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Eyeing Middle East, Nicaragua's Ortega quashes weekend protests

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega organized a massive demonstration to dwarf an anti-Ortega march that was impeded by heavily armed riot police on Saturday.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / April 3, 2011

National police used their shields during clashes with protesters demonstrating against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's bid to run for reelection in Managua, Nicaragua, Saturday. Presidential elections in Nicaragua are scheduled for Nov. 6.

Esteban Felix/AP

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Managua, Nicaragua

Tens of thousands of government supporters occupied the streets of Nicaragua’s capital city this weekend to prevent an opposition march against President Daniel Ortega’s counter-constitutional reelection bid.

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The government’s choreographed and coercive demonstration – which included thousands of state workers required to camp out overnight in the streets and public high school students forced to attend Saturday’s rally at risk of receiving grade-point reductions – was hastily organized in the past week to dwarf an anti-Ortega protest that ended up drawing fewer than 2,000 people after heavily armed riot police blocked their ability to march.

“Far from having a professional police force, we have a police force that is at the service of Orteguismo,” said Gonzalo Carrión, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, shortly before being detained and carried off by police officers. “Today Nicaragua loses, the police lose and Ortega loses, because history will not absolve him.”

At the moment, however, Ortega appears mostly concerned with current events, especially the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and how those might inspire a growing number of Nicaraguans fed up with his steady moves to roll back the country's democratic gains in order to consolidate his own power.

Analysts, opposition leaders, and former Ortega allies say the president’s massive mobilization of government workers and Sandinista supporters – plus the deployment of 11,000 police officers to shutdown the city and restrict people’s movement – is a sign that Ortega’s fear of rebellion is bordering on paranoia.

“What we have seen in Northern Africa and the Middle East is that citizen mobilizations can overthrow despotic and authoritarian regimes. And what we saw during [Saturday’s] march was a reflection of the fear and psychosis that has awakened in Ortega’s head as a result of what he’s seeing in that part of the world,” says opposition lawmaker and Sandinista dissident Mónica Baltodano, who was violently dragged away from the protest and tossed on the ground by police.

A wave of discontent

Since recent uprisings that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia – and the efforts by Nicaragua’s opposition to tap into the wave of change those events have had on other countries in that region – President Ortega has demonstrated even more intolerance and levels of heightened suspicion than usual.

In addition to trying to block or counter all forms of protest – including a “virtual Facebook march” organized against his reelection bid last month – the president has also expanded the security perimeter around his family compound, which is now entirely isolated from the rest of the Managua neighborhood.

The massive deployment of police to block yesterday’s relatively small opposition march is another indication of Ortega’s insecurity, opposition leaders insist.

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