Central American universities are under threat (opinion)

the predetermined elections in Nicaragua which installed Daniel Ortega for a fourth consecutive term at the end of last year came as little surprise to the international community. World leaders and diplomats have called for the restoration of democracy and the release of political prisoners. Instead, Ortega determined that “election” was permission to move even closer to a dictatorship. As proof of this, mock trials started last month more than 170 political prisoners who had dared to speak out or campaign against Ortega, including political scientist, activist and our collaborator from the Central American Research Alliance, Felix Maradiaga, who was guilty of “conspiracy”. Prison sentences of up to 13 years have been handed down for simply participating in a democratic process. At least one political prisoner has deceasedwould have been detained in inhumane conditions.

After stifle any critical voice of civil society in recent years, Ortega is now out for the academy and the Roman Catholic Church. Fourteen private universities have been firm by the Nicaraguan regime in recent months, and more than 14,000 students have not been able to return to class as planned. Perhaps the country’s most outspoken and critical university – the University of Central America (UCA) in Managua – remains in the crosshairs. After a armed attack by government-aligned forces and death threats against the president of the university during the 2018 unrest, the UCA now faces the same attempts to nullify its legal status like other universities in the country. If the UCA has avoided closure so far, it is partly thanks to its international connections via the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests, who founded it in 1960. It is also partly thanks to the Vatican and its representative in the country. Ortega was initially reluctant to walk through the church, that is, until the the church has finally spoken against Ortega’s rapid slide into dictatorship and regime expelled the papal nuncio last month.

No university should fear government interference as it achieves its goal of teaching the next generation and providing evidence for social and scientific debate. Unfortunately, this has was not the case in other repressive countries like China, Egypt, Hungary, Russia and Turkey.

Far from being just one more step towards the elimination of free debate, the dismantling of universities deals an almost fatal blow to democracy. Lack of training in important technical and scientific skills will limit economic development and private sector growth for a generation. Lack of experience in social science study and research will also long undermine the public sector and critical social services. All of this weakens the important counterweight that these sectors provide to government.

Beyond their role as superior centers of scientific research in the region, Jesuit universities in Central America have been and continue to be important promoters of ethical and moral leadership. Guided by, but not limited to, Catholic social teaching, UCA in Managua and its sister UCA in San Salvador have for decades been outspoken in their evidence-based advocacy for the most vulnerable.

At no time was this more evident than during the last half of the 20th century, when war ravaged both countries. Priests, faculty, staff and students from both countries advocated for the rights of the oppressed and for the peaceful resolution of disputes. In El Salvador, Jesuit leaders and UCA scholars have used their training in psychology, philosophy, and theology to challenge the systematic injustices and indiscriminate killings suffered by the marginalized. Their intellect, moral reasoning and belief in the right to dissent resulted in their targeting by the Salvadoran military and ultimately their killings on UCA grounds in 1989.

the UCA martyrs in El Salvador are an eternal reminder of the central role universities can play in advancing the common good in the face of repressive governments. Not since the killings more than 30 years ago have universities in the region faced such an existential threat.


The return of dictators to Central America did not happen overnight. Decades of promising reforms and institution building followed the war years. However, the pendulum has started to swing back to where governments in the region were nearly a century ago, with strongman dictators ruling the poor majority through oppression and political violence.

As with the rise of global populism that has spread from country to country around the world, dictators are watching and learning from each other. In 2020, for example, the Ortega regime instituted a “foreign agents law” that have limited the ability of civil society, including our partner universities and think tanks, to receive and use funding from abroad. A year later, Nayib Bukele’s regime in El Salvador had a copy of Nicaraguan law to the general assembly for debate, and a vote is now pending.

Mexican academics and journalists face a two-pronged battle against the government and organized crime, given their role in the pursuit of transparency. Meanwhile, in both El Salvador and Guatemala, the rule of law and due process have been destroyed by illegal executive actions similar to those in Nicaragua and Venezuela over the years to remove prosecutors and judges who are considered hostile or who have opened investigations into corruption within the executive.

Hope for the future

Honduras is the somewhat unlikely sign of hope in the region after the numerous allegations of voter fraud in the 2017 election, which ushered in the second term of incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández. But the new Xiomara Castro administration, installed in January, has made the fight against corruption and respect for human rights its main mission and kept a promise begin to re-establish an international anti-corruption commission in the country. the Stop Hernández, the former president, facing extradition to the United States for drug trafficking, is also a positive step towards fulfilling campaign promises. However, there is still a long way to go to ensure transparency and the rule of law for all.

How far will anti-democratic actions go in each country? The answer to this question largely depends on the response of the international community, including university and church leaders. While regional and global governments must continue to push for democratic standards to be upheld, they must be joined by university and church leaders to stop the contagion and restore freedom of expression – including academic freedom and protection against undue interference in universities – as a universal right. law. Universities and the Catholic Church, while far from perfect, are respected and guided by Christian principles ostensibly shared by leaders in the region. We must not be silent.

In our research, we found that having hope for the future is the strongest predictor of people wanting to stay or migrate from Central America. Universities everywhere, especially those whose mission, rooted in Catholic social teaching, is to promote social change in favor of the most vulnerable, are indispensable to the establishment which hopes for a better future. They should not be silenced.

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