Nicaragua's Ortega scraps welfare reforms after protests leave 24 dead
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Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega on Sunday agreed to scrap a highly-controversial pension reform that sparked four days of violence which left 24 people dead.
After days of clashes between protesters and the security forces, the worst of his 11-year presidency, Ortega said he was revoking the reform during talks with business leaders.
The Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security (INSS) has decided to revoke "the resolution of April 16, which acted as a trigger that started this whole situation," he told them, while denouncing the protesters for acting like criminal gangs.
The contentious reform would have increased both employer and employee contributions and reduced benefits in a bid to tamp down on a climbing deficit. Effectively, it would have decreased the overall pension amount by five percent.
The reform unleashed a wave of unrest which erupted on Wednesday, with students playing a major role.
Ortega ordered a robust response which saw the army deployed to the streets, independent media muzzled, journalists assaulted and pro-government demonstrators mobilized to counter the protests.
The European Union, the United States and the Vatican have expressed concern at the situation and called for calm.
'Lot of misinformation'
According to a toll compiled by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, at least 24 people have been killed since Wednesday, although its director, Vilma Nunez, warned that there was "a lot of misinformation" which made obtaining the figure difficult.
The government on Friday put the figure at 10 dead.
On Saturday, a local journalist, Miguel Angel Gahona, was shot dead in Bluefields, a city on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, with some local media reports blaming a police sniper.
Parts of the capital were strewn with rubble after the clashes, and looting was in evidence at stores in Managua. In some locations, armed store owners stood guard outside their premises to stop mobs from entering.
Ortega had tough words for the demonstrators, accusing them of acting like gangs who were "killing each other".
"We must reestablish order, we will not allow chaos, crime and looting to reign," he told business leaders, who had also opposed the reforms.
Police 'firing marbles'
A doctor treating those wounded in the clashes, Eyel Almanza, said in an interview that police officers were resorting to deadly force.
"The wounds suffered by students have been from firearms. Anti-riot police had been using rubber bullets, but not anymore -- they are using marbles," he said.
Soldiers armed with rifles stood guard at public offices in Managua, as well as in the northern city of Esteli. The army said it was "providing protection to entities and strategic sites."
Police on Thursday said one 33-year-old officer had been shot dead.
Protest groups announced a march to the Polytechnic University in the capital, where hundreds of students have been holed up since Thursday.
One male student who declined to give his name said the aim now was to see Ortega step down.
"We don't want him as our president anymore. We don't want this dictatorship," he told AFP.
On Saturday, the president was rebuffed when he offered to speak to the private sector's top business association about the pension reforms.
The business association said there could be no dialogue unless Ortega's government "immediately ceases police repression."
Throughout the protests, journalists have reportedly faced attacks, been temporarily detained and had their equipment stolen.
Four independent television outlets were taken off air on Thursday. By Sunday, only one remained barred.
Panicked residents in Managua and elsewhere emptied supermarket shelves and bought fuel to see through what could become a prolonged crisis.
"With this stoppage, it's possible we could be left with nothing to eat," said Ines Espinoza, a resident in the north of capital who walked out of a store with her two children, carrying bottles of water, biscuits and canned food.
The unexpected wave of violence in an otherwise relatively tightly controlled country has caused international alarm.
The United States denounced the "excessive force used by police and others," urging Ortega's government to allow journalists to work freely and to engage in "a broad-based dialogue" to calm the chaos.
The European Union called the violence "unacceptable" and also demanded that news media be permitted to do their work.
Analysts and business leaders said the protests were fueled by dissatisfaction that went well beyond anger over pension reform.
"This has not been seen for years in Nicaragua," said Carlos Tunnermann, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US.
"There is a malaise of the population not only over the reforms, but for the way in which the country has been run," he added.