By Delphine Schrank
MANAGUA (Reuters) – A harsh reaction to weeks of protests has eroded President Ortega's Nicaragua's carefully constructed pillars in the church, the military, and the business world, calling for the impeachment of Marxist guerrillas, which has dominated politics for decades.
More than a month after changes to the Central American nation's social security system sparked student protests, outrage over a brutal crackdown that killed at least 77 people and injured over 800 has become a daily challenge to Ortega's reign.
Protesters demand he resign while regional diplomatic bodies told the US States Organization last week that he should hold early elections. He has yet to show any signs that he takes note of this call, which could end one of the longest existing left-wing governments in Latin America, an allied ally for socialist Venezuela.
It will not be easy for the loose alliance of students, farmers, politicians and academics to deprive Ortega (72), who was re-elected in 2016, with almost three-quarters of the votes after restricting opposition participation.
But the Sandinista leader, whose office recognizes a request for commentary on this story, but does not provide an immediate response, looks more isolated and fragile than at any other time in his current eleven-year term as president.
The support from the Catholic Church and the private sector is fluctuating. There is visible military discomfort, a solid Sandinista organization that had constructed Ortega's brother from the original rebel army that overthrew a US-backed dictator in the 1970s.
Although the government resorted to social security measures after five days, pent-up dissatisfaction exploded.
"This is an unprecedented civil revolution in my country," said Violeta Granera, a sociologist who ran against Ortega in 2016 as an opposition candidate.
The protests are nothing but "a national call for a complete change in the economic, political and social system."
The latest sign of the crash came on Wednesday, when Nicaragua's bishops' council of Catholic bishops made just four days of talks a "national dialogue" that was widely seen as an opportunity for Ortega to take the wind out of the sails of protests by making small concessions.
The Church had fallen behind her former adversary when embracing Christianity as a more moderate figure before his return from 2007, avoiding hostilities with Washington and business leaders.
But Silvio Jose Baez, an archbishop of Managua, said the government had failed to adopt the agenda of the "democratization of the country" dialogue.
On Monday, a smaller group of government, private sector and church representatives resumed talks behind closed doors.
Students and government officials agreed to a ceasefire in the early days of the talks, which quickly collapsed as groups of youth attacked demonstrators at the Nicaraguan Agricultural University, severely injuring at least two people.
Dr. Carlos Tunnermann Bernheim, a minister of education during Ortega's first term as president in the 1980s and now a vocal critic involved in the talks, called the violence "a grave violation" of the terms agreed in the talks.
Every day Nicaraguans stream their flags through towns and villages. Thousands went out on Saturday again.
At night, protesting inmates raced behind barricades made of bricks from the streets or walls of chairs and tables on university campus, using mortars for clashes with pro-Ortega gangs who blame witnesses and legal groups for many of the victims.
Daily street blockades have affected traffic throughout the country as students and peasants build temporary barricades to damage the economy and tire the government. The government estimates that the turmoil has cost the economy around $ 250 million.
Despite the losses, many in the private sector are openly supporting protesters and calling for changes that are turning against Ortega for a troubled coalition in recent years that has fueled strong economic growth.
In its most significant movement yet, the Nicaraguan Supreme Council of Private Industry, representing the private sector, called on companies on Sunday to "join in the noise of mothers, grandmothers, and wives, justice for the murder of their loved ones." call "In a march on Wednesday.
"Nobody expected this violence to be so, and we all find it disgusting," said Mario Arana, former head of the central bank and private sector analyst.
Arana said it became clear as business leaders that police shoot or kill with rubber bullets on eyes, chest and heads or even live ammunition, "then things started to change for everyone."
Arana's version of the events coincides with investigations by two local human rights groups and a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that condemned gross human rights violations last Monday by the excessive violence of the State Security Army and the armed opposition during the protests.
According to allegations that the initial reaction of the police is indiscriminate and disproportionate, agitators in civilian clothes have caused much violence against demonstrators.
Ortega has publicly complained of the violence and stated that not only opponents, but also Sandinista supporters, spectators and police had been killed.
Ortega has consolidated his rule by neutralizing and co-opting a credible opposition and stopping the development of independent institutions. His wife, Rosario Murrillo, is vice president and widely seen as a power behind the throne.
But mass mobilization has enabled politicians such as Granera to forge new alliances between bourgeois and political groups, including their own broad front for democracy, they said and others.
Building an effective coalition against the government could prove difficult, said Eduardo Enriquez, editor of the daily La Prensa, one of the few independent media outlets.
"The longer we see no results, people get tired and disappointed," he said. "And they have the power, the brute force, so we do not want to lose momentum."
Another base of Ortega's support is the army. But in recent days it has signaled its refusal to appear on the streets.
In a private address to business leaders and then in a statement by a spokesman, senior commanders called for dialogue and said they would not oppress the population.
Former officers met in mid-May in the city of Masaya, southeast of Managua, a former seat of the 1970s uprising against then-strongman Anastasio Somoza and scene of some of the most brutal clashes of recent weeks.
They spoke with a racy gathering of demonstrators, next to a group that was paying tribute to the recently fallen, and a few meters from an improvised hospital tent where volunteers treated wounded demonstrators, who along with legal groups and witnesses said they had access denied government hospitals.
"We all fought the overthrow of Somoza's dictatorship, and then we participated in defending the revolution against the Contras," said Carlo Breles, a former Sandinista commander. "Now we are starting a third fight against the dictatorship of Ortega-Murillo."
(edited by Frank Jack Daniel, Frances Kerry and Tom Brown)