The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nicaragua strips universities’ legal status in new attack on dissent

A man works in the garden of the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, which was closed by the government on Thursday. (Oswaldo Rivas/AFP/Getty Images)
3 min

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s authoritarian government has stripped several universities of their permission to operate in what analysts called a sweeping attack on higher education and an escalation of the repressive tactics that have driven the country toward dictatorship.

The most prominent target of the measures is the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, an epicenter of anti-government demonstrations in 2018. More than 350 people were killed in the nationwide protests, mostly by security forces, according to human rights groups.

The National Assembly, loyal to President Daniel Ortega, on Wednesday canceled the operating licenses of five private universities, including the Polytechnic, founded in Managua in 1967 with the assistance of Baptist missionaries. The government’s National Council of Universities will take over management of the institutions, authorities said.

On Thursday, the Government Ministry announced it was canceling operating permits for seven foreign academic programs in Nicaragua, including those associated with Florida International University, Michigan State and Wake Forest University. The immediate impact of that action was not clear, as many of those programs appeared to have stopped functioning years ago.

“This is the gravest attack on institutions of higher education in the history of Nicaragua, and probably in the history of Central America,” Ernesto Medina, the former rector of the country’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, said in a Facebook message.

'They are shooting at a church': Inside the 15-hour siege by Nicaraguan paramilitary forces of student protesters

Authorities said the universities’ licenses had been canceled because they violated laws that require nonprofit groups to present detailed information on their finances and directors. The universities said they had fulfilled all necessary requirements. “They are shutting us down because in 2018 we took the side of the students,” said Adrián Meza, rector of the Paulo Freire University.

Nicaragua has become the most dramatic example of the erosion of democracy in Central America. After crushing the 2018 demonstrations, Ortega’s government steadily raised the heat on critics, news organizations and human rights groups. Last year, authorities jailed all of Ortega’s serious challengers in the run-up to the November presidential election that gave him a fourth straight term.

As repression has intensified, tens of thousands of people have fled the country. U.S. Border Patrol agents detained more than 50,000 Nicaraguans in 2021, a record.

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said the takeover of the private universities signaled an effort to extinguish remaining opposition to the government.

“At the heart of these measures is a blatant attempt to undermine the student movement, one of the pillars fighting for democracy in Nicaragua,” she said.

Biden slams 'pantomime election' giving Ortega another term

The government recently slashed subsidies to the prestigious Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua. It was the cradle of the student movement that erupted in 2018, initially to oppose a social security reform. The demonstrations ignited mass anti-government protests. Some students fought security forces from behind barricades they erected on campuses.

Ortega, a onetime Marxist guerrilla who led a 1979 revolution, has accused the political opposition and foreign powers of trying to topple him.

María Asunción Moreno, a professor of constitutional law at three of the universities taken over by the government, said she feared authorities wanted to “impose an educational system aimed at indoctrinating young people.”

“The assault on the universities shows a government strategy aimed at exterminating university autonomy, the goal of a historic battle in the lives of Nicaraguans,” she said.

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.

Read more:

‘Express burials’ raise fears that Nicaragua is hiding a coronavirus tragedy

Nicaragua’s Ortega is strangling La Prensa, one of Latin America’s most storied newspapers

Spies, harassment, death threats: the Catholic Church in Nicaragua says it’s being targeted by the government