- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2018

Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday lashed out at Nicaragua’s government and President Daniel Ortega for increasing attacks on the Catholic Church amid the Central American country’s ongoing protests and violence.

“The Ortega/Murillo regime in #Nicaragua has in essence declared war on the church & it’s clergy,” the Florida Republican tweeted on Monday.

“Lost in all the coverage of other issues is this rapidly escalating crisis in our hemisphere which has direct implications on our national security & interests,” he added.

Demonstrations that began in April as student-led rallies have morphed into a national rebellion against Mr. Ortega, who led the anti-U.S. Sandinista insurgency in the 1980s and has been president since 2007. The crackdown on the protests, which began over proposed cuts in social welfare programs, have left almost 300 people dead and more than 2,000 wounded — with the U.N. last week warning of human rights violations by Mr. Ortega’s paramilitary forces.

In the early weeks of the demonstrations, Mr. Ortega supported the Catholic Church mediating dialogue with opposition groups.

But as the uprising has evolved, violence against Church leadership and worshipers has multiplied, with at least seven churches having reported being vandalized. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua was mobbed earlier this month by hooded Ortega supporters.

In recent weeks the Church, led by Pope Francis, has increased its support of the protesters, including hosting Mr. Brenes at the Vatican.

Mr. Ortega is now lashing out at the clergy, issuing a direct attack during a July 19 Revolution Day speech.

“I thought they were mediators, but no, they are beholden to the coup plotters,” said Mr. Ortega, referencing his argument that the protests have been manufactured by outsiders in a bid to topple his rule.

On Sunday, Mr. Rubio warned that “the possibility of a civil war in Nicaragua is real”, telling CNN that the escalating situation could “trigger a migratory crisis”.

“It would undermine our anti-drug efforts in the region,” he added. “There is a direct national security interest for the United States in seeing democracy and stability in Nicaragua.”

In a sign of the Trump administration tightening focus on the issue, earlier this month Treasury Department officials imposed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act on three of Mr. Ortega’s closest associates, including the head of the national police, for alleged corruption and human rights violations relations.

On Sunday Mr. Rubio said more penalties against Nicaraguan entities and individuals were in the works.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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