New Social Media’s Mark on the Historical Struggle for University Autonomy in Guatemala

News Abroad

Heather A. Vrana is a PhD student at Indiana University – Bloomington

On August 9, 2010, a few dozen students from Guatemala’s national university stood under the banner of a group called the Estudiantes por Autonomía / Students for Autonomy (EPA). Students arranged bright green traffic barricades to block both entrance gates of the Universidad de San Carlos (USAC).  They occupied the campus for fifty-four days, through August and into September, despite circling police helicopters and threats of expulsion, until early October when representatives of the EPA sat down with university administration to negotiate the terms of a compromise.  It was an ambivalent victory.  Facebook and emails reported that students won about eighty percent of their objectives, but the real takeaway was a lesson about autonomous space in the twenty-first century.

Under the call for autonomy, the EPA demanded that administrators restructure admissions exams, create more regional centers to improve access to education in the periphery, restore the 5 percent budgetary allotment as guaranteed by the constitution, and increase university workers’ salaries. August’s strike was the second USAC strike this year.  The first occurred in April and May with the same platform of demands, only these strikes ended quickly as USAC administrators promised to negotiate a counterproposal with EPA representatives.  Neither meetings nor counterproposals materialized.  In August, representatives of the various student groups which had earlier organized as the EPA met once more.  As before, the autumn strike enjoyed the support of workers’ groups, community organizations, former rector Raúl Molina Mejía and the elder patrón of student activists, Alfonso Bauer Paíz.

Guided by Bauer Paíz, the historical consciousness of the EPA is stunning. The claim for autonomy itself, enmeshed in anti-imperialist critiques of (neo) capitalism, globalization and imperialism, has a long history for San Carlos students.  For example, transcription of a 1925 discourse given at a USAC general assembly:

Even more, the Latin American exploitive classes, confronted with the dilemma to disappear or submit, are converting into beneficiaries of imperialism.  For this reason, we see that the Latin American political oligarchies, which govern our communities as functionaries of the exploitive classes, of the landowners and the bourgeoisie, are all, without exception, unconditionally submissive to the orders of the White House, in turn the political organ of Wall Street.

EPA students in 2010 voiced the same concerns about global capitalism and imperialism. Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s loom in the revolutionary imagination of EPA students.  The scene on-campus on September 1 offers an allegory for young university educated Guatemalans’ tenuous claim on success in the twenty-first century:

Campus was eerily quiet.  Street vendors gathered around the entrance, providing snacks and smokes to the striking students.  Ubiquitous sellers of pirated CDs and DVDs swarmed, too.  Just outside the guarded entrance, dozens of young men in black balaclavas milled about restlessly.  Really quiet, except for surveillance helicopters and insistent chords on acoustic guitar.  Bored students crooned rewritten Mercedes Sosa lyrics and other hits of the Nueva Canción era, between short drags off shared cigarettes.  Someone had posted the rewritten lyrics online somewhere.  Students used laptops and portable WiFi USBs from Tigo to stay connected.

An unexpected rainstorm—a deluge—complicated students’ plans to hold an impromptu concert.  But then Engineering students produced an amplifier, microphones, and a mysterious power source.  They took knives to live wires, hoped to select the correct pairings, then uneasily wound connections with pliers.  Then they fired up the amplifier and projected Sosa into the deafening rain, peeking over one another’s shoulder to read the lyrics from the Firefox browser.

It seemed that without WiFi the strike would have ended weeks earlier.

Guatemala continues to be ravaged by the rainiest season on record.  Just recently, workers recovered the CA-1, the main highway that connects all of Central America to its neighbors north and south. Now again it is destroyed by landslides and flash flooding.

In twenty-first-century Guatemala, where a young person’s future may be swept away at any moment by a landslide, a sink hole, or an administrator’s pen, San Carlos students trade in historical memory along information superhighways. 

At San Carlos, university students reworked the definition of autonomy through new social media.  The space of the university campus remained legally protected against physical intervention, but the most valuable autonomous spaces in this recent student struggle were social networking and news websites.

Text messaging, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and email carried constant news of the conflict where Guatemala’s four daily newspapers (which are all incidentally controlled by cousins of one large extended family) remained silent.  When a student from the Faculty of Medicine died in a car accident after leaving the barricaded university as she was pursued by a patrol car and when students and professors threw punches outside the Medical Center the next day, videos immediately hit the web.

Again and again the Internet has proved an immeasurably important organizing tool for university students in the Americas.  Facebook exploded in 2006 when Chilean students organized the March of the Penguins, then on April 10, 2009 when sixty students locked themselves inside the New School in New York and, perhaps most dramatically, earlier in this year when Puerto Rican students occupied the Universidad de Puerto Rico. 

Now students have a new tool in their “repertoire of contention”—new social media. Web 2.0 marks a novel articulation of autonomy as it provides an abstract space that is very difficult to police.  It is a space as unbounded as the barricaded autonomous campus is bound.  By using new social media to articulate autonomy, anti-imperialism, and a new student nationalism, San Carlos students challenge preconceptions of university youth as red-eyed-techno-drones.

Students are not apolitical consumerists; nor are they inevitably rebellious. Protest is not merely a steam valve.  Facebook is not just for quizzes; neither is Twitter just for self-obsessive reflections.  When Facebook asks its perpetual question, “What are you thinking?” the answer of one EPA spokesman is, “Autonomy is not for sale, it is to be defended!  Autonomía o muerte!”

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Bruno Pastre Maximo - 10/22/2010

Congradulations for the article!