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Nicaraguan protesters under siege for demanding democratic reform

Political protests have raged across Nicaragua for more than three months against the government of Daniel Ortega, accused of being a dictator. More than 300 people have since died in street battles, and the Catholic Church has taken the protestors' side. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the last three months political protests have raged across Nicaragua. They started in April after the government of President Daniel Ortega introduced changes to the nation's pension system.

    The protests turned violent after a government crackdown. And more than 300 people, nearly all of them civilians, have since died in clashes on the street.

    Today, the White house announced it was sanctioning top Nicaraguan officials, and that the U.S. government was taking back vehicles it had donated to the Nicaraguan national police.

    Nick Schifrin has our story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Nicaragua today, the street battles are explosive, through long nights and hot summer days. Protesters are often armed with no more than cinder blocks and homemade bombs.

    Security services fire as they cower in fear, young people who livestream the violence and are willing to die.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We already know we will die. But we will die for something just. Nicaragua, don't let us die in vain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many are students rallying against a ruler who once overthrew a dictator, now accused of becoming a dictator.

    For 11 years, Daniel Ortega has led Nicaragua, and he has consolidated near total power, ended term limits, and employed deadly force on protesters who demanded democratic reforms.

  • Man (through translator):

    Today, we are seeing a government who doesn't want to negotiate with the people of Nicaragua, and is instead only repressing the people of Nicaragua.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In this battle, the Catholic Church has chosen the protesters' side. Religious leaders have come out to support demonstrators who hole up in churches.

    The Church of Divine Mercy on a university campus in Managua became a battleground. For more than 14 hours, security services besieged protesters who lay wounded on the ground.

    Father Raul Zamora is a priest at the church.

  • Father Raul Zamora:

    The paramilitaries, the police who are working together attacking the students, they had entered the university, and they were going to kill the students.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's Father Zamora on the right holding a flag. He shuttled between the front-line barricades and the church that became the front line.

  • Father Raul Zamora:

    Machine gun bullets, bombs, you could actually hear the bullets passing by you. A student told me, he said, what is that red dot that's on the wall that is going around? And I knew that that was a laser, you know. I told the student, get down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Two students died that night. That's Father Zamora administering last rites.

  • Father Raul Zamora:

    Try to help them to put his heart at peace with God, tried to confess him, but, of course, I couldn't do it. He just kept looking at me with his eyes open, like saying, what happened? He was still alive. Of course, he was losing a lot of blood and they were trying to save him, but 15 minutes later, he died. And his name was Gerald.

  • Geoff Thale:

    The Ortega administration went from harassing and assaulting protesters to launching counterattacks that are much more aggressive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Geoff Thale is the vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.

  • Geoff Thale:

    Clearly, the government's gotten a lot more aggressive, and the human rights situation has gotten a lot worse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1979, President Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista fighters overthrew Nicaragua's last ruling family, the Somozas. In 1990, Ortega was voted out of power. But he returned in 2007.

    And, ever since, his critics accuse him of becoming an authoritarian strongman.

  • Geoff Thale:

    Naming his wife first as sort of czar over the press and then as his vice president. Many people expect that she will run for president one day. Naming his children to key positions in the political system and the economy. I think people saw that as establishing a dynasty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ortega denied that accusation on FOX News.

    Ortega says he is only trying to secure a stable Nicaragua. And he is refusing to accept the protesters' demand to move up the next election.

  • Daniel Ortega (through translator):

    To move up the elections would create instability, insecurity, and make things worse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ortega's hard-core supporters defend him as the original and reliable revolutionary. They marked the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Ortega denounced the protesters using the language of religion.

  • Daniel Ortega (through translator):

    As Christians, we are obliged to tell the truth, and ask the bishops to rectify for love of God and don't support this satanic, murderous sect of plotters.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Ortega is fast becoming an international pariah.

    In addition to today's White House sanctions, a bipartisan Senate bill would target Ortega and other Nicaraguan government officials. And the Organization of American States has condemned his government's human rights abuses, especially on church leaders.

  • Geoff Thale:

    If you hear consistently in every one of those forums that people disapprove of what you do on human rights, people want to see you negotiating, it matters. International pressures and economic pressures, banking and financial sanctions can have an effect.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    With Venezuela facing 1 million percent inflation, and the Northern Triangle nations, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala suffering drug violence and gang extortion, Nicaragua's troubles could further destabilize the region and bring problems to the U.S.' borders.

  • Geoff Thale:

    You talk to experts in any one of a number of migration organizations that follow migration issues, they will tell you that we Gates see an upsurge of Nicaraguan immigrants to the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, so far, the two sides are both holding fast. Ortega refuses to accept responsibility for the victims of the violence.

    Gerald Vasquez Lopez, the protester given last rights by Father Zamora, was buried in Managua. His funeral was full of remembrance and resistance.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin

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