Alex Vanegas, center, who had been imprisoned by the government of President Daniel Ortega for protesting against the regime, is released by prison authorities, in Managua, Nicaragua, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Ortega's government has released dozens of people arrested in a last year's crackdown on street protests, just hours before talks between the government and opponents are scheduled to begin. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga)

Nicaragua talks on crisis begin, dozens of prisoners freed

February 27, 2019 - 8:42 pm

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Representatives of President Daniel Ortega and the opposition sat down face-to-face in a restart of long-stalled talks on resolving Nicaragua's political crisis Wednesday, shortly after authorities released dozens of people arrested in last year's crackdown on anti-government protests.

The meeting at a business institute south of the capital, Managua, was held behind closed doors and journalists were not allowed access.

The first day had been expected to be used to set the agenda and format for talks, and at its end the sides released a statement saying they agreed to nine of the 12 points on a preliminary road map and would meet again Thursday. The statement read by Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag did not provide details about what the points were. The talks were held behind closed doors and journalists were not allowed access.

Ortega did not take part in the talks but was represented by his foreign minister, a magistrate, several lawmakers and a student leader. The opposition delegation included several prominent business leaders, a noted academic, a politician and a university student. Sommertag , the Vatican's ambassador to Nicaragua, and Managua's cardinal were present as observers.

Last year's protests demanding Ortega leave office and allow early elections prompted a deadly crackdown by security forces and armed, pro-government civilian groups. At least 325 people were killed, 2,000 wounded, hundreds imprisoned and more than 50,000 fled into exile.

One of the opposition's primary demands has been the release of the estimated 770-plus people considered political prisoners jailed for participating in demonstrations.

Hours before talks began Wednesday, several vans carrying people in inmates' uniforms left the Modelo prison in the capital escorted by heavily armed police in trucks.

Some inside waved small blue-and-white Nicaraguan flags, a frequent gesture in last year's protests. Government supporters prefer the red-and-black banners of Ortega's Sandinista party.

"Long live a free Nicaragua!" Alex Vanegas, 61, exclaimed through the window of one of the vehicles. "While the country may be small, one dreams of it being great."

Families and lawyers of several prisoners said the released inmates had turned up at their homes.

The government announced that 100 prisoners had been let out on conditional release. The Committee of Relatives of Political Prisoners had earlier put the number at about 60, mostly the elderly or people with health problems.

Besides prisoner releases, other main points on the opposition's agenda for talks are restoring freedom of expression rights following the shutdowns of media outlets, arrests of some journalists and a de facto ban on anti-government protests; electoral reform and an early date for elections currently scheduled for 2021; and a plan for delivering justice to victims of the crackdown and their families.

The government has not made its agenda public, but official media published the results of a poll in which 80 percent of respondents hoped for a solution to economic problems unleashed by the crisis.

The unrest plunged Nicaragua into economic contraction after years of stable growth, and authorities have estimated losses at over $1.6 billion.

On Tuesday the Sandinista-dominated parliament approved a disputed tax reform that aims to recoup $307 million to cover the deficit. Critics argue that it will cause prices of basic goods to rise, and members of the private sector have warned it threatens a further blow to the economy.

The measure's passage was surprising because many had speculated about a possible agreement between Ortega and the business community to shelve it pending the outcome of the negotiations.

The previous talks lasted from May 16 to July 9 and were attended by student, business and civic groups organized in the Civic Alliance.

Many of the leaders of the2018 protests have been arrested or gone into hiding or exile.

Former Gen. Hugo Torres, now vice president of the dissident Sandinista Renewal Movement, alleged that Ortega hopes "to bend the businessmen" so they agree to negotiate fiscal issues and leave aside other opposition demands such as the release of all the prisoners and discussion of electoral reform.

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