Nicaragua Hijacks a Jesuit University, Then Declares Jesuits 'Illegal'
By Luis Calero, S.J.
Imagine waking up one day to find your university seized by the government. All property, all buildings, all bank accounts—gone. In its place, a new name, a corrupt new owner, a new flag flying overhead, and a shameful new academic mission: indoctrinate all students in state propaganda.
It happened Aug. 16 at the University of Central America in Nicaragua, where 9,500 students, along with 568 faculty and staff at the prestigious Jesuit institution, were accused of being a “center of terrorism” by Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega. Having renamed UCA, he has now turned it into a state-owned apparatus that will espouse his agenda. On Aug. 23, for good measure, he banned the Jesuit order and authorized the confiscation of all its property. Ortega’s punitive actions are widely believed to stem from the 2018 widespread protests that included UCA and the Catholic church against his controversial social security reforms.
While UCA is the latest of many independent entities to fall in the long-impoverished country—where universities, charities, media and religious orders have been shut down, and members exiled or imprisoned—the harsh crackdowns by Ortega and his Sandinista Party continue to draw international condemnation, and from Jesuits everywhere.
For Santa Clara’s Luis Calero, S.J., the strife brings back tragic memories of friends who taught at UCA’s other Jesuit university in El Salvador, where priests who spoke against the abuses of the government there paid with their lives. On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were gunned down by the Salvadoran military. (SCU maintains eight crosses in front of its Mission Church year-round in honor of the victims.)
Fr. Calero, who was born and raised in Colombia, taught at universities in Colombia, Guatemala, and periodically over five years at UCA El Salvador that had temporarily lost its leadership after the killings. The retired anthropology professor who became rector of the SCU Jesuit community in 2021 wants the world to be educated about repressive regimes like Ortega’s. Once a hero for helping to depose a brutal right-wing family dictatorship, the president and his family have adopted the same authoritarian mantle, crushing civil rights to hold on to their power.
We recently sat down with Fr. Calero to talk about the latest developments.
Ortega had been a people’s revolutionary hero with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a left-wing political party in Nicaragua that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. What changed Ortega?
It is difficult to say. When he overthrew the Somoza dynasty—which had done great damage to Nicaragua and whose actions were carried out in conjunction with the U.S. government—I was traveling to Nicaragua taking delegations of Jesuits there. At the beginning, we were glad when Ortega took over and the country experienced a sense of freedom. In fact, the church initially was very supportive of Ortega.
But that gradually began to tarnish through sham elections. It was basically a Democratic state for a while, but in time Ortega became more and more dictatorial and at that point the Catholic Church became more and more outspoken. Not only the Catholic Church, but other churches as well, and other political factions. He began to look at the Catholic Church and other movements with Western ties as enemies, and has become increasingly critical of any opposition—from many sides of the political spectrum, but especially the Catholic Church. From what I hear from friends and others I’m in contact with there, he has moved from being a very hopeful sign to being a very dictatorial sign, and is somebody who is disliked in most Catholic circles.
Was it just a matter of time before Ortega acted against the Jesuits?
When you look back, he has arrested several priests and several bishops, and exiled priests, nuns, and lay religious leaders. So we’re not surprised that he’s moved in this direction. I think we expected him to be more repressive against the progressive forces of the Catholic Church. And not only progressive forces, but against the forces of truth.
You mentioned the UCA shut-down during a recent mass at the Jesuit community. What did you say to your fellow Jesuits?
That we have to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at UCA who are going through a difficult time, and that we pray in communion with them as they face difficult questions. That we want them to be strong, and to believe that God is with them and that God may guide them in whatever decisions they have to make.
This is part of what it means to be a Jesuit institution, where you are not isolated. You are part of a global network, where what happens in India, what happens in South Africa, what happens in Colombia—it’s all connected to what happens at Santa Clara. We are a global family and when somebody hurts in some place around the world, we hurt over here as well. They are a sister institution, part of our global network of Jesuit institutions, and part of our mission. We stand for a faith that does justice. And we want Santa Clara to be informed about this, so that we keep this in our hearts, and in our prayers. We also prayed not only for the Jesuits’ safety, but for all of the people at UCA, and the families and the people of Nicaragua. Their safety is indispensable, because as you know, there are many people being arrested around the country at large.
What can the Santa Clara community do to help?
This conversation we’re having now is a start because people listen to this. They will know where to go, what to do. You know, there are so many tragedies happening every day all over the world, so we cannot ask people to be involved in each one of them. Most of us react to things because of personal connections, because we have family, we have friends who are affected. For example, at Santa Clara, we know that Ed Maurer and Chris Bacon work with programs in Nicaragua, and we want to support them and the people they work with there.
How much does the news from Nicaragua conjure the tragedy in El Salvador for you?
That crossed my mind, because what happened in El Salvador in ’89, I think we all thought that could never happen, because these were men of great visibility and great integrity. And as murderous as the military were in El Salvador, we thought they would have enough sense not to kill people who had such high profiles. So I try not to go there in my mind.
Can you recall where you were when you heard about the 1989 executions in El Salvador?
I was teaching at Loyola University, New Orleans with Fr. Dan Berrigan. He was a strong social activist, and I got the news before he did, and I went up to his room. He didn't know yet, so I said, “Dan, sit down, please; I have some sad news for you.” He knew them, and I knew them even better, because I had traveled to El Salvador a few times before 1989 and had gotten to know Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector at UCA, and Ignacio Martin Baro, S.J., and Segundo Montes, S.J.
So Dan and I both grieved together, and he said, “Let’s go out for a walk out and a cup of coffee.” We walked on Loyola’s campus, and we went to Tulane University, and we walked, and we just quietly grieved. We also planned an act of disobedience in front of the federal building in downtown New Orleans. We organized a protest against the U.S. policy in El Salvador and blocked the federal building peacefully. We sang, we read poetry, we prayed, and we were arrested with about 20 other people.
It was a very difficult moment, but one that I shared with Dan, and which I am very proud of. He marked my life as a Jesuit, and I will forever be thankful to him for showing me the way to that.
Thirty-four years later, a different government has confiscated a Jesuit university, and outlawed Jesuit priests. What's the lesson here, if any?
You're asking the question: do we have the capacity to learn? Well, some days I wake up, and I think human nature is good, and the next day I wake up and I read the news, and I think human nature is not so good. I go back and forth. My Catholic upbringing, however, tells me that human nature tends to be good.
Aug 24, 2023
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.