MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Dozens of shops in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua have been looted as protests and disturbances sparked by government social security reforms continued into Sunday. Human rights groups say at least 26 people have been killed in several days of clashes.
Images broadcast by local news media showed looted shops in the sprawling Oriental Market district and at least one Walmart.
Police apparently did not intervene, in contrast to what had been a heavy-handed response to the demonstrations, in which dozens have been injured or arrested.
State-controlled media blamed protesters for the looting, while critics speculated that it was being allowed in order to pressure the business sector, which has set conditions for talks with the government, including an end to the harsh crackdown.
“We are seeing social chaos in Nicaragua provoked by the absence of government leadership, and the crisis has been combined with poverty, and that in any society is a time bomb,” sociologist and analyst Cirilo Otero said.
“It is believable that the government is promoting (the looting) to put pressure on private enterprise to give in to dialogue even if the violence does not stop, and the cost could be very high,” he added.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was “very worried” about the situation in the Central American nation and joined local bishops in seeking an end to all violence.
The disturbances broke out in response to President Daniel Ortega’s effort to shore up the troubled social security system with a combination of reduced benefits and increased taxes. They appear to have expanded to include broader anti-government grievances.
Ortega said Saturday that he would agree to negotiate on the social security reforms so that there is “no more terror for Nicaraguan families,” but he said the talks would be only with business leaders.
He also seemed to try to justify the tough response by the government and allied groups, accusing demonstrators, most of them university students, of being manipulated by unspecified “minority” political interests and of being infiltrated by gangsters.
“What is happening in our country has no name. The kids do not even know the party that is manipulating them. … Gang members are being brought into the kids’ protests and are criminalizing the protests. That is why they are put at risk,” Ortega said.
Those remarks appeared to fan the flames, as soon afterward thousands of people spilled back into the streets in seven cities.
On Saturday, journalist Angel Gahona was reporting live via Facebook on protests in the southeastern city of Bluefields when he was killed by a gunshot. At least 25 other people have been killed since Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, though the government had acknowledged only nine dead.
“We are in the streets asking for Ortega and his wife to go. This has already gone beyond the social security issue. Here there have been dead, wounded, and he does not even apologize for his killings or the savage repression against the people,” said Mauri Hernandez, one of thousands of demonstrators at a central rotunda.
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