There was a time when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was the face of revolution in his country.
Now, 39 years after Ortega overthrew Nicaragua’s dictator in the Sandinista rebellion, he’s the one trying to put out the fires of revolution among an angry group of protesters calling for his ousting.
Almost 300 people have been killed in Nicaragua since demonstrations against Ortega’s rule erupted three months ago, in a series of bloody conflicts between government forces and activists in the Central American country of six million.
“A people as special as the Nicaraguan people will be rising up, one way or another,” a student leader told Reuters on Tuesday. He spoke after the destruction of a major protester stronghold near the city of Masaya, where government forces tore down several cobblestone barricades.
He asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
“We do not fight for cobblestones, for barricades. Our struggle is for democracy in the country. And today, the opposition is stronger than ever,” he said.
The demonstrations began in mid-April in reaction to proposed cuts to social security benefits, but the government’s heavy-handed response sparked a wider challenge to Ortega’s rule and mounting international criticism.
The violence drew international attention when a Nicaraguan journalist was shot dead during a live report on Facebook in April. It was not clear who fired the shot.
WATCH BELOW: Student protesters killed in April protests
The ongoing conflict marks the most severe crisis to face the 72-year-old Ortega since the civil war of the 1980s, when he battled U.S.-backed “Contra” rebels. Currently serving his third term after winning electoral office in 2006, Ortega is resisting demands for his resignation and early elections.
“We have to re-establish order in our country,” Ortega told supporters on Thursday, at a rally celebrating the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.
“The road isn’t war, but peace and dialogue.”
His supporters applauded him, chanting: “He stays, my commander stays.”
Reasons for protest
Protesters condemn what they describe as the government’s control of the media, electoral fraud, manipulation of the justice system and corruption, as well as Ortega’s “family dictatorship,” running the country with his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo.
Ortega won re-election in late 2016 with 72 per cent of the vote, but a poll in May by CID Gallup showed his approval ratings had fallen to 29 per cent.
Anti-Ortega protesters have become increasingly organized, prompting government forces to attack their strongholds and disrupt their demonstrations.
WATCH BELOW: More violence amid May protests in Nicaragua
Speaking from hideouts this week, leaders of the protests said they were planning demonstrations and would seek more international pressure on Ortega’s government. Hundreds of protesters were in hiding, they said.
“No one surrenders here,” said one of the leaders, who escaped on Tuesday from the Masaya surburb of Monimbo, about 30 kilometres [19 miles] south of Managua, after clashes between pro-Ortega forces carrying automatic weapons and youths wielding home-made mortars.
“This is like a break and we will return,” the young man said.
More than 200 people have been imprisoned as a result of the protests, according to the human rights group CENIDH.
“President Ortega has shown time and again that he will stop at nothing to crush all those who dare to oppose his government and anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way,” Amnesty International’s Americas Director Erika Guevara Rosas said on Wednesday.
The crackdown intensified last weekend when gunmen in civilian dress fired automatic weapons to clear student protesters from a church and the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua campus.
At least one student died in the church, triggering an international outcry, including from the U.S. State Department and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“A wide range of human rights violations are being committed including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, and denying people the right to freedom of expression,” UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing on Tuesday.
Daniel Ortega: freedom-fighter or oppressor?
Ortega is a former Marxist guerrilla leader who has held elected office since 2007 and also ruled the country from 1979 to 1990.
On July 19, 1979, Ortega and his Sandinistas entered the capital Managua after toppling the brutal Anastasio Somoza dictatorship with the help of an uprising in Masaya.
Detractors say the repression ordered by Ortega in the same streets echoes tactics used by Somoza.
Ortega says the protests are an attempt to topple his elected government by force.
The president still has a significant number of supporters, as evidenced by the tens of thousands who turned out at his Sandinista anniversary address on Thursday, and the large force of supporters who drove out protesters in Masaya on Tuesday.
“This is a country that’s lived through war for a long time,” said a masked, pistol-wielding Ortega supporter from the self-described “Caravan for Peace” group that entered Masaya on Tuesday, declining to provide his name.
“The last thing we want is for our children and grandchildren to inherit more bloodshed,” he said.