The history of Latin America is one of individuals. From the time of colonization, our collective history has been mostly written by strongmen and caudillos forcing our nations to bend to their will and to the interests of those around them. Venezuela, for example, has had five republics, 24 constitutions and over three dozen presidents throughout its 209-year history. As one can imagine, these continuous changes prevent healthy institutions from developing and democratic traditions from taking root. In over 500 years of Latin American history, the only exception to this pattern has been universities.

Since their founding, universities have proven to be one of the few major institutions that have fiercely defended their right to self-determination. This idea culminated in what is known today as the autonomy of universities. This autonomy has allowed universities to be politically and administratively independent from external actors or political forces. It has also allowed universities to choose their own leadership, enact independent statutes and create educational programs. This academic freedom to create educational programs has been particularly critical to the development of the region by giving universities the freedom and responsibility to train qualified professionals and conduct independent research. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the autonomy of universities has allowed for the spread of free ideas. Currently, there is no greater example of this than the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua.

Like other Jesuit institutions, UCA has focused on instilling its students with a sense of vocation, a desire for service and a drive to promote hope, reconciliation and liberation in their lives and in their communities. UCA also manifests its mission of justice in three programs: (1) scholarships to low-income students; (2) social services for marginalized and vulnerable communities; and (3) research to investigate socioeconomic challenges faced by Nicaragua in order to offer sustainable and impactful solutions.

A direct result of its open promotion of Jesuit and democratic values has led UCA to become a space for dialogue and a symbol for hope and endurance, educating generations of Nicaraguans that have turned these values into action. These same values, though, have also left the university open to attacks from the current regime.

In 2018, Nicaraguan university students, including students from UCA, took to the streets to peacefully protest government reforms that targeted vulnerable populations. The students’ protests were met with a brutal response from government forces, which included torture, illegal imprisonment, kidnappings and killings, among many other human rights violations. As a result of these abuses, UCA took concrete actions to defend its students. First, UCA President Fr. José Alberto “Chepe” Idiaquez S.J. began to openly speak out against the government’s actions. Second, UCA’s law clinic began providing pro bono services to students arrested by the government. Finally, the university made a strategic decision to take on more of an advocacy role by creating an international awareness campaign that highlighted the brutal actions of the government in Nicaragua.

These actions have not been without consequences, though. UCA has lost millions of dollars in government funding, which was used to support its scholarship program. The university also faces a constant barrage of bureaucratic sanctions, not to mention the threats, attacks and detainments faced by its students and staff. In spite of it all, UCA maintains its commitment to justice.

As a Venezuelan, I know this story all too well. Just like UCA, Venezuelan universities have been systematically suffocated by the government for the past two decades. And just as in Nicaragua, these tactics are usually discreet. Government forces rarely storm the campus gates. Rather, they use subtlety to convey their intent. Unexpected audits, arbitrary restrictions to public funds and the harassment of faculty and students all achieve their goal of slowly and methodically increasing pressure until universities are forced to make a decision: submit to the government narrative or cease operations.

It goes without saying, but attacks on higher education are one of the most insidious things autocratic governments can do. Universities are one of society’s best tools to preserve and expand knowledge. From healthcare to engineering, law to education and fine arts, higher education plays a vital role in the functioning of an independent and democratic society. Quite simply, the acts of unscrupulous individuals to limit access to knowledge places society’s future in jeopardy.

In order for Latin America to break free from its history of strongmen and caudillos, we need an informed and freethinking citizenry. Guaranteed access to lifelong learning opportunities, such as a higher education at institutions like UCA, is vital to creating more just, equitable and stable societies. But to preserve these institutions we must stand in solidarity with those brave students and faculty members who are fighting bullets with ideals. As individuals and as a society we must forgo the path of ambition and power and commit ourselves to hope, reconciliation and liberation.