Student Revolution in Central America
Curated by Erika Cintrón Cordero, under the guidance of Margarita Vargas-Betancourt
Designed by Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler and Katiana Bagué
Central America in the 20th century saw a variety of civil conflicts as citizens began to demand and organize around struggles for labor, land, and political rights. Scholarship has primarily focused on the role of peasant, labor, and guerilla groups during Cold War conflicts of the 1940s-1990s. Yet, university students were an important sector of popular discontent. Their actions turned them into important political actors in their countries. For this reason, they were also targets for repression. This exhibition focuses on student movements and revolutionaries in Central America and their role throughout the region’s 20th century Cold War conflicts.
Guatemalan university students were crucial actors in overthrowing the Ubico dictatorship in 1944. They assisted in writing the new Constitution and became the government officials of the Revolutionary Government. Unfortunately, the Revolutionary Government was cut short by a U.S. backed military coup. The students thus became targets for repression under the new military government. Their actions however became a source of inspiration for other student movements in Central America.
image: Guatemala Secretaría de Educación Pública. Juventud y el Comunismo. 1956. Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
Anti-communist book promoting the vulnerability of youth to communist ideology. Published shortly after the overthrow of the Arbenz government.
The political repression upheld by military governments in El Salvador led to many students fleeing the country for their safety. Through their writings, political exiles, many of them students, informed the Latin American public of the violence occurring in El Salvador. Novels such as Manlio Argueta’s Un Día en la Vida illustrate the unjust oppression of indigenous peoples seeking to resist the economic and political repression upheld by the Salvadoran military.
Inspired by other universities in Latin America, the Student Federation of the University of Honduras (FEUH) played an important role in securing university autonomy. They began organizing in 1949 and held multiple strikes, with one lasting 110 days. These strikes contributed to bringing down dictator Julio Lozano Díaz. After six years of student protests, the University of Honduras achieved autonomy for their campus.
Under the dictatorship of the Somozas, political dissent was heavily restricted and repressed. However, university students used their image as “future leaders” of the country to openly dissent and critique the Somoza regime. International student conferences hosted by both the United States and the [former] USSR helped radicalize Nicaraguan youth. They became an important part of the global anti-imperial movement.
images: International Student Conference, Coordinating Secretariat of National Unions of Students. Enseñanza Superior En Nicaragua, 1959-60. 1961. Secretaría Coordinadora de Uniones Nacionales de Estudiantes, COSEC. Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
In 1968, international student protests increased. These protests led to increasing concern over possible student rebellions throughout Central America. In Costa Rica, concern arose when local news outlets reported that a group of American hippies were traveling to the country. National debates ensued over the possible impact these hippies might have on radicalizing and corrupting Costa Rican university youth. Costa Rican law enforcement arrested the hippies upon their arrival and shaved the foreigners heads. In response, University of Costa Rica students hid the hippies on their campus to protect them from the authorities.
At the time of the Panama Treaties, students were protesting both American imperialism and the repressive dictatorship of Omar Torrijos. Even though the Panama Treaties would begin the process of the Panama Canal returning to Panama, the country was still under the suppression of a military regime. Students responded by protesting the treaties, which the Torrijo dictatorship violently suppressed, going as far as to kill student leaders. The treaties were passed and the Canal eventually returned to Panama in 1999. However, students continued to resist and the Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario (FER) is still active to this day.
The United States knew that students were an important opposing force to their presence in Latin America. Because of this, education scholarships were provided to Latin American countries to come study in the United States so they would promote American values when they returned to their home countries. Many of these students came to Florida, contributing to the creation and expansion of Latin American studies at the University of Florida.
Álvarez, Alvaro (May 21, 1968). “Ni violencia ni guerra: paz y amor”, La República, Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas de Costa Rica.
Argueta, Manlio (1987). Un día en la vida, Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana.
Chávez Zamora, Randall Andrés (2020). “No más hippies. Identidad juvenil, memoria y pánico en la Guerra Fría: el mayo de 1968 en Costa Rica”, Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos, Vol. 46.
Franco, Samuel Antonio. Hogueras rebeldes: antología del movimiento estudiantil y juvenil panameño (1920-2020). Caracas: Fundación Friedrich Ebert, 2020.
Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario (1978). “Proclamation by the Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario (FER) against the Panama Canal Treaties”, Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
International Student Conference (1961). “Enseñanza superior en Nicaragua, 1959-1960”, Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
La República (May 16, 1968). “‘Hippies’ rumbo a San José”, La República, Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas de Costa Rica.
Rodríguez, Elin Josué (July 14, 2019). “Inicio, fechas importantes y expresidentes que más destacaron en la FEUH”, Presencia Universitaria.
Rueda, Claudia (2019). Students of Revolution: Youth, Protest, and Coalition Building in Somoza Era Nicaragua, University of Texas Press.
Secretaría de Educación (1956). La Juventud y el Comunismo, Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
State Department (October 12, 1954). “Memo to Senator: Statistics on Fullbright and Smith-Mundt Acts”, Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (2011). “Asamblea Constituyente Estudiantil Universitaria ACEU”, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras.
Vrana, Heather (2017). The City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996, University of California Press.