Government Attacks on Higher Education in Nicaragua Put Research and Scholars at Risk | Science
The crackdown on academia in Nicaragua has intensified over the past three months. The government of President Daniel Ortega closed eight private universities and confiscated their assets, ended university autonomy and erected barriers to foreign research collaborations. “They are killing universities,” says chemist Ernesto Medina, former dean of American University, a private institution in Managua that remains open. “All of these measures serve to silence critical voices in academia and stifle critical thinking.”
Ortega has been president for 15 years, having won re-elections internationally condemned as farcical. In April 2018, students took to the streets in anti-government protests. The government responded with an unprecedented crackdown. Police and paramilitary groups have killed more than 300 people and arrested more than 1,000, according to Amnesty International. After writing two open letters asking Ortega to stop the “irrational violence”, Medina was expelled from his university position. He fled to Germany in July 2020, becoming one of more than 200,000 Nicaraguans in exile. “It’s not safe to be there,” he said.
Since then, conditions for Nicaragua’s small scientific community have deteriorated. After the 2018 protests, international research conferences were canceled and funding for scientific institutions, such as the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences, was cut.
The researchers say they should be particularly careful of any work that could be construed as political. Research on democracy, gender and human rights has been particularly affected. A social scientist says his group can no longer conduct investigations and now publishes under pseudonyms if it mentions government abuses. (Several researchers who commented on this article requested anonymity, fearing reprisals.) Research on COVID-19 in Nicaragua is also facing obstacles, as the government underreported the number of cases and fired doctors. and public health experts expressing concern over the crisis.
International collaborations, which had helped sustain science in Nicaragua, are waning. In February, the government revoked the permits of foreign institutions running teaching and research programs, such as Florida International University and Michigan State University. A law passed in September 2020 requires any Nicaraguan working with international organizations to identify themselves as a “foreign agent”. But foreign agents are considered traitors, researchers say. “It practically destroyed any possibility of international collaboration,” explains a biologist. American researchers who collaborate with Nicaraguans declined to comment for this article, fearing reprisals against their colleagues.
The government says the eight private universities closed since February have not disclosed financial details. Sources at a closed institution, the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, believe the real reason was punishment for student participation in the 2018 protests.
The National Council of Universities (CNU), a government body that coordinates national higher education policy, announced in February that three new public universities would replace those closed, offering enrollment to 20,000 former students. But sources say many students have dropped out, fearing persecution. The new institutions “reflect the reality of Nicaraguan education, subject to a totalitarian regime that has no other interest than to control the students”, explains Medina.
Recent legislative changes have also increased the power of the CNU, which is now responsible for reviewing academic programs, approving academic hires, and selecting deans at all public universities. “It’s the end of the autonomy of universities,” said a former member of the CNU.
Some of the approximately 40 private universities that remain open face economic strangulation. One particular target is the University of Central America (UCA), which has officially opposed government violence against protesters. This month, Ortega’s government canceled a state fund for UCA that provided scholarships to 4,000 low-income students. A scientist who is a professor there says the university “is a place of resistance” and the faculty will continue to teach until it is forced to close.
“We are in a phase of consolidation of totalitarianism in education,” says María Asunción Moreno, a former law professor at UCA, now in exile. “It is no exaggeration to say that there are no more universities in Nicaragua.” In 2019, Moreno led law students and lawyers who worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to document government abuses. In July 2020, she escaped from Nicaragua after spending 12 days in hiding from arrest.
Medina estimates that more than 2,000 Nicaraguan students and young professionals, including many scientists, have fled, mainly to Costa Rica and Mexico. He hopes that universities in other countries will create scholarships for exiled students. “We need to train people so they can think about the changes we want when we have democracy again,” he says.
Molecular biologist Helena Nader, co-chair of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Sciences, says Nicaragua is an example of the growing threats to science and democracy in Latin America, including Venezuela and El Salvador. “What is happening in Nicaragua is very serious and the world is silent,” she said.