By closing eight private universities, Daniel Ortega demonstrated that his goal was to silence critical thinking and end academic freedom.
By Leonardo Oliva* (Confidential)
HAVANA TIMES — Lesther Aleman enters the room where his trial will take place, walking slowly with a slightly lost look. He looks weak and fragile, even though he just turned 24. It is said that he learned only minutes before that he would face this trial, where his criminal charge is to “undermine national integrity”.
The indictment is only possible because of recently passed laws that the ruling regime in Nicaragua rushed to order last May, just before Ortega rushed to arrest and jail his main opponents. Lesther has been held incommunicado for more than 200 days in the prison known as El Chipote. He manages to mutter “I’m innocent!” before the president, Nadia Camila Tardencilla, silenced him in obedience to the prosecutor’s plea – which is more like an order. The prosecutor, an official of the judiciary, is said to be a strong supporter of the ruling Sandinista party.
This Thursday, February 3, nearly seven months have passed since Lesther Aleman, leader of the Alliance of Nicaraguan Universities, was torn from his mother, Lesbia Alfaro, and abducted by a police patrol. He was absolutely certain that this youngster who dared to challenge Daniel Ortega to his face in May 2018 would be found guilty. Predictably, a few days later, Judge Tardencilla read his inevitable sentence: thirteen years in prison. This means Lesther Aleman will remain locked up until he is 37, the same age Ortega was when he started leading the country in the 80s.
Today, Ortega, the former Sandinista guerrilla, is 76 years old, and very far from his youthful dreams. So much so that he cannot accept the idea that other young people like Lesther have the right to speak and disagree with him. Or even call him “Assassin!” face to face, at a bargaining table, like Lesther did in May 2018.
Ortega’s decision this month to close eight private higher education institutions is clearly intended to further control these dissenting voices in educational centers. The “Lesther factor” represents for Ortega and his deeply authoritarian vision the dissenting voice that must be silenced, in order to continue to control the government, the power and the life of every Nicaraguan citizen.
For the Sandinistas who have remained loyal to Ortega, and there are more of them, the young former social communication student is a “traitor to the homeland” who deserves prison and many other penalties, including psychological torture, intensive interrogations and almost zero communication with his family and lawyers as he was subjected to jail. These conditions were denounced by his mother, human rights organizations and the University Alliance of Nicaragua itself.
The laws dictated by Ortega aim to conceal these facts behind pompous and vague accusations (“conspiracy to undermine national integrity”). But the real crime committed by Lesther, Max Jerez (also sentenced to 13 years in prison on February 21), and the entire university movement that led the 2018 protests, is that of letting themselves speak. Going out into the streets and saying that they don’t agree that a single man who has been firmly in power for fifteen years continues to direct the destinies of 6.6 million Nicaraguans.
Nearly four years ago, during the months of protests and repression that followed, the students pulled off a historic feat: they thwarted the will of Ortega, a leader unaccustomed to turning around. Not only did the leader have to suspend his plan to reform the social security system, but he was also forced to call for dialogue. This dialogue finally led him to cross paths with a 20-year-old young man in a black t-shirt with a bandana around his neck in the colors of the Nicaraguan flag who showed him a face of the country that he was not inclined to accept. : opposition to its dictatorial methods. From then on, Ortega’s response was to persecute this student movement until he silenced it, including the sites where the movement had its nest: the universities. This is the explanation of his last strike: the confiscation of eight private universities.
The Great Forfeiture
“Obey universities, or nothing,” is how acclaimed author Sergio Ramirez, vice president of Ortega in the 1980s, described the latest decisions. The writer, exiled in Spain, spoke thus of February 2n/a decree prohibiting 14 organizations, including five private universities. The measure generated a cocktail of helplessness, outrage and uncertainty for thousands of students who were due to start their university year that same week. This can be seen as the latest slap in the face from the Sandinista government to private universities.
The five universities canceled this first week of February were the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (Upoli), the Catholic University of the Arid Tropical Zones (Ucatse), the Paulo Freire University (UPF), the Nicaraguan University for Humanitarian Studies ( Uneh) and the Nicaraguan People’s University. University (Uponic). These joined three others: the Hispano-American University (Uhispam), closed in December, and two others whose cancellations were approved by the National Assembly dominated by Ortega on February 23: the Nicaraguan Technological University (UTN ) and Santo Tomas University of the East and South (Uston). Of all these, the Upoli has the greatest importance for those resisting the regime: it was the breeding ground for protests in 2018.
The official explanation for the cancellation of the legal authorization for the operation of these universities was the “lack of transparency in the administration of the funds”, so that the Ministry of the Interior could not determine “the manner including these universities [funds] were executed, and whether this was consistent with the purposes and objectives for which the National Assembly originally approved their statute”. However, beyond the regime’s version of events, almost everyone agrees that it was an act of confiscation, which is prohibited by the country’s Constitution. In order to give a tiny bit of “legality” to this outrage, the National Assembly created four state universities under the direct control of the regime, to operate on the campuses of some of the closed institutions. In other words, new universities without any of the university autonomy that is constitutionally mandated, as denounced by the Union of Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean – the largest and oldest university network in the region.
According to calculations by the digital news site Confidential, based on the scant data that exists in Nicaragua regarding university enrollment, some 18,000 students were affected by Ortega’s measure. It was another blow for many of them, who had been expelled from public universities in 2018 for protesting against the government.
This May 2018 photo of Upoli, where some 500 occupying students were the only hotbed of resistance to the “dialogue” demanded by Ortega, now looks so dated it’s tinted sepia. Today, that image gave way to a photo of other young people patrolling the confiscated university building, waving very different flags: that of the National Union of Nicaraguan Students (UNEN), the university branch of the Sandinista Front.
“All the actions undertaken by the Nicaraguan State, led by the Ortega-Murillo regime, aim to nullify the participation of citizens in public affairs and to eradicate any critical thought. For this reason, we urge the national and international educational community to stand in solidarity with us and to continue to defend academic freedom, university autonomy, human rights and democracy,” proclaimed a statement from the Coordinating Committee. University for Democracy and Justice. The group is a youth organization that continues to resist Ortega’s offensive against universities.
Rectors have also been victims of state control over universities. They must now bear the weight of the accusing fingers of the Sandinistas, always ready to persecute and imprison their adversaries. This threat led Adrian Meza from Paulo Freire University to opt for exile in Costa Rica. From there, he spoke to the independent Nicaraguan press, accusing Ortega’s government of wanting to imbue all education in the country with political criteria. He told reporters to Confidential: “They have no academic or educational criteria – their only criteria is political subjugation.”
Ernesto Medina, former rector of Americana University (UAM) had something similar to say to this same media: “Right now, those we see in charge of education are political commissars, political agents. People who are only concerned with ensuring that at all stages of the [educational] system, those involved obey the orders of government agents.
Switching from critical to single-minded thinking appears to be the goal behind the regime’s latest stunt in universities. The event has precedent in Nicaragua, adding another historical parallel linking Ortega to the Somoza dictatorship. In 1946, as La Prensa the newspaper recalled, Anastasio Somoza Garcia closed the Central University in revenge for the opposition to his election he had received from their corridors.
Students have always made Latin American autocrats uncomfortable. The Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico in 1968 and the Night of the Pencils in Argentina in 1976 are just two examples of how Ortega’s actions in Nicaragua echo the worst dictatorships. The figure of Lesther Aleman, this young man who today seems to have been defeated by his Sandinista executioners, could later become the banner that a new generation of Nicaraguans will raise to fight against the abuses of a family locked in power. The same thing happened once, when Daniel Ortega himself held up the symbol of another victim of the harsh Nicaraguan repression: Augusto Cesar Sandino.
*Leonard Oliva is a member of the “Connected” Editorial Committee.
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