Streets deserted as Nicaragua strikes after protest deaths

MANAGUA: Banks, markets, gas stations, schools and shops kept their doors locked among deserted streets as Nicaragua's opposition staged a 24-hour general strike on Friday, a day after five people were killed in violence surrounding protests against President Daniel Ortega.

Opposition supporters claimed the strike was 90% respected across the country while official media announced business as usual in several trade zones.

In cities such as Leon and Granada, only state-owned Petronic gas stations remained open.

Mercado Oriental, one of the biggest trade centres in the capital Managua with 20,000 businesses, was a complete wilderness with almost every one closed.

“I'm working out of necessity but the strike is a weapon to put pressure on the government because there is no end in sight to this situation,” Adolfo Diaz, a 67-year-old shoe shiner, told AFP while sitting alone in a hall at the Huembes market in the east of Managua, normally a bustling hub of some 4,500 businesses.

In the afternoon, Ortega and his supporters began a procession from the capital to the opposition stronghold of Masaya, 30km to the south, to commemorate a significant event in the president's coming to power in 1979, known as the “retreat.”

Show of strength

“We want to show strength, that the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) isn't buried, remains strong and represents us the poor majority,” 57-year-old Carlos Lopez, amongst the caravan of around 100 vehicles and motorcycles, told AFP.

Ortega is a former leftist guerrilla leader who helped the FSLN overthrow the US-backed right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza.

The “retreat” happened on June 27, 1979, when thousands of guerrillas withdrew from Managua to Masaya to regroup before securing victory on July 19 when Somoza fled the country, ending 43 years of the family dynasty.

But where the former revolutionary leader Ortega was once hunkered down with FSLN allies in Masaya fighting against the dictatorship, the 72-year-old head of state is now the one hated in the rebel heartland.

The strike, called by the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy grouping, comes after the latest bloody episode during three deadly months of anti-government protests in the impoverished Central American country that have left around 270 people dead.

Four police officers and a protester died on Thursday as clashes erupted between opposition activists and government forces and their paramilitary allies in the southeast town of Morrito.

'Terrorist' arrested

On Friday, police arrested opposition leader Medardo Mairena, accusing him of being a “terrorist” and having “organised” and “ordered”, the “attack” against the murdered police and protester.

The opposition is demanding either early elections or the resignation of Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo, accusing both of corruption, despotism and nepotism.

While the will was there to support the strike, not everyone has the means to do so.

“If I don't work, I don't eat. It's not a question of not supporting the strike but one of supporting our families. We need this to end so we can work,” said 56-year-old cobbler Nestor Larios.

The strike is part of three days of nationwide protests against the government that began on Thursday with a sea of blue and white clad demonstrators marching through Managua and is due to end with a car caravan through flashpoint areas of the capital on Saturday.

In Monimbo, an indigenous Masaya suburb, opposition protesters have erected barricades and vowed to prevent Ortega's procession from passing through.

Banners and placards at the barricades are emblazoned with defiant slogans: “We'll never surrender,” “Monimbo resists today, tomorrow and forever,” and “No to the retreat.”

The opposition was even claiming a victory of sorts after Ortega's procession was delayed and limited to a driven caravan with no plans to walk around Masaya.

Lopez, though, insisted it was a prudent decision to avoid the potential for a “coup d'etat by the extreme right paid for by the foreigners.”

He added that Monimbo would be given a wide berth since the regime's enemies had “financed groups to create chaos and terrorism.”

Political tensions have soared in Nicaragua since protests against a now-aborted pension reform began on April 18 before mushrooming into the general opposition to Ortega and his government.

Thursday's fatalities occurred as marching protesters, some of them armed, came under attack from police and paramilitaries, and responded with gunfire, said Francisca Ramirez, head of the Civic Alliance.

Police confirmed the death toll but blamed the violence on “terrorist groups” that pretended to be carrying out a peaceful march and opened fire on a police station.

Protesters also abducted nine police officers and attacked the Morrito town hall, the police said in a statement. — AFP

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