MEXICO CITY – The Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua suspended operations Aug. 16 after Nicaraguan authorities branded the school a "center of terrorism" the previous day and froze its assets for confiscation – actions marking an escalation in the regime's repression of the Catholic Church and its charitable and educational projects.
The Jesuit province in Central America immediately rebuked the terrorism accusations as "false and unfounded," saying in an Aug. 16 statement, "The de facto confiscation of the (university) is the price to pay for seeking a more just society, protecting life, truth and freedom for the Nicaraguan people in accordance with the (school) slogan, 'The truth will set you free.'"
The accusations against the school, known locally as UCA, "form part of a series of unjustified attacks against the Nicaraguan population and other educational and social institutions of civil society – and are generating a climate of violence and insecurity and worsening the country's social-political crisis."
UCA confirmed in a statement to the university community that the country's 10th district court – which accused the school of "organizing criminal groups" – had ordered its assets seized and handed over to "the State of Nicaragua, which will guarantee the continuity of all educational programs."
Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Baez of Managua, currently exiled in Miami, called the "confiscation" of UCA by the Sandinista dictatorship "unjust," "illegal" and "outrageous."
"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,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The National Council of Universities issued a statement Aug. 16, saying it would "work to guarantee educational continuity for the undergraduate and graduate students' of the extinct UCA." The council told students to await details on resuming classes.
"The seizure of Central American University, a symbol of academic excellence and hope for the future in Nicaragua, represents further erosion of democratic norms and a stifling of civic space by Ortega-Murillo. We will continue to stand up for Nicaraguans' fundamental rights," U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, said on X.
On Aug. 9, the bank accounts of the country's Jesuit university were frozen – a move now proved only anticipating the complete closure of its premises.
The closure of the university came as the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, continued to crush dissent and close spaces for civil society in the Central American country.
Ortega has continued to target institutions and figures for having spoken out or aided protesters over the past five years – most notably imprisoned Bishop Rolando Álvarez, while 222 political prisoners were expelled from Nicaragua in February and stripped of their citizenship.
Two Nicaraguan priests, Fathers Tomás Zamora Calderón and William Mora, were denied entry into the country after returning from World Youth Day in Portugal, according to lawyer and researcher Martha Patricia Molina.
Observers accused the regime of revenge in its targeting of the UCA, where students protested the destruction of an ecological area known as Indio Maíz in 2018 and later joined anti-government demonstrations protesting different government measures and calling for Ortega's ouster.
At least 355 protesters were killed in the demonstrations in 2018, with police adopting a shoot-to-kill policy, according to human rights groups. In July 2022, United Nations' Committee against Torture called on Nicaragua to investigate allegations of torture and ill treatment of government opponents by state officials in the absence of a Nicaraguan delegation.
School officials opened the campus to protesters fleeing police and paramilitaries, while then-rector Father José Alberto (Chepe) Idiáquez participated in a national dialogue convened by the Nicaraguan bishops' conference – which produced uncomfortable moments for Ortega, who was confronted by students.
The bishops' conference exited the dialogue, alleging bad faith on the government's side. Father Idiáquez was subsequently refused entry to Nicaragua after traveling to Mexico for medical treatment. UCA's vice rector, Jorge Huete, was also denied entry into Nicaragua after traveling abroad.
News of the closure provoked expressions of sorrow and outrage. Independent news outlet Diario La Prensa reported students with their parents swarming the campus, attempting to obtain permanent records. Staff, meanwhile, were seen leaving the campus carrying boxes of their belongings.
A powerful image spread on social media of the university community removing a statue of the crucified Christ from the UCA chapel.
The image "is a symbol of our people who suffer injustices, humiliations of an oppressive dictatorship; symbol of a people awaiting its resurrection," exiled Father Edwin Román said on X.
Founded in 1960, UCA became one of the leading universities in Nicaragua, with more than 9,000 students at the time of its closure. Ironically, Ortega attended the school along with three of his children.
"God is the one who has the last word in history," the Jesuit statement concluded, "and God will have (the last word) in Nicaragua, too."
David Agren writes for OSV News from Mexico City.