The Lesther Factor & Ortega’s Onslaught on the Universities

Illustration: Connectas

In closing eight private universities, Daniel Ortega has demonstrated that his aim is to silence critical thinking and end academic freedom.

By Leonardo Oliva* (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Lesther Aleman enters the hall where his trial will take place, walking slowly with a slightly lost gaze. He looks weak and fragile, although he just recently turned 24. They say he only found out minutes before that he’ll face this trial, where his criminal accusation is “undermining the national integrity”.  

The charge is only possible because of recently passed laws that the regime governing Nicaragua hastened to order last May, just before Ortega rushed to detain and jail his principal opponents. Lesther has been held incommunicado for over 200 days in the jail known as El Chipote. He manages to mutter “I’m innocent!” before the presiding judge, Nadia Camila Tardencilla, silences him in obedience to the Prosecutor’s plea – which seems more like an order.  The Prosecutor, a functionary of the Judiciary, is said to be a fervent adherent of the governing Sandinista party.

That Thursday, February 3, marked nearly seven months since Lesther Aleman, leader of the Nicaraguan University Alliance, was snatched from the embrace of his mother, Lesbia Alfaro, and abducted by a police patrol. It was absolutely certain this youth who had dared challenge Daniel Ortega to his face in May 2018 would be declared guilty. Predictably, days later Judge Tardencilla read his inevitable sentence: thirteen years in prison. That means that Lesther Aleman will remain locked up until he turns 37, the same age as Ortega was when he first began ruling the country in the eighties.

Today, Ortega, the former Sandinista guerrilla, is 76, and very far removed from those dreams of youth. So much so, that he can’t accept the idea that other youth like Lesther have a right to speak and to disagree with him. Or even to call him “Assassin!” to his face, at a negotiation table, as Lesther did in May 2018.

Ortega’s move this month to close eight private institutions of higher learning has the clear aim of controlling still further such dissident voices in the educational centers. The “Lesther factor” represents for Ortega and his profoundly authoritarian vision the discordant voice that must be silenced, in order to continue his control of government, power and the lives of every Nicaraguan citizen.

For the Sandinistas who remain loyal to Ortega, and there are more than a few of them, the young former Social Communications student is a “traitor to the country” who deserves jail and many other penalties, including the psychological torture, intensive interrogations and nearly zero communication with his family and lawyers as he’s been subjected to in prison. These conditions have been denounced by his mother, human rights organizations, and the Nicaraguan University Alliance itself.

The laws dictated by Ortega are designed to disguise these facts behind pompous and vague accusations (“conspiracy to undermine the 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 having allowed themselves to speak up. To go out on the streets and say that they don’t agree with having one lone man, firmly bolted into power for fifteen years, continue to rule the destinies of 6.6 million Nicaraguans.

Nearly four years ago, during the months of demonstrations and subsequent repression, the students managed a historic feat: they thwarted the will of Ortega, a leader unaccustomed to turning around. Not only did the ruler have to shelve his planned reform to the social security system, but he was also forced to call for a dialogue. That dialogue eventually caused him to cross paths with a young 20-year-old in a black t-shirt with a bandana on his neck bearing the colors of the Nicaragua flag who showed him a face of the country he wasn’t inclined to accept: opposition to his dictatorial methods. From that moment on, Ortega’s response has been to persecute that student movement until he silences it, including the sites where the movement had its nest: the universities. That’s the explanation behind his latest strike: the confiscation of eight private universities.

The great confiscation

“Obedient universities, or nothing,” was the way renowned author Sergio Ramirez, Ortega’s vice president in the eighties, described the latest decisions. The writer, exiled in Spain, spoke thus about the February 2nd decree outlawing 14 organizations, among them five private universities. The measure generated a cocktail of powerlessness, indignation and uncertainty for thousands of students who were supposed to begin their academic year that same week. It can be seen as the Sandinista government’s final slap in the face to the private universities.

The five universities canceled that first week of February were the Nicaraguan Polytechnic University (Upoli), the Catholic University of the Tropical Drylands (Ucatse), Paulo Freire University (UPF), the Nicaraguan University for Humanitarian Studies (Uneh), and the Nicaraguan Popular University (Uponic). These joined three others: the Hispano-American University (Uhispam), closed in December, and two others whose cancellations were approved by the Ortega-dominated National Assembly on February 23: The Nicaraguan Technological University (UTN) and the Santo Tomas University of the East and Midday (Uston). Out of all these, the Upoli has greatest significance for those who resist the regime: it was the seedbed of the protests in 2018.

The official explanation for canceling these Universities’ legal permission to operate was: “poor transparency in the administration of funds”, so that the Interior Ministry couldn’t determine “the way these [funds] were executed, and if this was in accordance with the aims and objectives for which the National Assembly originally approved their status.” However, beyond the regime’s version of events, almost everyone agrees it was an act of confiscation, which is prohibited by the country’s Constitution. In order to lend a tiny bit of “legality” to this outrage, the National Assembly created four state universities under the regime’s direct control, to function on the campuses of some of the shuttered institutions. In other words, new universities with nothing of the university autonomy that’s constitutionally mandated, as the Union of Latin American and Caribbean Universities – the largest and oldest university network in the region – denounced.

According to calculations of the digital news site Confidencial, based on the scant data that exists in Nicaragua regarding university enrollment, some 18,000 students were affected by Ortega’s measure. It was a new blow to many of them, who’d been expelled from the public universities in 2018 for having protested against the government.

That May 2018 photo of the Upoli, where some 500 occupying students provided the lone focal point of resistance to the “dialogue” Ortega called for, now seems so antiquated as to be toned in sepia. Today, that image has given way to a photo of other youth patrolling the confiscated university building, holding very different flags: that of the National Union of Nicaraguan Students (UNEN) the Sandinista Front’s university arm.

“All the actions taken by the Nicaraguan State, led by the Ortega-Murillo regime, are intended to annul citizen participation in public affairs, and to eradicate any critical thinking. For that reason, we urge the national and international educational community to stand in solidarity with us, and continue defending academic freedom, university autonomy, human rights and democracy,” a statement from the University Coordinating Committee for Democracy and Justice” proclaimed. The group is a youth organization that continues resisting Ortega’s offensive against the universities.

The rectors have also been victims of the State takeover of the universities. They now must bear the weight of the Sandinistas’ accusing fingers, always ready to persecute and imprison their opponents. That threat led Adrian Meza of the Paulo Freire University to opt for exile in Costa Rica. From there, he spoke with the independent Nicaraguan press, accusing Ortega’s government of wanting to imbue all education in the country with political criteria. He told reporters from Confidencial: “They have no academic or educational criteria – their only criteria is political subjugation.”

Ernesto Medina, former rector of the Americana University (UAM) had something similar to say to that same media outlet: “At this moment, those we see in charge of education are political commissars, political agents. People who are only engaged in assuring that at all stages of the [educational] system, those involved are obeying the orders of the Government operatives.”

Going from critical thinking to one-size thinking appears to be the objective behind the regime’s latest swipe at the universities. The event has a precedent in Nicaragua, adding one more historic parallel linking Ortega to the Somoza dictatorship. In 1946, as La Prensa newspaper recalled, Anastasio Somoza Garcia closed the Central University in revenge for the opposition to his election he’d received from their halls.

Students have always made Latin American autocrats uncomfortable. The 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico, and Argentina’s Night of the Pencils in 1976 are just two examples illustrating the fact that Ortega’s actions in Nicaragua echo the worst dictatorships. The figure of Lesther Aleman, that youth who today would seem to have been defeated by his Sandinista tormentors, could later become the banner that a new generation of Nicaraguans raise to struggle against the abuses of a family locked into power. The same thing happened once upon a time, when Daniel Ortega himself brandished the symbol of another victim of Nicaragua’s harsh repression: Augusto Cesar Sandino.

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*Leonardo Oliva is a member of the “Connectas” editorial board.  

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.



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