US top envoy calls for ‘dialogue’ in rare call with Nicaragua FM

Blinken calls for dialogue in the rare high-level contact between the countries, a day after 222 prisoners released.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to his Nicaraguan counterpart, foreign minister Denis Moncada, in a rare high-level contact between the two countries.

The call on Friday came a day after Managua released 222 political prisoners arrested in crackdowns in the wake of anti-government protests that began in the Latin American country in 2018. The majority of those prisoners were allowed to travel to the United States.

The move has been seen as an attempt by President Daniel Ortega to begin to repair ties with the US. Relations have severely deteriorated in recent years as regional and Western powers have increasingly decried Ortega’s action and Washington has imposed a slew of sanctions.

In a brief statement released after Friday’s call, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Blinken and Moncada discussed the prisoners as well as “the importance of constructive dialogue”.

Price had previously said that weeks of negotiations had preceded the prisoners’ release, although Ortega has denied extensive talks preceded the release.

Washington has said nothing was promised to Ortega in return for releasing the prisoners.

US officials have said all of those released travelled to the US except for two of the prisoners who chose to stay in Nicaragua.

One of those prisoners who chose to stay, Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez, was sentenced to 26 years in prison on Friday, stripped of his citizenship and fined.

US officials said they would allow the former prisoners to stay in the country for at least two years and would provide medical and legal support. Spain later said it would offer citizenship to the released.

A court official in Nicaragua’s capital Managua, meanwhile, had said the prisoners were “deported” and called them “traitors to the homeland”.

Speaking during a news conference on Friday, opposition leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro, who was among those released, said Ortega had freed the prisoners after “political pressure” had grown.

“I think (Ortega) wanted to basically send the opposition outside of the country into exile,” he said.

A former revolutionary, Ortega served as president of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

He returned to the presidency in 2007, and has been increasingly accused of rights abuses and seeking to consolidate power, including quashing presidential term limits and seizing control of all branches of the government.

Following the mass arrest of opposition figures, Ortega easily won a fourth term in November 2021.

US President Joe Biden, at the time, decried the vote as a “pantomime election”.

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