Nicaraguans resist government in Masaya, old Sandinista bastion

by Diana ULLOA
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Clashes between protesters and police have erupted in the Nicaraguan city of Masaya, a hotbed of resistance to President Daniel Ortega

Over the weekend, thousands of Nicaraguans marched to the city of Masaya, a cradle of the Sandinista movement that is now a hotbed of resistance to President Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla leader it catapulted to power four decades ago.

The old Sandinista battle cry, "Free Fatherland or Death!" rang out Sunday as caravans of protesters headed out of Managua, the capital, and other cities to reinforce demonstrators in Masaya, the target in recent days of fierce police repression, arson and looting that have left at least one dead and 150 injured.

Enraged Masaya residents, armed with slingshots and homemade mortars, fought back against the police on Saturday, forcing a standoff that ended with police returning to their barracks on Sunday.

Nestor Rocha, who joined one of the caravans, said what happened in Masaya was "savagery on the part of the government."

"After what he's done, Daniel Ortega needs to go. We've got to find a way to get him out; that's the struggle now," said Rocha.

Ortega, 72, has dominated Nicaraguan politics since the Sandinista revolution chased dictator Anastasio Somoza from power in 1979.

Ortega led the country first as head of a ruling junta and then as president until 1990, when he was defeated in national elections.

Even out of power, he remained the country's leading opposition figure, and in 2006 he was elected president anew on a platform of peace and reconciliation.

He now faces the worst unrest of his 11-year run as president, after moves to cut spending on social security backfired, igniting protests on April 18.

Since then at least 51 people have been killed in clashes with security forces. On Saturday, the military distanced itself from the government and called for an end to the violence.

Just 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Managua, Masaya has special meaning for Nicaraguans; it was the birthplace of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a rebel who fought against the 1927-33 US military occupation of Nicaragua and inspired the modern Sandinista movement.

The recent uprising there was centered in Monimbo, an indigenous neighborhood that was a Sandinista bastion during the 1978-79 revolution.

Augusto Rodriguez, a parish priest in Monimbo, said residents had endured "days of the hardest repression and violence."

He said paramilitary groups supported by the police had attacked people, looted, and set fire to homes and businesses while residents hid in their homes or erected barricades.

- 'We are not afraid' -

Masaya, Rodriguez said, "looks like a town after a war, with trenches and rocks in the street."

"Mothers told me that their children were in a state of panic because of the bombs exploding and the sounds of bullets," said the priest, who said he was temporarily blinded by tear gas as he attempted to mediate between protesters and the police.

Calm returned to the city on Sunday, thanks to a truce arranged by a humanitarian organization and the Catholic Church.

Alvaro Leiva, leader of the Nicaraguan Association for the Protection of Human Rights, estimated that the clashes in Masaya resulted in 150 injured and the death of a young man hit by a bullet.

Anti-riot police returned to their barracks on Sunday, and 24 demonstrators who had been detained were released, Leiva said.

Thousands of inhabitants, meanwhile, took advantage of the police's absence to turn out to demonstrate against the government and welcome the caravans of supporters who entered the city flying Nicaraguan flags.

"We are not afraid," shouted a youth. "We are fed up with being repressed by those anti-riot police."

Clashes between protesters and police have erupted in the Nicaraguan city of Masaya, a hotbed of resistance to President Daniel Ortega

Protesters take cover behind barricades agains tear gas and gun fire May 12, 2018