Since violent political protests erupted in Nicaragua earlier this year, some 23,000 nationals have sought asylum in neighbouring Costa Rica. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, Costa Rica is receiving 200 refugee applications each day from fleeing Nicaraguans, however the actual number arriving could be much greater.
UNHCR spokesperson, William Spindler, told reporters in Geneva that ‘besides the 8,000 who have filed asylum claims, and the 15,000 who are waiting to do so, thousands more have arrived in Costa Rica but have not yet contacted authorities there.’
These applications for asylum come on the back of 3 months of deadly protests. Although reports differ, Nicaragua’s Association of Human Rights alleges that at least 448 people have been killed in anti-government protests. The same organisation is accusing paramilitary forces of detaining demonstrators in covert torture centres. On the other hand, President Daniel Ortega claims there has been only 195 casualties. In any case, the death toll continues to rise and Nicaraguans no longer feel safe in their homes.
Student protests first erupted on April 28, in response to Ortega’s proposed social security system cuts. The reforms would have reduced retirees’ pensions and increased the obligations of workers and employers. Despite revoking his proposal, the protests quickly turned into a movement against corruption, state violence, President Ortega himself and have only escalated from there. Up to 500 rebel students occupied a UNAN campus on May 7 in protest of the regime. Armando Tellez, a student leading one of the protest camps said simply ‘our struggle is to eliminate this regime’.
Government crackdown on protest camps and demonstrations has sparked international outrage. The U.S. in particular has become increasingly vocal against the violence in Nicaragua however there is also significant local pressure to soothe the chaos.
On June 7, the U.S. Department of State imposed visa restrictions upon Nicaraguan Officials, following Human Rights abuses and acts undermining Democracy, in the hope that this is may ease the environment of intimidation and violence against protestors.
Humberto Ortega, brother of President Ortega and former head of Nicaragua’s military, pressed the government to do better in a CNN TV interview last week. He blamed pro-government security forces for the deadly consequences, asserting that ‘if the government has a profound sense of responsibility, in the first place it should end the presence of these armed people,’ who move ‘as if they were a military or police authority’.
However, neither advice nor sanctions have had any impact upon President Ortega, who governed from 1979 to 1990 and has remained elected President since 2007. He has unequivocally said he will not bring forward the election scheduled for 2021. Last week, Ortega also rejected the idea of calling a referendum on whether to hold an early vote. In an unprecedented step, Ortega has now announced a new anti-terrorism law, undoubtedly targeting students and demonstrators, in order to quash the nationwide revolt against him. The UN High Commission for Human Rights calls its introduction a mechanism to outlaw government opposition and the consequences could be devastating.
Such is the level of dissatisfaction with what opponents call Ortega’s corrupt and autocratic rule, that many now fear Nicaragua faces an unprecedented time of chaos and violence. The uprising in Nicaragua does not appear to be subsiding and recent events suggest tensions, and deaths, will only escalate. The development of a democratic, peaceful and constitutional solution to the nation’s political crisis seems more and more unattainable by the day. International pressure from the U.S. and its allies must grow if Ortega is to be convinced in acting to end the violence.
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