Nicaragua seizes Catholic university accused of being ‘centre of terrorism’

Critics have accused the government of President Daniel Ortega of continuing its attacks on education and religion.

Students walk by the entrance to a school, with the letters "UCA" written about the gateway.
Students file past the Central American University in March 2022, shortly after the government of Daniel Ortega instituted reforms designed to increase his control over the education system [File: Maynor Valenzuela/Reuters]

The Nicaraguan government has seized a prominent Jesuit-run university in the capital Managua, in President Daniel Ortega’s latest effort to lash out against the Catholic Church.

The Central American University (UCA) announced on Wednesday that all classes and administrative activities were suspended after a criminal court ruled its property and financial accounts were being transferred to the government.

The Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order that runs the school, told reporters that the government had accused the university of being “a centre of terrorism organised by criminal groups”.

United Nations denounces seizure

In the wake of the announcement, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement condemning the university’s confiscation.

“The impact of this measure with the suspension of classes seriously affects the right to education, which is essential for the fulfilment of other human rights,” the OHCHR wrote.

The agency called on Nicaragua to respect its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the right to education.

Other critics of Ortega, a longtime leader in the Sandinista movement, also spoke out against the university’s closure on Wednesday.

“The unjust and illegal confiscation of the UCA by the Sandinista dictatorship is outrageous,” exiled Nicaraguan bishop Silvio Jose Baez wrote on social media.

“In this way, they demonstrate their contempt for intellectual freedom, quality education and critical thinking. Every day, they sink deeper into their irrationality, their wickedness and their fear.”

Another exiled Nicaraguan, historian Dora Maria Tellez, also denounced the move as an act of “dictatorship”.

“The university with the highest academic quality in the country has been liquidated,” Tellez, an alumna, said. But, she added, the classrooms will open again when the country is free.

The opposition movement Tellez is a part of – the Union Democratica Renovadora or UNAMOS – released a statement decrying the end of “the last bastion of critical thinking and freedom of education in Nicaragua”.

Attacks on higher education

The university’s seizure is part of a pattern under the Ortega administration, which has faced international criticism for its heavy-headed approach to stifling dissent.

Starting in February 2022, the country’s legislature, dominated by Ortega loyalists, revoked the legal status of several private universities, perceived to be hotbeds for government opposition.

Other campuses – the overseas branches of foreign universities – were likewise shuttered.

Those institutions were subsequently placed under state authority through the National Council of Universities.

Nicaragua’s legislature followed that move with reforms to limit the independence of universities and cut government funding to institutions like the Central American University.

Critics believe Ortega and his allies have targeted universities for their role in the widespread antigovernment protests that jolted the country in 2018. Proposed cuts to social security brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets, many of them youth.

Those young protest leaders often used universities as spaces to organise. The Polytechnic University in the capital Managua – one of the institutions whose legal status was later cancelled – was among the institutions that saw young people occupy its campus, building barricades and amassing medical supplies and equipment.

Clashes with government forces ultimately left at least 355 people dead over the following year, some of whom were killed at the university itself.

Catholic Church a target

Since the 2018 protests, the Ortega administration has ramped up efforts to crack down on its critics by imprisoning political rivals and closing nongovernmental groups.

The UN estimates more than 3,200 organisations have been forced to shutter between June 2022 and June 2023 alone, including the local branch of the Red Cross.

Among those institutions are radio stations, schools and other groups associated with the Catholic Church. Ortega has been an outspoken critic of the church, particularly since 2018, when the Catholic leaders attempted to serve as mediators between the government and protesters.

The talks ultimately floundered, and Ortega has since denounced bishops and priests as “coup plotters” acting on behalf of “American imperialism”.

In 2022, Ortega expelled the Vatican’s ambassador from Nicaragua, and police arrested a prominent Catholic leader, Bishop Rolando Alvarez, for “destabilising and provocative” activities.

When Nicaragua flew 222 political prisoners to the United States in February, Alvarez was anticipated to be among the deported. But he refused to board the plane and was subsequently sentenced to 26 years in prison.

He was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship, as were the political prisoners flown into exile.

Central American University, the institution targeted on Wednesday, was not only a prominent Catholic institution in Nicaragua, but it was also a springboard for some of the country’s most influential voices.

Ortega himself briefly attended in the early 1960s to study law.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies