The FUA (Federación Universitaria Argentina) during a demonstration in 1974. Source: http://www.reformadel18.unc.edu.ar/fua.html
The events of 1918 in the Cordoba University (Argentina) marked the beginning of a series of waves of student mobilization throughout Latin America. This social movement didn’t just intend to accomplish a great reform of universities and the whole education system, but also aimed at tackling the political, social and economic problems of its time. This post will focus on assessing whether this mobilization was successful in accomplishing its aims and inspiring others to do so, or if its ambitious projects and ideas fell by the wayside.
At the beginning of the last century, Latin America was just celebrating the centenary anniversary of the independence from the European domination, trying to get rid of the last remaining traces of colonialism. The Catholic Church still had a huge influence and power on society, and there were great gaps between the socioeconomic situation of the majority and that of the wealthy Spanish families who had stayed in the colonies. Experts in this matter such as Fernando Tauber claim that this particular circumstance together with the first International Student Congresses, the suspension of the internship in the Hospital de Clínicas, and the pioneering experience in the University of La Plata –which already had student representation in the university government- (Tauber 2015, 74) made it inevitable for the mobilization to emerge.
The political and cultural factors of the time were also central for the success of the mobilization. The change in the political circumstances in Argentina –where Hipólito Yrigoyen, who was less conservative than his predecessor, came to power in 1916-made the students think their demands would finally be heard (Arocena and Sutz, 2001). Regarding the cultural factors, we can say that the interpretive frameworks and resonance were on their side: it was easy for the movement to build a collective identity, to point at who was causing the problem, and to seduce people into joining the movement, since the process of Independence was still on the collective worldview, and most people felt that the privileges of the past still remained almost untouched.
Everything we’ve seen up until now created the perfect environment for the beginning of the movement, which started when the dissatisfaction of the students lead to a succession of protests and strikes that eventually culminated in the creation of the Federación Universitaria de Argentina (FUA). After that, Yrigoyen accepted to meet up with some student representatives, and ordered J.N.Matienzo to intervene in the conflict, specifically in the Cordoba University. He changed its statutes and called for elections, but the students, who were displeased by its winner, interrupted the investment and announced an indefinite strike. Soon they disseminated the Manifesto Liminar, which would become so popular –along with the whole mobilization- that, two months later, the government presented a reform bill that addressed some of the students’ demands, and agreed to nationalizing and founding other universities.
The time when the movement started to gain momentum makes it impossible not to point out what looks like a clear paradox. Renowned professors like Tauber defend the idea that the students decided to bring their ideas to action partly influenced by their European counterparts, who had seen the advances that were being made across the Atlantic regarding the modernization of universities. However, the Argentinean students, when talking about their movement, emphasized both in their discourses and in their Manifesto the importance of getting rid of their dependency, influence and imitation of the events that happened in Europe and North America. With that in mind, can we really say their actions were liberating? It looks like the ones that had determined the development of the country centuries before were still subtly present. At the same time, it is also likely that it worked the other way round, and the European waves of the 60s were partly inspired by the Latin American experience. Given this dilemma, what is for sure is that such multitudinous movements easily cross borders and can spark similar ones world-wide.
And that’s exactly what happened all around Centre and South America, through collaborations between student federations (Cultura cambiante n.d.) and international student congresses, although their impact in each country was diverse. The students’ petitions were similar everywhere: they wanted, among other things, to take part in the university decisions, political autonomy, academic freedom, democratic election of their representatives, public tender for the election of the teaching staff, no tuition, and a university that was more connected to its society’s problems and reality (Tauber 2015, 42).
In Argentina, the accomplishments were considerable, but went on and off in the following years, as they went through tumultuous times, going from democracy to military dictatorships several times. In countries like Peru and Cuba the experience was even more positive, and they founded popular universities with close ties to the working class (Oñativia, 2017). Moreover, the Peruvian also succeeded in triggering legislative changes, but those were soon turned down by their next conservative government. In Chile, the students backed the liberal Alessandrini in hope he would listen to their claims, but after he got to office he denied the viability of what they wanted (Solano, 2004).
Beyond university matters, there are dissenting opinions on whether students actually engaged in other mobilizations. On the one hand, Tauber defends the resistance of the FUBA (Federación Universitaria de Buenos Aires) against the military coup of 1943 and the two presidents that were imposed later, and how they took part in the overthrowing of J. D. Perón in 1955 (Tauber 2015, 83). On the other hand, Jean Meyer states that neither in Argentina, nor in the three Latin American revolutions of the XX century (México, Bolivia, Cuba), did students have any remarkable role (Meyer 2008, 184). What neither of them denies is that, when they were successful in their claims, the victories were ephemeral and not as groundbreaking as they wanted them to be.
Conclusively, we can say that the demands regarding a more open, democratic and accessible university were slowly accomplished, which involves a betterment of society as a whole, as it fastens its development and increases its social capital. However, the students’ petitions were not accomplished in their desired way, as it took years for them to consolidate their achievements, and the changes usually weren’t exactly as they had pictured them. We can also say they sometimes failed to cooperate more tightly with the rest of the society when facing political, economic or social adversities, even though this was one of their aims. What can’t be contested is that the 1918 Movement was a turning point in the history of Latin American universities, as it was the first one of a series of similar mobilizations in the countries all around. First it spread to Peru, Chile and Cuba, and they were followed by two other waves: one in the 30s (Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Mexico) and another one in the 60s, which culminated with the creation of the well-known Organización Continental de Estudiantes Latinoamericanos. (Solano, 2004) (Meyer, 2008). The reverberation of all those events still live on today.
- Arocena, Rodrigo and Sutz, Judith. 2001. Changing knowledge production and Latin American universities. Montevideo: Universidad de la República.
- Cultura cambiante. n.d. “La Reforma Universitaria”. Accessed November 20, 2017. http://edant.clarin.com/diario/especiales/yrigoyen/cultura/ref_univ.html
- Meyer, Jean. 2008. El movimiento estudiantil en América Latina. Revista Sociológica 23 (68): pp. 179-195.
- Oñativia, Fabio. 2017. “La Reforma Universitaria de 1918 en Argentina.” La izquierda diario, June 15, 2017. http://www.laizquierdadiario.com/La-Reforma-Universitaria-de-1918-en-Argentina
- Renate Marsiske, et al. 2015. Movimientos estudiantiles en la historia de América Latina IV. Mexico: IISUE/UNAM.
- Solano, Gabriel. 2004. “La Reforma Universitaria de Córdoba. Fundación del movimiento estudiantil latinoamericano”. Fragment from En defensa del Marxismo, no.20. May 1998. https://web.archive.org/web/20041220092803/http:/www.pt.org.uy/textos/temas/cordoba.html
- Tauber, Fernando. 2015. Hacia el segundo manifiesto: los estudiantes universitarios y el reformismo hoy. La Plata: EDULP.
- Vera de Flachs, María. 2013. Universidad, dictadura y movimientos estudiantiles en Argentina. Córdoba 1966-1974. Revista Historia de la Educación Latinoamericana 15 (21): 191-228.
 Institutional Vicepresident of the University of La Plata, in Argentina.
 That is in line with what the theory of the Political Opportunity Structure defends, which is supported by prominent political scientists and sociologists such as Sidney Tarrow.
 Tauber 2015, 78: Tünnermann Bernheim defends the students’ will to “Dejar de respirar aires extranjeros y de intentar la creación de una cultura propia, que no fuera un simple reflejo o trasplante de la europea o norteamericana”.
 Tauber 2015, 35: The book includes the Manifesto, in the beginning of which is written that the obsolete structure of the univeristy is “la última cadena que, en pleno siglo XX, nos ataba a la antigua dominación monárquica y monástica”.
 Mexican historian and autor of French origin.