night, seven people were killed—among them, a 15-year-old kid.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The government has denied responsibility for the scourge of killings in Nicaragua since mid-April. The protests, and the government’s bloody repression, marked the biggest crisis since Ortega was elected 11 years ago. Ortega has served as president of Nicaragua since 2007. In the late 1970s, as the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, he helped overthrow the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Ortega then led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, before being elected again in 2007. But the new protests have pitted Ortega against some of his former Sandinista allies.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s who we’re going to turn to now. For more, we’re joined by three people.

From Abuja, Nigeria, we’re joined by Alejandro Bendaña. He is the founder of the Center for International Studies in Managua, Nicaragua. He served as the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations, as well as secretary general of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry during the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from 1979 to ’90.

In Managua, we’re joined by Mónica López Baltodano. She is a human rights activist who’s on the front lines of protests in Nicaragua and the author of a book about the Nicaraguan Canal.

And in New York, we’re joined by Stephen Hellinger, president Development GAP, The Development Group for Alternative Policies, which has worked around the world with local organizations since 1976 to promote economic justice through changes in prevailing international economic programs and policies. He has lived and worked extensively in Nicaragua.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Mónica López Baltodano. You’re on the ground in Managua. Explain what’s happening.

MÓNICA LÓPEZ BALTODANO: Well, thank you very much for the opportunity.

What we have been seeing for the past 45 days is the rise-up of a very strong popular rebellion against the violence of Daniel Ortega’s government. The rebellion has been led by youth, mostly kids in the—youth in the universities, but also it’s now become a rebellion of all Nicaraguan population. We have seen massive protests on the streets and also important actions of protest that are happening—for instance, more than 70 percent of the roads in Nicaragua are blocked by population—that is requesting two basic things: justice for the more than 127 people that have been murdered by Ortega’s regime so far, and more than 1,000 people injured, and also the decision of Nicaraguan population that Ortega and his wife leaves power. And the protests are getting higher and bigger every day. Today, Managua is blocked all over the main streets, because people are not being represented by the negotiation process. The government is trying to move forward without accomplishing what people is asking, is that they leave power as soon as possible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alejandro Bendaña, I wanted to ask you—you served in the Sandinista government. Can you explain what’s happened in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega? What has changed since you occupied the senior government positions in the Sandinista government?

ALEJANDRO BENDAÑA: Well, thank you, and good morning.

One has to remember key historical facts. The Sandinista revolution began in 1979 and ended in 1990 with the electoral defeat of Daniel Ortega. But this has not spelled the end of Ortega, because for 17 years he worked tenaciously to get back into power. But to do this, he got rid of his potential competitors and many old Sandinista backers. He embraced corporate capital in Nicaragua. He adopted the most retrograded positions of the church and entered into an alliance, and reached an understanding with the U.S., so that he was able to barely win the presidency in 2007.

But by that time, he himself is no longer a Sandinista. Yes, the trappings, the colors are still there, but his entire government has been, in essence, neoliberal. Then it becomes authoritarian, repressive. Yet it continued to maintain a leftist rhetoric, chiefly for the benefit of getting Venezuelan cooperation, money. But that, too, came to an end, not only the money, and also Ortega’s backing for the Maduro government has also ended, as seen in recent votes in the OAS, where he refused to—the present government refused to back—or, vote against a resolution that wanted Venezuela kicked out of the OAS.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alejandro, can you explain—you just said that Ortega came to an understanding with the U.S. What do you mean by that?

ALEJANDRO BENDAÑA: OK, there’s two aspects to that. First is the historical understanding. Ortega—the military-to-military relations under the Ortega government have always been very—very, very warm, anti-drug, anti-immigration. What Ortega tells the United States is, “I’m going to keep the Nicaraguans from flowing up northward to your borders, but—and I’m going to give you stability for capital. But I want a little leeway with foreign policy and rhetoric.” Now, this understanding became strained.

But what we now have, in the last 10 days, is a new—and we need to denounce this clearly—a negotiation that is taking place in Washington between Ortega and the United States government, that is being mediated by the Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, to try to ease Ortega out of office. Now, that would be OK if he left tomorrow. But the problem is that negotiation means he wants to go through constitutional changes, electoral changes and an eventual election. And we’d be talking about a year, year and a half. So, what we’re—and that’s too long, when two or three or four people are getting killed and gunned down every day. In addition to that, those are negotiations that, secondly, should be taking place in Washington, and, third, cannot signify impunity for Ortega, which was the—which is the first thing he’s putting on the table. So, he has to go. And then we can talk about a provisional arrangement for a transition government. But this negotiations means more death and destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the issue of social security, the—what has prompted these protests, Ambassador Bendaña? Also, I mean, you were a very well-known Sandinista. What this means to you to be speaking out now, in 2018, against your former longtime ally, Daniel Ortega?

ALEJANDRO BENDAÑA: Oh, yes, I was embarrassingly close to Daniel Ortega, but I broke with him in 1998—that’s 20 years ago—as have a good many people. Many of us were already there. We consider ourselves Sandinistas and believe that Ortega and his cohorts betrayed the Nicaraguan revolution. So, what we’re trying to—we are part of this broad movement that wants him out, but we do not renounce our ideals. We do not renounce Sandino. We do not renounce our identity. But he has to go, if there is any prospect of Nicaragua re-embarking on a path toward, first, reform and, eventually, more structural, institutional change. He is now the principal obstacle, as seen from a left perspective. Unfortunately, that’s not seen the same way by people on the left that are ignorant of the reality.

The social security issue was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Before that, there had been the destruction of a biological reserve. The students—it must be said, the students went out into the streets. And Ortega, instead of usually repressing by police methods, did something that was fatal. He opened—ordered the police to open fire on the students. And from that day forward, his alliances began to crack. And Nicaraguans, many of us, were shocked by what happened—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of—

ALEJANDRO BENDAÑA: —because it was a disboarding of people onto the streets, and it hasn’t stopped.

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