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Nicaragua Roiled by Protests Over Social Security Benefits

Extraordinary protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua extended into a third day on Friday as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Managua, the capital, and other cities, clashing with government security forces and barricading neighborhoods in opposition to newly announced changes in the social security program.

At least three people, including a police officer, have been killed in the protests since they began on Wednesday, according to the authorities, and dozens of people have been wounded.

The demonstrations have been partly driven by students from the country's public universities, which historically have been a faithful base of support for Mr. Ortega. They have been joined by a variety of groups, including retirees. The protests are among the largest and most violent in Nicaragua's recent history.

They were set off by changes to the social security system approved by the Ortega administration this week, but they also tapped growing discontent with the government, protesters and analysts said.

"The protests are a consequence of years of unsatisfied demands and growing repression and censorship to dissident groups," said Manuel Orozco, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.

The political situation in Nicaragua had been deteriorating since the re-election of Mr. Ortega in 2016 to a third consecutive term amid charges of electoral fraud. "Since then, there's been an open wound in society," Mr. Orozco said.

The Ortega administration further alienated more constituents by raising the possibility of censoring social media sites and by its widely criticized handling of a major wildfire that burned out of control for days, destroying parts of a protected tropical forest, Mr. Orozco said.

Among the modifications to the pension system, both employees and employers must contribute more to the social security system, and retirees will see a reduction in their pensions, as more money will be taken out to cover medical expenses.

Demonstrations initially erupted in Managua and León but soon spread to at least 10 other cities, including Granada, Masaya and Matagalpa.

Videos circulating on social media sites have shown protesters, wearing motorcycle helmets for protection, throwing rocks and homemade fire bombs at armed riot police officers, who have responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Waves of counterprotesters have also spilled into the streets in support of the government. In Masaya, a bastion of support for Mr. Ortega's Sandinista movement, government supporters attacked protesters with sticks, Reuters reported.

A 29-year-old man was killed on Thursday night near the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua in Managua, the scene of clashes between protesters and the police, according to the university's employees union. Family members told union representatives that the man had died after being hit in the neck by a rubber bullet.

Also on Thursday, clashes with groups that the police described as vandals at the Polytechnic University left one police officer dead. A counterprotester was shot and killed in Tipitapa, a municipality near the capital, by "groups of vandals" who were trying to storm the mayor's offices, the police said. Protesters claimed that the victim had been a member of the opposition movement.

The government ordered cable television providers to cut the signal to several stations not under state control.

"They are threatening us!" Miguel Mora, the director of one of the stations, 100% Noticias, declared Friday on Facebook. "We are not scared!" The station has continued to broadcast via social media.

Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the United Nations Human Rights Office, called on the Ortega administration "to ensure that people are able to freely exercise their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly and association."

"We also urge those demonstrating to do so peacefully," Ms. Throssell added.

The protests seemed likely to get bigger despite the crackdown. On Friday, a leader of a peasants' movement vowed to mobilize her constituents, potentially numbering in the thousands, and march on Managua.

President Ortega has remained silent, issuing no public declarations. But Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady, issued statements that were broadcast on state-controlled media on Thursday saying that the protesters were being manipulated for political purposes.

Ms. Murillo said the protests were organized by "those tiny groups that inflame and destabilize to destroy Nicaragua."

[Source: By Kirk Semple, The New York Times, Mexico City, 20Apr18]

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