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Students, seen here protesting in July, have been at the forefront of the opposition against President Daniel Ortega.

Oswaldo Rivas/REUTERS

Universities ‘held hostage’ in Nicaragua’s political crisis

Este artículo está disponible en español.

Molecular biologist Jorge Huete-Pérez, a professor at Central American University (UCA) in Managua, is one of many Nicaraguan academics whose life and work have been upended by an escalating political crisis. A longtime critic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Huete-Pérez was inspired in April when demonstrations against a proposed cut to social security evolved into a new movement against Ortega’s stranglehold on political power and his brutal repression of dissent. He felt a responsibility to support the students on the movement’s front lines and joined their protests many times.

But on 14 October, about 2 weeks after the government outlawed political demonstrations, Huete-Pérez flinched. “I was about to open the [car] door to get out and join” another protest, he recalls, when police began to beat and arrest demonstrators close by. He slammed the door and sped away. “I literally felt like I was running for my life,” he says. “I had not been that scared in a long time.”

Many others, too, have recently stayed home in the face of an intensifying crackdown by Ortega, a leader of the Sandinista movement that overthrew a dictator in 1979. Ortega has become increasingly autocratic since beginning his second stint as president in 2007. More than 300 protesters have been killed and at least as many have been arrested, according to Amnesty International; some have been charged with terrorism. Tens of thousands more have gone into exile. Just last week, police raided offices of an independent newspaper and several nongovernmental organizations, including a leading human rights group.

The repression has struck particularly hard at Nicaragua’s universities, where firings, arrests, and attacks on students have brought higher education and research to a virtual standstill. “It all started with university students, so universities have been the target of repression,” says Huete-Pérez, who spoke at a 13 December meeting at UCA to discuss the crisis. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights now considers students one of the most imperiled groups in the country. “The university system is being held hostage,” says María Luisa Acosta, a human rights lawyer and president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences (ACN) in Managua, which organized last week’s meeting. (Acosta went into exile in June after being threatened by paramilitary forces.)

Critics say state universities have been co-opted by the government, especially the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua, which fired more than 40 professors and expelled nearly 100 students who had demonstrated or expressed support for the movement. “We were fired because we spoke out against the silence and complicity that allowed the universities to permit students to be killed, repressed, and detained,” says sociologist Freddy Quezada, another speaker at the meeting, who lost his job in July. (UNAN did not respond to Science’s interview requests.)

The crisis is also disrupting collaborations with foreign scientists. Huete-Pérez’s department had to suspend the Nicaraguan Biotechnology Conference, which UCA organized every 2 years with scientists from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other U.S. universities. Evolutionary biologist Axel Meyer of the University of Konstanz in Germany isn’t sure whether he can continue his studies of fish evolution in Nicaragua’s crater lakes this winter; Gerald Urquhart, a tropical ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who has worked in Nicaragua for decades, has postponed fieldwork indefinitely and canceled his study abroad program in Nicaragua. “I am saddened by the limitations this places on my relationship with Nicaraguan colleagues,” he says.

UCA, a private Jesuit university, is one of Nicaragua’s last remaining bastions of free speech. In addition to publicly supporting the student movement, “they opened their doors to thousands of demonstrators” after the government fired on a protest in May, killing at least 17, says Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, a former minister of education and UNAN rector. But teaching has been disrupted, as at most universities. “It’s not safe enough to bring students to campus,” Huete-Pérez says. He and others are holding classes online, but it’s not the same, he says: “I teach biochemisty and biotechnology. You need a lab for that.”

Now, UCA faces a more direct threat. The Nicaraguan legislature is considering a bill that would end the state funding the university receives under a law that designates its work as public service. “It’s a direct aggression,” says Josefina Vijil, a UCA education scientist and a member of ACN’s leadership. Much of UCA’s public funding goes to scholarships, “so if they do this, the ones who suffer are the students,” Tünnermann Bernheim says.

Vijil especially worries about lasting psychological trauma to the researchers and students who lived through the crisis. Still, she and other participants in the UCA meeting spent time brainstorming for the day when students are back in classrooms, and made tentative plans for writing a book about university autonomy. “We need to start imagining—and articulating—the country we want in 50 years,” Vijil says.