By Pablo Corso*
The Nicaraguan government has created a National Secretariat for Outer Space, Moon and other Celestial Bodies, to the astonishment of the country’s scientific community, besieged by budget cuts and ideological persecution.
With the country in the midst of a deep socio-political crisis, the National Assembly approved the creation of the agency for the “defence of supreme interests” in space. It will seek “to expand the country’s capacities in the educational, industrial, scientific and technological branches”, according to president Daniel Ortega’s proposal.
However, Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, lacks educational programmes, qualified professionals and facilities dedicated to space.
Geographer and historian Jaime Incer Barquero was sceptical. In order to get into this area of knowledge, “you have to start from scratch, instead of having fantastic ideas,” he said.
Molecular biologist Jorge Huete, member of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences (NAS), believes officials “have completely lost the compass about the real problems and priorities of this nation”.
The government-funded secretariat “is a late ratification of international instruments, in a country that is barely in a position to pay for basic care in the health system,” Dora Maria Tellez, a former health minister, tells SciDev.Net.
With the second lowest GDP in Latin America, Nicaragua has accumulated three years of recession and growing unemployment. In 2020, with the added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty increased by 15 per cent.
The crisis reached tipping point in April 2018, with a violent government crackdown on protests over social security reforms. The crackdown left 351 people dead and 1,337 injured, while more than 500 people were arrested, official figures show. Many of these were students.
University authorities were complicit in the repression within campuses, says Tellez, and later expelled those who had participated, erasing their records.
Melba Castillo, vice president of NAS, says the country has “no science and technology plan”. She lamented the “political layoffs” of scientists at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and the budget cuts to NAS and the Central American University in Managua.
The Ministry of Education “has closed access to the education system to anyone who does not have the government’s endorsement, so it is very difficult to undertake independent investigations,” she added.
At a regional level, the Organization of Ibero-American States and the Network of Science and Technology Indicators (RICYT, in Spanish) receive no information from Nicaragua, Mario Albornoz, RICYT coordinator, told SciDev.Net.
This lack of transparency appears to be echoed in the government’s response to the pandemic. “Nicaragua has not established, nor will it establish, any type of quarantine,” the Ministry of Health stated in February 2020. The ministry also does not promote social distancing or the mandatory use of masks.
More than 400 health workers in the country have left their positions since 2018. “Those who do not follow the government’s instructions are fired or forced to resign through shift changes or job stress,” Castillo said.
“Now the COVID-19 areas [in hospitals] have disappeared to give the impression that the pandemic has been defeated,” said Tellez. “These patients are admitted to general wards.”
The Ministry of Health of Nicaragua reports 6,489 cases and 174 deaths to date, but the Citizen Observatory– which verifies informal reports – counts 13,209 cases and 2,997 “suspicious” deaths.
Meanwhile, the government charges US$ 150 for PCR tests to check anyone who wants to cross its borders for COVID-19.
SciDev.Net received no responses to interview requests with legislators, or representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Nicaraguan Council for Science and Technology about the new space agency and national science policies.
Some scientists also declined to respond. They were fearful of losing their jobs, according to two sources who asked not to be identified.
“In the first place, the punitive laws would have to be repealed,” Castillo said, referring to the environment of secrecy, and rules that sanction those who disseminate information deemed false by the State and those who receive external financing. She called for the opening up of educational, health, environmental and economic indicators, and the recovery of university autonomy.
“As long as freedom is persecuted in its different expressions, there can be no science in Nicaragua,” she concluded.
This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean desk and edited for clarity.