June 14 (UPI) -- Business leaders and activists in Nicaragua have called for a nationwide strike Thursday to protest human rights abuses by the government and its National Police, which critics say is responsible for most of the 146 deaths since protests against social security reforms broke out in April.
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy -- a group consisting of business leaders, student activists and rural workers who have banded together against the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega -- called for the strike to last from midnight to 11:59 p.m. Thursday. The goal is to achieve more progress in talks with the government, which has shown little desire to accept any opposition demands, including democratic reforms and early elections in an effort to oust Ortega.
"We urge all business owners, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, independent professionals and self-employed businesses to close their establishments and cease activities," said José Adán Aguerri, president of the Supreme Council of Private Businesses. "This is a peaceful, nationwide civic strike covering the whole country and all economic activities, except those related to the preservation of life and the coverage of basic services for the population."
The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has also backed the strike.
"We support the national strike in Nicaragua because it will demand an end to the repression, and support democratic and peaceful change, and a return to dialogue," Bishop Silvio José Báez of the archdiocese of Managua tweeted.
Meanwhile, the government launched a social media campaign against the strike with hashtags like #ParoNoTrabajoSi (strike no, work yes) and anecdotes from workers, like street vendors and restaurant workers who explain why they can't afford to take a day off.
"Small business owners, taxi drivers and state workers reject the 24-hour strike called for by the right wing," state media channel 13 said in an Instagram post.
It remains unclear how many people and businesses will participate in the strike. Some large businesses, such as U.S.-based call centers where thousands of people are employed to handle the customer service calls for American companies, will stay open, employees told UPI. Many independent employees like taxi drivers also said they will go to work. However, several stores and restaurants have vowed on social media to participate in the strike and close for the day. Opposition newspaper La Prensa said it would not print an edition Thursday.
Although not everyone is participating in the strike, it seems most people are preparing. Grocery stores in the capital city of Managua and Granada had lines out the door as people stocked up on food and supplies, with some worrying the strike could last longer than one day.
This isn't the first time a nationwide strike has been called to protest the government.
During the Sandinista-led revolt to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza during the 1970s, several national strikes were implemented in 1978 and 1979, with some lasting several weeks. Those strikes were a coordinated effort between an unlikely pairing -- the business class and Marxist-inspired Sandinistas. And although Thursday's strike is expected to last only one day, it is similar to the strikes 40 years ago in that business groups are participating.
"Somoza had the support of economic elites," said Jeffrey Gould, a history professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who has studied social movements in Nicaragua. "But he lost that support after several corruption scandals. Ortega had the support of business elite, which he left alone as long as they pay taxes and stay out of politics. The fact that the business elite are going on strike shows that support is gone."
Business leaders like Carlos Pellas, the wealthiest man in Nicaragua best known for his Flor de Caña rum line and once a close associate of Ortega's, have been vocal about wanting early elections. But Ortega hasn't indicated he will succumb to that demand, instead vowing to finish his current term, which doesn't end for another four years.
The national strike comes after anti-government demonstrators have increased the number of roadblocks -- or tranques -- around the country to pressure the government. The roadblocks range from large barricades on highways that strangle the flow of trucks carrying goods to a few scattered tires or tree branches on side streets that do little more than hinder people's ability to get in and out of neighborhoods. Their continued presence has become a part of life for many Nicaraguans, who have to navigate around the roadblocks or wait until they're allowed to pass, which can take hours or, in some cases, days.
There has also been a steady occurrence of violence around the country, especially in the smaller cities.
On Wednesday night, four people were killed by pro-government gangs in Matagalpa, according to La Prensa.
On Tuesday, Nicaragua's national police said an armed group attacked a police station in Mulukuku, killing two officers. Later that night, anti-government demonstrators burned down a police station in Diriamba.