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In Nicaragua, the political battle is moving from the streets to the negotiating table

In this file photo, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks to supporters at Las Victorias square in Managua, Nicaragua, on Monday, April 30, 2018. Ortega withdrew the social security overhaul that sparked deadly protests and agreed to meet with different sectors of society in a national dialogue mediated by the Catholic Church.
In this file photo, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks to supporters at Las Victorias square in Managua, Nicaragua, on Monday, April 30, 2018. Ortega withdrew the social security overhaul that sparked deadly protests and agreed to meet with different sectors of society in a national dialogue mediated by the Catholic Church. AP

A meme making the rounds on social media in Nicaragua dryly sums up critics' view of President Daniel Ortega. Labeled "Questions To Be Addressed By The National Dialogue," as upcoming negotiations between the president and his opponents have been labeled, it includes only two: "When are you leaving?" and "Who are you taking with you?"

After weeks of bloody confrontations in the street between pro- and anti-Ortega forces, the president's opponents, as the meme notes, cannot imagine any settlement in which he stays in power, but most of them also cannot imagine any scenario in which he willingly leaves power.

"He either lives in a civil way, obeying the law and stopping the brutality and the corruption, or he becomes the Nicaraguan version of the Ceausescus," said Nicaraguan journalist Alvaro Cruz, editor of the Salvadoran newspaper Diario El Mundo, referring to the communist couple who ruled Romania during the Cold War and wound up being executed by their own former supporters when they resisted a popular uprising.

"Reading about history, I've always wondered why dictators don't leave when their people make it clear they have to. That's because their arrogance outweighs their rationality. That's what's happening with Ortega and [his wife and vice president Rosario] Murillo. They don't understand that this isn't going to stop. It's only going to grow."

At least 63 people, almost all of them student protesters, have been killed in street battles here since anti-Ortega demonstrations began in mid-April, and more than 400 have been wounded. And though the temperature of the clash dropped a good deal following Ortega's agreement to the national dialogue — each side staged huge rallies involving tens of thousands of supporters last weekend — it will rise again, sharply, if the dialogue fails.

"We're in a crisis here," said Oscar Sobalvarro, head of an industry association of small cattle ranchers and a resolute opponent of Ortega. "If the dialogue doesn't bring a solution, it will be a matter of weeks before serious problems arise."

Whatever the eventual outcome of the dialogue, which is expected to begin within the next few weeks, the startling speed with which Ortega's presidency, now in its 11th year, went from one of Central America's most stable to one of its most endangered, has shocked nearly everyone at all points along the political spectrum. "Ortega didn't see it coming, the opposition political parties didn't see it, the diplomatic community didn't see it and I certainly didn't see it," said Francisco Aguirre, a former Nicaraguan foreign minister, ambassador and congressman.

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Francisco Aguirre, a former Nicaraguan foreign minister, ambassador and congressman. Handout

The protests began on April 18, after Ortega announced increases in social security taxes along with cuts in service. Students, already edgy over what they regarded as a slow and inadequate government response to a forest fire in a national nature preserve, staged demonstrations in Managua and a half dozen other cities across the country.

The government responded with crushing intensity. Police not only fired on the protesters with live ammo, but were captured on video arming mobs of the president's Sandinista party members with stones to hurl at the students. As the death toll mounted, photos of hideously wounded victims popped up all over Facebook and Twitter — including the live-on-Facebook shooting death of a journalist by an unidentified gunman.

The bloodshed quickly broadened the protests from details of the social security system to a demand for the resignations of Ortega and Murillo. And as the violence continued, it revealed the tenuous nature of their apparent stability.

"He's never had popular support," said Robert Callahan, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in three Central American countries, including a stint as ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011. "He's a master of manipulation, and he's got a cunning understanding of Nicaragua's political system. That's not the same thing as popularity."

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Robert Callahan, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in three Central American countries, including a stint as ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011. Handout

Ortega came to power as head of the Sandinistas when they were a guerrilla army rather than a political party. When the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza family political dynasty that ruled Nicaragua for more than four decades, Ortega became president. But the first time he permitted free, internationally monitored elections — in 1990, after enduring eight years of a U.S.-backed civil war — Ortega lost, getting just 40 percent of the vote.

"Ultimately, he lost three elections in a row — 1990, 1996, and 2001 — with that same 35 to 40 percent of the vote," noted Aguirre.

It was only when Ortega offered a clever deal to his main opponent, Liberal party strongman Arnoldo Aleman, that his fortunes changed. Aleman had been president, but was barred from running again by the Nicaraguan constitution. Ortega offered to support a change in the constitution that would permit presidential reelection if Aleman would back another amendment that would allow the presidential candidate to be elected without a runoff if he had just 35 percent of the vote.

The deal was struck, and in the 2006 election, the Liberal party divided behind two candidates and Ortega became president with just 38 percent of the votes. Since then, he has packed the country's Supreme Court and its powerful Electoral Council with Sandinistas, who, one by one, have kicked major opposition parties off the ballot, allowing Ortega to run essentially unopposed.

With voters out of the way, Ortega has carefully avoided making any powerful enemies. Though he originally came to power as a revolutionary Marxist who confiscated thousands of properties, Ortega since 2006 has struck a bargain with COSEP, the association of elite businessmen, allowing them to go their own way as long as they don't interfere in politics — much the same way the old Somoza dynasty ran the country.

But it was only when Ortega made his tart-tongued wife, Murillo, his vice presidential candidate in 2016 that Nicaraguans began accusing him of practicing "Somocismo sin Somoza," Somoza-style politics under a different name. "Naming Rosario vice president was the very essence of Somocismo," said Callahan. "He's creating a political dynasty based not on a party or an ideology, but on family bloodlines."

Even without the nepotistic implications, the appointment of Murillo would not have played well. Her verbal brutality has made her extraordinarily unpopular. When she was managing the government response in the early days of the protests (Ortega himself was invisible for the first 72 hours, widely assumed to be in Cuba getting treatment for a blood disorder that has been ongoing for years, though the government has never confirmed it), she managed to make things worse by referring to the demonstrators as "criminals" and "vampires in search of blood."

Eventually she worked her way to calling them a right-wing collection of "miniscule and toxic groups," phrases that enraged the mostly left-of-center demonstrators. They struck back by tearing down many of the brightly painted metal "Trees of Life" Murillo has put up around Managua in a futile attempt at beautification of what's generally agreed to be the ugliest capital city in Central America.

Ortega has clearly been on the defensive since he finally showed up on the fourth day of the demonstrations. He suspended and then canceled the social security changes, and agreed to the national dialogue proposed by the Catholic Church. (He had ignored a nearly identical request for dialogue in 2014.) His national police chief, Aminta Granera, has vanished from public and is rumored to be under house arrest.

And perhaps most importantly, the Nicaraguan Army has signaled a reluctance to get involved in a crackdown on the protests. "We are convinced that the dialogue is the route that best suits our people," the army said in a communique early in the protests. The statement was all the more significant because the top army commander, Julio Cesar Aviles, is an Ortega favorite. The president even violated military protocol to appoint Aviles to a second term as head of the military.

"This is huge news," said Nicaraguan economist Edmundo Jarquin, who served Ortega as ambassador, cabinet member and Sandinista congressman before splitting with the party in the mid-1990s. "This means Ortega will not be able to use the army as an instrument of repression. The army came out during the protests, but strictly in a defensive posture, surrounding some government buildings. They didn't chase anybody. They didn't hurt anybody."

The army's studied neutrality is not the only sign of division within Sandinista ranks. The party's old guard, even when it disagrees with a particular Ortega policy, generally recognizes his moral authority to lead. But they are much less loyal to Murillo. "They marched into Managua behind Ortega in 1979," said one Nicaraguan in touch with some of the Sandinista veterans. "But nobody marched anywhere with Murillo."

The veterans' reluctance to make Murillo's vice presidency a do-or-die issue is compounded by the fact that many of their younger relatives are the opposite side of the street barricades. The protests have created a generation gap among the Sandinistas; a number of the injured or dead student protesters have come from Sandinista families. "It's the grandchildren of the people who overthrew Somoza who are going to overthrow Ortega," said editor Cruz.

The opposition has its own generation gap; there's little rapport between the college kids who are fighting out in the streets and the older business executives and politicians who support them. "Out of five million Nicaraguans, we need to find somebody who is under the age of 45 to lead the opposition," admits one businessman in his early 70s. "All our leaders, they are elephants."

Even more troubling for the opposition is the lack of a strategy for the dialogue, which is expected to begin this month and last no more than 30 days. One faction — led in large part by some of the wealthiest members of the business community — is arguing for something that has come to be known as the Golden Staircase: Ortega, Murillo and a few of their top cadres would be allowed to resign and live in peace with a promise of no criminal investigations of their conduct or wealth. (The lack of accounting on large sums of foreign aid sent to the Ortega government by the governments of Venezuela and Libya has triggered opposition suspicions of huge pilferage.)

A second strategy is a more moderate approach: Ortega dumps Murillo as vice president, then changes election law to give the opposition a fair chance in next year's municipal elections.

The problem is that nobody in the opposition can really imagine the famously stubborn Ortega giving in to any of these things. "Ortega's ideology now is 'power for money, money for power,' and he's not going to willingly give away either," said Jarquin, who knows the president well. "The only way this dialogue is going to work is if the OAS and other international organizations really put some pressure on."

On the other side, Ortega's strategy is obvious: Stall. Play for time. Bog the dialogue down in details. Already there are complaints about who will be represented in the nine seats at the dialogue. The church plan was to give the government three seats, the church three, and three others to the broadly defined "civil society."

But now evangelical Christians, peasant farmers, labor unions and some of Nicaragua's 30 or so political parties are demanding to be included. If the dialogue gets bogged down in details of how to organize itself, the process will go nowhere.

"The more confusion, the more issues that have to be dealt with, the better for the Sandinistas," says Aguirre. "People will get bored and distracted. And when the World Cup soccer matches start, everybody will be watching them on TV, not going out into the street."

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