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Kevin ClarkeAugust 21, 2023
A woman leaves the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, Nicaragua, on Aug. 16, 2023. The university suspended operations Aug. 16 after Nicaraguan authorities branded the school a "center of terrorism" the previous day and froze its assets for confiscation. (OSV News photo/Reuters)A woman leaves the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, Nicaragua, on Aug. 16, 2023. The university suspended operations Aug. 16 after Nicaraguan authorities branded the school a "center of terrorism" the previous day and froze its assets for confiscation. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

Nicaraguan officials ratcheted up a harassment campaign targeting Jesuits in Managua over the weekend. Jesuits associated with the Universidad Centroamericana (U.C.A.) were forced from their residence on Aug. 19 when the property was seized by Nicaraguan judicial officials accompanied by police.

U.C.A properties had been confiscated on Aug. 16 after a Managuan criminal court judge condemned the Jesuit-run university as a “center of terrorism” against the Nicaraguan government, led by former Sandinista leader President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The university’s bank accounts were frozen by Nicaraguan finance officials on Aug. 9.

Jesuits associated with the Universidad Centroamericana (U.C.A.) were forced from their residence on Aug. 19 when the property was seized by Nicaraguan judicial officials accompanied by police.

Jesuit officials pointed out that the residence taken on Aug. 19, though near the university, was held separately by the Society of Jesus in Nicaragua.

According to a statement issued on Aug. 19 by Jesuits from the Central American Province in El Salvador: “The members of the community showed the agents the property deed documentation that affects the house as a different asset from the UCA and property of the Society of Jesus; however, the agents ignored the documentation and they were ordered to leave the house, allowing them to remove only a few items for personal use.”

Six members of the community “obeyed the orders of the authority and withdrew from the house.” The Central American Province “condemns this outrage and expresses its confidence that the Lord of History will continue to welcome the Jesuits of Nicaragua.”

A Jesuit source, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation in Nicaragua, reported that one of the Jesuits expelled from the residence is a 99-year-old scientist, “originally trained as an engineer at the University of Missouri, with a distinguished career in ‘malacología,’ the study of mollusks.” He added that all the members of the community “are now in a safe place.”

According to the source, despite the rising tension with the government, most members of the Jesuit community in Managua plan to remain in Nicaragua to carry on the work of the Society.

U.C.A., founded by the Jesuits in 1960, was the nation’s first private university. It has educated generations of Nicaraguans, including Mr. Ortega and three of his children. The university also sponsors the Institute of History of Nicaragua and Central America, which is considered the main documentation and memory center in the country.

Despite the rising tension with the government, most members of the Jesuit community in Managua plan to remain in Nicaragua to carry on the work of the Society.

In a letter to Central American provincial José Domingo Cuesta, S.J., released on Aug. 17, Arturo Sosa, S.J., the Jesuit superior general, expressed his surprise and outrage over the U.C.A. seizure, calling for the decision to be reversed and “for the government’s aggression against [U.C.A.] and its members to cease, and for paths of dialogue to be opened on the basis of truth, freedom and the right to quality education for young people and for all the people of Nicaragua.”

Father Sosa wrote: “We know that all the accusations made against the U.C.A. are totally false and unfounded.

“A fair trial—with impartial justice—would bring to light the truth of the whole plot that the government has been executing, since the youth protests of 2018, against the U.C.A., against many other works of the Catholic Church and against thousands of institutions of civil society, with the aim of suffocating, closing or appropriating them,” he said.

Speaking to Central American media, José María Tojeira, S.J., a member of the Central American province from El Salvador, dryly noted: “The Society of Jesus will outlive the Sandinista government.” Father Tojeira said that the Jesuits “without doubt” would one day return to their educational mission in Nicaragua but until then the Ortega government had made an “authoritarian” blow against the nation’s intellectual life and free expression through its shutdown of the Jesuit university.

Government antipathy to the Jesuits and the church in Nicaragua has been increasing since widespread anti-government demonstrations in 2018 resulted in more than 300 deaths. U.C.A. officials at that time had allowed protestors fleeing sniper fire sanctuary on school grounds.

José María Tojeira, S.J.: “The Society of Jesus will outlive the Sandinista government.”

Enrique Pumar, a professor of sociology at Santa Clara University in California and an expert on Latin American revolutions and immigration issues, said the latest moves by Mr. Ortega did not exactly come as a surprise. The Nicaraguan president has been adopting an increasingly “personalistic style” of government—in which political power is focused in one individual’s hands—since 2018, abandoning dialogue with a moderate coalition that had been seeking a negotiated end to Nicaragua’s political crisis.

“The last bastion of dissent was [at universities],” Mr. Pumar said. “Sooner or later, we were all expecting that he would go after the university students. Why the university students? Because in Latin America university students are very mobilized.

“In some cases,” he said, “the mobilization has caused a radicalization, and Ortega knows very well what that means.” Mr. Pumar recalled that when the Sandinistas led by then-Comandante Ortega deposed the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debalye in 1979, the revolutionary coalition included members of Nicaragua’s professional class and its university students. “He knows quite well that the students have the capacity to be revolutionary and to bring down a government.”

In that sense the latest move to suppress dissent could backfire, according to Mr. Pumar. Students and other members of Nicaraguan society may feel themselves running out of options for peaceful mechanisms of dialogue and reconciliation.

But, he added, “there is a difference between radicalization and the capacity to bring down the government.” As long as the Ortega family can maintain the support of the Nicaraguan armed forces and rely on its paramilitary supporters to act as street agents of repression, it will remain difficult to dislodge from power—repeating a historical pattern little different from that of the Somoza regime that Mr. Ortega and members of his generation had overturned.

The latest move to suppress dissent could backfire. Students and other members of Nicaraguan society may feel themselves running out of options for peaceful mechanisms of dialogue and reconciliation.

Mr. Ortega’s electoral victory in 2021 was dismissed by the Biden administration as a “pantomime election.” Over the last three years, Mr. Ortega has arrested and exiled opposition leaders and silenced critical media voices. Describing the anti-government protests in 2018 as an attempted coup, Mr. Ortega alleged without evidence that bishops and priests of the Nicaraguan church were among the “coup plotters” working on behalf of U.S. imperialist interests.

A campaign against the church in Nicaragua has been accelerating this year. It has already included the ouster and exile of Catholic priests and men and women religious and the seizure or administrative shutdown of 26 other institutions of higher learning.

In February, Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa was sentenced to more than 26 years in prison for high treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news, among other charges. In 2019, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez was forced to leave the Archdiocese of Managua after receiving death threats. He lives in exile in Miami. In 2022, the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, was expelled as “persona non grata,” and in April this year, the Holy See closed its nunciature in Managua, after the Nicaraguan government proposed suspending diplomatic relations.

In June, the government confiscated properties belonging to 222 opposition figures who were forced into exile in February after being imprisoned by the Ortega regime. Those taken from prison and forced aboard a flight to the United States on Feb. 9 included seven presidential hopefuls barred from running in the 2021 election, lawyers, rights activists, journalists and former members of the Sandinista guerrilla movement. Bishop Álvarez declined to join the group of exiles, who were all stripped of Nicaraguan citizenship; he remains imprisoned.

More than 3,500 civic groups and non-governmental organizations have been shuttered or expelled from Nicaragua since 2020.

On Aug. 19, the U.S. State Department imposed new visa restrictions on 100 Nicaraguan officials, according to a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “We call on the regime to unconditionally and immediately release Bishop Álvarez and all those unjustly detained,” Mr. Blinken said.

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