In August 2023, the government of Nicaragua seized and closed the University of Central America (UCA), a Jesuit institution of higher education in Managua. In response to the crisis, and to support UCA students now in exile, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) initiated #TodosSomosUCA, a national campaign in partnership with Seattle University and the Jesuits Central Southern Province.

Six months after the launch of the campaign in November 2023, we are pleased to share that it has led to nearly $200,000 in donations. Recently, Rev. José Domingo Cuesta, S.J., Provincial of the Central American Jesuit Province, discussed the current situation in Nicaragua and the impact of the campaign on students seeking to complete their education at a Jesuit university in either El Salvador (Central American University) or Guatemala (Rafael Landivar University). The following interview was conducted by AJCU’s vice president of communications, Deanna Howes Spiro, and was translated by Serena Cosgrove, director of Latin American Studies and Faculty Coordinator for the Central America Initiative at Seattle University. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rev. José Domingo Cuesta, S.J.

AJCU: There has been little coverage on the UCA in American press in 2024. If you do a search on Google News for headlines, you will see that just about everything is from August through November 2023. What should Americans know about Nicaragua and the UCA at this time?

Fr. Domingo: Nicaragua was in the international news until the end of 2023. There are other foci that have grabbed international attention since then, e.g., Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, etc. But in Nicaragua, the government continues to violate human rights. And this news is not being covered widely by journalists at this time. The government seized the UCA and turned it into a new, state-run university with a new name, Casimiro Sotelo. Many students immediately left the university and the students who didn’t have any other choices and decided to continue studying there wanted to leave. And so we now have many students saying, “Hey, can I attend one of the other Jesuit universities in Central America because of what’s going on at the new university that the government created?”

When the university was closed by the government, 30% of the students had a partial or complete scholarship to attend the UCA. The majority of the students had to leave the university. And many left the country. The Jesuits were very committed to the students being able to finish their studies at the two other Jesuit universities in Central America. Last October, 2,301 students filled out a questionnaire that we had sent to them [to learn how they wanted to continue pursuing their studies in an alternative fashion]. And because of a combination of different factors, a number of those students did not continue with the process. Some because of economic difficulties and some because in order to be able to legally study in those other countries, the students had to have their transcripts documented and authenticated in Nicaragua, which became very hard.

And so because the students had been studying at the UCA, that meant that the government looked at them with suspicion and was not going to make it easy for them to continue their studies elsewhere. And so we started an international campaign to gather funds to support the students with scholarships for tuition and, in some cases, support for room and board.

Could you share some examples of where UCA faculty, staff or students have gone to continue their teaching / working since the seizure last August?

The majority of faculty and staff left because of political persecution. A few have come over to the UCA in El Salvador and Landivar in Guatemala. Working or studying at the UCA in Nicaragua was considered being a “terrorist.”

Of the original 2,301 students, right now, we have close to 300 students who have been studying at the UCA in El Salvador and Landivar in Guatemala since the start of the new semester in January 2024. There’s another group of students who are now requesting to start at either school in the coming semester [beginning in August 2024).

How has the support from the #TodosSomosUCA campaign been of assistance to the students?

The #TodosSomosUCA campaign has provided a lot of hope for students and all of us who want the UCA Nicaragua students to be able to continue their studies. The students have a number of costs that they are facing: tuition, housing and food, as well as transportation, including getting to school. And remember that these are costs that are going to go on for a couple of years so that they can finish their degrees. We have a group that is studying online and then we have a group of students who are studying in person.

There is a phrase from the Nicaraguan poet, Gioconda Belli: “Solidarity is the tenderness of the people.” This is why the solidarity and support from the international community (universities around the world, the provinces, the students, etc.) has been so important and meaningful for students and the rest of us.

What is most needed at this time from members of the AJCU Network who are interested in continuing their support of UCA students, faculty and staff in exile?

Some universities in the United States have taken in Nicaraguan students and are offering them scholarships. And some universities, led and encouraged by AJCU’s president, Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., have been writing letters of support and issuing statements about what has happened in Nicaragua. For example, I was in Indiana recently, where Juan Sebastián Chamorro, who’s a political leader from Nicaragua, lives in exile with his family, while he works for the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. While I was there, I bumped into his wife, who said she remembered that Fr. Garanzini met with her, supported her, provided help and letters, and accompanied her in this process. This is just one example of support and solidarity.

How are the Jesuits who remain in Nicaragua, including those who were in the UCA campus residence? If so, can you share how they are serving students and/or the local Church?

We have eleven Jesuits left in Nicaragua right now, who are from a couple of different countries (two from the United States, a few from Spain, and a few from Nicaragua). The majority of them are senior citizens: of the eleven, seven of them are older than 82. We have a Jesuit who will be 100 in July: A Spanish biologist, Fr. Adolfo, who was still going to his lab twice a day when the university was taken away. He refuses to leave the country. He arrived in Nicaragua when he was very young and is a very internationally-recognized scientist who has discovered new mollusks and published about them in scientific journals. He had a lab at the UCA that was the best for this kind of research, which was taken away by the government. He lived at the University as well and was expelled and lost his lab. Now, the Jesuits are left in the only Jesuit community now, which is in the Jesuit Colegio [high school].

At this moment, what we have left with the Jesuits in Nicaragua, are two high schools, and the network of Fe y Alegría [elementary-level] schools. It seemed last year like they were going to close the schools, but we are always at the risk of their being seized and closed. The Nicaraguan government has formally closed 4,000 NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], including among them universities, high schools and institutes. For instance, high schools (like the two we have left in the country) need specific permission from the government to be able to carry out business and we have not received those permissions. There’s a risk that they could use that as a pretext to close us. If the government closed the [remaining Jesuit schools], we would need to leave the country. Keep in mind that the government cancelled the legal status of the UCA, but also of the Jesuit presence. We were legally incorporated and that was cancelled. We would not have permission to be in the country.

In the midst of so much strife and turmoil, what gives you hope for the UCA and Nicaragua?

I will give you an example. A former UCA student recently asked me for help with studying at the UCA in El Salvador. He’s been at the new state-run university, where students haven’t been given classes or been able to study. It’s just a political ideology that is being shown to them (and he’s studying architecture). There are a number of cases where students are trying to move forward with their lives and seek support.

We Jesuits have the Universal Apostolic Preferences, including one: “Accompanying youth toward a hope-filled future.” In Nicaragua, the former UCA students and youth don’t have hope. There is no future for them. There is no opportunity for them to get educated, to train themselves, and to live tranquilly. And that’s why this (#TodosSomosUCA) campaign gives them hope, given that there is no hope in their country. It becomes possible for them to seek holistic training outside of Nicaragua. And this is what orients me in my work and gives me hope, and is the purpose of the campaign. Behind the campaign are a lot of people who have been collaborating. We’re talking about young people: this is what keeps us united to keep moving forward.

The #TodosSomosUCA campaign has opened the door to UCA students in exile to pursue their Jesuit higher education in El Salvador or Guatemala, through scholarships and funding for room and board. With this resource in hand, these universities will continue to welcome more students to join them each semester, providing a path forward for them to live into the “hope-filled future” that is the promise of our Jesuit mission. We extend our deepest gratitude to the hundreds of individuals, as well as many communities and institutions throughout the Jesuit educational family who contributed to the #TodosSomosUCA campaign!