The University and the Nicaraguan Crisis

By José Idiáquez, S.J.

University youth were the first to rise up in April in Nicaragua. Then other young people followed en masse, followed by the rest of the population. The young students woke up an entire country.  “They are students; they are not delinquents!” became the first slogan that swept through the streets.

Two events immediately before the April rebellion awoke the conscience of Nicaragua’s millennial youth. In March, Vice-President Rosario Murillo declared that social media were harmful and that laws would be passed to regulate them. And at the beginning of April, a wide swath of the biological Indio-Maíz on the Costa Rican border in southeast Nicaragua began to be ravaged by uncontrollable fires. The country’s young environmental activists demonstrated at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in Managua, demanding decisive and urgent action by the government, which never materialized.  

On April 16, 2018, President Daniel Ortega gave the green light to reform of the social security system—in bankruptcy because of government mismanagement—and which, among other measures, reduced the pensions of Nicaragua’s senior citizens.  

Photo by Jorge Mejia

On April 18, members of the Sandinista Youth, the government’s “shock forces,” and masked  men on motorcycles repressed protests against the social security reform with extreme violence—excessive force that was becoming the norm. The difference on this occasion was that the following day, April 19, more youth took to the streets to protest in León, Managua, Masaya and throughout the country. They were youth defending their grandparents, the senior citizens who would see their pensions slashed. Students from several Nicaraguan universities took to the streets. And others, who were not university students, began to join their ranks.  

The generalized rejection of the regime’s attacks, injustices and abuses had been accumulating for more than a decade.  It finally exploded. It was an awakening, an “insurrection of conscience.”

The government’s disproportionate repression swelled in the country’s main cities and many rural towns.  “Vamos con todo”—no holds barred— was the order Murillo gave April 19 to the country’s political secretaries.  It was the authorization to use any means, as criminal as they might be, to stifle the rebellion.

In Nicaragua, to kill university students is to kill the dreams of poor families. To have a son or daughter in the university is the most sought-after illusion of the country’s poor. To achieve this, they save, they borrow; they make a supreme effort. This fact is fundamental to understand the repudiation of the general public when the regime shot against university students. “We let them get away with everything, but they had never touched our kids,” read a sign held by a woman protester in one of the first Managua marches. Her poster was aimed at President Daniel Ortega. All the regime-controlled institutions, the generalized corruption, all the government abuses could be overlooked, but not killing kids, not shooting at university students.  


The Impact of the Repression on the Universities

The universities in Nicaragua suffered the direct impact of the repression against the students. Their campuses were attacked by police and paramilitary forces determined to end the student protests at any cost.  Students had holed up on university grounds, defending their universities as spaces of struggle.

The Central American University was not taken over by students, but nevertheless was attacked in front of its gates. It had become a refuge for some of those attacked in the Mother’s Day march, in which 21 people were assassinated over the course of some two hours.  In the following days, bullets were found that had hit various parts of the campus. As a result of the hostile environment against the university and its students, our campus was closed for reasons of security. Academic activities were suspended, resuming at year’s end—but only in online classrooms.

The situation did not make us relinquish our role as educators in the UCA. The impact of “no holds barred” was not the one the repressive government desired. On the contrary, the successes of April reinforced the commitment we have with our educational model and with our mission as a university.  

While in the state universities, many students have been expelled or their records expunged because of participation in the protests, in the UCA, students count on freedom of expression and opinion.  While state university students are silenced because of fear of retaliation, within the UCA campus, students feel secure despite the fact that our university is surrounded by 100-150 police and paramilitary who besiege and intimidate our students and workers every day.  


The Reaffirmation of Our Commitment as a University

In the polis —city-states—of the Greeks, social-cultural, economic and political factors modelled the way humans live together. The University, lodged within the city, is a political reality precisely because it models the way citizens should live within the city and the nation. As an educational institution, the UCA, along with the network of Jesuit Universities of Latin America, employs its human and technical resources so that the majorities excluded from the globalized world, and from our Nicaragua, overcome this exclusion and transform their lives. We seek that the university community and our students are in contact with the poorest Nicaraguans, with our less favored fellow citizens.

The University must guarantee good academic formation. This means excellent formation, the practical wisdom of knowledge, contents, research abilities and skills that will be useful to students in the challenges waiting for them in professional life. But if this academic quality does not take into account those who cause human suffering, if it does not take into account all that causes suffering in the human condition, the university will not be responding to the educational project Ignacio de Loyola and the first Jesuits  designed for us.

The inequality of opportunities in education for all sectors of the population is possibly the key to the backwardness we experience today in Latin America. The same could be said about Nicaragua. We are in the situation we are because of the negation of equality in educational opportunities.

Looking at education budgets and, even more importantly, observing the culture expressed in the classroom through values, symbols and discourse, the schools and the University appear as spaces that perpetuate social stratification based on discrimination between social classes, between ethnic groups, and between men and women. Authors like Henry show that this perpetuation operates in favor of the system of inequity, He demonstrates “the economic utility of producing large groups of students who see themselves as failures and go on without complaint to the lowest positions in the structures of bureaucratic and industrial work.”  

Authentic human development in Nicaragua is one that recognizes and respects cultural, historic and gender diversity as fundamental values with which to construct a better society. Authentic human development also does not disregard the value of the environment and recognizes and respects the social, productive and ethnic richness found in every corner of Nicaragua’s geography.  

A university education cannot be reduced to transmitting skills. It demands the identification of our students with values they must assume: a critical spirit, a willingness to dialogue, curiosity to read and research, discipline, rejection of sectarian attitudes; collaboration with others; tolerance; respect for differences; acceptance of other forms of religious beliefs and political sympathies, a sense of commitment.   

These values seem outdated in today’s ephemeral culture, described by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “Whatever is good for you today can be reclassified tomorrow as your poison. Apparently firm commitments and solemnly signed agreements may be overturned overnight. And promises—or most of them—seem to be made solely to be betrayed and broken.”

The UCA must be present in the marginalized countryside, in the urban shantytowns, supporting the cooperatives, training fisherfolk, accompanying migrants and their families, struggling aside the great number of women heads of households who are trying to achieve a better life for their families, attending to the psychological needs of those who cannot afford private therapy, helping the poor to obtain titles to their land, contributing to the defense of the environment. When our students are enmeshed in all these realities, their research cannot be pure statistics, numbers, variables, tables and charts.

Photo by Jorge Mejia

What Should We Keep on Doing?

In the role our students played in the April rebellion, we see the fruits of our educational work. We are filled with satisfaction to hear our students formulate their protests, denounce injustices and propose solutions.

But our work goes on. We still have much to do in our role of University.  From its daily academic tasks, our University seeks the power of truth to keep giving our support to the transformations Nicaragua so badly needs. We need to provide a space in which a diversity of beliefs and thoughts can coexist; we believe that advocating and respecting that diversity empowers our daily teaching mission, our research and our tasks of social projection.

A university cannot be neutral; it cannot remain on the sidelines in the face of painful reality. We want to construct a community based on fertile dialogue, asking ourselves always and freely for what we work and for whom we work.  Our Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría declared in his last speech just ten days before he was assassinated at the Central American University in El Salvador:

It is often said that the university should be impartial. We do not agree. The university should strive to be free and objective, but objectivity and freedom may demand taking sides. We are freely on the side of the popular majority, because they are unjustly oppressed and because the truth of the situation lies within them both positively and negatively.

Finally, what is the principle challenge of a university faced with human suffering?  A university makes sense only when human suffering can enter through its gates and windows because we do not share our classrooms with robots. We should sensitize students to human suffering in each and every subject matter so that they understand that this suffering is part of the academic challenge. If we do not achieve this ethical commitment to feel the pain of others, we are not constructing an academic institution; we are not doing research and we are not projecting socially as a university.  

The situation of death and uncertainty experienced in the world today demands that our work in teaching and research has as its final goal our support of this struggle to prevent the suffering of the just and to guarantee the search for truth.


José Idiáquez, S.J., known as “Padre Chepe,” is the president of the Central American University in Managua. He received the  LASA/Oxfam America Martin Diskin Memorial Lectureship Award in May 2019.