Consensus appears distant as Nicaragua bishops hold crisis meeting

Consensus appears distant as Nicaragua bishops hold crisis meeting

1 / 2The government wants protesters to remove road barricades before holding a national dialogue or having international groups enter to support negotiations

Nicaragua's prominent bishops moved toward restarting dialogue Friday, but government and civil representatives appeared to leave little hope for reviving mediation aimed at ending a spiraling crisis that's now left at least 165 people dead.

The Central American country's Catholic clergy kicked off the mid-morning meeting by urging embattled President Daniel Ortega to allow into Nicaragua delegations from international human rights bodies to launch independent probes into the violence, a proposal backed by civil leaders.

The government said before any national dialogue could occur, protesters must remove road barricades they have erected to fend off anti-riot forces -- and only then could international groups enter to "strengthen" negotiations.

Opposition groups immediately shot down the call to lift the blockades, and finding consensus seemed a distant prospect.

"It is unfortunate for us that we cannot reach an agreement," said Managua's outspoken auxiliary bishop Silvio Jose Baez.

"If there is something we must support, it's that the truth is known."

The bishops were set to present their mediation proposal as well as Ortega's long-awaited response after a lunch break.

During the meeting's first half, Nicaragua's Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) raised to 165 the death toll from clashes between armed paramilitaries and pro-government gangs and activists.

"We are experiencing a wave of violence the government unleashed," Carlos Tunnermann, a civil alliance representative, said at the roundtable.

- 'Unprecedented savagery' -

Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, heading the government delegation, affirmed that Nicaragua was suffering "an unprecedented savagery; a wave of crimes that dismays, that frightens."

But he stopped short of laying any blame on forces loyal to Ortega, saying police and public workers have fallen victim to the violence.

The government representatives also lamented the fact that Nicaraguans cannot go out after dark, accusing anti-government protesters of aggravating insecurity.

It is, however, widely understood in Nicaragua that the virtual curfew stems from fear of roving armed gangs loyal to the president, who the population accuses of plunging the country into "dictatorship."

Ortega-backed repression appeared to spike throughout the country during Thursday's national 24-hour work stoppage called by the National Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a coalition of students, entrepreneurs and other civil leaders.

At the talks, representatives of that group denounced the violence and urged mediation dialogue as a way out, with one Nicaraguan student leader saying "our constitution is stained in blood."

"Every bullet that kills a young person on the street also strikes this discussion and ends the dialogue," said Juan Sebastian Chamorro of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES).

The group estimates the country could lose up to 150,000 jobs by the end of the year if the crisis persists.

The church previously called off talks with Ortega after a march led by victims' mothers turned deadly at the hands of Ortega-backed forces last month.

The Nicaraguan leader met with the Catholic bishops last week to discuss rebooting mediation after requesting a "period of reflection" to consider the Church's proposal, but has stayed silent ever since.

Medardo Mairena, a leader of rural workers, accused the Ortega administration of "wasting time" and "mocking the process" of dialogue.

Nicaragua's descent into chaos was triggered on April 18 when relatively small protests against now-scrapped social security reforms were met with a government crackdown.

Those demonstrations mushroomed into a popular uprising that has seen activists brandishing homemade mortars and slingshots clash violently with anti-riot police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries.

Many activists are demanding expediting the next presidential election set for late 2021 in a bid to oust Ortega -- now in his third consecutive term -- who has remained steadfast in his desire to maintain power.