THE DEATH TOLL in Nicaragua continues to rise. A bloody assault on protesters Sunday by police and pro-government paramilitary forces left 31 civilians, four police officers and three members of President Daniel Ortega’s black-hooded paramilitary groups dead. This was the highest one-day body count since pro-democracy demonstrations began April 18; it left the cumulative total at more than 300, according to human rights monitors. Monday, masked pro-Ortega thugs armed with clubs and handguns invaded a church where protesters had taken refuge and roughed up the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio José Báez. There are reliable reports of sniper fire against peaceful civilian protests.
Such bloodshed, so reminiscent of the political carnage that plagued Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, is repugnant enough on its own. What was especially ominous about this latest spasm, however, is that it came just after Mr. Ortega declared at a rally on Saturday his unequivocal rejection of the leading compromise proposal for resolving Nicaragua’s crisis: holding early national elections, rather than waiting for 2021. And on Monday the Ortega government issued a proclamation declaring its opponents “terrorists” and canceling any further political talks until such time as “the serious problem of terrorism, insecurity and violence . . . has been addressed and resolved in a verifiable manner.”
In short, the Ortega regime has now opted for all-out repression similar to that practiced against the democracy movement in Venezuela. It is true that protesters in Nicaragua have blocked key roads with heavy brick barricades, a tactic opponents of the erstwhile Somoza dictatorship, including Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista front, employed when that regime forced them into it — just as Mr. Ortega’s regime is forcing its opponents into strikes and civil disobedience today. This is taking a toll on the Nicaraguan economy. Yet the government is responsible for the vast majority of the deaths and injuries. Contrary to regime propaganda, the opposition remains overwhelmingly peaceful and unarmed; the only terrorism in Nicaragua today is the official kind.
Nicaragua’s neighbors in the Western Hemisphere must help it achieve democracy while steering clear of a full-blown civil war. On July 5, just before the latest violence, the Trump administration announced economic sanctions against three of Mr. Ortega’s top lieutenants, who, according to the State Department, “have been involved in serious human rights abuse or engaged in corruption.” That sends a necessary, if limited, message of American protest, but it is no substitute for a wider regional effort. The best vehicle for that would be a coalition led by other Latin American nations to put pressure on Mr. Ortega and to support talks between him and the opposition. Nicaragua’s dictator seems to be betting that the region’s democracies are too distracted by other events, such as the political transition in Mexico, to prevent him from escalating the conflict. They must prove him wrong.