Trouble in paradise as nation turns into ghost town
SIX months ago, tourists flocked to the Central American paradise of Nicaragua to race down volcanoes on thin, wooden boards, explore its Caribbean coast and watch turtles heave themselves onto black sand beaches under cover of moonlight.
But three months ago, all of that changed.
On April 18, the government announced it would reform its pension system and reduce benefits by five per cent. The changes were approved by Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and a pro-democracy protest immediately kicked off on the streets.
Despite starting out as a peaceful demonstration, it quickly dissolved into a deadly and bloody protest, ending with the deaths of more than a dozen people.
Since then, almost 300 people have died in the government's brutal crackdown.
People living in Managua, Nicaragua's capital city, have witnessed police officers force protesters to their knees and execute them. Gangs patrol the streets after dark, forcing locals into house arrest for much of the night.
'NO TOURISTS COMING INTO THE COUNTRY'
While most of the brutal protests are concentrated in the big cities, the violence has had a detrimental effect on Nicaragua's tourism.
After a bloody revolution in the 1990s, the country was on its way to becoming a top tourist destination for backpackers trickling south from Mexico or north from Costa Rica.
But the civil unrest has forced the industry into downturn again.
Hostels in the party town of San Juan Del Sur, the most popular destination for backpackers in Nicaragua, told news.com.au they had been forced to close their doors.
An owner of Casa De Olas, a busy hostel in the beachside town, said no tourists were coming into the country anymore.
"It's a sad story right now. The President will hopefully step down and things can have a chance to get back on track," he said.
"We waited until last week to close … there was no tourists coming into the country.
"San Juan is very tranquil and still relaxed. The majority of violence is Managua, Granada and some in Rivas. The biggest issue is no one is working with no tourism or regular work. People are reverting to the old times of fishing and growing food already."
In Managua, all foreign-owned tourism businesses have shut up shop.
Nations such as Australia, the US and the UK are advising their citizens to "reconsider their need to travel" to Nicaragua.
Smartraveller, our government's travel advice website, has warned Aussies to reconsider their need to go to Nicaragua due to "civil unrest".
"Violent protests are ongoing in various parts of Nicaragua, including Managua, Leon and other urban centres, and have resulted in a number of deaths and injuries. The protests started on 18 April, 2018, and clashes have involved the use of teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Looting and roadblocks have been reported across the country," the warning reads.
A number of other hostels have penned emotional Facebook posts explaining why they're temporarily closed.
Naked Tiger Hostel, also situated in San Juan Del Sur, said it would continue to support Nicaragua, after announcing its closure on June 9.
"It's with great sadness that after seven spectacular years, The Naked Tiger will be temporarily closing our gates as a result of the current political unrest in Nicaragua," the hostel said.
"We support this beautiful nation of passionate citizens in their fight for freedom and true democracy, and will be overjoyed when this wonderful country which we call home is back on its feet again. Once we can ensure the safety of our staff and our guests, we will be reopening our doors and - just like Nicaragua - we will be coming back bigger and better than ever. Naked Tiger Style!"
BigFoot Hostel in Leon, famous for offering volcano boarding, also shut up shop on June 18.
INSIDE THE CRISIS
The known death toll from a four-month crackdown on anti-government protests in Nicaragua has risen to 264, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said this week.
"As recorded by the IACHR since the start of the repression against social protests, to date, 264 people have lost their lives and more than 1800 have been injured," commission chief Paulo Abrao told reporters.
He was speaking at a meeting of the Organisation of American States - of which the IACHR is part - about the situation in the violence-wracked Central American country, where protesters are seeking the ouster of President Daniel Ortega.
The Catholic Church has proposed an early election for Nicaragua, moving the date to 2019 instead of 2021, a suggestion President Ortega shut down.
On Sunday, Nicaragua had its deadliest day since the protests began on April 18 after the 38 people were left dead.
The bloody assault, in Managua, left 31 civilians, four police officers and three members of President Ortega's paramilitary group dead.
The rights body had previously given a death toll of 212, although local estimates recently put it at about 250.
#Nicaragua is sliding into a dangerous spiral of violence & impunity with killings taking place daily. Reprisals against those holding dissenting views against the government should not be tolerated. We urge the authorities to meet their #HumanRights obligations. pic.twitter.com/fqTKQ1gy6C— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) July 13, 2018
The influential Roman Catholic church has been mediating between President Ortega's government and the opposition to end the unrest, but the process has become bogged down amid continuing violence.
In the latest outburst, at least 14 people died in a weekend raid by a pro-government mob near the opposition bastion of Masaya, in the country's southwest.
"No one's coming in, unless they kill every last one of us," a man, guarding a Monimbo barricade with his face covered by a cap and olive green shirt, told AFP.
The opposition is cracking up the pressure on President Ortega with an anti-government protest and general strike.
Another human rights group also charged the Nicaraguan army with using military weapons against civilians in the crackdown against deadly unrest.
The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association demanded that the armed forces investigate allegations that the military was overstepping in its use of grenade launchers and automatic weapons against civilian demonstrators.
A former leftist guerrilla, President Ortega will next week commemorate the 1979 popular uprising that brought him to power with an annual July 19 march due to start in Masaya.
Once the hero of left-wing revolutionaries, President Ortega is now widely viewed as an oppressor.
Anti-government rallies continue in opposition stronghold in Nicaragua pic.twitter.com/5YV6z4uFsH— Ruptly (@Ruptly) July 13, 2018
Having lost a presidential vote in 1990, he was re-elected in 2007 but opponents have accused him - together with his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo - of establishing a dictatorship characterised by nepotism and brutal repression.
Tomorrow, President Ortega's government plans to countermeasure a protest led by anti-government forces.
The government has branded the activists as "criminals" and "terrorists", while Chancellor Denis Moncada described the IACHR report as "prejudiced and lacking objectivity".
- with wires