The Nicaraguan government announced on Tuesday that it has seized the assets of two Catholic universities and of Caritas Nicaragua, and effectively shuttered their operations by rescinding their legal status in the country.
The announcement comes amid an ongoing push against the Church by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, which has included the expulsion of religious communities, priests, and a papal delegate from the country, and the imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez on charges of anti-government activity.
According to an official announcement both the Universidad Juan Pablo II and the Universidad Cristiana Autonoma de Nicaragua (UCAN) had failed to comply with financial and governance reporting laws, reportedly not filing with the government information about their boards of directors or financial position.
Fr. Rafael Aragón, a Spanish Dominican friar, lived for 40 years in Nicaragua, but was impeded in 2022 from reentering the country after a trip abroad.
Aragón told The Pillar that the move to close the universities is an attack on the Church because of its criticism of the Ortega administration.
“The government wants to end all institutions that might have a critical leadership against them. Right now, the Church is the only institution standing with that sort of leadership, because the government already dismantled all organizations or institutions that had these kinds of leadership before,” Aragón said.
The rector of the Universidad Juan Pablo II, Fr. Ramiro Tijerino, was among three priests recently condemned to 10 years in prison, stripped of their nationalities, and then forcefully sent into exile to the U.S. by the Nicaraguan regime.
The university was founded by the bishops’ conference in 2004, has locations in Managua, Chontales, Matagalpa, and Granada, and is the site of philosophy studies for most seminarians in the country. It is expected to hand over its financial assets to government authorities soon.
“The Universidad Juan Pablo II already said it will deliver all their assets to the authorities designated by the Ortega regime to that end,” local journalist Israel González told The Pillar.
“The university was well known for its social initiatives,” he added.
A former professor at the university, Martha Molina, told The Pillar that the government decision will have broad effect.
“Canceling the legal personality of the Universidad Juan Pablo II is not only an attack on the Catholic Church and the students. It is also an attack on the communities nearby the university who took their children to courses and to have a meal,” Molina told The Pillar.
Officials at both universities have also been ordered to deliver lists of students, faculty, and academic records to the National Council of Universities, the public agency which oversees higher education in Nicaragua.
It is not likely that the universities will close. The Nicaraguan government has in recent decades transitioned or merged 17 universities into public universities, appropriating assets and installing government loyalists as administrators, and local experts say they expect the same thing in these cases.
But human rights activists have already cried foul.
“There is no valid legal process because there is no chance of appeal nor even to be heard against this arbitrary decision in a court of law,” Yader Morazán, a Nicaraguan lawyer and human rights activist told The Pillar.
Other university administrators say the government has made unfounded claims to seize universities in the past. Adrian Meza, former president of the Universidad Paulo Freire, said last year that his institution attempted to file financial records with the government, but the university was shuttered by the government anyway
Temporarily, government officials have announced that students from the two Catholic universities will be registered in other universities across the country, which has raised questions regarding the government’s plans for the facilities of both institutions.
When the Nicaraguan dictatorship previously seized the facilities of six private universities, it created three public universities instead.
“Almost a third of Nicaraguan private universities have been seized by the state,” a local university activist, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation, told The Pillar.
“The assets of the universities now are in the hands of the state. The state may use the facilities of these universities for one of the public universities, or maybe for a different purpose,” he said.
“The continuity of the students and the employment of the academic personnel is always uncertain when this happens,” the activist added.
“With the experience of the previous universities that had their legal personality canceled, professors who are critical of the government are fired, and students are forced to transfer to a different public university or one of the few private universities remaining. Sometimes students are not provided with their official transcripts and have to restart their studies from scratch,” he said.
The closure of Caritas in Nicaragua was to be expected, according to local activists, because of a 2022 law restricting NGOs in the country.
The same law has already led to the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity from the country. And in February 2022, the legal personality of Caritas Estelí - a diocese led by Bishop Rolando Álvarez, sentenced to 26 years in prison, as apostolic administrator - had already been stripped.
The law would have required Caritas to register as a “foreign agent,” which might have put directors at risk. Moreover, the organization was not able to receive any donations from abroad because of a customs block since 2019.
“There were too many obstacles to its work, such as having to register as “foreign agents” according to a law approved by the regime to persecute civil society organizations, so they dissolved voluntarily before the regime did it,” González told The Pillar.
In December 2021, the Nicaraguan bishops appointed Bishop Sócrates René Sándigo, bishop of León, as the head of Caritas Nicaragua.
Sándigo is well-known as the bishop closest to the Ortega regime, and is the only bishop in the country who has refused to publicly condemn the imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez.
But while Sándigo’s appointment was meant to appease the Nicaraguan regime and allow Caritas, one of the largest social services providers in Nicaragua, to operate with relative freedom in the country, that attempt failed.
Shutting down two Catholic universities and the largest Catholic aid organization is just the latest step the Ortega dictatorship has taken in its crackdown against the Catholic church in Nicaragua.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa was recently sentenced to 26 years in prison, while eight collaborators, including five priests, were sentenced to 10 years in prison and forcefully exiled to the US. All were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationalities.
On Feb. 21, Daniel Ortega, who has ruled Nicaragua since 2006, called the Catholic Church a “mafia” and a dictatorship because Catholics cannot elect the pope, the bishops, and their priests.
After those statements, the regime quickly moved to ban Lenten and Holy Week processions in the country, while priests have been interrogated and temporarily detained after preaching homilies critical of the Nicaraguan regime.