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Nicaragua police quash opposition protest


Protesters took to the streets in Nicaragua's capital, but were met with repression. Protests have been banned by authorities since last year, when an anti-government movement swept the nation.

Anti-government protests in Nicaragua were thwarted by police on Saturday, as demonstrators faced a barrage of tear gas and stun grenades.

Protesters had taken to the streets to condemn the death of teenager Matt Romero during a march last year. They also demanded fresh elections to replace President Daniel Ortega.

Opposition leader Felix Maradiaga said protesters were calling for a "halt to repression and the murder of farmers" and demanding that authorities "free more than 120 political prisoners."

Nicaraguan authorities have banned opposition protests and accuse its activists of trying to overthrow Ortega's government.

Read more: Caught between floods and drought: Farmers in Nicaragua living in uncertainty

The embattled president has faced stiff opposition since April 2018, when a pension reform plan sparked regular demonstrations and calls for his ouster. Hundreds of Nicaraguans have been killed, imprisoned or forced into exile since the anti-government protests began.

Carrying blue and white balloons, the colors of the country's flag, protesters gathered at several locations in Managua, chanting "We are not afraid" and singing the national anthem.

"They know this is a people they can't shut up, they can't turn off, and we're going to continue the fight," said protester Jose Dolores Blandido.

Opposition leader Ivania Alvarez said that Ortega had to leave and that "there is no way he can remain by force."

Riot police moved to quell the protests, leaving three people injured and forcing participants to seek cover and disperse.

Read more: Exiled journalists in Costa Rica continue to report on Nicaragua

In a tweet, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) confirmed that injuries took place at the protest, posting a video from the scene.

The IACHR condemned what it described as "state violence against protesters."

The government of Nicaragua has barred public protests and gone to great lengths to quash dissent, all while holding talks with the opposition. The talks were mediated by the Catholic Church and led to the release of some prisoners.

But the opposition's key demand of early elections has so far been ignored by President Ortega.

jcg/kl (EFE, AFP, AP)

Nicaragua crisis explained
Daniel Ortega: A Cold War relic

Embattled President Daniel Ortega has been a fixed presence in Nicaraguan politics for decades. Following the fall of longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza, Ortega became president in 1985, heading the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front. With deep ties to Fidel Castro, he faced US opposition. The Reagan Administration supported a right-wing guerrilla movement aimed at bringing him down.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Opposition figure and return to power

After losing re-election in 1990, Ortega became a major opposition figure. Ortega finally won the presidency in 2006, riding the wave of leftist presidents in Latin America. He became a close friend and ally of Hugo Chavez. He has since changed tack, allying himself with the country's traditionally right-wing business community and clergy.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Nicaraguan government consolidates power

Coupled with changes in electoral law, Ortega has prolonged and cemented his rule. In 2016, he barred international observers and nominated his wife as vice-president. The pair won the election, which was condemned by the opposition and criticized internationally by the US, OAS and the EU.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Pension reform attempt

In April 2018, Ortega announced a move to reform Nicaragua's pension system, saying that fiscal changes were needed. The reform sought to impose a 5 percent tax on retiree and disability pensions while increasing social security contributions by up to 22.5 percent. The move unleashed large-scale protests nationwide, which have been the biggest challenge Ortega has faced during his modern tenure.

Nicaragua crisis explained
State repression and clergy mediation

The pension plan was abandoned but protests continued, demanding Ortega's ouster. UN Human Rights experts denounced the state's harsh repression. As the death toll rose, Nicaragua's Catholic Church has demanded that Ortega allow international organizations entry to Nicaragua to help investigate the deaths and tried to set up talks between the opposition and the government.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Government and opposition sit down

The opposition, comprised of students and a wide range of civil society groups, sat down with the government for a round of talks on May 16. The Clergy said the talks would be focused on "justice, democratization, and peace." The opposition's main demand: new presidential elections in 2019. The government rejected the demands and talks broke down.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Catholic Church under fire

Bishops and priests in the strongly Catholic country have played a key role in the crisis. In addition to mediating the peace talks that stalled in June, the bishops have also seconded the call for new elections. Ortega has described the bishops as "coup-plotters" against him, and Catholic leaders have faced threats, harassment and attacks. Protesters have marched in support of the priests.

Nicaragua crisis explained
Students as prime targets

University students have been the vanguard of the anti-Ortega movement. Many violent crackdowns have taken place on university campuses, often involving heavy gunfire. While the students say that paramilitaries loyal to Ortega are behind the shootings, the president denies that the armed individuals are under government control. He has also described the protesters as "terrorists" and "criminals."

Nicaragua crisis explained
Stalemate and instability

The death toll in four months of violence has risen to over 300 according to human rights activists, though the Ortega government says it's around 200. Protesters continue to take to the streets, describing torture, blacklists and job dismissals as repercussions for their demonstrations. In addition, the UN says over 20,000 people have sought asylum in Costa Rica in a crisis with no end in sight.

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