The University Students Expelled by the Dictatorship of Daniel Ortega

University students led the uprising in April 2018, but also, like peasants, are a group whose experience and perspectives receive less coverage in the media. This article, the first of two, appeared in the online magazine NIU. 

The University Students Expelled by the Dictatorship of Daniel Ortega

By Keyling T. Romero and Franklin Villavicencio, published in online journal “Niu”, January 2020

[original Spanish]

At least 110 students in Nicaragua were expelled from the UNAN[1] for protesting against Daniel Ortega. Four young people share their testimony to this “academic death”. In the UNA[2], another 43 were sanctioned.

Artiz Báez, 21 years of age, would be graduating this year. At the beginning of April 2018 he was in the fourth year majoring in English, in the Multidisciplinary Regional School of Chontales of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN). But without notice he lost everything. At the end of August 2018, he got into the online system of the university to verify his academic status, and he found an unexpected message: “Expelled, Special Commission, Gross Misconduct”.

Báez cannot appeal that verdict of “academic death” to which another hundred students from the UNAN campuses have been condemned, because the expulsion also includes a prohibition from entering the campus, nor does it seem safe for many students to try to get close to campus.

Elthon Rivera, a fourth-year medical student, who this year would be doing his internship, is another one of those expelled from the UNAN, and he cannot even attempt to continue his major in another alma mater. “You cannot get your academic record personally. You might be able to do it through an intermediary or through a power of attorney. I and other people were able to get it that way. But recently they told several students that they are not providing them. And even though in my case they did give me my grades, they did not want to give me other documents, like the breakdown of all the classes. And to be able to study in other universities they ask you for that. In fact, I had applied to another university in Honduras, but the UNAN was closed to providing any type of information,” he lamented.

NIU Magazine built its own database on those expelled from the different campuses of the UNAN in Nicaragua. Testimonial information was used which some expelled students provided, as well as records from student movements and the opposition group Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which were verified with the students and information from journalistic sources. The database confirms that at least 110 university students were expelled, most from the campus of Managua where Economic Science majors study.

The investigation confirmed that 61% of the expelled students were in the fourth and fifth year in their majors. In other words, in 2020 they would be graduating or writing their senior theses. Another 21% of the students were in their third year, and now would be in the last year of their studies. Most of those expelled, at least 75%, were students from the Managua campus, 16% were from the León campus, and another 9% were studying in the Regional Schools of Matagalpa, Carazo, Chontales and Estelí.

The first massive expulsion in the academic history of Nicaragua

The expelled students who have organized still have not been able to make progress  in their return to the university. One group started a judicial process against the UNAN, but it did not succeed. In the beginning of 2019, there was an approach made to members of the UNEN[3] who participated in the Negotiation Table, between February and March, but there were no agreements.

“Our idea was to present this list (of the expelled) to Luis Andino (national president of the UNEN) in order to get the grades of these young people, because many of them do not have their grades”, said Alejandra Centeno, an expelled student from the UNAN, in spite of having academic excellence. Andino, said Centeno, told them that he already had the list, except for the data from León, but the next day he suspended the negotiating table and, says Centeno, “broke off any communication channel with the UNEN.”

Students expelled and sanctioned in the Agrarian University

The wave of massive expulsions that occurred in the UNAN was replicated some weeks later in the National Agrarian University (UNA), another house of studies that expelled four students, suspended nine for a year, and punished 23 students who rebelled during the elections of the UNEN in that campus with the cancelation of their scholarship for one year, at the end of November in 2019, according to Darry Hernández, a former student of the UNA who has the records of 36 students.

The “crime” of the youth was denouncing that the UNEN did not represent them, and that they were not in agreement with the fact that their representatives were perpetuated in their posts. The students received the news through some letters which mentioned the cause and the punishment. Nevertheless, like in the UNAN, there were not notified during the case analysis process.

“The punishment was based on cases of very serious indiscipline on Tuesday the 26th and Wednesday the 27th of November of that year (2019), in which you actively participated. A call for reflection is made to you as a professional of the agricultural sector, to take advantage of the opportunity that you are being given in this educational institution,” quoted the letter.

University attrition

  Also, in 2018 there was large amount of academic attrition in the universities, because added to the expulsions were student disobedience and forced migration due to the violence that the State imposed on the students.

“In terms of student attrition, the withdrawal of 22 students per each 100 is evident in 2018, a lot higher than the 7 students per each 100 of the final registration in 2017,” admitted the management report for 2018 of the UNAN-Managua, which only dedicated these lines to the increase in the percentage of inter-annual student attrition.

A figure which, in addition, would be larger if the data that was published in the National University Council (CNU) was analyzed in its accountability report for 2018. Because comparing initial registration to the final registration in the campuses of Managua and León, there was a 27% rate of academic attrition.

NIU MAGAZINE talked with four students banished from the UNAN campuses. Yaritza Rostrán, an undergraduate political science student and also a former political prisoner; Language and Literature student, Melkin Castillo; Social Work student Heyling Marenco; and Political Science and International Relations student Enrique Orozco, they recount how they experienced their “academic death” and the challenges they face to try to resume their studies.

Yaritza Rostrán: “It is difficult to think about the future when you don´t have anything.”

She lost her career, and her family circle was jailed for criticizing the regime. As a student she wanted to create youth dialogue tables, which she ended up cobbling together in the April protests.

Before the April protests and being expelled from her university, Yaritza Rostrán had her project for finishing her studies clear: she would create a youth organization capable of getting involved in politics and having an impact on the decisions of the Government. Essentially it would be a dialogue table of youth from different parts of Nicaragua.

But that university project to get her degree in Political Science turned into a real necessity, that started in the streets and under fire.

Yaritza has not been able to graduate, because they expelled her from the UNAN, Managua, and she spent seven months in prison. The regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo accused her of terrorism and illegal possession of weapons. In reality, she reflects, she formed student tables, organized movements and worked on an agenda to demand attention to university demands. In essence she did her project, carried along by the circumstances of a country in crisis where the students were barricaded in their campuses, to deal with the system of their universities and the State itself.

“From the 21st (of April, 2018) I was out in the streets trying to organize the students. The boys had a certain amount of reticence, because at that time there was so much commotion that they did not think about organizing for a referendum within the UNAN, but about protesting,” she remembers. While the youth protested and were barricaded in the campuses in reaction to the massacre ordered by the regime, on April 26 the University Coordinator for Democracy and Justice (CUDJ) was created, one of the student movements that unites different university movements. Likewise, the face of Yaritza became public with the CUDJ. She was frequently seen on TV, reading press releases, or being a spokesperson for those barricaded in the UNAN. Thinking about a referendum to challenge the UNEN gave meaning to her struggle, and for that reason the students had to be in the classrooms.

On May 7th Yaritza called for the university students to sign the referendum against the UNEN, but the students decided to barricade themselves.

The day that she swore to never get involved in politics

The career of Political Science came into Yaritza´s life by accident. She wanted to study International Trade, but we not able to pay for a private education. The word “political” bothered her, and she even swore not to get involved in it.

She was in the third year of high school and was a member of the Sandinista Youth, when she learned that the party would impose one of her fellow students as the president of the Federation of Secondary Students (FES). Yaritza was opposed, and for expressing her discontent, was accused of betrayal, expelled from the movement, and was forever disillusioned.

“I felt completely disillusioned. Not just because of the corruption, but because of the intolerance that they practiced, issues that went against what I believed. I distanced myself from everything, and I said that I would never get close to politics,” she remembers.

She broke that oath on April 19th when the student protests against the regime of Daniel Ortega  broke out, and the National Agrarian University, and the National Engineering University, joined the protests.

“For me it was the straw that broke the camel´s back. I could not remain indifferent, I had to take to the streets. It was shocking, because I never thought that the Police were going to shoot like that,” she relates, ten months after being released from jail.

Imprisonment

August 25, 2018 Yaritza was leaving a march in León along with students Nahiroby Olivas, Byron Estrada, Luis Quiroz, Levi Rugama and Victoria Obando, when the National Police detained all of them. For three days they accused them of terrorism, possession of weapons, and burning the University Center of the National University (CUUN), where Christian Emilio Cadenas was burned to death on April 20.

“After the abduction we did not know about anything,” she explains. The role that Yaritza had within the movement, which was continuing with the student organization, was put on pause on being imprisoned. She was an important pillar.

The days that Yaritza spent in cell number four of “La Esperanza” women´s prison were “hardly bearable”. The inhumane treatment and the lack of medical attention are the worst memories that she has about that place. Under those circumstances, in December she received upsetting news. Her mother, in one of the visits to the prison, told her that she had been able to verify in the system that she was expelled.

“They never clarified the reason for my expulsion,” she states.

She was released on March 15, 2019 and rejoined the CUDJ and University Action. She is prohibited from setting foot in the UNAN, but she is clear that her contribution to the organization has been key for the grassroots of the university movement.

“It is difficult to think about the future when you have nothing. I lost my university major…the possibility of going back to my family, my circle,” she laments. “The only thing that I have clear is that I am resisting, and as much as I can in the way that I can,” she adds.

Yaritza demands that the university clarify for her and the dozens of expelled students the unexplained reasons for their expulsion.

“It would be a form of justice, at least,” she pronounced. This is the other personal struggle that Yaritza is just beginning.

Melkin Castillo: “I was going to be the first graduate from my family”

She was in the last year of Language and Literature when they expelled her from her university. The insecurity and lack of opportunities in Nicaragua forced her to go into exile.

Asking a student of Language and Literature about their favorite book can be complicated terrain. But Melkin Castillo is clear about it. “One hundred years of solitude”, he instantly responds, without hesitation, as if he had the response ready to an almost existential doubt for a student of Literature.

-There is a part when Aureliano went to war that he says “from now on do not call me Aurelito, now I am Colonel Aureliano Buendía”, quotes Melkin on the phone call from Tijuana, Mexico- To a certain extent I identify with that.

It is the last phrase of the fifth chapter of the work of Gabriel García Márquez, one of the many Latin American authors that he read before being expelled from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in August 2018.

He identifies with the quote, not because he is a colonel, or because he has won some war – rather he has already lost a lot – nearly 4,000 kilometers away he feels like he as aged “four years” in a matter of months.

A dream in Mulukukú

When Melkin was 14 years old, he dreamt about studying Medicine in Managua. He was the first in his family that could dream that. He lived in Mulukukú, a territory that in the end of the 80s was marked by the war between Sandinistas and Contras.

The dream was fulfilled, in part. He did not stay in Medicine, because he did not pass the exam, but his second option, which was Language and Literature, captivated him along the way. Melkin states that he always was the best student in his high school, but the educational system had deficiencies that cost him at the university level.

In his fifth year, Melkin achieved academic excellence. His grades were above 90. That same year they also expelled him from his university without receiving any notification, and without the right to defend himself, without guarantees of a fair process. They expelled him because he joined the massive student protests of April 2018 against the regime of Daniel Ortega.

Melkin did not grow up with a favorable view of the Sandinista Front. Some of his relatives were counterrevolutionaries of the 80s, and that formed in him some historical distrust, marked by the stories of his parents and aunts and uncles. It was in his university years that he formed his own opinion. In those years he came face to face with student corruption, on seeing that one of his classmates, the representative of the National Union of Nicaraguan Students (UNEN), never showed up for classes, but always got good grades.

“I became aware of the corrupt structure that existed within the universities and the fraud that they represented,” he recounts.

And he experienced it first- hand on April 19. That afternoon, Melkin and a group of classmates planned a protest at the UNAN. They took everything for it. On leaving class, they met in one of the fields of the campus. There they pulled out signs with anti-government messages, but before they could shout the first slogan, a group from the Sandinista Youth (JS) pounced on them.  That day they were out with all the warnings. Winds of rebellion were in the air.

“Respect the university!”, said one of the JS to them.

“We are not showing disrespect, we have the right to protest!”, replied the insurgent students.

The presence of bats, mortars and rocks was the signal that made them react. The youth, under threats, left the campus.

“The intention was not just to remove us,  but attack us and do damage our physical safety. It looked like they were at war,” remembers Melkin. “On that day I came face to face with raw violence. I told myself there was no return from here.”

A decade of the Sandinista Government had been broken with vibrations from bullets on the night of April 19th. That day three people died: the policeman Hilton Manzanares, the worker Darwin Urbina, and the student Richard Pavón.

Melkin began to coordinate protests through Whatsapp and Telegram groups. The university students organized from night to morning to press for their own demands, and use university autonomy as their standard that, they maintain, fell into decline in the last decades under the mandate of Daniel Ortega.

“We spent two weeks organizing the entire student calendar. We formed commissions on communication, logistics, policy, in order to have a structure.”

Melkin went from Aurelito to Aureliano in a matter of months. From writing literary essays till daybreak, he went to writing press releases and political agendas. Fear was mixed with euphoria. “Being in the UNAN was living on borrowed time,” he says about those days.

Days that did not last long. The student movement received brutal blows. One of them was July 13, when para-police groups lashed out against the youth barricaded in the UNAN.

And then, if that was not enough punishment, a month later they expelled a hundred students. Melkin was one of them. He realized it in October, when he got into the web system and saw that his student record said “Grave Expulsion”.

“Seeing all that process thrown in the garbage hurt me, and the process of my entire family, because I was going to be the first to graduate,” he relates as his voice cracks unavoidably.

In the end he left Nicaragua on December 25, for his safety and in search of new opportunities. He arrived in Guatemala where he spent two weeks, crossed into Mexico by raft, and was in Chiapas for four months with a humanitarian visa. In Guadalajara he was supported by a friend and now remains in Tijuana.

But his journey has not ended. He thinks about continuing his path north, because he believes that this region is so troubled that it has nothing to offer.

“If I stay here, I am going to sink even lower. I have to continue moving ahead,” states Melkin from Tijuana, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, but ironically safer for him than his own country.

Heyling Marenco: “The University was my life project”

The third- year student of Social Work in the FAREM-Matagalpa, way before April joined an alliance against  corruption in the UNEN. After the protests, she left her home and country because of threats she received.

The last time that Heyling Marenco saw her father was in May 2018, when he took her to the bus terminal in Matagalpa. It was a fleeting good-by. She had only two changes of clothing with her. And he, at that time, was not appraising the protests that were emerging daily in the country, and nor did he understand why they attacked his daughter so much, until she decided to leave the city of her birth.

“Have you done something bad?”, he asked her before she got on the bus.

“I haven´t done anything more than protest and denounce what is happening,” his daughter was able to say to him.

“Well, let me know when you get back”, he responded anxiously, but that has not happened.

Three weeks before Heyling, along with a group of students from the Multidisciplinary Regional School of Matagalpa, took over their university campus for two days, as a protest against the deaths and attacks of the National Police against students throughout the country. This was enough for her name and face to appear on the list of student enemies of the regime, that the leaders of the National Union of Nicaraguan Students (UNEN) prepared and presented, and in August 2018 that caused her expulsion from her university studies for a major offense.

“When the UNAN announced the people who were expelled, I fell into a depression. I felt that the whole world was falling in around me. I was discouraged. I became aware of it because when I saw on the social networks that they had expelled several students from Managua, I got into the system, and the first thing that I saw was a message that said “Expulsion for serious offense”. They did not give me any explanation. For me this is clear, it was because of the UNEN,” she relates as she drinks a cup of coffee in San José, Costa Rica, where she had to go into exile.

Allied against the corruption of the UNEN

Heyling´s struggle against  corruption and inequality started several years before. As an adolescent she joined several social movements that defended the right of sexual diversity and feminism. That is why when she had to choose what to study, she was attracted to social work, in spite of the fact that her family did not think it was a good idea.

“The university was my life project. It was everything that I had. I knew that I was going to do well, because I was and am in love with my major. I know that I can be a young woman creator of changes,” she explains.

In her first years, Heyling was completely focused on her major and her activism. In the mornings she studied, and in the afternoons she would go out with her group to carry out social projects in communities of Matagalpa. Her principal economic support was her family. And she would have continued in this way, if it was not because the corruption of the UNEN angered her so much, that she decided to cause a change in the system.

“In 2017 I made a request to get support for transportation, and I realized that it was very difficult for them to give you a scholarship. There was a lot of cronyism. Everything was distributed among the students from the UNEN. And in the university everyone knew that only if you are on the inside can you access support, and, well I was never going to belong to that space,” she says.

It was then that she allied with other university students who disavowed that student movement, and began to question the work of the UNEN, the Orteguista arm within the public universities.

“That year a group of us young people met, who today are those who were expelled, we worked on opening the eyes of the student population that there were other ways to participate within the university, and we were also preparing ourselves for 2018, given that there were elections of the UNEN and academic authorities.” Nevertheless, plans changed when the social explosion against the dictatorship occurred.

Into exile with empty hands

On August 4, 2018, after months of attacks and persecution against her and her family, Heyling Marenco left Nicaragua by trails. Without a passport. Without money. Without plans. She only had on a pair of shorts and a shirt in a backpack.

“In Matagalpa a printed photo of me began to circulate. A friend warned me that some paramilitaries were out asking about me in the market. And it was then that I decided to leave. I remember that the day before I cried the entire night because I did not know what I was going to do here. I have no family here. I had nothing,” she says.

Two weeks later, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) made a letter public where they stated that, after an investigation that the Special Commission of the University Council did from August 7-20, 2018, they decided to expel for very serious offenses those who participated in barricades and the take-over of the UNAN-Managua campus. Hours later, dozens of students from all the campuses of that university denounced more expulsions.

“I have thought about continuing to study, but to do so, I have to start from zero because universities ask for a certified copy of your grades, and I do not have them. Nor can I ask for a scholarship in another country, because I do not have a passport, and when I requested one before coming here, they did not want to give me one. So I cannot do anything. And I tell you I have one foot in Costa Rica and the other foot in Nicaragua. And that is hard -she states – because what is happening there does not let you concentrate on your survival here.”

Enrique Orozco: “Those responsible for my expulsion were from the UNEN”

He was in the second year of his second major, and on being expelled, lost all that he worked for. Now, in exile, he is trying to start another major, with the goal of returning to Nicaragua.

From one day to the next Enrique Orozco lost everything for which he had struggled. His university career, his freedom as a citizen, and the possibility of paying his Mom back for all the efforts she had made up to then so that he could study.

“I had made a promise to my Mom. I told her, ´you are going to have a son who is a professional. You are going to have a son who is going to graduate.´ She had made every effort for my brother and I. She has sold mangos, what has she not sold?! And that was what most motivated me when I entered the university,” he says.

And he was on the point of finishing. Because he graduated from high school as the second best student in the country, he earned a scholarship for academic excellence in the Central American University, where he began to study Law, and passed the admissions test to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), where that same year, 2017, he started his second major in Political Science and International Relations.

Nevertheless, in April 2018 his plans fell apart, because of joining the student protests. His academic record was eliminated, and due to the threats and attacks against his family, he had to go into exile in Costa Rica, where he is attempting to start once again.

“Those responsible for my expulsion were from the UNEN. And I know, because in Facebook I had a discussion with the president of my school, and he put up a comment that said, “we are expelling you because you participated in the burning of the Arlen Siu preschool.” Afterwards they erased those comments, and I could no longer do a screen capture of them,” he denounced.

The dual struggle of Enrique

His university expulsion was the last blow that the party arm of the Government brought against him. Because Enrique had challenged them for some years now. First, he did it in secondary school, when he accused a high school teacher of sexual harassment, and later when he challenged the leaders of the UNEN.

“In spite of the fact that in 2016 I graduated as the second-best student in the country, the Ministry of Education said that I had carried out fraud in order to deny me my diploma. That was because I had denounced a professor for having abused a LGTB classmate. That professor was Sandinista. And I had to confront them, until in the end they gave me a letter that certified me as a graduate to be able to enter the university,” says Orozco, who is a sexual diversity activist.

In the university he had several confrontations with the UNEN leaders and Sandinista teachers. First, because they refused to give him food vouchers, and because he constantly criticized the political ideology that they also tried to impose on the students.

“During that time there were moments when I put up with hunger because I did not have any money. At times I would walk from the UCA to the UNAN to save bus fare. I spent hours in the library studying because I did not have money to buy books. It was very difficult and even so, they did not want to help me with food vouchers,” he says.

In 2018 his situation changed. When the student protests sprang up, Enrique decided to barricade himself in the Agrarian University, where he had a lot of friends and people he knew. There he was wounded in the arm by a rubber bullet.

“I felt safer in the university than I did in my home, because I knew that if I returned, the paramilitaries would arrest or kill me. I tell you that during this time they beat my brother on two occasions, and the Police detained my Mom for two days and asked her where I was. She had to tell them that she did not know anything about me, that months before she had run me out of the house for being a homosexual.”

“I lost years of my life”

From August 20, 2018 to now, Enrique Orozco has not received any communication from the UNAN-Managua, where they explained to him why he was expelled from his major. And nor has he approached the campus, because, according to the letter where they decided the expulsions, all were also prohibited from entering the campus, under the threat of filing charges against them.

“The expulsion affected me psychologically, because I feel that I lost something for which I had been fighting, I lost years of my life. And it also limits me a lot from looking for other universities here in exile, because I do not have my grades, and in addition I would need the academic curriculum, the course syllabi, and the UNAN refuses to give me that information,” he states.

Nevertheless, not everything is lost for him. A few weeks ago he was able to finish some exams that allowed him to receive a Costa Rican diploma. With that he plans to apply for a scholarship in a private university there.

“Now I am going to study systems engineering. Because I am completely disillusioned with politics. I could continue studying Law, but if I study it here, it will be Costa Rican law, and it won´t help me – he comments -because I plan on returning to Nicaragua.”

[1] UNAN = National Autonomous University of Nicaragua

[2] UNA = National Agrarian University

[3] UNEN = National Union of Students of Nicaragua

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