MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s politically active student population, one of the last pockets of opposition to President Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government, is also the latest target of his wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, with five private universities brought under state control.
The government said the colleges were stripped of their ability to operate independently this month because they had not complied with financial regulations. Critics, however, saw the move as Mr. Ortega’s latest effort to clamp down on challenges to his tightening grip on power.
Since last year, his administration has jailed or put under house arrest political activists and civil society leaders, raided media offices, outlawed street protests and shuttered dozens of nongovernmental organizations. In November, Mr. Ortega ran for a fourth consecutive term in office on a ballot devoid of any credible challenger, and won.
Universities had been among the last remaining centers of resistance.
The government said the National Council of Universities, a state advisory body, would oversee the institutions brought under its control. A governing party official this past week labeled another private university, which observers fear could be taken over next, as a hotbed of terrorism that promoted violence and disinformation.
Opposition activists and academics fear that more takeovers are imminent, and that the growing repression will force universities to censor outspoken professors or students. Academics are also afraid the quality of education will fall as unqualified government loyalists hostile to education fill the ranks.
Ernesto Medina, the former rector of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua’s León campus, one of the country’s largest, said that the government takeover was a warning to the roughly 30 private universities remaining.
“The signal is that if they want to maintain their legal status they have to behave well, they have to be quiet, they should not criticize anything, they should not analyze anything,” Mr. Medina said. “That will kill the universities.”
Mr. Medina, like others, had thought Mr. Ortega would tone down his repressive tactics after locking up most of his political opposition advance of the election last year.
But after the move against the universities this month, Mr. Medina said he believed the government was embracing outright dictatorial control. The moment, he said, is “the culmination of a process of deterioration of the entire institutional framework of the country.”
Mr. Ortega’s informal spokeswoman and wife, Rosario Murillo, who also serves as his vice president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The battle over Nicaragua’s intellectual space has been years in the making. Since Mr. Ortega came to power for a second time in 2007, he has moved to place public universities under his thumb by controlling teacher and student unions.
The last sources of opposition left standing, observers say, were the private universities. But these became a focus of Mr. Ortega’s ire in 2018, when students joined one of the most powerful recent challenges to his authority, helping lead nationwide anti-government protests. Police repression of those protests left at least 350 dead, according to human rights groups.
Elthon Rivera, a student at one of the seized universities, said this was the second time he had seen his academic ambitions dashed under Mr. Ortega.
Mr. Rivera was one of about 150 students expelled from their state-run universities after the 2018 protests, when he put his medical studies to practice tending to the injuries of students who had been attacked by the police.
After he was expelled from the state-run National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in August 2018, he said, his dream of becoming a doctor was upended. Because of his support for the protesters, he said, no other public or private university would accept him.
He feared he would remain uneducated and underemployed for the rest of his life, he said — until a year later, when the Paulo Freire University accepted him as a political science student.
Now the government has seized the university, and Mr. Rivera is more uncertain about his future than ever.
“It weighs on me very much, to feel that the years have gone by and that I have not achieved my academic goal,” Mr. Rivera said. “I am already 27 years old, and I did not accomplish either of the two careers I pursued.”
“It’s hard, very hard,” he added.
Adrián Meza, the rector of Paulo Freire University, said that it had presented all the requested documentation to the authorities but that they refused to review it, taking over the university instead.
“This is a political regime that doesn’t realize it is in the 21st century,” Mr. Meza said, adding that he — like many Nicaraguans — recently fled to neighboring Costa Rica, fearing further reprisals.
Among the institutions seized this month is the Polytechnic University, which was an epicenter of the protests in 2018. At the time, students occupied the campus for more than 50 days, with police officers and vigilante groups often raiding the university to beat up demonstrators with fists, clubs and high-caliber weapons.
Government officials “had a thorn in their eye and now they wanted to remove it,” said Mr. Medina, who tried to negotiate with the government during those protests.
Since then, Mr. Ortega has sought to crush dissent in Nicaragua, jailing hundreds of people, including presidential candidates and students, and forcing thousands more into exile.
The Organization of American States rebuked Mr. Ortega last year after the elections, which many member states said were a sham. Last week, a senior American official warned that Nicaragua was on track to be expelled from the organization if Mr. Ortega continued to repress opposition forces.
The latest government tactics will probably add to the immense surge of Nicaraguans, especially youths, out of the country. Last year, more than 50,000 Nicaraguans were detained by the United States Border Patrol, a record, and a record number sought refuge in Costa Rica, where hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans already lived.
Mr. Rivera, the university student, resisted leaving Nicaragua for years. But last weekend he decided to flee to Costa Rica as well — without a plan for his future, and carrying only a backpack.
“It is inevitable to feel sadness because it is a forced departure; I feel like I ran away,” he said. “I was forced to leave my country.”
Yubelka Mendoza reporter from Managua. Maria Abi-Habib reported from Mexico City.