Nicaragua's Ortega offers benefits rethink as protest death toll rises

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said on Saturday he was ready to consider changing an unpopular social security overhaul that has sparked days of deadly protests and one of the biggest crises of his leadership.

A demonstrator fires a homemade mortar towards riot police during a protest over a controversial reform to the pension plans of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) in Managua, Nicaragua April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

At least six people have died since Nicaraguans began demonstrating on Wednesday against measures that increase worker contributions and lower pensions, in an unusually direct challenge to Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla.

Late on Saturday, local media said a reporter was shot and killed during a live broadcast from Bluefields, a town on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast that has been hit by the violence.

Graphic footage of the incident quickly spread onto local and social media.

Earlier, Ortega said the benefit changes were not due to take effect until July 1, giving the government time to arrange talks with the private sector to review them.

“We’ll have to see what change can be made to this decree or whether we need to do a new one,” he said in a televised address.

“Hopefully, we can find a better way of making this change,” he added. “Maybe we can find ways of covering part of what is being applied to workers and especially to pensioners.”

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Still, top Nicaraguan private sector lobby COSEP issued a statement afterwards saying it could not enter into talks until the government put a stop to police repression, released people who had been detained for protesting peacefully and re-established unrestricted freedom of speech.

“We urge the government to create these conditions immediately to avoid more bloodshed,” COSEP said.

The Red Cross says at least five people have died in protests in Managua and another in the municipality of Tipitapa, northeast of the capital. Hundreds have been injured.

Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, and disturbances continued in Managua on Saturday.

Most of the deaths have been due to firearms, said Lissett Guido, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

Guido could not confirm reports that at least 25 people had died, and said any other fatalities must have occurred in areas the Red Cross had not reached.

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A Cold War antagonist of the United States, Ortega served a single term as president in the 1980s and has held office continuously since his return to power in 2007.

Through a mix of socialist policies and capitalism, Ortega has delivered a period of stable growth while tightening his hold on the levers of power. That has led critics to accuse him of attempting to establish a family dictatorship.

Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, told local radio that “almost 10” people had been killed in the violence but did not give details. At least 28 police have been injured, she added.

The government has argued the changes to social security are fiscally necessary, but hundreds of retirees began demonstrating on Wednesday after the government approved the changes. They were soon joined by thousands of students and business workers in cities around the nation, sparking clashes with police.

At least three local television stations broadcasting the protests live have had their signals abruptly cut.

The United Nations office on human rights has expressed its concern about the violence, and called on Nicaraguan authorities to stop further attacks on demonstrators and the media.

Reporting by Oswaldo Rivas in Managua; Additional reporting by Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City; Editing by Chris Reese and Stephen Coates