Nicaragua government, opposition agree on 'roadmap' for talks


Managua (AFP)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's leftist government and the opposition have agreed a "roadmap" for extended peace talks to resolve 10 months of crisis sparked by a deadly crackdown on dissent in which hundreds of people were killed.

The breakthrough was announced late Tuesday by Vatican ambassador to Nicaragua, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, after five days of talks in the capital Managua between the government and the opposition Civic Alliance.

"The roadmap was approved," Sommertag, who participated in the talks, told a press conference alongside Foreign Minister Denis Moncada.

However, the talks were temporarily suspended on Wednesday pending the response of the Catholic Church to an invitation from both sides to participate as an observer at the talks, along with the Evangelical church.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes, said he would respond to the invitation on Friday after consulting bishops. The Catholic Church mediated a previous round of peace talks that collapsed in June 2018.

The opposition has demanded a wider international presence, including representatives of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to ensure compliance with any agreement adopted during talks.

The government side opposed this, but as part of the roadmap agreement both sides said guarantors would be designated once an agenda is approved.

"We need the presence of organizations that give confidence and transparency to the dialogue, both to the participants and to the population," Alliance delegate Ernesto Medina told AFP.

- Talks framework agreed -

Now that a framework has been agreed for the talks, the negotiations are due to proceed daily from Monday to Friday until March 28, though that deadline could be extended "by consensus" of the two six-member delegations.

The crisis began in April 2018, sparking months of protests across the Central American country against Ortega's leftist government.

More than 300 people were killed in a brutal crackdown on the opposition and independent media. Hundreds of opposition figures were thrown in jail and more than 50,000 Nicaraguans fled the country.

Around 100 of more than 700 political prisoners were released ahead of the start of the talks on Wednesday last week. The opposition Civic Alliance has continued to call for the release of all opposition prisoners.

The initial protests were sparked by a plan to increase contributions to the social security fund and reduce benefits in an IMF-backed bid to cap a rising deficit.

Though Ortega backed down a week later and scrapped the measure, the student-led protests intensified, transforming into a movement calling on the 72-year old former rebel leader and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, to step down.

Ortega, in power since 2007, was most recently elected in 2016 for a mandate that would keep him in office until 2021. He has refused opposition demands to call early elections.

Nicaragua is struggling with an economic crisis and a $315 million deficit. GDP shrank four percent last year and some economists say it could contract 11 percent in 2019.

The opposition accuses former Sandinista guerrilla leader Ortega of establishing a corrupt dictatorship with Murillo.

Ortega's handling of the protests drew international condemnation from the United States, which has imposed sanctions on the president and his wife for widespread human rights abuses.

In November, Washington labelled Nicaragua part of a "troika of tyranny" along with other leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.