Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega has sought to dodge responsibility for a wave of bloodshed that is widely blamed on his government during an unexpected and rare television interview.
The one-time Sandinista revolutionary hero – Nicaragua’s president since 2007 – has been facing a nationwide revolt from protesters demanding an end to what they call his increasingly dictatorial 11-year rule.
Human rights activists say more than 350 people have been killed since those protests erupted on April 18th, with the overwhelming majority young demonstrators gunned down by Ortega’s security forces or by masked gangs of paramilitaries with ties to his government.
Last week 13 Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay – called for an immediate end to the “acts of violence, intimidation and the threats directed towards Nicaraguan society”.
On Monday night, in an interview apparently designed to reduce international pressure on his embattled government, Ortega attempted to wash his hands of responsibility for the killings and to play down the scale of the uprising, claiming the situation in Nicaragua was returning to normal.
“It has been a week since the disturbances have stopped,” the 72-year-old said
in a pre-recorded interview with Fox News.
Questioned over his role in the bloodshed – which he last week blamed on a “murderous, coup-mongering satanic sect” despite growing international consensus that he is to blame – Ortega cast himself as the victim of a political conspiracy. “There has been a campaign of lies, terrible lies, to try to hurt the image of Nicaragua and its government,” he said.
During the 13-minute interview Ortega distanced himself from the masked paramilitaries behind many of the attacks on demonstrators, claiming, improbably, that they were bankrolled by drug traffickers or political enemies rather than his own administration.
Ortega also denied, contrary to well-documented fact, that peaceful demonstrations had been targeted. “Not a single one of the peaceful protests was attacked.”
He rejected calls for him to step down and said bringing elections forwards from 2021 as demanded by the opposition would only bring more instability and insecurity to Central America’s largest nation.
Asked about opposition claims he hoped to cling to power and build an Ortega dynasty akin to the Somoza dictatorship he famously helped topple in 1979, he said: “It never even occurred to me.”
The appearance is reportedly Ortega’s first unscripted interview with the foreign media since a 2009 encounter with Al Jazeera English.
It looked to be the latest effort in what experts call an international propaganda war designed to blunt international criticism of his government.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Human Rights Watch Americas director, dismissed Ortega’s appearance as an attempt by “a pathological liar” to manipulate global public opinion.
“It is a way for him to confuse people outside Nicaragua about what is going on,” Vivanco said, pointing to the “groundless and absurd theories” being peddled by Ortega’s government about who was to blame for the violence.
Ortega hoped to discredit protesters as foreign-backed coup mongers supported by the Catholic Church, Vivanco said. In reality Nicaragua’s president was trying to crush peaceful protests using “cruel and blatant brutality. It’s as simple as that.”
Yader Luna, a Nicaraguan journalist from the the opposition newsletter Confidencial, said Ortega’s interviewer had “basically” asked the right questions. “But Ortega lied in every single one of his answers . He claimed they haven’t attacked priests when I have seen his turbas [paramilitaries] beating them before my very eyes. He denied attacks in which dozens of people were killed in broad daylight.”
“His discourse was the same as always,” Luna said, “albeit in a less confrontational tone because he didn’t want to come across as a villain on Fox.” – Guardian