The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship

The persecution carried out by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship against student activists since 2018, coupled with the closure of private universities, has prevented many from finishing their university degrees. They have struggled for so many years to achieve their academic goals for which they have worked so hard

The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship

A row of purple flags is in the entrance to Katherine Ramírez’s house. In the dining room there are books, backpacks, and pens. At first glance, it would seem like the space of a normal university student. There are only nine months left for Ramírez, 24, to finally achieve the goal she started in 2018, one she would have already accomplished if the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo had not interrupted her studies twice as a way of punishing her for her activism.

Her goal is now a form of resistance against all the rights that the dictatorship has violated, especially the right to education. It is the third time that Ramírez is pursuing her university degree, but this time she is doing it from exile and not with the excitement of her first day of classes, but with the determination to complete her studies and prove that she was able to.

She knows the topics, concepts, and theories, but she can do nothing more than take the same classes for the third time and do the same tasks she has been doing since 2018 when she first studied Political Science and International Relations at the Regional Multidisciplinary Faculty of Estelí at the Autonomous University of Nicaragua (FAREM-Estelí).

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The outbreak of the sociopolitical crisis and the lethal persecution by the dictatorship against student activists resulted in her informal expulsion. “I tried to stay in the university as long as I could. I couldn’t allow them to take away my right to education,” she expresses.


However, in January 2018, it was no longer possible for her to continue at the university due to the numerous threats she received, both inside and outside the campus. It even reached the point where she had to leave her apartment to be safe.

“We were no longer talking about government sympathizers but paramilitaries and people from the Directorate of Police Special Operations (DOEP) threatening me on campus, which completely violated the institution’s university autonomy,” she says.

First the threats, then the cancellation

The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
Katherine Ramírez se integró al programa llamado Procesionaria que era ofrecido por la Universidad Paulo Freire a jóvenes que eran líderes estudiantiles | Divergentes

After her arbitrary expulsion from FAREM-Estelí, Ramírez had the opportunity to continue her degree outside Nicaragua. However, she chose to complete her studies in her own country, so she enrolled in Political Science at the Paulo Freire University (UPF).

She was in the middle of her second year when, on February 2, 2022, the legal status of the university was canceled by the National Assembly, controlled by the dictatorship. The reason was their alleged non-compliance with the General Law on Non-Profit Legal Entities and the Law against Money Laundering, Financing of Terrorism, and Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The cancellation included the campus confiscation and persecution against the university’s rector, Adrián Meza, and against students involved in activism, such as Ramírez.

“After the cancellation, apart from the risk of being at the university, there was also my personal information and emails that I had exchanged with the rector, some regarding my safety situation,” says Ramírez.

For the second time, her studies were interrupted, but this time with the definite threat of detention. “It was no longer sustainable for me, for my safety, for my physical integrity, or for my health, because I had no opportunity to study in Nicaragua,” she says.

“I knew I had to leave, that I couldn’t keep risking myself, and that I couldn’t postpone my professional training, so I decided to embark on that path for the third time,” she continues. That is why she went into exile in Costa Rica in March 2022.

Persecution, the economy, and migration, the obstacles for young Nicaraguan women

Young women trying to continue their university studies in Costa Rica face multiple obstacles, but the level of difficulty varies depending on the level of political persecution they experienced in Nicaragua.

Other factors worsening the situation include the socioeconomic conditions they face in Costa Rica and their migratory status, according to student activist Alejandra Padilla, a board member of Iniciativa Puentes.

“One of the main factors is political persecution since that will determine how much access they have to their academic records and their personal and migratory documents to be able to reintegrate into Costa Rica,” explains Padilla.

In Ramírez’s case, despite obtaining a university scholarship from the International Human Rights Network of Europe in 2023, she was forced to start her degree over again, as neither FAREM-Estelí nor the confiscated UPF provided her with her transcripts.

“It was difficult to get the scholarship because I needed verified documentation, which was almost impossible to obtain. Then there was the issue of convalidations. Although I had already studied for six years in Nicaragua, if the university didn’t provide me with signed and stamped class schedules, the university here wouldn’t be able to validate them,” says Ramírez.

“How could I ask my ex-paramilitary teacher to stamp and sign a class schedule for a subject I studied with him?” she adds.

Lack of understanding of the sociopolitical crisis in Nicaragua

The people handling her application at the university she applied to also did not understand the political context of Nicaragua, nor the reasons why Ramírez could not provide them with a transcript that would have been easy to obtain in any other country.

“One of the customer service representatives told me, ‘but I don’t understand why you would have trouble getting these papers in Nicaragua if it’s your transcript.’ At that moment, I felt frustrated and upset. I mean, if I’m here, it’s because there is a problem,” she says.

Although there has been greater awareness in Costa Rican higher education institutions about the situation of Nicaraguan students, it is not possible for universities to change their academic requirements in terms of documentation to provide greater openness, especially in Costa Rican state universities. According to Padilla, this is because it would involve reforming the laws regulating higher education in the country.

In the case of private universities, which rarely make exceptions, not all Nicaraguan individuals can afford the fees and other expenses that arise along the way. “It is very difficult for them to be flexible in terms of grades and other documents. On the other hand, there is greater awareness of the issue of scholarships,” she clarifies.

Padilla points out that without official documentation from the universities they attended in Nicaragua, young women must work on their university degrees from scratch. And, without official documentation of their high school education, many Nicaraguan women cannot even enter Costa Rican universities.

Repression against women existed before 2018

This was the situation of Helen Méndez, who went into exile in Costa Rica in July 2018 because the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship prevented her from studying in Nicaragua. However, she could not start her university degree for four years because she could not verify her high school transcript.

Méndez’s dream was to study medicine, so throughout high school, she worked hard to achieve it. “I was always recognized in my school for being a good student, participating in competitions, and being dedicated,” she says.

Méndez came from Matagalpa, and upon completing high school, she planned to study at FAREM in her department. However, long before the socio political crisis of 2018, she already faced obstacles imposed by the dictatorship.

“I come from a family that doesn’t support the government, so when they were going to give us the student bonus for completing high school, the teachers and students would say, ‘don’t give it to her, she doesn’t deserve it.’ People think all of this started in 2018, but in reality, it goes way back,” she expresses.

“It was 2016, and there were presidential elections. At the government’s request, they ordered the students to vote. I didn’t go, and the comments intensified. It was awkward, and I didn’t feel good going to school, but my motivation was that I was about to graduate,” she says.

Despite the negative comments from her school authorities, Méndez graduated in 2016, achieved the best grades, and obtained the student bonus. The following year, she took the admission exam to apply for the medicine program at FAREM-Matagalpa, but someone working at the institution told her that the slots for that program were already reserved for government sympathizers.

“They gave me the results, and I didn’t get into the program. I don’t know if what that teacher told me was true or not, but that’s what she said. The situation got worse. I was already ‘marked’ by the government, and the possibilities of getting ahead were very limited and scarce. Then everything exploded in 2018,” she says.

If her family already experienced harassment from the dictatorship before the sociopolitical crisis, after its outbreak in 2018, the persecution became worse. Threats, harassment, and constant visits from police and paramilitaries to Méndez’s house convinced her to migrate to Costa Rica in July of that year.

The dream of studying was postponed: “Your baby, or your job”

Amid the rush to leave the country, she barely managed to obtain her high school transcript, issued by the Ministry of Education (MINED), but she could not verify it at the Ministry of Governance (MIGOB). “When I came here, I looked for possibilities to study, but I didn’t have the necessary documentation, so I couldn’t,” says now 24-year-old Méndez.

“If the doors were already closed, they closed even more. I came because I wanted to study. It was always my dream, but it’s not that easy. You need documentation, you need to work, you need an income to have somewhere to live and something to eat,” she says.

Not having all the necessary documents prevented her from moving forward. Faced with this, she looked for a job to cover her economic needs and immediately found informal employment. “Seeing that the doors were closed to me, and I couldn’t study, I stayed there. The years passed, and my dream of studying was put aside to keep working,” she says.

For almost four years, she worked in a store. Although the pay was not bad, says the young woman, in her early years, she worked almost 12 hours a day, and her employers never registered her with the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS), a right of every worker in Costa Rica.

Finally, she became pregnant in 2021, and the lack of social security was the reason for her departure from that place. “At four months pregnant, they told me it was high risk, and I had to rest. When I informed my bosses, they told me ‘either your baby or your job.’ These things always happen when you have an informal job. Since I didn’t have social security, they wouldn’t pay me,” she says.

More dilemmas: To work or study

The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
Archivo. Miles de jóvenes mujeres en el exilio, principalmente en Costa Rica, se debaten entre buscar oportunidades para seguir estudiando o trabajar para sobrevivir. Divergentes | Carlos Herrera

Being a woman, migrant, and exile are elements that intertwine in the structural violence faced by women, reducing their opportunities for access to higher education in Costa Rica, says Alejandra Padilla.

This directly affects their chances of continuing their studies. “Many young women could not complete their careers, so they struggle to find a job. And if they find a job, it’s precarious, consumes a lot of time, and doesn’t allow them to enter university,” she explains.

“Others do not have work permits because they are not regularized and find informal jobs that expose their labor rights. They are in a dilemma: either work or study; or study, but with what money?” she says.

This difficulty is present in both Costa Rican state universities and private ones. State universities, while having lower fees, have inflexible class schedules that do not allow students to have full-time jobs. Private universities, which offer a variety of schedules including Saturdays, Sundays, and evenings, have much more challenging costs.

“Costa Rica is a much more expensive country, and there is great difficulty in economic terms. Even the fees of public universities are high if you don’t have a good job. You also have to pay for transportation, books, and all your daily expenses,” she states.

If Nicaraguan women do not have a regularized immigration status, their situation becomes more complex. This is because to apply to Costa Rican universities, at least a Foreigner Identity Document (DIMEX) is required.

On the other hand, state universities and institutions have higher prices for foreign individuals. However, this does not apply to applicants for asylum or those who are refugees.

“It is better to have a regular immigration status because if someone does not have their refugee card or asylum seeker card, and only has their passport, they are charged as a foreigner,” Padilla clarifies.

“The refugee status also allows you to apply for scholarships. It doesn’t mean they will give it to you, but you have a document that validates you as a refugee. That gives you an identity and a protection status from the Costa Rican government, so institutions should respect it for human rights reasons. Unfortunately, not all institutions do,” she explains.

Motherhood implies greater effort

Nicaraguan women who are mothers face a double difficulty, as they must not only consider the possibility of their studies but also manage their work and their child’s care.

“Mothers have many more obstacles to enter universities because the economic responsibility is greater, as well as the emotional and physical burden. They also have the issue of caregiving. They think of who will take care of their children while they’re studying. And this weighs more in the case of single mothers because there are irresponsible fathers who do not fulfill their obligations,” says Padilla.

After her pregnancy, Méndez reflected on the dream with which she came to Costa Rica and which gradually faded with long working hours. Each year, she saw that universities offered scholarships for different degrees, and although she had the profile and all the capabilities to apply, the documentation continued to stop her.

After a scholarship call from the Latin American University of Science and Technology (Ulacit), she decided to ask for help from the family she still had in Nicaragua to manage to get the other documents she needed. Finally, she got the scholarship in early 2023 for the Computer Engineering program.

Her mom and her siblings also encouraged her to pursue her dream and not worry about her daughter’s care and economic income.

“With my daughter, it has been the most difficult and motivating part. Sometimes I have to leave her for whole days, and I’m at the university from six in the morning until nine at night. I have the support of my mom who takes care of her, so I’m more calm,” she expresses.

“Not working has also been difficult because since I came, I always worked and was economically independent, but I have my family’s help. Now I think I’m in the easiest part. All the years I was here without studying were the hardest. There was a point where I thought I wouldn’t study, and now I’m halfway there,” she adds.

Quickly, Méndez stood out again in her classes as the best student, this time joined by her student activism and civic leadership.

Women’s struggles have borne fruit

The difficulties faced by student activists persecuted by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship
Archivo. Mural en San José, Costa Rica, para honrar la historia de tres presas y expresas políticas de la región: Mailene Noguera (Cuba), Emirlendris Benítez (Venezuela) y Samantha Jirón (Nicaragua). Divergentes | Carlos Herrera

A small desk rests in Katherine Ramírez’s room, and above it, her study space lies: a computer, tablet, notebooks, pencils, and markers. This is the space she has fought for all these years.

She hopes to complete her degree path in December 2024, after a titanic effort that involved studying as many classes as she could and doing her thesis, which she had already started in her other periods of study in Nicaragua.

Although the excitement of finishing her degree once and for all looms in her mind, so does the fear that something might happen to stop her again. “No one wants to study their degree three times,” she says.

In fact, when she came to Costa Rica, she did not approach academic institutions for several months, due to the trauma of being constantly persecuted and interrupted in Nicaragua.

“When I decided to resume my studies for the third time, it wasn’t immediate. I gave myself some months because I had a lot to process and felt that I wasn’t ready to focus academically. I was very tired of studying in a context where I am at risk, emotionally unstable, and decided to give myself some time,” she explains.

Now, at the end of her degree, she looks back. Her classmates are younger than her and in totally different stages of life. The different treatment she receives from some teachers is also something she doesn’t overlook. Xenophobia and sexism are two elements that intersect in her experience as a migrant and Nicaraguan woman.

Even with all that, Ramírez assures that she has adapted very well and will soon have her bachelor’s degree in International Relations.

“Why continue studying after all that has happened?” she hears. “It’s not just for professional development, it’s something political for me,” she immediately responds. 

“Something the government of Daniel Ortega tried to take away from us was education. That was the superficial part. What they tried to take from us were our aspirations, our dreams, and everything that comes with your education,” she continues. And she, being as stubborn as she is, was not going to allow something like that to happen.

The right to education has become her banner, and now it is part of her political and feminist activism. With all her experience and what she has learned, she hopes to contribute to the future of Nicaragua. “It was the main reason why I started studying Political Science and International Relations,” she comments.

She is currently in her second year of her program and is a member of a political party at Ulacit, Civic House. In this organization, she organizes volunteer work, training for students, and guides other people who are in similar situations as hers. “We want changes for the well-being of both students and society in general,” she states.

Ramírez and Méndez have fought hard for a right that is taken for granted in any other country in the region, except in Nicaragua under the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. Despite the obstacles, they have persisted and will not stop until their university degrees are in their hands.