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Fifty years since that night

The 1966 invasion of the University of Buenos Aires by police was the precursor to the brain drain from Argentina

Night of the Long Sticks: federal police invaded the University of Buenos Aires and arrested 400 students and professors...

General archive of the Argentine Nation Night of the Long Sticks: federal police invaded the University of Buenos Aires and arrested 400 students and professors…General archive of the Argentine Nation

A group of former students and some retired professors from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) received a tribute on July 29, 2016 at a complex of historic buildings in the Argentine capital city where, until 1971, the School of Exact and Natural Sciences of that institution used to operate. This was where, precisely 50 years ago, the honorees had been involved in a violent episode that is regarded as a turning point for Argentine science because it provoked the departure of waves of Argentine researchers to other countries. July 29, 1966 became known as the Night of Long Sticks when five UBA schools were taken over by the Argentine Federal Police. Armed with long billy clubs (the long sticks) and tear gas bombs, police arrested 400 students and professors who had occupied the buildings since that morning to protest a decree that would abolish the autonomy of public universities and eliminate an administrative structure in which faculty, students, and alumni shared authority. The violence was a repercussion of a military coup led by General Juan Carlos Onganía that had brought down civilian President Arturo Illia a month earlier.

The image of students and professors, defeated and bloody after having gone through a gauntlet of police, became symbolic. “Not only did that night darken the university, but it also dimmed the chances for development of this country,” current UBA Chancellor Alberto Barbieri told the honored group. After the police action—where the beatings spared no one, not even a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Warren Ambrose, who was visiting UBA—about 1,400 faculty members resigned in protest and at least 300 went into exile. Half of them went to work at other Latin American universities, mainly in Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. Almost a hundred moved to the United States and Canada and about 40 went to Europe. In some cases, entire research teams were left in disarray. The UBA Institute of Exact Science Calculation lost all 70 of its researchers; they had resigned and left Argentina. Similar cases occurred at institutions devoted to the study of such phenomena as cosmic rays or evolutionary psychology. Many of the scientists who emigrated, such as Marxist historian Sergio Bagú, who died in Mexico in 2002, built their careers abroad. Others, like mathematician Manuel Sadosky (1914-2005), a pioneer in computer science in Argentina, returned. Sadosky became secretary of science and technology in 1989, after re-democratization.

...leaving wounded such people as mathematician Juan Merios

Digital Library/History Program of the FCEN/University of Buenos Aires…leaving wounded such people as mathematician Juan MeriosDigital Library/History Program of the FCEN/University of Buenos Aires

From 1966 onward, Argentina became known as an exporter of skilled professionals. Another large wave of researchers and young professionals, recent graduates, emigrated for political reasons beginning in 1976 when another military coup launched a bloody dictatorship that led to the death or disappearance of 30,000 people. During that period, which lasted until Argentina was re-democratized in 1983, Brazil welcomed several Argentine researchers. In recent times, the brain drain has continued, but for primarily economic reasons, such as in the wake of the severe economic crisis that led to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa in 2001. A 2006 study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) showed that at the turn of the 21st century Argentina was the country in Spanish America that, proportionately speaking, provided the largest number of skilled workers to the United States labor market. These were engineers, specialized technical personnel, and scientists. For every thousand Argentines who had emigrated to the United States, 191 were highly skilled, compared with 156 such immigrants from Chile, 100 from Peru, and 26 from Mexico.

The trauma of the brain drain served to make repatriation of researchers a government policy objective in recent years. In 2008, a federal law established the Network of Researchers and Scientists from Argentina in Other Countries, a program known as Raíces, or Roots. It set up a fund to pay for return air travel by Argentine researchers who had settled abroad, and works with companies to offer jobs to help them get settled. Raíces was successful in luring back about 1,200 people, including scientists who had left Argentina many years earlier, and former graduate study grantees who wanted to return but could not find jobs. The program also forged ties with 5,000 Argentine scientists living in different countries, by financing visits to Argentina during which they had an opportunity to collaborate with universities and companies.

The action left a trail of destruction

Ministry of Education of ArgentinaThe action left a trail of destructionMinistry of Education of Argentina

“The impact of the Night of Long Sticks was tremendous for a country that had a distinguished tradition in university education and scientific research. It suffered from the expulsion of entire teams of scientists because of an authoritarian regime,” observes historian José Alves de Freitas Neto, a professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH-Unicamp), an expert on the history of Argentina.

Formation of the higher education and research system followed a different path in Argentina than in other countries of Latin America. As early as the second half of the 19th century, Argentina was dedicated to achieving universality of basic education and in the 20th century it invested heavily in access to higher education. In 2014 it boasted that 54.5% of the population aged 18 to 24 (gross rate) was enrolled in institutions of higher education. In Brazil that same year, the figure was 34%. Everyone who completed high school has the right to enter the public universities, although some of them leave the course at the end of a basic cycle of studies. With a well-educated work force, Argentina had remarkable success in the scientific field, symbolized by the receipt of two Nobel prizes in Physiology or Medicine (Bernardo Houssay in 1947 and Cesar Milstein in 1984) and one Nobel Prize in Chemistry, won by Luis Federico Leloir in 1970.

Since the 1940s, capable Argentine researchers were sometimes being lured by job opportunities in other countries—but not enough to be considered a brain drain. One example was neurophysiologist Miguel Covian (1913-1992), who formed a research team at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (FMRP-USP) in 1955. In 1961, Cesar Milstein transferred to Cambridge University and ultimately became a British citizen.

Students seize the University of Cordoba in 1918: the mobilization led to the university reform

General archive of the Argentine NationStudents seize the University of Cordoba in 1918: the mobilization led to the university reformGeneral archive of the Argentine Nation

Although the international circulation of Argentine researchers was not unusual, the university was frequently impacted by political instability. Author of the book Vizinhos distantes: Universidade e ciência na Argentina e no Brasil (Distant neighbors: University and science in Argentina and Brazil) (EdUERJ, 2000), Argentine sociologist Hugo Lovisolo, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, observes that there had been a history of political persecution of professors. “Even Bernardo Houssay was thrown out,” he says, referring to a 1943 episode when the physiologist lost his department chairmanship at UBA after a military coup brought down President Ramon Castillo. Houssay returned to UBA in 1955.

During the first half of the 20th century, Argentine universities became emotionally intense and politicized environments. The landmark event was the 1918 University Reform, which served as inspiration for other countries in the Americas. The reform followed an impassioned mobilization of students at the National University of Cordoba that began in 1916 and succeeded in revising the charter of that institution, expanding political participation by students and reducing the influence of the Jesuits at the helm of the university. In 1918, the students rebelled again, this time against the choice of a new chancellor associated with the Catholic Church who had been selected by an assembly of faculty members. The federal government intervened, appointed Minister of Justice José Salinas as interim chancellor, and enacted a reform based on student demands. Among these were political and administrative autonomy for the universities; a shared administrative regime that called for officials to be elected by representatives of professors, students, and alumni; selection of faculty members by competitive examination; tuition-free higher education; and the freedom for students to decide whether or not to attend classes. “What happened in 1966 was significant because it overruled the assumption underlying the Cordoba Reform,” says historian Freitas, from Unicamp.

Current headquarters of the School of Exact and Natural Sciences, and group of UBA students: expanded access to higher education

Galio/Wikimedia Commons Current headquarters of the School of Exact and Natural Sciences, and group of UBA students…Galio/Wikimedia Commons

Brazil began to receive Argentine scientists, primarily in the 1970s, a period when its military government wanted to strengthen the graduate studies curriculum aimed at training researchers that had been created in 1966. Neuroscientist Ivan Izquierdo of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS) had left Argentina for political reasons in 1971 and settled in Brazil.

Unicamp hired dozens of Argentine researchers. Fernando Alvarez, a physicist born in Buenos Aires and raised in the city of Mendoza, now a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute of Unicamp, left Buenos Aires in 1976, one month after the coup that removed President Isabelita Perón from power, to pursue his doctorate at the University of Delaware in the United States. He had been working as a researcher at the Industrial Technology Institute but was dismissed by the military conservator who took command of the institution after the coup. Alvarez also tried to convince his brother, a physicist working at the National Atomic Energy Commission and his sister-in-law, a mathematician, to leave the country, but they didn’t want to go. The couple was later abducted; their names are on the list of the political “disappeared.”

... expanded access to higher education

Cristian O. Arone/Wikimedia Commons… expanded access to higher educationCristian O. Arone/Wikimedia Commons

After living in the United States for several years, Alvarez was attending a congress in France when he met Argentine physicist Ivan Chambouleyron, also a political exile, a member of a group doing research on solar energy at Unicamp, who invited Alvarez to come to Brazil. “We put together a strong group that is now dedicated to developing advanced materials and devices for using microelectronics. We have already trained about 40 PhDs,” says Alvarez, who has built his career in Brazil. “I continued to collaborate with Argentine researchers and have helped train several of them at my laboratory. Now, after more than 30 years in a country that so generously welcomed me, I consider Brazil to be my home.” Ivan Chambouleyron, meanwhile, returned to Argentina after working in Brazil for three decades.

Luiz Bahamondes is another example. He is an expert in human reproduction at the Unicamp School of Medical Sciences (FCM-Unicamp). “I was a medical student at the National University of Cordoba in 1966 and I remember that we went on strike against the military coup. We ended up losing a whole academic year,” he recalls. “The military said the university was a den of communists, but the truth is that the student movement included people of various political persuasions.” Bahamondes participated in two more revolts against the military, in 1969 and 1971, events that became known as the Cordobazo and the Viborazo.

Having graduated in 1971, Bahamondes left Argentina two years later to work in Uruguay. He then spent some time in Mexico and went to Brazil in response to an invitation to work at a private clinic in 1977, but he wasn’t happy in the job and was attracted to Unicamp in 1978. “The chancellor of the university at the time, Zeferino Vaz, was willing to accept even foreign professors who did not yet have the documents that would allow them to stay in Brazil,” he recalls. “The Brazilian dictatorship wasn’t as stupid as the Argentine; it was able to understand that the path to the country’s development ran through the public universities.” Bahamondes went back to Argentina in 1983, but was dissatisfied with the working environment there and accepted an invitation to return to Unicamp in 1988. “Today, my roots are here. I have a Brazilian son, son-in-law, and four grandchildren.”