On This Date in Latin America – August 11, 1937: Brazil’s National Student Union (UNE) Is Formed
Seventy-five years ago today, Brazil’s União Nacional dos Estudantes (National Students’ Union, UNE) officially began in the city of Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital.
Brazilian students had been active in politics since before the country had become independent; in the late 1780s, a Brazilian student who studied in Portugal traveled to Paris, where he approached Thomas Jefferson, seeking the Declaration of Independence’s author’s support for a planned independence movement in Brazil (Jefferson allegedly declined, and the movement would fail). Throughout the 1800s, law students played key roles in shifts in national politics and were a not-insignificant part of the push for abolition of slavery in the late-1800s (slavery was finally abolished in 1888). In 1901, the grandfather of UNE, the Federação dos Estudantes Brasileiros (Federation of Brazilian Students) formed, but it soon faded away. Again in 1910, students even met in the First National Congress with the hopes of creating a broader movement representing students, but nothing came of the meeting. In 1937, a small group of university students gathered at the newly-created Brazilian Student House in Rio de Janeiro to create a national organization that represented their interests. The meeting had the blessings of Minister of Education Gustavo Capanema, who inaugurated the meeting. One year later, with nearly 80 universities, colleges, and high schools attending the organization’s Second Congress (though it was the first, they named it the second in a nod to the failed 1910 Congress), students settled on the name União Nacional dos Estudantes, and Brazil’s student organization was born.
UNE itself immediately revealed a clear concern with a variety of issues confronting not just students, but Brazilians more generally. In the early 1940s, students played a central role in demonstrating in favor of the Allied forces in World War II, ultimately helping to push Getúlio Vargas into joining the Allies over the Axis Powers in World War II and even sending the Brazilian Expeditionary Force to fight in Italy, making Brazil the only South American country to have troops fight in World War II. As the war wound down, students again took to the streets, this time demanding Vargas, who had governed for 15 years as president/dictator, step down, arguing that if Brazil was going to send troops to die in the name of liberty and democracy in Europe, it was time Brazil returned to democracy. Part of a growing democratic movement, students again played no small part in pressuring the government, and Vargas stepped down in 1945.
Vargas’s removal and the end of World War II did not bring an end to student mobilization, however. In the late-1940s, UNE led a large protest against an increase in bus prices, arguing such hikes would hurt students who were dependent on public transportation to attend high school and college; in response, the government sent police to invade UNE’s headquarters, marking the first (but far from the last) time that the government dispatched police against the movement. Although conservative students made up UNE’s leadership from 1950-1956, that did not stop the movement from pushing for the nationalization of oil production in the “O Petróleo É Nosso!” (“The Oil Is Ours!”) campaign that ultimately led to the creation of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company that still operates today.
In 1957, progressive students returned to UNE’s leadership, marking a broader shift in the politics and actions of UNE. That year, for the first time in the organization’s history, it began to push for the issue of university reform, demanding changes to Brazil’s young university system and poor infrastructure (unlike Spanish America countries, who had universities as early as the 1550s, the first official university to survive in Brazil, the University of Rio de Janeiro (later the University of Brazil and then, today, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) was not created until 1920, and even then, it was merely the formal joining of the already-extant law, medical, and engineering colleges in the city. By the late-1950s and early-1960s, within the context of Cold War politics, UNE leadership was taking an increasingly anti-imperialist stance, with protests against John Foster Dulles’ visit to Brazil in 1958.By the early-1960s, students were increasingly pushing for social reforms in Brazil. UNE created “Centers of Popular Culture,” in which students would go around the country performing plays, skits, songs, and giving speeches to the rural poor and to urban workers in a paternalist attempt to educate and mobilize Brazil’s lower classes. Student members of UNE throughout the country also increasingly went on strike in this period, demanding a broader role in university administration, greater access to education for Brazil’s population, and protesting against US involvement in the region, principally through the Alliance for Progress. When President Jânio Quadros resigned in 1961, student mobilization helped Vice President João Goulart assume office, against the military’s wishes. While students found themselves frustrated with Goulart’s hesitancy to shift further left, they still supported him. Indeed, at Goulart’s massive rally in Rio de Janeiro in March 1964, UNE president José Serra spoke before a crowd of roughly 150,000 people before Goulart took the stage.
Less than three weeks after the March 13 rally, Brazil’s military rose up in a coup, overthrowing Goulart and establishing a dictatorship that would last 21 years. While students had been supportive of Goulart during his presidency, they failed to rally to his defense with the coup, save for a handful of students who armed themselves and were quickly arrested or sent home without further action. Additionally, in the wake of the coup, conservative civilians gathered at UNE’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, burning it down.
The loss of their building and the failure of students to rise up and defend the constitutional president led to a crisis of identity in UNE. Many were left wondering why the support for a president that more closely represented UNE’s platforms had failed to materialize. Additionally, many of those tied to UNE were forced into hiding or went into exile. In spite of the military government’s efforts to reduce UNE’s power, by late-1965, a new generation of leaders had emerged that successfully tied the leadership’s and the student masses’ interests together. By the following year, students were taking to the streets demanding both university reform for an increasingly-inadeuqate system of higher education and an end to the military regime. These protests continued to increase in size around the country in 1967 and 1968, even while the military increased its repression and use of police violence to suppress student voices. In March of 1968, one confrontation resulted in the police shooting Edson Luís de Lima Souto, a poor high school student who worked at a student restaurant. With Edson Luís’s death, UNE had a martyr, and by June 1968, 100,000 people, including not just students, but parents, opposition politicians, and artists like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were taking to the streets to protest against the military regime.
In this context, the hardliners within the regime decided to act. In October, they arrested more than 900 UNE members at the organization’s congress in São Paulo. By December, the hardliners within the dictatorship had won out over the moderates, and they issued Institutional Act Number 5, ushering in Brazil’s most repressive phase. The regime cracked down fiercely on all political opposition movements, with UNE and student activists a particular target. By 1970s, many student leaders had gone underground, joined guerrilla movements, or fled into exile; those who were caught, including future-president Dilma Rousseff, were brutally tortured, with some dying during torture. By the early-1970s, UNE’s last president, Honstino Guimarães, was “disappeared” (his fate and the location of his remains are unknown even today), and UNE was virtually extinct.
However, students continued to find ways to organize in the new repressive context throughout the 1970s, and by the end of the decade, with the moderates’ return to power in the military regime, political openings were on the rise. By 1979, students tested this opening by holding a (still-illegal) meeting in which UNE was re-established. Although the dictatorship continued to officially consider the movement illegal, it did little to repress it. Throughout the early-1980s, students were part of a growing chorus of voices, including university professors, white-collar professionals, workers, and new political parties like the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) of union leader (and future president) Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva. demanding a return to democracy amidst an increasingly tumultuous economy. Although the “Diretas Já!” (“Direct Elections Now!”) movement fell short, Brazil still returned to a democratic government in 1985; throughout the 21 years of military rule, it was UNE and the students it represented that was the most consistent voice of opposition to military rule, and students were a vital part of the return to democracy.
With the end of military rule, the tenor of student mobilization changed, but the movement itself did not disappear. As Brazil prepared a new constitution to replace the military’s 1967 constitution, students heavily lobbied for at least 10% of the national budget to be dedicated to education, and the politicians writing the constitution, aware of students’ importance in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, ultimately agreed. When a corruption scandal engulfed Brazil’s first popularly-elected president, Fernando Collor, in the early-1990s, UNE again at the forefront of protests, as the “Caras Pintadas” (“Painted Faces”) movement took to the streets and rallied in front of Brazil’s Congress, demanding impeachment. As the scandal worsened, many Brazilians agreed with the students, and Collor was forced to step down and was stripped of political rights for 15 years (he returned to the Senate in 2008).
In the 2000s, UNE has continued to mobilize even while it struggles with its identity. Many former UNE members, especially those from the 1960s, are critical of the organization for not being “involved” enough, though certainly UNE is not contending with a right-wing military regime the way those 1960s leaders were. UNE has continued to demand educational reforms, opposing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s (ultimately failed) efforts to privatize higher education in the 1990s. More recently, they have protested against increases in public transportation fees (a recurring problem that has led to protests throughout the organization’s history), been involved in Brazil’s own “Occupy” movement, and pushed for greater access to higher education for all Brazilians, demands that sound familiar only because the issues continue to be relevant to Brazil today. Additionally, they’ve been engaged not only in social change, but in addressing their own history, creating a memory project to trace Brazilian student activism and to contextualize the present and future of UNE in its past, a past that began 75 years ago today.
This is part of an ongoing series on important dates in Latin American history. Previous posts have included the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), the El Mozote Massacre, and Haitian Independence, among others.