MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua marked the 39th anniversary of the 1979 revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza on Thursday amid a political crisis that has seen hundreds killed in a government crackdown on protesters seeking President Daniel Ortega’s exit from office.
The anniversary remembrance had the feel of a victory celebration and some supporters of the president said as much. In recent days, the government and its supporters routed some of the remaining focal points of the resistance that marked three months of street protests Thursday.
Those still loyal to Ortega, who helped lead the Sandinista uprising decades ago, say the country has made progress under his rule. Detractors argue that Ortega has become a dictator himself and should step down after consolidating near-total political control in the hands of his family. His wife, Rosario Murillo, occupies the vice presidency.
The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association tallied 351 killings related to unrest between April 19 and July 10, while the government puts the death toll at more than 200.
Tens of thousands gathered Thursday afternoon at a public square near Lake Managua to hear Ortega and others speak during a rally commemorating the fall of the Somoza dictatorship.
“It has been a painful battle,” Ortega said. “Painful because we have confronted a conspiracy armed and financed by internal forces we all know and external forces we all identify.”
A sea of red and black flags of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front spread out before a riser displaying a huge banner that read, “Nicaragua wants peace.” The backdrop was provided by more than a dozen big “Trees of Life” metal sculptures — a frequent target of protesters in recent months. Hundreds of government supporters wore white T-shirts reading “Pure love for peace.”
The annual event usually draws hundreds of thousands, including government employees for whom attendance is essentially mandatory.
This year, the government did not organize caravans from other cities as is customary, but instead directed people outside the capital to celebrate locally with piñata parties in parks and plazas.
“We are here today celebrating another defeat of all those who do not want peace, who do not want the common good, who do not want these people to get ahead, those of the coup-monger right,” said Pablo Bonilla, a Sandinista supporter who attended the rally.
Murillo, first lady and vice president, see-sawed between a combative tone decrying the “perversity of coup-monger terrorism” and promising that Ortega’s administration only wants peace.
“The revolution is more alive than ever,” said Ortega supporter Arelia Membreno, who runs a small business in the Managua neighborhood of Laureles Sur. “They have given me a loan, a scholarship for my daughter, and the street in front of my house has been paved. Before, it was dirt.”
But Ortega’s ability to hand out such largesse has been crippled by the steady collapse of Venezuela, whose leftist government had sold cut-rate fuel to Nicaragua. With Venezuela’s economy crumbling and oil production dropping, it has become harder to subsidize Nicaraguan fuel purchases.
The opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy urged Nicaraguans to boycott celebrations and send a message by staying home with their families.
“There is nothing to celebrate,” it said in a message circulated on social media, “but rather much to lament.”
Anti-government protests began in mid-April over cuts to the social security system but broadened to include demands for Ortega to leave office and early elections to be held.
In his drive to consolidate control, Ortega — who returned to power in 2007 following three failed attempts to win the presidency — has sidestepped term limits to get himself re-elected and packed courts and government agencies with allies. His selection of Murillo as vice president was seen by many as a bid to set up a family dynasty.
Dolma Jerez was outside the Chipote prison Thursday seeking the release of her sister, Irlanda Jerez, who she said was arrested at a protest the previous day.
“We are demanding justice and freedom for my sister,” Jerez said, “and not only for my sister but for the thousands of detainees who have been accused and have been deprived of their freedom only for speaking out.”
“I never thought I would see Daniel Ortega become a dictator, let alone a criminal who would try to stay in power with fire and bloodshed,” said political analyst Julio Lopez Campos, an ex-guerrilla fighter who was once close to the president.
Apparently eager to celebrate the revolution anniversary without the embarrassment of the roadblocks and protest encampments in place for weeks, Nicaraguan security forces and armed civilian groups mounted an aggressive campaign in recent days to clear them by force.
Student protesters from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in the capital were dislodged, and the symbolically important neighborhood of Monimbo in the city of Masaya was retaken. Monimbo was a stronghold of support for the 1979 revolution, but it has lately been a center of resistance to Ortega’s government.
Ortega was dealt a blow Wednesday when the Organization of American States passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses by his security forces while quelling the protests. The resolution, adopted by a vote of 21-3 with seven abstentions, also criticized the harassment of Roman Catholic bishops who have mediated stalled talks on finding a peaceful solution to the standoff.
Ortega has rejected demands for early elections and calls those seeking his exit “coup mongers.”