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Nicaragua Protests Take a New Turn: Empty Streets

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The streets of Nicaragua’s major cities were deserted Thursday as residents heeded an opposition alliance’s call for a one-day strike to demand that President Daniel Ortega step down.

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The streets of Nicaragua’s major cities were deserted Thursday as residents heeded an opposition alliance’s call for a one-day strike to demand that President Daniel Ortega step down.

Banks and businesses were closed, and barely a car could be seen on the streets of the capital, Managua, a city usually snarled with traffic. The strike, and the resulting silence on the streets, was a change in tactics from the raucous protests that have gripped the country since April when a movement of resistance to Ortega’s rule began to grow.

Residents of provincial cities and towns also joined the strike, and photographs and videos of empty streets circulated on social media sites.

Hospitals and government offices were open, as were state-owned gas stations. Public schools held a shortened day, but many parents kept their children at home.

The strike grew out of protests against changes to the social security system that would have raised workers’ contributions and cut retirees’ pensions. The changes were withdrawn, but the protests quickly evolved into demonstrations against the authoritarian rule of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The government responded to the protests with a bloody crackdown, firing into crowds of demonstrators and clashing with them at barricades. More than 160 people, mostly protesters, have been killed since April, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

On Wednesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned “the excessive use of state force,” including attacks on protesters by “parapolice” squads and other masked gunmen.

Ortega has agreed to resume Catholic Church-mediated talks Friday to end the political standoff, although opposition leaders fear he may use them to wait out the protests.

“Ortega’s response to return to dialogue on Friday shows that these civic measures are giving results,” said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a spokesman for the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. The alliance encompasses students, business owners, small farmers and civil society advocates who have made common cause against the government.

“But we haven’t seen any willingness from the government to respond to our democratization agenda,” Chamorro added. Those demands include Ortega’s resignation, free elections and justice for the families of those killed in the protests.

Chamorro warned that the blockades and protest marches would continue.

Ortega, 72, the onetime leftist revolutionary who has dominated Nicaraguan political life for much of the past four decades, has created a government in his own image since he won election in 2006. He later secured changes to the constitution to allow him to run for re-election indefinitely, and established control over the Supreme Court, Congress and the electoral authority.

Among the government offices that were open Thursday was the headquarters of the Migration Ministry, where hundreds of people stood in line to apply for a passport, the first step to leave the country.

Among them were Katherin Mendieta and her husband, Darwin Chávez, both 21 and students at Polytechnic University, which has been a center of the student protests.

“We’re scared, my husband is young and young people are being attacked,” Mendieta said. “We decided not to join the protests because we are scared.”

The couple have a 6-month-old daughter and no idea where they will go, but they want to leave Nicaragua’s political turmoil behind. “I have never gotten involved in politics because I have seen that it is all false and dirty,” Chávez said.

The two months of upheaval have begun to take a toll on people’s livelihoods. José René Zamora, 75, a pineapple farmer, was filling his pickup truck at a state-owned gas station, his family crammed on the flatbed. “I have my pineapple plantation, but you can’t plant because there is nowhere to sell,” he said.

He would like to see Ortega go, he said, but in peace, without any more bloodshed.

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