Tens of thousands of protesters streamed toward the middle of this dusty capital Saturday from all over Nicaragua, marching peacefully through the streets to demand the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.
"We've got to get rid of this government," insisted one of the protesters, 80-year-old Carlos Alberto Montalban, who journeyed 80 miles from the city of Chinandega to join the demonstration. "I was never on Ortega's side, but look how many people have joined me!"
The demonstration, the largest in Nicaragua in decades, was organized by the country's Catholic Church, which called it "a march for peace and justice." It marked the end of an unspoken and uneasy week-long truce following four days of bloody political violence in mid-April that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
The sheer size of Saturday's crowd suggested it might be unstable and dangerous, but no disturbances, confrontations or injuries were reported. Police and government supporters — who the anti-Ortega forces say were responsible for much of the earlier violence — were conspicuously absent from the streets where the demonstrators marched.
"I don't think the government would make the mistake of sending people to beat us up, not today, not with so many of us, not with the [Catholic] Church being the sponsor," said one man, a 51-year-old computer engineer who — like many of the protesters — did not want to give his name, just in case he had misread the government's intentions.
He turned out to be right. Marching in from three sides of the city to converge on its Catholic cathedral, the demonstrators sang, waved anti-government signs and sometimes danced a little to the small marching bands that accompanied many of the participating groups.
Many of the signs waved by the protesters reflected the demonstration's religious origins. WE PRAY TO BE FREE OF ORTEGA-MURILLO, said one, a reference to the president's powerful and combative vice president, Rosario Murillo, who is also his wife. Said another: WE ARE THE MILITIA OF THE IMMACULATE. And a third: WHERE THE SPIRIT OF GOD IS FOUND, THERE IS LIBERTY.
Another sign seemed less a protest than a existential sigh of sympathy for a country that always seems to be caught in the jaws of a civil war, a hurricane or a earthquake: AYYY, NICARAGUA.
Because the demonstration was assembling from three directions, it was impossible to make a guess at the crowd's size. The three columns of protesters undulated toward the cathedral on Managua's south side like giant anacondas of blue-and-white, the colors of the Nicaraguan national flag that nearly all the demonstrators waved.
The marchers from the east side stretched back for uncountable miles as they passed the city's landmark Royal Intercontinental hotel, and an hour after the first of them walked by, there was no end to them in sight.
When the demonstrators finally arrived at the cathedral, they listened for about an hour to homilies and prayers, most of them honed into careful neutral calls for peace and harmony. But the demonstrators believed they could read between the lines. When Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes warned that "in a divided society, there is never progress," the crowd chanted back, "Que se vayan!" — throw them all out.
It was a clear reference to Ortega and his tart-tongued vice president, Rosario Murillo, who is also his wife.
The prayers lasted for about an hour, but the demonstrators moved a couple of blocks down the street and continued to set off firecrackers and chant slogans for another 2 1/2 hours, paralyzing traffic through much of the city and raising a racket that could be heard for many blocks.
It was plain from daybreak on Saturday that the march would be huge, surpassing anybody's expectations. Twitter and Facebook were already festooned with videos and photos of long caravans of peasant farmers streaming toward Managua from locations as far away as the southeastern state of Nueva Guinea, a five-hour drive from the capital on the best of days.
The amiable enthusiasm with which the protesters chanted slogans and blew on their ubiquitous vuvuzelas — the raucous little plastic horns that were so popular at the 2010 World Cup matches in South Africa — did not, however, mask their deadly seriousness of purpose. The protests erupted on April 18 when Ortega announced that social security taxes would rise while benefits would fall.
But in the wake of the deaths at the hands of police and government sympathizers, the protest has widened and deepened. Most of the anti-government protesters are now demanding the resignations of Ortega and his wife.
"The changes in social security were just the last straw," said one woman marcher Saturday. "But they were doing so many things before — stealing elections, stealing government money, so much corruption."