Written by: Samantha Orozco
Since 2018, Nicaragua has been experiencing an unprecedented political crisis that has led to a series of human rights violations against its population. The limitation on the exercise of fundamental rights, recognised in both the Nicaraguan Constitution and international treaties to which Nicaragua is a party, has not ceased since the onset of citizen protests against the regime. These restrictions have escalated since the controversial re-election of Daniel Ortega as president, who assumed office alongside his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president, following elections deemed arbitrary and fraudulent by the international community.
The field of education has not been exempt from this series of violations and arbitrary actions by the authorities of this Central American country. A concerning example is the closure of 27 universities in Nicaragua, which has affected over 37,000 higher education students and even forced university professors into exile. This situation gained more prominence after the closure of two of the country’s most recognised university centres: the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and the INCAE Business School. In addition to having their legal status revoked, these institutions were also confiscated.
Background on the Ortega-Murillo Regime
In 2018, Nicaragua experienced a profound political and social crisis. It began with municipal elections in November 2017, which were heavily criticised due to allegations of fraud and lack of transparency. These elections marked the beginning of a period of growing political polarisation in the country.
The situation worsened in April 2018 when the government of Daniel Ortega announced a reform to the social security system that triggered widespread protests across the country. These protests, led mostly by university students and civil society, resulted in a violent response from the government. The repression by the police and government-affiliated paramilitary groups led to a high number of casualties, as well as the detention of protesters and opposition leaders.
Since 2018, the situation in Nicaragua related to the violation of human rights has been on the rise, resulting in the closure and cancellation of media outlets and non-profit organisations, the expulsion of international missions, the cancellation of political parties, and the imprisonment of opposition leaders.i This ultimately led to the 2021 elections in which Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, competed as the sole presidential ticket. These elections were rejected due to evident irregularities that silenced the opposition and sowed fear among voters.
During their new term, the government of Ortega and Murillo has followed a single mission: to silence criticism, attack the opposition, and control the country’s institutions. The education and university sector has not gone unnoticed, becoming another target of the regime to consolidate control over the population.
Measures against Universities: At least 26 universities have been cancelled.
As mentioned earlier, the Ortega government has made several decisions that have led to the closure and revocation of the legal status of media outlets, non-profit organisations, and, of course, private universities in the country. To understand this situation better, it is essential to recall that university students led the citizen protest movements against the Ortega regime. Therefore, this could be seen as a retaliation and an effort by the government to control students and their civic engagement. These arbitrary measures should be understood as a way for the government to ensure aligned thinking that does not encourage criticism or scrutiny, which also jeopardises academic freedom through intimidation and persecution of teachers considered traitors to the regime.
The measures taken against universities not only violate human rights but also run counter to the Nicaraguan Constitution, which protects the autonomy of universities and prohibits the confiscation of their assets. So far, 26 universities have had their legal status revoked, with reasons for revocation ranging from allegations of financial opacity or non-compliance with educational standards to more serious accusations such as money laundering, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. The cancellations began with the confiscation of Universidad Politécnica (Upoli), culminating in the shocking cancellation and expropriation of UCA and the INCAE headquarters, two of the most renowned universities in the Central American region.ii
UCA was cancelled through government decree, under the accusation of being a hub for terrorism. This action has been the pinnacle of Ortega’s religious persecution against the Catholic Church, which has been running through this university founded by Jesuits and belonging to the Latin American network of universities entrusted to the Society of Jesus (AUSJAL for its acronym in Spanish). In response to the closure of UCA, AUSJAL issued a press release condemning the actions of the Nicaraguan government, declaring, “The UCA has been slandered and harassed, just like the more than three thousand civil society organisations in Nicaragua.’´iii Additionally, hundreds of professionals expressed their outrage and called for the reinstatement of the legal status of this university. This illustrates the significant blow that Ortega has dealt not only to Nicaragua’s education sector but to the entire region. In an interview, Miquel Cortés Bofil, Rector of Universidad Rafael Landivar mentioned to Broken Chalk ‘’Certainly the University is not a centre of terrorism, nor has it ever been. It is a study house where critical thinking and responsible and democratic citizenship are encouraged. Accusations of “terrorism” are unfounded.’’ Now, the defunct UCA has been renamed the National University Casimiro Sotelo Montenegro in honour of a leader of the Sandinista movement.
The most recent action against the university system occurred with the closure and expropriation of the INCAE campus in Nicaragua. This stirred indignation among professionals throughout the Latin American region, as this was the first campus of one of the most prestigious business schools in the region.iv The justification for its revocation, according to the government resolution, was a lack of transparency in its financial statements. The most deplorable aspect of these measures is that university representatives have been denied their right to a defence, as the challenges to the resolutions have been dismissed by the relevant judicial bodies, leaving them without access to an objective and impartial justice that can protect against such arbitrary actions.v A situation proper of a dictatorship where all institutions and bodies are co-opted.
The CNU, the Accomplice of the Ortega-Murillo Regime
These attacks on education and the academy have had key institutions and actors. In this case, it is important to mention the National Council of Universities (CNU) of Nicaragua as the institution that has facilitated these actions. Without key allies, these arbitrary actions against the country’s universities would not be possible. The CNU of Nicaragua is an entity responsible for the coordination and supervision of public universities in the country. It plays a significant role in the regulation and planning of higher education in Nicaragua. This institution is composed of the rectors of public universities. It is responsible for establishing educational policies, accrediting academic programs, and supervising the quality of education in public higher education institutions.
Currently, the CNU is presided over by Ramona Rodríguez, the rector of UNAN-Managua, who has been a key figure in the attack on the autonomy of Nicaraguan universities and is responsible for jeopardising higher education in the country. Rodríguez has been a loyal supporter of the Ortega regime and has been the public face justifying the closure of universities in the country.
An example of this is what was highlighted by the former authorities of UCA, who emphasised that since 2018, when the protests began, the CNU had begun to strangle the university by not extending certifications for its operation, excluding it as a member of the CNU, which meant it could not receive the corresponding budget allocation as established in the constitution.vi Furthermore, Rodríguez has publicly justified the closure of several universities on the grounds of financial transparency or not meeting minimum quality and infrastructure standards. In response to this, Adrián Meza, an exiled professor from the University Paulo Freire, stated to the media that “many of the universities that have been closed under these pretexts were in the middle of verification processes and were not granted the right to defend themselves”.vii
In addition, the CNU has implemented new policies following reforms approved by the legislative assembly to the General Education Law and the Law on Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions, centralising functions within the CNU and undermining university autonomy. Among the new powers granted to the CNU is the exclusive authority to open or close universities in the country, among others, turning it into a dangerous weapon against higher education.
Challenges for Students and Academics
University students and educators have viewed these actions with dismay, considering that the availability of higher education programs has diminished. Many students who were pursuing degrees at universities that have been closed have encountered difficulties in resuming their studies or obtaining their respective degrees due to a series of rigorous administrative requirements imposed by the CNU. Additionally, educators have faced limitations in job opportunities and academic freedom as their curricula are increasingly controlled. Furthermore, a significant number of university educators are now in exile following government persecution by being labelled as conspirators or traitors to the nation. The Interamerican Commission of Human Rights heavily condemned this situation in a press communication in which the actions were qualified as an “arbitrary interference towards academic freedom”.viii
In response to this series of abuses, some universities in the Central American region have taken action to provide support to students and faculty members in exile. The efforts of Jesuit universities such as the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador exemplify this. These institutions have led initiatives to enable students from the UCA to continue their studies. According to Landivar’s Rector Cortés ‘’Around 2,300 students have requested information from the UCA in El Salvador and the Rafael Landívar in Guatemala to continue their studies virtually. The two Central American universities have formed an inter-institutional commission, and we are responding to the students…’’
Nicaragua: A New Role Model for the Central American Region?
Nicaragua has become an example of antidemocratic standards in the Central American region due to the policies implemented against those considered opposition. Therefore, in light of the democratic crisis prevailing in the region, there is a significant fear that if the situation worsens in neighbouring countries, such actions that undermine higher education could become a popular measure. This is a reminder of the historical role of universities in Central America and the student movements that originate from their classrooms.
In this context, it is essential to remember the university martyrs who fought for freedom and democracy in Central America, often facing persecution and violence for their convictions in the darkest times of the region. Examples such as the assassination of Ignacio Ellacuría by the military in El Salvador or the persecution and murder of student leaders in Guatemala, such as Oliverio Castañeda, serve as stark reminders of the risks faced in universities when one is critical during a dictatorship.
Nicaragua has experienced a profound political and social crisis since 2018, marked by controversial elections, protests, and government repression under Daniel Ortega’s leadership. The situation has worsened with human rights violations, the closure of media outlets, and the persecution of opposition leaders. Furthermore, the role of the National Council of Universities (CNU), led by Ramona Rodríguez, has been instrumental in implementing policies that threaten university autonomy and restrict higher education. These actions have affected both students and educators, with numerous universities closed and a growing diaspora of academics. This situation not only poses a challenge for students and professors but also sets a dangerous precedent in the Central American region, where higher education and academic freedom are at risk. The situation in Nicaragua serves as a reminder of the importance of always defending higher education and human rights, especially during times of democratic crisis.
i Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) (2023). Comunicado de prensa sobre la situación en Nicaragua. https://www.oas.org/es/CIDH/jsForm/?File=/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2023/201.asp
ii La Prensa. (2022). Régimen de Nicaragua ha cerrado 17 universidades privadas en los últimos 16 meses. https://www.laprensani.com/2023/05/02/nacionales/3140523-regimen-de-nicaragua-ha-cerrado-17-universidades-privadas-en-los-ultimos-16-meses
iii AUSJAL. (2023). Comunicado “Todos somos la UCA Nicaragua”. https://www.ausjal.org/comunicado-todos-somos-la-uca-nicaragua/
iv INCAE Business School. (2023). Sobre la cancelación de la personería jurídica de INCAE Business School en Nicaragua. https://www.incae.edu/es/blog/2023/09/26/sobre-la-cancelacion-de-la-personeria-juridica-de-incae-business-school-en-nicaragua
v Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (ICHR). (2021). Principios para la Libertad Académica. https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/informes/pdfs/principios_libertad_academica.pdf
vi Swissinfo. (2023). El gobierno de Nicaragua cierra 2 universidades privadas más y ordena decomisar sus bienes. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/nicaragua-crisis_el-gobierno-de-nicaragua-cierra-2-universidades-privadas-m%C3%A1s-y-ordena-decomisar-sus-bienes/48697976
vii La Prensa. (2022). Régimen de Nicaragua ha cerrado 17 universidades privadas en los últimos 16 meses. https://www.laprensani.com/2023/05/02/nacionales/3140523-regimen-de-nicaragua-ha-cerrado-17-universidades-privadas-en-los-ultimos-16-meses
viii Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) (2023). Comunicado de prensa sobre la situación en Nicaragua. https://www.oas.org/es/CIDH/jsForm/?File=/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2023/201.asp
- Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) (2023). Comunicado de prensa sobre la situación en Nicaragua. https://www.oas.org/es/CIDH/jsForm/?File=/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2023/201.asp
- La Prensa. (2022). Régimen de Nicaragua ha cerrado 17 universidades privadas en los últimos 16 meses. https://www.laprensani.com/2023/05/02/nacionales/3140523-regimen-de-nicaragua-ha-cerrado-17-universidades-privadas-en-los-ultimos-16-meses
- AUSJAL. (2023). Comunicado “Todos somos la UCA Nicaragua”. https://www.ausjal.org/comunicado-todos-somos-la-uca-nicaragua/
- INCAE Business School. (2023). Sobre la cancelación de la personería jurídica de INCAE Business School en Nicaragua. https://www.incae.edu/es/blog/2023/09/26/sobre-la-cancelacion-de-la-personeria-juridica-de-incae-business-school-en-nicaragua
- Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (ICHR). (2021). Principios para la Libertad Académica. https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/informes/pdfs/principios_libertad_academica.pdf
- Swissinfo. (2023). El gobierno de Nicaragua cierra 2 universidades privadas más y ordena decomisar sus bienes. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/nicaragua-crisis_el-gobierno-de-nicaragua-cierra-2-universidades-privadas-m%C3%A1s-y-ordena-decomisar-sus-bienes/48697976
- Interview to Adrian Meza by Café con Voz. (2023). INCAE, UCA, y el régimen: Incapacidad. https://cafeconvoz.com/2023/09/26/incae-uca-regimen-incapacidad-adrian-meza/