MANAGUA (Reuters) – Nicaraguan students taunted President Daniel Ortega with shouts of “murderer” as he spoke at an event aimed at negotiating a solution to weeks of deadly demonstrations that flared up again on Wednesday.
The meeting was a rare opportunity for the protesters to directly address the former Marxist guerrilla, and anger boiled over as the president lamented the violence of recent weeks.
At least 49 people have been killed, mostly students, amid demonstrations that began over discontent with a new law that raised worker and employer social security contributions, while cutting benefits.
“This is not a forum of dialogue; this is a forum to negotiate your exit,” one student told Ortega at the start of the event, organized by Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic bishops.
“We cannot have dialogue … because what has been committed in this country is a genocide.”
Ortega talked through the insults. He said all deaths should be investigated and that police were under orders not to open fire in the protests, which have turned into the worst crisis of his more than a decade back in power.
“Of course the deaths pain us. The death of even one citizen pains us,” said Ortega, harking back to his own fight against authoritarian rule.
In an airport parking lot, people stood beside their cars, listening in silence to a live broadcast of Wednesday’s event. A woman called out names of dead protesters, and others shouted: “Presente!” (“Here we are!”), echoing a call from the Sandinista revolution.
Despite the talks, hundreds of protesters gathered through the afternoon and into early evening in front of the Universidad Centroamericana, bearing Nicaraguan flags and setting off fireworks.
As she readied two cans of graffiti paint to spray “libertad” in the colors of the national flag on the street, Gabriela, 20, an architecture student, covered her face with a scarf, afraid in part, she said, of recognition by authorities.
“My father was a chief of police,” she said, declining to give her last name. “He told me he’s deeply disappointed. This isn’t the police force he helped found.”
Ortega, 72, first took power in 1979 after the Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. His government then fought a war against U.S.-backed “Contras” before he was voted out in 1990. He returned to office in 2007.
He has overseen economic growth but is criticized for tight control over police, the courts and Congress. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in April over the social security changes, and clashes turned deadly.
The United Nations said last week it believed at least 47 people were killed, mostly students along with two police officers and a journalist. Ortega said two more people were killed on Tuesday.
Demonstrators demand his resignation and accuse him of seeking to establish a family dynasty.
Accompanied by his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega on Wednesday defended the government’s handling of the protests.
He denied protesters had disappeared or were being held as political prisoners, and he demanded an end to demonstrations, saying the unrest was battering the nation’s economy.
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would arrive in Managua on Thursday to investigate deaths that occurred during the protests.
Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Ana Isabel Martinez; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney