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Oral History

History taught by students

On UNE's 70th anniversary, a, study reveals the role of the student movement

EDUARDO CESARStudents have always set the pace and never wait for things to happen; they stomp their feet shouting it is forbidden to forbid and do not trust anybody over the age of thirty. Even the professor, despite his 30 pieces of advice, is unfortunately over 30 and, therefore, untrustworthy. “It’s impossible to think about any kind of insurrection, resistance or political confrontation without the young students. Since the 19th century, moving on to the major revolutions in the 20th century, as well as the events of May 1968 and the armed insurrections in Latin America, young people have always shown special availability, which is hard to find in adults.” Historically, this situation has generated radical, courageous, bold actions. “For good and bad”, analyzes Maria Paula Araújo, a history professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/UFRJ, where she coordinates the oral history center. She is the author of the recently published Memórias estudantis: da fundação da UNE aos nossos dias (Relume Dumará), i.e., “Student memories; from the establishment of the National Student Union to our days”. This year, the UNE – União Nacional dos Estudantes (National Students Union) celebrates its 70th anniversary. The book, which contains 300 hours worth of testimonials by 100 student activists past and present, is a timely launch and focuses on the history of Brazil from the point of view of those who were under 30.

Together with the book, filmmaker Sílvio Tendler released two short feature films, Ou ficar a pátria livre ou morrer pelo Brasil [“To either see the homeland free or else die for Brazil”, a line from the Brazilian Independence Anthem] and O afeto que se encerra em nosso peito juvenil [“The love harbored within our youthful bosom”, a line from the Brazilian National Anthem]. These documentaries, along with the book written by Maria Paula, are part of the project Remembrance of the Student Movement (Memória do Movimento Estudantil –, the result of a unique partnership agreement between UNE, the Roberto Marinho foundation and Petrobras. When the issue is the student movement, it is not always forbidden to forbid controversy. The author points out that even the date on which the UNE was founded is controversial. “Some people say UNE was founded in 1937; other people say that it was founded in 1938”. This one-year gap, however, makes all the difference. “The establishment of a National Student Union on the eve of the Estado Novo (“New State”) regime and under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Education and of Education Minister Gustavo Capanema, had the political purpose of suppressing the political power of this social segment, which was beginning to expand. The idea was to create an apolitical entity that would enable the State to control the students,” explains the researcher. The situation was quite different the following year: “At the 2nd National Student Congress, the students clearly wanted to play an active role in the debates about major national issues, with an expressly political commitment”. Those who are in the know set the time.

Minister Capanema ascribed value to a university education, viewed as the source of the elite that would run the country. “The government’s acknowledgment of students’ importance generated tensions between the UNE and the Estado Novo”, says Maria Paula.

Against all expectations, back in 1938 students were already protesting in the streets, accusing the government of being in favor of Nazi-Fascism. Soon aferwards, they demanded that the government declare war against the Axis. Symbolically, in 1942, disrespecting Capanema, the UNE chose the Germânia club (a meeting point for the Nazis), in Rio de Janeiro, as the union’s headquarters until 1980, when it was demolished by the military government. In 1942, Vargas cleverly legalized the entity. From 1947 onwards, the UNE began the so-called “socialist hegemony phase,” which continued until 1950, the author points out, when the entity was taken over by students that belonged to the conservative UDN Party. The most prominent figure in this inter regnum, “isolated and a stranger to the entity’s traditions,” was Paulo Egydio Martins, an engineering student who later became Governor of the State of São Paulo. “His group, which headed the UNE back then, disagreed with the emphasis given to national issues to the detriment of student-related issues,” says Maria Paula. The leftists were sidelined from the organization’s leadership until 1956, when Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazil’s president at the time, asked UNE to help preserve the regime. In 1961, the entity took part in the “campaign for legality,” whose purpose was to ensure that Vice-president João Goulart would take office after the resignation of former President Jânio Quadros.

At the time, the UNE was headed by Aldo Arantes, who had the support of the JUC – Juventude Universitária Católica (the Roman Catholic Youth Movement of University Students), a student organization created to spread the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church within the student movement. Within a short period of time, this unlikely association, says Maria Paula, was disrupted, with the rise of AP – Ação Popular (Popular Action), a dissident branch of the Catholic JUC. In 1963, the AP elected as UNE president José Serra, now the São Paulo State Governor, who at that time was intent on radically transforming Brazilian society. The military regime, however, did not wait for things to happen. “Although UNE’s keyword regarding the 1964 coup was resistance”, there was actually no resistance”, says the author. “There was no protest from the student movement. I ascribe this to the fact that most of them, though penetrated by nationalism and reform-mindedness, were unwilling to put themselves at risk to save the João Goulart government,” states political scientist Daniel Aarão Reis in a testimonial. In his opinion, “there is a tendency to romanticize the student movement as being revolutionary. Actually, it wasn’t revolutionary, though most of the student leaders migrated to the revolution.” Thus, the political platform of the UNE leftist activists and leaders did not accurately express the mass spirit of university students, many of them from middle class backgrounds and the children of parents who had supported the military coup. “The ordinary student, the great majority, allowed itself to be influenced by the anticommunist line of discourse”, points out historian José Roberto Martins Filho in his article O movimento estudantil na conjuntura do golpe (The student movement within the circumstances surrounding the coup).

The UNE headquarters caught fire in April 1964; in November, the Suplicy law and the Aragão decree declared that the UNE was an illegal entity and prohibited any nationwide student organization. This created a major dilemma for UNE. “From 1960 to 1970 there was a desire to take immediate political action; this wish was expressed in the armed rebellion, whereby many organizations were created by university students abandoning the classroom to take up arms, inspired by Vietnam, Cuba and the “people’s war” of the Chinese Revolution,” the author notes. The UNE also fought against the MEC-USAID agreement until the assassination of student Edson Luís, in Rio de Janeiro’s Calabouço restaurant, which triggered the student rebellion of 1968. According to the researcher, the objective of the MEC-USAID agreement was to privatize education, along the lines of the U.S. model, and this was totally against the UNE’s political platform. “This was a response to the trauma of 1964, engendered by the fact that nobody had taken any action at that time. When 1968 came around, the reaction was: “Now we’re going to react”. Up to that point in time, the armed rebellion had been insignificant. As of the enactment of the AI-5 (Institutional Act no. 5), there was intense radical participation in the student movement for three years,” says Aarão Reis. The events included the Passeata dos Cem Mil, a protest march with one hundred thousand participants following the death of student Edson Luís, the invasion of the University of São Paulo premises on Maria Antônia street and the UNE Congress in Ibiúna, in October 1968, which, according to Maria Paula, was “the final demonstration of the entire political process, the confrontational spirit and the radicalization of the student movement. After the students were jailed, their activism went into decline.”

Surprisingly enough, the reconstruction of UNE, at the organization’s congress in the city of Salvador, in 1979, was due to Antonio Carlos Magalhães, at that time the Bahia State Governor. Magalhães disobeyed the orders of the Minister of Justice and opened the Convention Center to the students. In the future, this allowed for the participation of UNE in rallies for direct presidential elections and in those demanding the impeachment of former President Collor. However, this legacy was a heavy burden for subsequent generations. “When references are made to the youth of the sixties and the seventies, the focus is on the student activists who fought for democracy; the rest – the great majority who did not take part in these rebellions” is ignored. The students of those times are all viewed as a revolutionary and as an activist generation,” says anthropologist Regina Novaes in her article Juventude e participação social (Youth and Social Participation). “The effect of this comparison is to disregard the possibility of today’s contemporary youth taking action motivated by collective social transformation interests.”

Hence the criticism of the alleged “social apathy” of today’s students. “Young people nowadays have other ways of participating in organizations, which are unlike the traditional political organizations. They are far more individualistic and keep their distance from revolutionary utopias. This does not mean that youths refuse to engage in collective causes, provided that their individual independence is respected.” What should we expect from the future? Perhaps the answer lies in a short essay by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in which a little girl demands, and gets, lasagna from her father: “If under the circumstances the power of youth staggers, then ultra-young power is on its way, at full steam”.

Bitter Memories
Government acknowledges the atrocities committed by the military regime

Who could imagine that, after more than four decades, the famous words uttered by Education Minister Suplicy de Lacerda would finally make sense (certainly not that which was expected by UNE’s implacable persecutor): “The students are the adults of tomorrow, but we are the adults of today.” It was the work of the “adults of tomorrow” that brought to light what the adults in the past accomplished. Last month, the book Direito à memoria e à verdade (The right to remembrance and truth) was released and the event was attended by President Lula. The book, prepared by the Special Committee on Deceased and Missing Political Victims, was published by the Special Bureau for Human Rights/SEDH), and reports on the cases of 479 people killed or missing in from 1961 to 1988, the later being the deadline set in Law 9140, of 1995. The study, the result of 11 years of work, describes in detail cases of torture, rape, tearing apart and hiding of corpses and also states the names of the military personnel who committed the crimes.

The survey includes the name and personal data of each victim, with a short biography, a description of the political actions in which the victim was involved, and the person’s imprisonment, persecution and death. The members of the commission voted on the approval or rejection of the right to reparation. This is the Brazilian Government’s first official document to acknowledge that the military regime’s police authorities were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of anti-government political activists.