NicaNotes: Nicaragua, the UCA, and the Society of Jesus

By Marvin Ortega

(A longer version of this article was published in Spanish by Cuaderno Sandinista on September 27, 2023. English translation by Jill Clark-Gollub.)

Marvin Ortega is a Nicaraguan sociologist and political analyst.

In 1965, Casimiro Sotelo, a Sandinista, was elected president of the UCA student association, CEUCA. He was accused of being a subversive, expelled from the university, turned over to the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship and murdered by Somoza’s army. In August 2023, the government took over the UCA and renamed it after Casimiro Sotelo.

The propaganda machine of the Society of Jesus has trained its guns on Nicaragua by throwing mud from thousands of schools scattered all over the world. Its audience is millions of students, alumni, teachers, and clergy, from the Superior General to rank and file priests, and their network of friends, partners, and funders, who turn and shoot at Nicaragua.

Why are the Jesuits attacking Nicaragua so viciously? Is it a recent phenomenon or has it been brewing for some time?

The Society of Jesus appeared on the scene in Nicaragua in the early 20th century as teachers for the oligarchy’s children. When the Jesuits landed in Nicaragua between 1912 and 1933, the U.S. military occupation was at its peak, but the Jesuits didn’t notice. Always so eager to record their experiences and observations about the world around them, the Society of Jesus wrote nothing about the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua during that period. In 1916 they founded the Colegio Centro América.

In the late 20th century, the Society of Jesus consolidated its presence in Central America by founding universities, while one group of Jesuit clergy gained prominence as followers of Liberation Theology. The universities survived into the 21st century, but Jesuit Liberation Theology did not. The officers of the Society looked upon the latter as a pipedream and pushed this practice out before the new millennium.

The Birth of the UCA (1960-1979)

In 1961, the Central American University (UCA) formally opened its doors. The UCA emerged with the support of the Somoza dictatorship and national business sectors, introducing itself to society through the lens of Catholic exclusivity (Catholicism as the only true religion). The UCA’s intellectual and academic discourse mobilized the national feeling of believers to its advantage, prioritizing Catholic values above any dogma. It interacted with the structures of political and economic power as a flexible, accommodating institution, willing to be useful, acquiescent, and obsequious to its patrons.

And as was normal at the time, it was financed by the newly created Alliance for Progress, the counterinsurgency program created by the United States to counteract a growing movement of revolutionary struggle against capitalism and US imperialism in Latin America.

The Somoza dictatorship and local capitalists poured their support into the new Catholic, counterinsurgent enterprise, which they perceived as an alternative to the institutions full of Sandinistas who were making the dictatorship and the Liberal-Conservative agro-export capitalists nervous. Appropriately, they placed a neo-fascist extreme right-wing Jesuit priest, León Pallais, cousin to the Somozas, at the helm.

Funding for the UCA was the best expression at the time of the unity between the Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberal Party, represented by the Somoza dictatorship and its allies, had already become a tool of the United States; while the Conservative Party represented the business class of families who fancied themselves intellectuals and over the course of 47 years served as the ideological supporters of the Somoza dictatorship.

The UCA was not born, as the Jesuit discourse repeatedly states, as a pluralistic house of study. It was born as an exclusive, Catholic institution to train the elites of power. It was an offspring of the Alliance for Progress counterinsurgency program, which wished to impose a preventive, reformist alternative to communism. This was particularly important given the threat the US felt from the victory of the Cuban revolution and the emergence of the FSLN [the same year the UCA was founded].

As the founding President, León Pallais enthusiastically explained it: “The founding of the UCA was a well-organized collaboration between private capital, the State, and the Alliance for Progress.” What Pallais had not anticipated was that the Sandinistas would soon sneak in. In 1963 Sandinista students were already organizing the University Center of the Central American University, CEUCA, and demanding student parity in the management of the university. By 1965, Casimiro Sotelo, a Sandinista, was the most important student leader at the UCA and got elected president of CEUCA. Shortly thereafter, Casimiro was accused of being a subversive, expelled from the university for speaking out against Somoza, and turned over to the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship. He was murdered by Somoza’s army and the Jesuits did not even notice.

But the CEUCA was only the beginning. Anti-Somoza and anti-imperialist organizing on campus spiraled out of the university’s control.  It was natural then for the founders of the UCA, who were used to the order kept by the military apparatus of the dictatorship, to request the support of the National Guard to control the student youth mobilization.

The image of the UCA was eaten away from within. Not only were students dragged into the anti-imperialist struggle, so were the Jesuit clergy who taught there. They had to face repression from both from their fellows in the Society of Jesus, and from the Somoza military dictatorship. Internal repression among the Jesuits was a sign that many Jesuits themselves were uncomfortable with the conservative, pro-capitalist model of the Society of Jesus.

The radicalization of the student body hindered the UCA’s mission of offering an alternative to the revolutionary movement led by the FSLN. The officers of the university lost political sway over the student body, which was becoming more and more Sandinista. Even the Social Christian and liberal reformist students, who were competing politically with the FSLN, could not find points of unity with the repressive military attitude of the Jesuit authorities at the university. In January 1971, the Society of Jesus decided to expel more than 60 students in an attempt to decapitate the student leadership of the CEUCA.

On April 20, 1971, the UCA authorities upped the ante. While students, accompanied by their families, conducted a hunger strike on campus, demanding the freedom of political prisoners and the reinstatement of their expelled leaders, President León Pallais called in the National Guard to end the strike. This dictatorial, authoritarian decision by the Society of Jesus, ordering the repression and torture of students and their families, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The public outcry was so strong that Leon Pallais was forced to resign from the UCA, remaining absent from the university and the public life of the country for over 30 years.  He was replaced by the Jesuit Arturo Dibar, who upheld all of Pallais’ decisions, reaffirming the expulsion of the students as a decision taken by the principle of authority of the Society of Jesus. This decision was rejected by the students and by some of the UCA’s Jesuit priests, exacerbating the crisis in the ranks of the Society.

To tamp down dissent (at the UCA and elsewhere in Central America), Superior General Pedro Arrupe sent an internal communiqué to members in which he reminded dissidents that the Society was not a democratic organization, that it would not stand for such challenges, that the duty to respect the authority of the institution was essential, and that everyone had to obey the orders of his superior.

This authoritarianism, on top of that exercised by the institutions controlled by the Jesuits, had an unexpected effect, which was also inevitable: a mass exodus of clergy, students, and seminarians from the ranks of the Society, which persists to this day. The Society and its spokespersons explain it this way:

“… the worst result for the Society was that it stopped recruiting young people from among its own student body. This political meddling showed how outdated theocracies and the practices of medieval Christianity and “kingdoms of God” are. As if there had been no Christian Reformation or full freedom of conscience without paternalism, which was interrupted by traditionalism as soon as the Second Vatican Council closed.” [Endnote 18; see original Spanish article for sources]

Once the Nicaraguan revolution triumphed and the dictatorship ended, the Society of Jesus was exposed for its collusion with the oligarchy and the Somoza dictatorship during more than 63 uninterrupted years (1916-1979). This minimized the influence of the Jesuits over the Nicaraguan people, not only students or Sandinistas, but also among Catholic and non-Catholic clergy and some capitalists. It was a feeling that permeated the whole society. Before 1979, the people identified the Jesuits as part of the Somoza dictatorship.

The Sandinista Popular Revolution (1979-1990)

The end of the Somoza dictatorship and triumph of the Sandinista Revolution surprised the Society of Jesus, but not Jesuit followers of Liberation Theology. Since there were several political persuasions among the Jesuits, the Society could react quickly, installing Liberation Theologians as the new leadership at the UCA. This was out of necessity and not by choice, and included some whom the Society had repressed and marginalized during the Somoza era. The Society realized that it could either allow these leftists to take over the UCA, or it would be closed. It opted for what seemed at the time to be the lesser evil.

New Jesuit clerics joined, some from Central America and others from outside the region. Some Jesuits of the old UCA were forced to leave the country due to their close ties to the dictatorship or extreme right-wing positions. The Jesuit Amado López (later assassinated by the Salvadoran army) took over as president of the UCA, as Liberation Theology Jesuits got permission to lead the UCA and maintain the order and authority of the Society of Jesus, even though that strengthened the Sandinista Revolution. The revolutionary government responded by including the UCA in state funding, which allowed it to become a people’s university where the poor could study. The UCA filled with the sons and daughters of workers and gained prestige.

This period was marked by tensions between Liberation Theologians and other Jesuits, and the authorities of the Society, leading to the departure of both students and priests from Jesuit institutions. The Jesuits working in Nicaragua were never unanimously supportive of the FSLN. At the largest Jesuit parish, in Ciudad Sandino, there were all shades of political tendencies. Jesuits had to accept these divisions during the revolutionary years. When asked how they could go from supporting the Somozas to supporting the Sandinista revolution (and to avoid being called opportunists that cozy up to power), members of the Society said that those at the new UCA were “traveling companions of the Sandinista revolution.”

The Sandinistas lose the elections and the UCA returns to its past (1990-2023)

After the Sandinistas lost the elections and a new government came into office in 1990, the Society of Jesus seemed to lose interest in the preferential option for the poor. By 1997 the UCA returned to the conservative, US-and business-friendly model on which it was founded.

Under the leadership of Cesar Jerez in 1990 and 1991, the UCA remained close to the Sandinista revolution. For example, it had no qualms about granting Daniel Ortega, who studied at the UCA in the 1960s, a Doctorate Honoris Causa for his contribution to the cause of Peace. Cesar Jerez died on November 22, 1991 and was replaced by Xabier Gorostiaga, who began to institute changes that gradually led to abandonment of the principles that had brought the UCA closer to the revolution. Without openly breaking with its immediate past, the new leadership began to retreat to pragmatic positions that smoothed its relationship with the newly elected neoliberal government and with the US agencies and US-based Jesuit universities that provided funding.

Soon the changes began. First, neoliberalism was no longer questioned as a model of exclusion; next, the transformations promoted by the revolution were rejected, as the 1980s was labeled a “lost decade.” Teachers identified as Sandinistas were pushed out through canceled contracts and reduced salaries, and tuition was raised, despite the fact that the university continued to receive government funding. Humanities and social service majors were de-emphasized, the Human Rights and Culture programs were cut back, and the Documentation Centre was minimized.

The profile of the student body also changed, leaving fewer working-class students. The UCA authorities took advantage of this by restricting the Nicaraguan National Student Union (UNEN) and CEUCA; the weakened student movement was unable to resist and was eliminated from the UCA.

When Gorostiaga retired, he was replaced in November 1997 by a Panamanian Jesuit named Eduardo Valdés, who adopted a strategy of “rapprochement with the past.” This included inviting back former UCA President León Pallais, ousted in 1971 for repressing students with the National Guard. The UCA continued to rediscover its past with President Mayra Luz Pérez Díaz in 2005, whose tenure saw the number of low-income students shrink further until the UCA regained its position as an elitist university.

She was replaced by the Salvadoran Jesuit José Idiáquez, closely tied to North American Jesuit universities, and whose presidency turned the UCA into an anti-Sandinista ideological center funded by USAID and the NED. The UCA began to develop certificate programs, workshops, and courses for anti-Sandinista “democratic youth leaders.”

In April 2018 these turned out to be key players in an attempted right-wing terrorist coup d’état. The coup attempt began on the UCA campus, which had been outfitted as the barracks and command post of the anti-Sandinista organizations. From his base at the Jesuit Seattle University in Washington State, the UCA president created a system to channel funds from the US and Europe to promote anti-government activities, called the Central American Initiative (CAI). [Endnote 27; see original Spanish article for sources]

Using the UCA’s technology and computer labs, communications networks were organized as veritable digital battlefields, serving to disseminate fake news against the Sandinista government that began trending on social media. They sought to convert every source of conflict into political protests as the UCA became a factory of lies. [Endnote 29]

On April 18, 2018, UCA students took to the streets in protest over social security reforms. With the participation of the university administration, they launched “a coordinated social media campaign, which began immediately and simultaneously in several cities, along with thousands of fake profiles and sponsored ads on Facebook and millions of WhatsApp messages – grossly disproportionate to such a small population. This misrepresented the real content of the social security reforms and falsely reported that a student protesting at the Central American University (UCA) had been killed by the police.” This fake news came out of the UCA. [Endnotes 30 & 31]

The public universities UNAN and UPOLI were invaded and destroyed by criminals hired by anti-Sandinista organizations, especially the MRS, [Endnote 32] already one of the main allies of the US in Nicaragua. But nothing happened to the UCA, which had become a coordinating center for terrorist actions, despite (or perhaps because) the UCA had free access to terrorist groups. The UCA was never taken over and remained intact, despite the fact that the first violent demonstrations originated from there.

“I had to visit the [UNAN] campus the other day. I think any American who cares about public education would have been shocked to see what the armed elements and these so-called students who occupied it—and who just tore up the women’s dormitories, demolished the reproductive health center that was providing free medical care, including gynecology and obstetrics and rehabilitation services to the local community—did to this school. They just tore it apart. They burned down the childcare center that served 300 children of the staff, because it was the base of operations of these armed elements. I could easily find homemade grenades lying around.”  [Endnote 33]

The president of the UCA, José Idiáquez, was in the United States on April 18 when the unrest was heating up. From there he wrote to encourage terrorism: “I want to express to the world that Nicaragua is a country in which people are killed and kidnapped daily. We’ve been living for many years under this kind of oppression – it’s not fair.” [Endnote 34]

As the violence and deaths unfolded, a former Vice Chancellor of the UCA wrote to Father Idiáquez about death threats her family was receiving and asking for his intervention to stop the bloodshed of Sandinistas and non-Sandinistas. President Idiáquez did not reply to her messages or react to the death threats. [Endnote 35]

It took time to investigate how aid funds had been channeled to promote violence, because in 2018 and 2019 Nicaragua did not have laws to track foreign government financing of non-profit organizations. But in 2020, specific laws were passed to regulate foreign funding of non-profits, establishing the obligation to report on the funds received and their purpose, as well as the obligation to combat lies on social media. [Endnote 37]

Since the enactment of these laws, which exist in dozens of countries around the world, including the imperialist powers, the UCA and the Society of Jesus have refused to comply.

The Legal Status of the UCA and the Society of Jesus is Revoked (2023)

Nicaragua decided to close the chapter on a university and religious order that felt they were above the law and could impose their will on the Nicaraguan people and State.

For three years the Ministry of the Interior waited for the UCA and the Society of Jesus to submit financial statements for fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022, while neither of the two institutions bothered to comply with the General Law for the Regulation and Control of Non-Profit Organizations, which they had done in previous years without incident. Since 2020 they had failed to fulfill the requirement to elect a Board of Directors, which hindered oversight of their revenue streams and management of funds. This prevented the national regulatory entity from checking the activities and projects of the UCA and the Jesuits to see whether they were in accordance with the objectives and purposes for which they were granted legal recognition.

It was an attitude of open defiance of the legitimacy of the State. The Jesuits assumed that their status and relations with the axes of world power would allow them to deride Nicaragua. In the face of this arrogance and provocation, the Ministry of the Interior canceled their legal status, as required by law.

In light of the crimes committed under the protection of the UCA, the Tenth Criminal District Court ordered the seizure of all its assets, which are now owned by the State of Nicaragua. [Endnote 38] The National Council of Universities, governing body of the system of higher education, canceled the UCA’s operating license, created the Casimiro Sotelo National University, and appointed its officers. This University will be funded by the Nicaraguan government.


By Nan McCurdy 

Projects with China Will Change Nicaragua
Nicaraguan development projects with Chinese companies will radically change the country in a few years. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs participated last week in the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing where agreements were reached with several Chinese companies. Projects include: 1. Contract for the reconstruction, expansion and improvement of the Punta Huete International Airport.  2. Memorandum of understanding for the study, design and construction of the Managua-Masaya-Granada railroad and the formulation of the Managua-Corinto-Bluefields railroad master plan. 3. Agreement for the road projects for the expansion of the Guanacaste-Nandaime-Rivas highway and the Rivas-Sapoá highway. 4. Framework agreement for the coastal highway project phase II. 5. Memorandum of understanding for the Mojolka and Tumarín hydroelectric projects. 6. The Chinese company YUTONG will continue supplying buses. (La Primerisima, 23 October 2023)

Government Presents Rural Investment Plan at FAO Forum
Valdrack Jaentschke, Presidential Advisor for International Affairs, presented Nicaragua’s Rural Investment Program during the International Investment Forum 2023 hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in the city of Rome. Nicaragua’s program is focused on poverty reduction and sustainable development. Nicaraguan government programs support investments in the milk and coffee value chains through the “National Investment Program for Low-Carbon Livestock” and the “National Investment Program for Sustainable and Resilient Coffee Development.” The delegation to the FAO forum was promoting partnerships and investments. The forum brought together representatives from 31 countries, international organizations, corporations, multilateral development banks and donors so that the delegations could present their investment opportunities, focusing on national agriculture and food value chains. (La Primerisima, 17 October 2023)

Billion Dollar Social Investment in 2024 Budget 
Eighty percent of the resources of the 2024 government budget will be destined to guarantee public health, education, infrastructure, electric energy subsidies and potable water, said Iván Acosta, Minister of Finance and Public Credit, on October 19. At the National Assembly he announced that the total amount of income in the 2024 budget is US$3.85 billion. Acosta said that 26 billion Córdobas (US$722.2 million) will be invested in the education sector, while health will have a projected budget of 24 billion Cordobas (US$666.7million). Of the nation’s social spending, 37.5 percent is directed to education and health. Sixty-one percent of the budget is directed to the fight against poverty, which is equivalent to 81.758 billion Córdobas (US$2.27billion). (La Primerisima, 19 October 2023)

Nicaragua with Best System to Prevent & Treat Breast Cancer
Nicaragua has the best system of care for women with breast cancer in Central America, said Dr. Andrés Zamora, member of the National Assembly’s Committee on Health. Cancer treatment has a high economic cost, but the Ministry of Health guarantees free detection and attention, and humane treatment for the emotional needs of the patients. There is at least one mammograph per regional health district, and two that were inaugurated this week at the Ligia Saavedra National Center for women’s care located in Managua. “We are in a permanent campaign to detect not only breast cancer, but also cervical cancer, as a public policy to guarantee the health of women of all ages,” said the doctor. (La Primerisima, 19 October 2023)

Government Guarantees Health Care in Remote Areas
The Ministry of Health announced that, as part of the “My Hospital for my Community Health Campaign,” medical brigades and mobile clinics at the Luis Felipe Moncada Departmental Hospital carried out 9,621 medical consultations and programed surgeries in different gynecological and obstetrics specialties in six municipalities of the Río San Juan Department benefiting 4,460 women. The campaign is part of the Family and Community Healthcare Model. (Nicaragua News, 23 October 2023)

New High School Graduates to Receive a Larger Bonus
The bonus that high school graduates are due to receive in the coming weeks will increase from US$28 last year to US$83 this year. Some 63,717 high school graduates nationwide receive the bonus for successfully completing their secondary education. (La Primerisima, 20 October 2023)

School Improved for Children from Indigenous Community
On Oct. 23 the rebuilt school center of the Butku community, in the Twi Yahbra Indigenous Territory of Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Region was inaugurated last week. The local government continues executing projects that benefit thousands of students of this municipality. See photos: (La Primerisima, 23 October 2023)

Sandinista Youth Deliver School Materials to Rural Students
Every weekend, members of the 19th of July Sandinista Youth Association deliver school supplies that the government allocates to rural students. This time, the delivery took place in five municipalities. (La Primerisima, 23 October 2023)

Water Production to Be Reinforced in Managua
ENACAL is making progress in the construction of a well located near Kilometer 8 on the highway to Masaya, as part of the reinforcement of water production in Managua. Once put into operation, by the end of 2023, it will improve the supply of water to some 2,700 families (14,600 citizens) of District V of the capital. (La Primerisima, 20 October 2023)

Twelve Priests Go to Rome by Agreement with the Vatican
The Nicaraguan government released the following statement: The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity of the Republic of Nicaragua, after holding fruitful conversations with the Holy See, informs our people that an agreement was reached for the displacement to the Vatican of the 12 priests who, for different causes were prosecuted; they have traveled to Rome, Italy, this afternoon. The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity of the Republic of Nicaragua has not exhausted resources to ensure and defend the peace that Nicaraguan families treasure so much, and this agreement reached with the intercession of high authorities of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and in the Vatican, represents our permanent commitment to finding solutions, in recognition and with the encouragement of so much faith and hope of Nicaraguan believers, who are the majority.

The priests are: Manuel Salvador García Rodríguez, José Leonardo Urbina Rodríguez, Jaime Ivan Montesinos Sauceda, Fernando Israel Zamora Silva, Osman José Amador Guillén, Julio Ricardo Norori Jiménez, Cristóbal Reynaldo Gadea Velásquez, Álvaro José Toledo Amador, José Iván Centeno Tercero, Pastor Eugenio Rodríguez Benavidez, Yessner Cipriano Pineda Meneses, and Ramón Angulo Reyes.

They will be received in Rome, according to arrangements, by personnel of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.

Managua, October 18, 2023

Government of Reconciliation and National Unity

[Note: The list includes the Nandaime priest who beat a woman last year and another convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl.]

(La Primerisima, 18 October 2023)