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Nicaragua Withdraws Social Security Changes That Sparked Unrest


Dozens of people have died in days of violent protests in Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega now says he's withdrawing a welfare reform package that sparked these demonstrations.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting in Spanish).

GREENE: The Nicaraguan human rights office says at least 25 people have been killed in these protests. President Ortega's forces are accused of using live rounds to quell these demonstrations. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: What is the situation like? How tense is it still there?

KAHN: Well, it appears as if the president's cancellation of the Social Security reform package really has helped quiet things down. And the police have been restrained, too. There were reports of looting and some violence yesterday. But I was out last night at a large demonstration with hundreds of people gathering at this busy traffic circle, and there was no police in sight. People had come with their children. They were holding Nicaraguan flags. It really felt so different than the scenes of the previous nights with people battling police clad in riot gear and shooting live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.

You know, the scene was just - the crowd was singing the national anthem. People were weeping. One man jumped on the hood of a car and screamed out the names of the protesters who had died, many shot by police. It just felt like people were breathing the sigh of relief after what has been nearly a week of this intense national outrage.

GREENE: All right. So maybe things are really beginning to turn. Can you tell us what this was about? Was it really anger over this welfare reform package that triggered these deadly protests? Or are there deeper things that people are really worried about here?

KAHN: Yeah, that really angered pensioners and other supporters. They protested last week. But I think it was just this heavy-handed response by police, the killings that just backfired and enraged students, brought out other workers. It was like the spark was lit. And the protests grew and spread across the country. It really became this manifestation of many more grievances against President Ortega and his wife, too, who's the current vice president. Here. Listen to this protester I spoke with. She really sums it up, Alondra Drosophila (ph).

ALONDRA DROSOPHILA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says, at first, the fight was about the pensions and now it's just so much more. She says people who've never protested are now out in the streets. And they want Ortega and his wife to go. You know, we'll just have to see whether his cancellation of the reforms is enough to, you know, kind of put the genie back in the bottle. But a huge national march has been called for today, and it's just unclear what will happen. Some say it's too late to control the discontent that's really exploded in the country.

GREENE: Well, how new is this discontent? I mean, I think about President Ortega. He has such a long history in politics. He was the socialist leader of this country decades ago. Now, he's been back in power as president for - what? - a decade or so. Like, has he ever seen a popular demonstration against him like this before?

KAHN: No, this is the biggest challenge he's faced. It's probably the biggest popular demonstrations Nicaragua has seen since the end of the country's civil war, like you said, three decades ago, that ushered Ortega and the Sandinistas into power. But, you know, discontent with him has been growing. He was elected again in 2007. He's been in power for about 11 straight years. And this time, he's been able to really consolidate his power and his family's hold on the country. He controls not only the Congress but the military and the Supreme Court here. And he's slowly eroded democratic institutions, and people have been fed up for a while.

GREENE: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting this morning from the Nicaraguan capital.

Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.


Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.