This month, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega brought five private universities under state control in an effort to censor college students, whom he perceives to be one of the greatest threats to his rule. Academics and opposition activists fear that this will silence professors and students. In addition, Ortega loyalists, already hostile to elite education, will play a role in the decline in the quality of education. President Ortega has a track record of attacking academic institutions to censor opposition and hold onto power.
Given President Ortega’s relationship with academic institutions, questions arise about his motivations to seize these private universities. Did President Ortega take control of private universities to curtail short-term opposition or to entrench his power via long-term education control?
While it is not entirely clear, Ortega appears to have brought private universities under control to limit future political opposition and prevent a repeat of the 2018 protests. While these actions may have the potential effect of limiting future executive accountability, this does not appear to be his immediate motivation.
Since his first electoral victory in 1984, Ortega has repeatedly silenced opposition and created barriers for possible replacement via opposition political wins. For example, President Ortega used stealth authoritarian mechanisms in 2009 when he pressured Nicaragua’s Supreme Court into removing constitutional obstacles to allow him to run for another term. Law professor Ozan Varol coined the term “stealth authoritarianism” to explain how political leaders undermine democratic institutions and procedures through legal means. Citizens cannot recognize that these mechanisms are being employed because they are “stealthy” and oftentimes legal . In the same manner he is currently trying to silence opposition in private universities, President Ortega used legal institutions to eliminate the possibility of being replaced.
President Ortega is motivated to silence opposition in all forms because of his relationship with universities, the epicenter of previous protests against him. In 2018, Nicaraguan college students protested a widely unpopular change in the social security system. In response, Ortega deployed police against the student protestors, resulting in 350 deaths. One of the private universities brought under control this month, Polytechnic University, was a hotspot during the 2018 protests. Ortega fears that a similar resistance could be triggered again, which would weaken his public-facing image. Nicaragua’s V-Dem score sharply declined in 2018 and has been continuing on this trajectory since. This demonstrates a link between weakening academic institutions and other forms of public expression and a decline in democracy in Nicaragua.
Ortega’s increasing control of educational institutions poses long-term threats to Nicaraguan democracy. The level of education in a country is correlated to how democratic it is. Political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset discusses that higher levels of “education … restrains them [the electorate] from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacity to make rational electoral choices” . With stronger educational institutions, the electorate is less likely to support an autocrat because the citizens are more aware of the consequences of doing so.
The Nicaraguan government’s move to erode and censor academic institutions prevents the electorate from keeping Ortega accountable to popular expressions of preference. Professor and scholar Jennifer Mercieca argues that education enables voters to “hold their leaders accountable for their words and actions” . Informed citizens have the ability to vote leaders in or out of office based on the leader’s respect for democratic institutions. With a breakdown of universities in Nicaragua, citizens may be less informed and less inclined to hold President Ortega accountable.
However, from an administrative perspective, it is extremely difficult for Ortega’s government to ensure that their censorship is universally carried out in the classrooms. For censorship to be effective, there must be constant monitoring of all classrooms, which would require immense resources from the government. While in theory, censorship is a significant threat to Nicaraguan universities, in practice, the effect may not be as severe as discussed above.
President Ortega understands the power that academic institutions can have in influencing the viewpoints of citizens. Academic institutions promote open discourse about governmental policies and actions taken by the executive, which threatens Ortega’s power as he relies on censorship to maintain control. However, Ortega’s prioritization of short-term control, through his censorship of academic institutions, may in the long-term sow distrust among the Nicaraguan electorate. While the seizure of private universities may not affect the day-to-day lives of most Nicaraguans, citizens should recognize this recent event as yet another policy undertaken to limit expression of and spaces for opposition to Ortega’s rule. Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100 (2015): 1678-1679, https://ilr.law.uiowa.edu/assets/Uploads/ILR-100-4-Varol.pdf  Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (March 1959): 79, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1951731.  Jennifer R. Mercieca, “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 49, no. 3 (2019): 277, https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640