After five days of protests and deadly clashes with police, Ortega went on television Sunday and announced he would reverse his decision to overhaul the social security system, a move he had pushed to require citizens to pay more during their working lives and receive less upon retirement.
But his attempt to appease Nicaraguans appeared insufficient, as thousands of flag-waving residents marched on Monday afternoon through downtown Managua in opposition to violence by security forces, as well as in other cities such as Granada and Esteli.
Some of the protesters are demanding the resignation of Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president; the release of political prisoners; and an investigation into who killed at least 28 people — according to a leading Nicaraguan human rights group — in the street confrontations between protesters, security forces, and pro-government gangs.
On Monday, the State Department ordered family members of U.S. Embassy staff to leave Nicaragua and is allowing other diplomats who need to leave for family reasons to depart, noting in a statement that demonstrations have involved “tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against participants and have occasionally devolved into looting, vandalism, and acts of arson.”
The day before, the State Department said in a statement that it condemned “the violence and the excessive force used by police and others against civilians who are exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly.”
The crisis that began Wednesday with student protests has spiraled into perhaps the most severe challenge to the rule of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who is in his third consecutive term as president and fourth overall since he helped the Sandinistas in 1979 overthrow the Somoza family. The past turbulent week has been remarkable in part because Ortega has kept such an iron grip on power, all but eliminating dissent during over his many years as president.
Ortega and Murillo have been accused of increasingly authoritarian rule, such as blocking opposition candidates from elections, censoring the media, and harassing anti-government activists. Institutions such as the Supreme Court, the elections council and the National Assembly are widely seen as doing their bidding.
His family and business cronies have also been accused of profiting handsomely off the state, something that made the prospect of paying more into social security particularly offensive to many.
Ortega had maintained his authority, and won popularity, in part by preventing in Nicaragua the type of rampant crime and gang violence that plagues neighboring countries Honduras and El Salvador. The economy has grown, and Ortega welcomes foreign investment even as he remains aligned politically with the region’s staunch leftists such as Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.
During Ortega’s speech on Sunday, he said that he would revoke legislation that would increase payroll taxes and cut retirement benefits. He said the issue would be negotiated between workers and business owners and that he would invite the country’s Catholic leadership to take part in the discussion.
“We have to reestablish order,” Ortega said. “We cannot allow groups to impose chaos, crime and looting.”
After Ortega’s speech, however, clashes continued, with reports of police confronting students overnight at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua. Local press reported at least one death.
In the past week, protests have flared up in cities across Nicaragua. On Saturday, a journalist working for an independent Nicaraguan media outlet was shot and killed while filming a Facebook Live video of the protests.
During the upheaval, the Ortega government has intermittently blocked the signals of several television stations, preventing them from broadcasting. Carlos Chamorro, the editor of the independent news site, Confidencial, wrote on Twitter on Monday that its website had been disrupted after a “deliberate attack by the enemies of a free press.”
Several journalists working for state-run media have resigned, including Mario Medrano, a prominent anchor with the Canal 10 station, who resigned on the air.
On government media sites, such as El 19, the protesters have been cast as right-wing agitators, criminals and terrorists.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a Nicaraguan journalist killed while filming a Facebook Live video worked for an official government news outlet. The journalist, Angel Gahona, had worked with state-run media in the past but was acting as an independent journalist when he was killed.