Central American universities are under threat (opinion)

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The predetermined elections in Nicaragua that installed Daniel Ortega for a fourth consecutive term at the end of last year were met with little surprise in the international community. World leaders and diplomats called for the restoration of democracy and the release of political prisoners. Instead, Ortega determined that the “election” was permission to move even closer to a dictatorship. As evidence of that, sham trials started in the past month for more than 170 political prisoners who had dared to speak out or campaign against Ortega, including political scientist, activist and our Central America Research Alliance collaborator Felix Maradiaga, who was found guilty of “conspiracy.” Prison sentences for up to 13 years have been handed down for the mere act of participating in a democratic process. At least one political prisoner has died, reportedly having been kept in inhumane conditions.

After quelling any critical voice from civil society over the past few years, Ortega is now out for the academy and the Roman Catholic Church. Fourteen private universities have been closed by the regime in Nicaragua over the past few months, and more than 14,000 students have not been able to return to classes as scheduled. Possibly the most outspoken and critical university in the country—the University of Central America (UCA) in Managua—remains in the crosshairs. After an armed attack by government-aligned forces and death threats against the university president during the 2018 unrest, the UCA now faces the same attempts to cancel its legal status as other universities in the country. The fact that the UCA has avoided closure thus far is thanks in part to its international connections via the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests, who founded it in 1960. It is also thanks in part to the Vatican and its representative in the country. Ortega was initially reluctant to cross the church—that is, until the church finally spoke out against Ortega’s rapid slide to dictatorship and the regime expelled the papal nuncio last month.

No university should fear government interference when it delivers on its purpose of teaching the next generation and contributing evidence to social and scientific debate. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in other repressive countries like China, Egypt, Hungary, Russia and Turkey.

Far from being just another step toward eliminating free debate, the dismantling of universities is a near-fatal blow to democracy. The lack of training in important technical and scientific skills will restrict economic development and the growth of the private sector for a generation. The lack of experience in study and research in social sciences will weaken the public sector and critical social services for just as long. All of this weakens the important counterbalance these sectors provide to the government.

Beyond their role as top centers of scientific inquiry in the region, the Jesuit universities in Central America have been and continue to be important promoters of ethical and moral leadership. Guided by, but not limited to, Catholic social teaching, the UCA in Managua and its sister UCA in San Salvador have for decades been outspoken in their evidence-informed advocacy for the most vulnerable.

At no time was that more apparent than during the last half of the 20th century as war ravaged both countries. Priests, faculty, staff and students in both countries advocated for the rights of the oppressed and for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts. In El Salvador, the Jesuit leaders and academics of the UCA used their training in psychology, philosophy and theology to challenge systematic injustices and indiscriminate assassinations suffered by the marginalized. Their intellect, moral reasoning and belief in the right to dissent resulted in their targeting by the Salvadoran military and, eventually, their murders on the grounds of the UCA in 1989.

The martyrs of the UCA in El Salvador are an eternal reminder of the central role universities can play to advance the common good in the face of repressive governments. Not since those murders over 30 years ago have universities in the region faced such an existential threat.

Contagion

The return of dictators in Central America did not happen overnight. Decades of promising reforms and institution-building followed the years of war. However, the pendulum has started to swing back to where governments in the region were nearly a century ago—with strongman dictators who rule the poor majority through oppression and political violence.

As with the rise of global populism that has swept from country to country around the world, dictators watch and learn from one another. In 2020, for example, the Ortega regime instituted a “foreign agents law” that restricted the ability of civil society—including our partner universities and think tanks—to receive and utilize funding from abroad. A year later, the Nayib Bukele regime in El Salvador had a copy of Nicaragua’s law on the general assembly floor for debate, and a vote is now pending.

Academics and journalists in Mexico are facing a two-front battle against the government and organized crime given their role in seeking to provide transparency. Meanwhile, in both El Salvador and Guatemala, the rule of law and due process have been destroyed by unlawful executive actions similar to those in Nicaragua and Venezuela over the years to remove prosecutors and judges who are viewed as unfriendly or who have opened inquiries into corruption in the executive branch.

Hope for the Future

Honduras is the somewhat unlikely sign of hope in the region after the extensive allegations of election fraud in the 2017 election, which ushered in the second term of the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández. But the new Xiomara Castro administration, installed in January, has made anticorruption and a respect for human rights its core mission and made good on a promise to begin to re-establish an international anticorruption commission in the country. The arrest of Hernández, the past president, to face extradition to the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges, is also a positive step toward making good on campaign promises. However, there is still a long way to go to ensure transparency and the rule of law for all.

How far will antidemocratic actions go in each country? The answer to that question depends in large part on the response of the international community, including university and church leadership. While regional and global governments should continue to pressure for respect for democratic norms, they must be joined by university and church leaders to stop the contagion and re-establish freedom of expression—including academic freedom and freedom from undue interference in universities—as a universal right. Universities and the Catholic Church, while far from perfect, are respected and guided by Christian principles ostensibly shared by leaders in the region. We must not be silent.

In our research, we have found that having hope in the future is the single most powerful predictor of people wanting to stay versus migrate from Central America. Universities everywhere, especially those whose mission, rooted in Catholic social teaching, is to promote social change in favor of the most vulnerable, are indispensable in the establishment that hope for a better future. They must not be silenced.

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