Exiled Nicaraguan Students get a New Shot at University

The recent initiative, “Puentes por los Estudiantes de Nicaragua” (Bridges for Nicaraguan students) aims at opening new horizons

By Marco Aurelio Peña (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Since 2018, Nicaragua has been engulfed in a deep and severe sociopolitical and human rights crisis. The swarm of social protests that took place 4 years ago forced the current government to unleash its most brutal side, in order to hold onto power at all costs. The Ortega regime’s disguise fell away completely, and its inner nature was exposed.

The social explosion was inspired and led by students and other young people, who energetically demanded political and social change toward democracy. The protests – initially sparked by a bogus “reform” to social security [lowering pensions and raising obligatory contributions] and the resulting violent repression of the elder adults who were peacefully demonstrating against it – continued and grew, until they were finally quashed by a fierce repression.

In the context of these demonstrations, some 45 students had their lives violently snuffed out, and 37 were imprisoned for political reasons. Seven of those originally jailed remain in prison. The dictatorship adopted harsh reprisals against the university community in the public universities, expelling the students and firing the faculty members who had joined the wave of anti-government demonstrations. The push for critical thinking skills and the youth’s disruptive actions triggered a government crusade against university autonomy, higher education, and academic freedom.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights eventually counted some 150 academic expulsions from Nicaragua’s public universities. This was one of the most massive violations to the rights of students ever registered in recent Latin American history. Then, as if the expulsions weren’t enough, between 2020 and 2021, the Nicaraguan government carried out a wave of legal cancellations and de facto confiscations of 5 private universities.

The sociopolitical crisis and the deterioration in living conditions have provoked a huge exodus of young Nicaraguans towards the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Spain, and other countries. The migration to Costa Rica has especially exploded in the last four years, led by a segment of the youth population whose right to education in their native country has been denied through academic expulsions, forced displacement, persecution, threats, aggression, or other factors stemming from the government’s crusade against the university community. In Costa Rica, there are many who wish to begin or continue their university studies, but who are unable to enter Costa Rica’s higher education system.

The many young refugees and asylum seekers find themselves facing very difficult circumstances, in employment, housing, health and education. Education is especially vital for young Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, in order to find a place in the social and work structure. However, getting that education becomes immensely complicated, since they also face the immediate need to pay their bills in one of the most expensive countries in the region. The lack of educational opportunities – or the lack of knowledge of those that do exist – limits and puts at risk the quality of life of this social group, which is already vulnerable to psychological effects from the violence and their flight from their country of origin, marked by many snags.

A South American organization, Aulas Abiertas [Open classrooms], has succeeded in having the international community view the universities as vulnerable and insecure agents of change, confronted by antidemocratic regimes. In addition, they’ve highlighted the fact that academic freedom in its full meaning, is a human right.

Given all this, and with that example, I’m part of a visionary and audacious group of Nicaraguan youth living in Costa Rica who have founded the Iniciativa Puentes por los Estudiantes de Nicaragua [Bridges for Nicaraguan Students Initiative], known as IPEN. This is a civil organization, formally constituted under Costa Rican law, and aimed at fostering opportunities for studies, humanitarian aid, and realizing activities to encourage leadership, democratic values, building peace, skills, and abilities, including language studies and technical courses. Our organizational philosophy is centered on the right of education, so that the young Nicaraguans can continue realizing their own human potential and contribute to the democratic transition that Nicaragua deserves.

Most of our founding members come from the student and youth organizations that emerged as a result of the events of 2018. We form a team with technical capacity and experience in social projects, but who suffered in our own flesh the weight of the state repression in Nicaragua, including jail time, academic expulsion, intimidation, threats, and persecution, because of our determination to follow our political and social consciences. We consider ourselves belligerent humanists. Currently, three members of our team have initiated an international denunciation of the Nicaraguan government before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. We accuse the Ortega regime of unjustly and illegally making us suffer academic expulsion, in reprisal for having spontaneously joined together to demand freedom, justice, democracy and university autonomy. This effort is receiving legal counsel from the Inter-American Center for Legal Human Rights Assistance, based in Argentina.

Ipen, our organization, has recently signed a collaboration agreement with the Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos- Europa [International Human Right Network-Europe], based in Brussels, Belgium, to monitor and promote academic opportunities that could benefit Nicaraguan students and youth who are currently exiled or are migrants. This Network, or RIDHE, seeks to strengthen the capacity of active individuals linked to the promotion and protection of human rights, by offering information, analysis, and technical support. Furthering access to education for those who were denied it due to an abuse of power is an urgent commitment for them, as a way of furthering human rights.

The strategic collaboration between Ipen and RIDHE is providing the technical means for testing, processing, selecting, and filing the necessary applications for scholarships and socioeconomic assistance within the “Education in Emergency” program. This project has generated enthusiasm, sympathy, and optimism, as a way to restore the opportunities these students once had for building their futures. That prospect must now be realized through professional studies in Costa Rica. The problem is very complex, however, since the affected students are now in different parts of the world, not to mention those who have remained in Nicaragua with their hopes crushed. As a founding member and vice president of Ipen, it gives me great satisfaction to be able to contribute as best we can to the search for solutions and options for young Nicaraguans in exile.

The Nicaraguan community in Costa Rica numbers nearly a half million. Nicaraguan migration towards the neighboring country acquired another face with the political exile that began in 2018. It’s now no longer a “muscle drain” [There’s traditionally been a sizable flow of Nicaraguan laborers and agricultural workers to Costa Rica] but also a “brain drain”. For more than 4 years now, the Costa Rican government has been receiving a numerous population of Nicaraguan youth and students, putting great pressure on their budget and capacity of the country’s public education system. Ipen, a non-governmental organization of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, was born in order to sustain a limited and efficient intervention for a sensitive problem that has received little attention. Together with other civic organizations backed by RIDHE, we’re part of the Network for the Protection, Defense and Promotion of Human Right in Nicaragua.

The interruption of the right to higher education suffered by a large group of Nicaraguan youth and students is clear evidence of the severe human rights crisis Nicaragua is facing. The partnership between civil society and international cooperation has the potential to design mechanisms and alternatives to offer some solutions to the social tissue so deeply wounded by the autocracy in our country. Given these circumstances, it’s wonderful that Ipen can count on the backing and trust of the RIDHE in this genuine and just cause.

We issue a vigorous call to Costa Rican and international universities to adapt their entrance policies and credit recognition norms, so as to be able to welcome into their halls a set of talented emerging leaders who stood up for the blue and white colors of their national flag. We badly need the North American, European and other democracies to get behind these efforts that point us to new horizons, and help return the right to higher education to those who were stripped of it by force. Happily, we already have the solidarity of two universities in Romania; thanks to them, two young Nicaraguans are now studying Medicine and Art in this fascinating Eastern European country that has known its own struggle against totalitarianism.

In our experience, forced displacement has been the mother of invention, even though our social innovation could use some additions amid the adversity. The Nicaraguan youth are inspired with the noblest ideals, but also confront highly evil interests. Anyway, where there’s no struggle, there’s no gain, and the gain is precisely in the intent. Despite the enormous cost we’ve paid, the rebels from that April rebellion of 2018, it’s truly epic and lyrical to have decided, without reservations or hesitations, to take our stand on the right side of history.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times