The University of Costa Rica launches regional support initiative for academics in exile: context, challenges and good practices for a solidarity-driven academia

In this interview, anthropologist Mario Zuñiga Núñez from the University of Costa Rica introduces us to the Central American Campus for Academic Freedom, a key initiative to support and give an appropriate response to researchers and faculty members that have been forced from their home countries because of the growing practices of persecution, authoritarianism and repression in the region. The Central American Campus for Academic Freedom is the first institutional initiative of its kind in Latin America. Mario shares with us the challenges facing the initiative and some good practices that could be adopted by other academic institutions interested in assisting and supporting faculty members and researchers forced into exile.

E-mail of the Central American Campus for Academic Freedom of the UCR:

What is the Central American Campus for Freedom of Professorship at the University of Costa Rica?

The Central American Campus for Academic Freedom is an initiative of the Rector’s Office of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) that began to operate in November 2022. Its main purpose is to host in our university a number of faculty members and researchers from other countries in Central America, who have been subjected to political persecution and whose intellectual work has been adversely affected as a result. We launch an annual public call for academics from all areas of knowledge that find themselves in this situation. The first call was launched in November 2022 and three professors from the engineering, art and social sciences areas have joined the UCR. 

Mario Zúñiga Núñez (Photographer: Javier Perez Zúñiga)

We are now preparing the second call. Those selected to take part in the programme are offered a full-time one-year contract to undertake teaching, research or social action activities, which are the three substantive areas of our university.

We might say that the setup of the campus comes as a response to the situation facing the academic community in the region. In this respect, what is your assessment of the current context in Central America and its impact on the universities in the region? How do you see the situation going forward?

In recent years, Central America has witnessed a profound deterioration of public liberties. States have increasingly adopted a laxer approach to guaranteeing the application of Human Rights. Still worse, in some contexts political practices and legislation have become openly inconsistent with universal Human Rights principles. This is coupled with an increase in authoritarianism in the region, the most visible cases being those of the Nicaraguan dictatorship, the current exception regime in El Salvador and the co-optation of the Guatemalan public apparatus by the factual powers ruling the country. Despite their political discourse to the contrary, these regimes exercise a harsh control over their populations without providing them with the minimum conditions to enjoy their Human Rights.

Such contexts lead to practices such as arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, the intervention of the army and the police in a manner inconsistent with international law, among many others. These violations have been widely and consistently documented by organisations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (both for the cases of Nicaragua and El Salvador), Human Rights Watch and WOLA, which, together with brave Human Rights organisations currently operating in Central America (FESPAD, AVANCSO, the Mirna Mack Foundation and Cristosal, among many others) follow up on complaints and the effects of Human Rights violations.

This context in Central America has seriously affected those individuals that work or study at the universities in the region. I will refer to the specific situation of individuals in three countries: Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. Perhaps the most significant and dramatic case is that of Nicaragua, where, as part of the repression of the demonstrations that took place in 2018 against the regime of Ortega and Murillo, faculty members were massively dismissed and critical students were expelled. This was followed by a process of closure of institutions and deletion of academic records. A report on the situation as of early 2022 can be found in a New York Times article written by Yubelka Mendoza and Maria Abi-Habib. However, conditions have continued to deteriorate.

Another significant case is that of Guatemala. The struggle that power groups have waged for over a year around the University of San Carlos de Guatemala has spilled into the public arena, as a fraudulent attempt was made to impose Walter Mazariegos as rector of the university. Mazariegos represents corporativism and the link with what is known in that country as a “pact of corrupts.” This has led the faculty members to organise themselves and the student movement to respond with the takeover of different buildings of the university. An article (the first of a series of 5) written by Ferdy Montepeque and published in the Guatemalan outlet Plaza Pública provides an overview of the situation. This is coupled with the co-optation of other public institutions such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the growing persecution and criminalisation of human rights defenders and organisations.

In the case of El Salvador, those that have raised a critical voice against President Nayib Bukele and the exception regime that has been in place for over a year are routinely subject to harassment. Among those that have raised a critical voice against Bukele are academic figures such as Jesuit priest José María Tojeira, rector of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas. Those critical of Bukele’s policies face significant social media harassment and different types of threats. Added to this, the arbitrary detentions that have taken place during the exception regime have seriously affected the university student population. This has led the Higher University Council of El Salvador University to make a public statement in support of its student population, as documented by journalist Gloria Olivares from the magazine Gato Encerrado.

These contexts have a severe impact on the situation of faculty members and university students, as fear, threats and the arbitrariness in the application of the law become part of everyday life in educational centres, and those who raise a critical voice face different types of repression (such as physical repression, verbal threats, social media harassment, etc). Needless to say, this also erodes academic freedom and the enjoyment of the basic rights associated with it.

The future of this situation will obviously depend on how long these political regimes can be maintained in each country. In other words, this state of affairs will continue to exist until people can organise themselves and defeat authoritarian exercises of power. This is undoubtedly a very complex social process whose analysis falls outside the scope of this interview.

What is your assessment of the situation of academic freedom and risk faced by critical academics in Costa Rica as compared with other countries in the region?

The problem we are currently facing in Costa Rica is not one of repressive persecution by the police, but one of growing cutbacks in funding of the public university system, along with a neoliberal and anti-humanist discourse (in other words, the economic discourse of “every man for himself”). I will briefly refer to some key events and, for those interested in learning more about our reality, I will recommend some links to press articles of Semanario Universidad, the newspaper of the UCR, which has followed up on these processes and contains a detailed analysis of each of these aspects.

Since the 1940s, with the founding of the University of Costa Rica, our country has built a higher education apparatus that currently allows tens of thousands of people to access high quality education. The universities that form part of this public education apparatus are, in addition to the University of Costa Rica, established in 1940, the National University of Costa Rica (1973), the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (1971), the Distance State University (1977) and the National Technical University (2008). All five universities are public institutions and have an autonomous status granted by the Constitution in 1949. They have a very high level of specialisation and the more traditional ones are much better positioned than any private university in our country . This is a difference with the other countries in the region.

However, the fiscal crisis affecting Costa Rica for over two decades has brought about multiple problems for the state apparatus. Since the government of Carlos Alvarado Quesada (2018-2022), cutbacks in universities have become a reality with the implementation of fiscal restraints. In 2018 the government of Alvarado Quesada forced a tax reform that imposed the idea that spending cuts were badly needed to tackle the crisis. The reform was followed by other associated laws such as the Public Employment Framework Law , which implemented cutbacks in the sector. In addition, the Legislative Assembly at the time (2018-2022) justified the cutbacks in universities with biased arguments that downplayed humanist knowledge and prioritised only those disciplines geared to the private sector labour market. These arguments and dynamics have become exacerbated during the government of Rodrigo Chaves Robles (2022- ongoing). In addition to implementing spending cuts, this new administration has refused to collaborate with Universities in public policy issues (in the form of technical support that universities have historically provided to the different governments in the country).

Having said this, I believe that, while in Costa Rica we are not facing a repressive police process, the possibility of critical thought in public universities is seriously affected by severe budget restraints. In addition, critical thought finds a very hostile environment in a social media universe dominated by biased actors such as trolls. All of this has a direct impact on academic life (starting with faculty salaries, research project funding and equipment or the possibility to project the universities to the rest of the country). Austerity measures have still not affected certain key aspects, such as student scholarships. However, this is a latent threat as the outlook on spending cuts becomes more and more aggressive.

Taking into account this context that you describe as hostile with respect to different aspects in the region, what are the main challenges you see in providing support to academics that arrive from other countries in the region seeking refuge in Costa Rica?

The main challenge I see is the setting up and visibilisation of an institutional infrastructure that can be instrumental and agile in managing the Central American Campus for Academic Freedom. At this initial stage, we need to make the Campus well-known and visible as an alternative for at-risk academics in the region. To this end, we are working both internally at the University and on the external front. Internally, we are contacting different university authorities to let them know first-hand what we do and its significance. On the external front, we are joining work networks that assist academics at risk and contacting international cooperation agencies. With each call, we aim to see our programme grow, both in terms of gaining institutional significance and obtaining increased support from international cooperation.

Based on your experience with the Central American Campus for Academic Freedom, what good practices could be adopted by other Latin American institutions to support researchers and faculty members that face persecutions and threats and must thus leave their home town or country?

Based on our incipient experience, I believe there are three good practices that can be encouraged in university settings:

The first practice is to raise awareness about, and incorporate into university life, relevant information to sensitise faculty members, administrative staff and students about our surrounding reality and the structural factors and circumstances that cause the expulsion of academic and student peers. This can be socialised through university cultural activities: forums, roundtables, artistic activities, and so on.

The second practice is concerned with the possibility for institutions to create, to the extent possible, spaces for hosting individuals seeking refuge or migrants. Individuals working on academic issues that are forced from their countries by political persecution arrive in local labour markets with which they are not familiar and which have rules unknown to them and dynamics to which they must adapt. At educational institutions we can open up spaces that facilitate these processes and ease the transition of these individuals seeking refuge so that it is a supportive process driven by solidarity.

The third practice consists of creating institutional links with networks of academics and international cooperation mechanisms that may help to strengthen the support efforts of individuals that migrate due to political violence and have the possibility to engage with academic institutions.