Tens of thousands from across Nicaragua marched on the capital Managua April 28, including large delegations of campesinos from the countryside, in a "pilgrimage for peace" called by Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes following days of angry protests and repression that left some 40 dead. The Catholic Church agreed to mediate a dialogue between the government and opposition over the planned reform of the social security system that set off the protests 10 days earlier. But the "pilgrimage" struck a political tone, with marchers calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.
When Ortega's reform of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) was officially instated April 18, protesters poured into the streets—to be met with repression by the security forces as well as "turbas" (mobs) organized by the ruling Sandinista party. Things escalated as protesters began looting shops in Managua, and demonstrations spread to other cities across the country. Widespread looting also took place in the traditional Snadinista stronghold of León. In Tipitapa, there were clashes as protesters attempted to occupy the mayor's office. A local TV reporter was shot dead while filming the protests in Bluefields. Protesters started demanding the downfall of the "Ortega-Murillo dictatorship"—a reference to Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife and vice president.
On April 23, Ortega capitulated to pressure and officially revoked his decree reforming the INSS, agreeing to a dialogue. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights reported 43 deaths in the protests. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights put the figure at 58. (Nuevo Diario, Miami Herald, Otramérica, CNN, April 28; TeleSur, Tico Times, April 25; Nuevo Diario, April 23; CNN, AFP, El País, April 22; La Prensa, April 19; Coyuntura, April 18)
Jaime Wheelock, a longtime leading Sandinista militant and former agriculture minister, issued an open letter to Ortega in the midst of the protests, calling the INSS reform "a grave political, technical and legal error on the part of the government." and demanding its repeal. He also called for National Police and army troops to be returned to their barracks, and for protesters to call off their demonstrations. (Rseumen Latinoamericano, April 24)
Labor writer Dan La Botz stated that "Ortega’s pension law follows the same neoliberal logic as that of other similar legislation in countries around the world; that is, the imposition of austerity on the working class and the poor." The new law would have increased both employer and worker contributions while at the same time lowering overall benefits. Nicaragua, with a population of 6 million, is one of Latin America’s poorest countries. Over a third of the populace lives in poverty, with half of those in rural areas in extreme poverty. There the average income is about $2 per day. (New Politics, April 24)
Photo: Nuevo Diario