Four young protesters and a police officer were killed in increasingly violent clashes over social security cuts in Nicaragua, Associated Press reported Friday.
Protests began Wednesday after a new law was signed increasing tax contributions and cutting pension income in the social security system. Some demonstrations began peacefully, with protesters waving placards and chanting, “Viva Nicaragua libre!” (“Long live a free Nicaragua!”)
But in some areas, pro-government forces clashed with protesters, police lobbed tear gas and fired rubber bullets from behind shields, and buildings were set afire. A police officer and protester were fatally shot on Thursday in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, where thousands took to the streets, and another protester was shot dead in Tipitapa, northeast of the capital, the Red Cross told Reuters.
AP reported that two protesting university students were killed on Friday.
One eyewitness reported on Twitter that five buildings, among them the National Lottery in León and the student center at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, were burning Friday afternoon. Protests had reportedly spread to at least 10 cities.
Lisseth Guido, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross of Nicaragua, told Reuters on Friday that 48 people were treated for various injuries.
The government shut down most main news sources other than La Prensa, a protester who asked her name to be withheld told HuffPost. La Prensa was reporting that police were switching from rubber bullets to live ammunition.
The United Nations’ human rights office urged the government in a statement to “fulfill its international obligations to ensure people can freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful gathering and association.”
The protester, who works for a local nongovernmental organization, said that demonstrations began peacefully but violence erupted in clashes with pro-government protesters and security forces. She said the protests have been “flashing” across the country and are largely organized on social media.
“This is spread nationwide ... it’s young people going out to the street protesting, especially students, protesting against these reforms. And each time it’s been a peaceful protest. [But when] they’ve been met with the pro-government movement, they have been violent,” she said.
The protester told HuffPost she was protesting with a group Friday in Nindiri, outside of Masaya in western Nicaragua, when a group of pro-government protesters appeared armed with flash or stun grenades and confronted them. When a leader of the protest against the social security changes declared “It’s our right to protest peacefully,” someone “came up and pushed this guy on the ground, and he hit his head and started to bleed,” she recounted.
Security forces have seized vehicles carrying provisions for protesters, and invaded an area near Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral where the church had been collecting donations.
The protests are the largest to hit Nicaragua in the 11-year presidency of onetime Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega, who was also president in the 1980s. The country erupted in the wake of the new law, which the government insists is necessary to protect the survival of the social security system. Ortega has yet to comment on the protests, La Prensa reported.
Though the change in the social security law was the trigger for the protests, discontent has been growing over a variety of issues. Critics complain that Ortega has betrayed the Sandinista principles with a power grab and crackdown on dissidents, and blamed government ineptness and even alleged corruption for the failure to effectively fight a massive fire in a protected tropical forest earlier this month.
“The protests are a consequence of years of unsatisfied demands and growing repression and censorship to dissident groups,” Manuel Orozco, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C., told The New York Times.
The protester said that “people are just wanting to be heard” and they want social program changes to “be repealed and evaluated to be more equitable.”
On a “deeper level, [we want] government change, but we don’t even have a proper opposition,” she said. “It’s just individual people coming out on the street. I come from a Sandinista family, my friends come from Sandinista families; we no longer consider ourselves part of the party. It doesn’t matter what party people are from, they just want change.”