Uniao Nacional dos Estudantes: Generations of Student Struggle for Brazilian Rights

UNE poster (2)_0

The Coup of 1964

On April 1, 1964, the headquarters of the Uniao Nacional dos Estudantes (National Students Union – UNE) erupted into flames. Brazil’s democracy had officially fallen to a military dictatorship. Crowds watched the flames while eating hot-dogs and drinking Coca-Cola, hopeful that Communism had been defeated in their nation once and for all.[1]

Military-demolished UNE headquarters. Source: https://une.org.br/fotos/

A month prior, President João Goulart had passed laws to nationalize all private oil refineries and enact agrarian reform.[2] The students of the UNE were simultaneously calling for expansive social reforms and democratic ideals, including greater access to education and economic opportunities. The military feared a move towards Communism and the alienation of foreign allies (most notably the United States), so they took control of the country and lit the UNE headquarters on fire.[3]

This new regime would not stand for organizations like the UNE. Two students described the vilification they endured:

“On April 1, 1964, the military coup showed instantaneously its view of the students. Without the legal government, UNE was invaded, sacked, burned in a climax of hate that escapes the purely political realm and falls in the psychiatric sphere.”[4]

Upon seizing power, the military regime led by General Humberto Castelo, promised swift action to bring “order” back.[5] In his eyes this meant the elimination of direct presidential elections and this decision changed the course of Brazilian history.[6] The military regime quickly deemed the UNE illegal,[7] occupied universities and increased censorship.[8] The UNE, however, continued to fight.

History of the UNE

After the Brazilian Revolution in 1930, students began to participate in a diverse array of youth organizations and, according to the UNE’s website, a desire grew for  “a single representative, strong and legitimate entity to promote the defense of the quality of education, national heritage and social justice.”[9] This desire came to fruition in 1937 when students from across Brazil gathered at The Student House of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and created a national student organization – the UNE.[10] The Student House became the official headquarters of the UNE and students returned annually for congress meetings. The UNE emerged as an anti-fascist entity that had clear concern for a variety of issues affecting not just students, but the Brazilian population as a whole.[11]

The UNE attracted national attention by loudly denouncing Brazil’s neutrality in World War II and their advocacy efforts played a central role in positioning Brazil in favor of the Allied forces, ultimately pushing then-President Getulio Vargas to send troops to fight against Mussolini in Italy.[12] The UNE was building influence in Brazilian politics and used this power in 1950 to create a national movement in protest of foreign extractment of Brazil’s oil. The UNE created the “Oil is Ours” campaign, which continued until 1953 when Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobas, was created.

When President Goulart took the oath of office in 1961, the UNE worked with other Brazilian intellectuals and advocacy groups to create the “Popular Front Mobilization,” which advocated for social-liberalization policies, including greater access to higher education. To spread awareness of their advocacy efforts, the UNE drove caravans around Brazil to talk to students, and this played a major role in bolstering national solidarity for the UNE. These efforts paid off in 1962 when one-third of Brazilian students went on strike for the democratization of higher education. The UNE was becoming a household name and a powerful democratic force.[13]

Defying Authoritarianism

When the military took control of the country, the UNE was able to leverage its base to fight back. In March of 1966, the UNE ignited nation-wide protests against the military dictatorship. The UNE president, João Luiz Moreira Guedes, gave a defiant speech at a meeting of 300 students that May:

“It will not be through decrees that the government impedes the organization of the Brazilian university students through their highest authority; since the burning of the headquarters of UNE, in April of 1964, and despite all the decrees of the government, this entity never stopped existing for even an instant.” [14]

Soon thereafter, 5,000 police officers showed up and disbanded the meeting. They arrested nearly 200 students, which heightened the group’s resentment. That September, 600 students protested the arrest of their peers. The police responded with gas bombs.[15]

This did not stop the UNE. The group deemed September 22 “National Day Against Dictatorship,” and on September 23, 1966, the military violently stormed a meeting at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) Medical School. Police assaulted roughly 600 students, and the day has gone down in history as the Praia Vermelha Massacre or Red Beach Massacre.

Even after this attack, the students persisted. Almir Fraga Valladares, a current professor and dean at UFRJ, who was there on the day of the attack, remarked on the determination of the students and claimed the UNE “did not allow society to settle with repression.”[16]

In 1968, a year that is remembered for global protests, a confrontation between student protesters and the regime on March 28, 1968, in Rio de Janeiro resulted in police shooting Edson Luís de Lima Souto, a high school student.[17] Luís’ death gave the UNE a martyr, and protests increased in intensity. Students were divided over the nature of these protests, some would march silently and peacefully holding images of Luis, while others would throw typewriters and rocks at police.

The violence peaked on June 21, 1968, when three protesters were killed, dozens were injured, and a thousand were arrested. Brazilians refer to this day as Sexta-Feira Sangrenta, or Bloody Friday. In an attempt to quell the immense anger emanating from citizens after Bloody Friday, the regime decided to allow protests with no police interference.[18]

This led to the March of 100,000. Brazilian students, parents, opposition politicians, and artists took to the streets to protest the military regime on June 26, 1968. Chanting and holding images of Luis, Brazilians marched to express their desperation, frustration, and desire for accountability. No violence broke out, not from the police nor the students.[19] Many similar marches erupted across Brazil over the next few months, and the regime began to take notice.

By December, the military had reached its limit with the social upheaval and firmly cracked down on opposition language. “Institutional Act Number 5” was enacted in December 1968.[20] This act suspended Congress (giving the President complete control of the law), removed the rights of habeas corpus and trial before a judge, as well as prohibited: public protests; freedom of assembly; “extremist” groups calling for democracy; and, any sort of political party not established by the government. Anyone found to be plotting against the new government was arrested, tortured, killed or exiled from the country.[21],[22] By the 1970s, many student protesters had gone underground, joined the guerrilla movement, or fled into exile; those who were caught were disappeared, tortured and even killed.[23] The UNE was virtually extinct.

Rebuilding the Past

An economic crisis and the decline of regime legitimacy, including among those who had supported the 1964 coup, created an opportunity structure for the UNE to come back together. With hopes of appeasing the people and maintaining power through the economic crisis, the military promised to slowly democratize elections, reduce censorship and allow greater civic action.[24] This motivated Brazilians to demand real political change and students, drawing on past traditions and symbols, began to reconstruct the UNE.[25]

Students working to revive the UNE used trans-generational memories to motivate their base. Leaders evoked images of the burned down UNE headquarters and talked about student martyrs, such as Honestino Guimarães, a UNE President in the 1960s who died in prison in 1973. Student leaders used Brazilian history to conflate the identities of students and advocates.[26] They argued that students of the 1980s needed to finish what their predecessors had worked so bravely for 20 years earlier.

In March of 1983, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party organized the first protest calling for direct elections, and the UNE was an influential presence in these protests. The “Diretas Já” or “Direct Elections Now” movement garnered an unprecedented level of support. By April 1984, Brazil witnessed the largest demonstration in the country’s history as 1.5 million people gathered in Sao Paulo to demand direct elections.[27]

The Diretas Já campaign’s patriotic repertoire included “non-violent marches through major cities and the use of national symbols and slogans, with an intentional aesthetic: the festive pageantry of the caras pintadas (painted-faces), young protesters who painted their faces the colours of the Brazilian flag.”[28] The people were determined to force the Congress (which was mainly comprised of members of the military regime and lacked any significant opposition presence) to pass a constitutional amendment that would establish an immediate presidential election to determine General Figueiredo’s successor and ultimately transition the government to civilian rule.[29] Congress narrowly rejected this call in April 1984.

Protests continued en masse and the economy continued to crumble. Finally, the military agreed to host an election and keep their hands out of it. In 1985, a moderate candidate who promised democratic reform, Tancredo Neves, won the election, but died before he was sworn in. This meant that his vice president, Jose Sarney, a former leader of the pro-military party, ascended to the presidency. Sarney, responding to the immense economic and social distress, advanced liberalization and called for a constitutional assembly.[30] By 1988, three years after the constitutional assembly, one of the most progressive constitutions in Latin America had been passed. Finally, on November 15, 1989, Brazilians were able to cast their first free vote in 25 years.


The UNE remains a strong political force in Brazil today and continues to use history to encourage civic participation. In 2007, thousands of students occupied the grounds of the former UNE headquarters, demanding the return of the property they had lost 43 years before. They camped on the ruins for over a year until finally a court granted the organization the land. A few years later, Brazil’s National Congress unanimously voted that the state was indebted to the students for burning down their headquarters and, in 2010, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva laid the cornerstone for reconstruction.[31] Students are now back into their symbolic headquarters and continue to fight to uphold democracy.

Brazil currently ranks as “Free” on the Freedom House Scale, but many are worried about its decline. Throughout 2018-2019, the UNE has organized protests against President Jair Bolsonaro. When Bolsonaro froze a significant portion of education funding, the UNE led tens of thousands to the streets in 200 Brazilian cities.[32] This was part of a widespread campaign the UNE is leading for university reform, echoing the calls of students in the 1960s. The organization has even adopted similar protest methods, notably driving a caravan around 10 Brazilian states to spread awareness of their cause.[33] The UNE is stronger because of its history; through both repression and democracy, it has persisted and exemplified resilience as a social movement.


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[1] Langland, Victoria. Duke University Press, Speaking of flowers: Student movements and collective memory in authoritarian Brazil (Durham, NC, 2013), 88.

[2]“Brazil: Five Centuries of Change.” Brown University Library. https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-7/student-movement/ .

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anthony Periera, “The US Role in the 1964 Coup in Brazil: A Reassessment,” Bulletin of Lain American Research, 20 June 2016,  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/blar.12518.

[6] Timothy J Power. “The Brazilian Military Regime of 1964-1985: Legacies for Contemporary Democracy / O Regime Militar Brasileiro De 1964-1985: Legados Para a Democracia Contemporânea.” Iberoamericana (2001-), Nueva época, 16, no. 62 (2016): 13-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43901533.

[7] “Arquivo Memória – UNE – União Nacional Dos Estudantes.” UNE. https://une.org.br/memoria/.

[8]  “Brazil: Five Centuries of Change.”

[9]  “Arquivo Memória – UNE – União Nacional Dos Estudantes.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Skidmore, The Rise of Student Movements Vol. 2 (Brown University Library, Center for Digital Scholarship, 2018).

[12] Skidmore p.3

[13] “Five Centuries of Change.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bruno Franco, and Nathalia Oliveira. “O massacre da Praia Vermelha” Journal da URFJ. August 2006, http://movebr.wikidot.com/especiais:set-2007:massacre-praia-vermelha:jufrj-2006-massac

[17] Aneesa Zubair. “The March of One Hundred Thousand: The Brazilian Student Protest of 1968.” StMU History Media (October 2016). https://stmuhistorymedia.org/the-march-of-the-one-hundred-thousand-the-brazilian-student-protest-of-1968/

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Pablo Uchoa, “Remembering Brazil’s Decades of Military Repression,” BBC News, 31 March 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26713772.

[21] Skidmore, 7.

[22]  Zubair.

[23] Snider, 6.

[24] Zubair.

[25] Langland, 217.

[26] Langland, 216.

[27] Alex Frye. “Brazilians Act to End Military Rule (Diretas Já) 1983-84.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. Swathmore College, 2011. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/brazilians-act-end-military-rule-diretas-j-1983-84

[28] Angela Alonso and Anne Misch “Changing Repertoires and Partisan Ambivalence in the New Brazilian Protests.” Vol. 36, No. 2, 144–159. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 2017. p.144

[29] Frye.

[30] Carlos Pio. “Brazil Expert Brief.” Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/brazil.

[31] “Praia Do Flamengo, 132: Um Endereço Especial.” Memoria. Uniao Nacional dos Estudantes, https://une.org.br/praia-do-flamengo/.

[33]“10% Do Pib Para A Educacao” Campanhas. Uniao Nacional dos Estudantes, https://une.org.br/praia-do-flamengo/.

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