Nicaraguan leader Ortega proposes more mediation to help end bloodshed

FIle photo of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, right, escorted by one of his armed security guards, waving to a crowd of party faithful during a march for peace, in Managua, Nicaragua, Saturday, July 7, 2018.
FIle photo of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, right, escorted by one of his armed security guards, waving to a crowd of party faithful during a march for peace, in Managua, Nicaragua, Saturday, July 7, 2018. AP

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose paramilitary forces are accused by human-rights groups of having killed more than 300 protesters in the past three months, told CNN en Español and the Miami Herald in an interview during the weekend that he wants to “strengthen” the country’s mediation commission by adding international organizations in an effort to end the country’s bloodshed.

Ortega said he’s talking with the United Nations’ secretary general and the European Union to expand the current mediation commission, which is chaired by Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic Church Conference of Bishops.

The Conference of Bishops, whose leader, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, has strongly criticized the Ortega regime’s repression of anti-government protesters, would still be part of his proposed enlarged mediation effort, he said.

“We have been in touch with the secretary general of the United Nations and different international organizations, and obviously with Cardinal Brenes,” Ortega said. “We’re are searching for ways to strengthen the dialogue commission.”

Ortega’s proposal may be a new gambit to win time and weaken the role of the bishops in the talks. But a stronger role for the U.N., the European Union, and the Organization of American States could put added international pressure on Ortega to allow early elections with an independent electoral tribunal and credible international observers.

Ortega, who has been in power since 2007, was last re-elected in a dubious 2016 election. Much like in Venezuela, he allows some independent media with limited audiences and smaller political parties, but only as long as they don’t threaten his hold on power.

During the interview, which took place at Ortega’s residence in Managua, the president seemed eager to convince the world that Nicaragua is recovering its normalcy after months of political violence — even though hotels in the city are virtually empty and many flights in and out of the city are only half full. Thousands of opposition protesters and pro-government counter-demonstrators were marching on the streets Saturday.

On Friday night, the InterContinental hotel’s two restaurants and several bars — which in normal times are packed on the weekends — looked like a scene from a ghost town. A taxi driver said he had one passenger after five hours and said that might be his only ride of the day.

Ortega, who until last week had not given a major interview in nearly a decade, probably also wanted to use the occasion to dispute the number of casualties cited by human-rights organizations.

The Organization of American States’ highly-respected Human Rights Commission has already documented nearly 300 deaths, and Nicaragua’s Pro-Human Rights Association puts the figure at 440, with thousands of wounded.

OAS Human Rights Commission head Paulo Abrao told the Herald recently that more than 90 percent of the people killed in Nicaragua’s ongoing violence were murdered by Ortega’s police-backed paramilitary forces. Asked about that, Ortega responded: “He’s a liar.”

Ortega claimed that the number of dead is only 195, and asserted that human-rights groups are tracking only reported deaths, without verifying the data. Abrao said the names of 212 of the dead were supplied by the Ortega government, until it stopped sharing data with human-rights groups in mid-June. “They are now reducing their own list of deaths in the confrontations,” Abrao said.

Ortega also claimed that the hooded paramilitary shooters who have attacked protesters might be opposition “terrorists.” When shown pictures of hooded men with AK-47 rifles waving flags of Ortega’s ruling party, he said they were probably fake pictures or police agents who were defending themselves from alleged opposition attacks.

Ortega’s new proposal to expand Nicaragua’s mediation commission comes as deaths continue to rise in a political crisis unlike many others in Latin America. To put it in perspective, there have been twice as many dead in Nicaragua’s political violence during the past three months as there were in the Gaza Strip’s clashes in the same period, or in Venezuela’s confrontations in all of last year.

Watch the full interview with President Ortega on Monday at 9 pm on CNN en Español. His proposal to expand the dialogue commission was made in off-camera comments for the Miami Herald. Twitter:@oppenheimera