The Universidade Federal da Integração Lusofonia Afro-Brasileira (Unilab), opened for classes in 2010, both brings a new federal university to the underserved Brazilian Northeast and illustrates the government’s desire to cultivate a higher international profile in Latin America, Portuguese-speaking Africa, and beyond. Unilab is a sister institution to the Universidade Federal da Integração Latino-Americana (Unila) founded in the state of Paraná in 2010; the latter institution’s focus, as the name suggests, is to provide a location for academic exchange between Brazilian scholars and students and scholars from other Latin American nations. Unila’s curriculum is delivered in Spanish and Portuguese, and students and faculty are comprised of fifty-percent Brazilians and fifty-percent citizens from neighboring Spanish-speaking nations. Unilab and Unila are among the fourteen new federal universities founded during President Lula’s tenure, many in previously underserved regions of the country.
Unilab’s location in Redenção, Ceará has deep symbolic significance as that province was the first to officially outlaw slavery in 1884. As President Lula stated at the signing of the legislation that brought Unilab into existence, the university “pays tribute to the African people,” whose history and contributions to the Brazilian nation are often left out of official discourse. Government officials and university administrators are recruiting students from the Portuguese-speaking world, including East Timor and Macau, but Portuguese Africa remains a central focus as evidenced by President Dilma Roussef’s trip to Africa last week. “With the expansion of our program of scholarships and fellowships…Unilab…will facilitate the exchange and collaboration of our students and professors…” with those of African nations, Dilma stated in a speech in Angola.
It will be interesting to watch Unilab grow in the coming years. African students have long attended Brazilian universities, but Unilab’s emphasis on cultivating relations with economically important African nations through a university setting spotlights Brazil’s efforts to expand its global influence in strategic regions. Equally important is the government’s recognition of Brazil’s centuries-long economic, cultural, and social exchange with Africa through the creation of a university that explicitly, and officially, acknowledges that history.