The Night of the Long Batons

The tragic episode that slowed down Argentine development Onganía's brutal attack on five UBA faculties did not respect students or professors: a brilliant generation was sentenced to exile, and the university, emptied of its best contents.

On July 29, 1966, there was no total solar eclipse. However, in the heart of Buenos Aires, that day – which had started with good weather: bright and not too cold – abruptly turned into night. And that eclipse would last almost two decades.

A month earlier, on June 28, General Juan Carlos Onganía (1914-1995) led the military coup against the government of doctor (physician) Arturo Umberto Illia (1900-1983), a radical, and president since October 12, 1963. He came to the presidency through the ballot box, but with an original sin: the banning of Peronism, decreed by the military government that overthrew Arturo Frondizi on March 29, 1962.

Onganía – silent, sullen, chauvinistic, ultramontane Catholic – was not highly respected by his peers: some of them defined him as "a fourth grade general" . His head boiled with prejudices: he mistrusted science – he even said that modern mathematics was subversive –, the words communism or the left made him bristle, and after the classic Columbus gala planned for the presidential inaugurations, he criticized the dancers of Swan Lake for the brevity of their tutus, "which show them almost naked," he said. Indecency that travels the world, with the delicious music of Tchaikovsky, since March 4, 1877!

The 1960s were highly politicized: Cuba, May 1968 in Paris, guerrillas in Venezuela, Peru, and – incipient – in Argentina. This wave inevitably reached the universities. Anyone who has studied or known these centres as a journalist (my case) knows that they were full of slogans, political acts and protests. But of all signs: an spectrum from the extreme right to the extreme left, and with intermediate and moderate points.

However, Onganía, who had promised a hundred years of the Argentine Revolution (so he baptised his usurpation of democracy) reduced that panorama with a summit of thought: "The university is a cave of communists." And he was quick to act. The eclipse began.

On the night of July 29, 1966, after intervening in all the country's universities and annulling their government regime, in force since the 1918 Reform, he ordered the forcible eviction of five Buenos Aires faculties. But the hardest hit were Exact Sciences (Peru 222, Manzana de las Luces, where great figures studied: for example, Juan Bautista Alberdi) and Philosophy and Letters.

At nightfall, troops from the Infantry Guard, with instructions agreed upon by the Chief of Police, General Mario Fonseca, and the Chief of the SIDE, General Eduardo Señorans, and under the command of Commissioner Alberto Villar, charged students, graduates and professors with wild rage seldom seen. They were made to come out, line up in double file, and were beaten with long machetes (batons) created to suppress riots.

Rolando García, dean of Exactas, who was with Manuel Sadosky, his vice-dean and the man who introduced computing in the country, confronted the commanding officer: "How dare you commit this outrage. I'm still the dean of this university!" "

Answer: a baton to the head.

Bleeding, Garcia stood up: "How dare you commit this outrage? I'm still the dean!"

Answer: another blow that broke his finger when he tried to protect his head.

Meanwhile, other henchmen destroyed laboratories and libraries.

The next day, July 30, the morning edition of the New York Times published a letter sent by Warren Ambrose, professor of Mathematics at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – first level in the world – and at the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). These are some paragraphs.
Then the police came in. I'm told they forced the doors ... The first thing I heard was tear gas bombs ... Then soldiers came and yelled at us to go into one of the big classrooms, where we were made to stand, against the wall, surrounded by soldiers with guns, all shouting brutally, stimulated by what they were doing: one could say that they were emotionally prepared to exercise violence against us ... Then, screaming, they grabbed us one by one and pushed us towards the out of the building... They made us pass between a double file of soldiers, placed at a distance of ten feet from each other (about three meters), who beat us with sticks or rifle butts and kicked us roughly in any part of the body. beaten on the head and body ...

This humiliation was suffered by all of us: women, distinguished professors, the dean, the vice-dean, assistants, teachers and students. Many seriously injured ... What happened seems to reflect the current government's hatred for university students. Hate for me incomprehensible, since they form a magnificent group that tries to build a university atmosphere similar to that of North American universities. This conduct will seriously delay the country's development.
Prophetic. That night there were 400 detainees. In the following months, between fired and resigning professors, 700 of the best left their chairs empty. Some (301, exactly) went into exile. Of these, 166 were hired by Latin American universities, 94 by the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, and 41 by European study houses.

The brutal drainage left the country's culture without names like the philosopher Risieri Frondizi; the epistemologist, physicist and meteorologist Rolando García, who in exile developed genetic epistemology together with (no less!) Jean Piaget; the historian Tulio Halperín Donghi; the epistemologist Gregorio Klimosvsky; astronomer Catherine Gattegno; the medical psychiatrist Telma Reca, expert in Evolutionary Psychology; atomic physics, Mariana Weissmann ... and Manuel Sadosky, the man who installed the first computer in the country at UBA. Its name was Clementina, it arrived from England in November 1960, and after the Night of the Long Batons, the onganiato turned off their lights. It was decommissioned in 1971.

Of course, the stab against the universities also bled the contents, until then considered excellent. The military intervenors, by order of Onganía, harshly and irrationally censored all the intellectual scaffolding woven in the University of Buenos Aires since its foundation ... 196 years ago!, on August 12, 1821, by Bernardino Rivadavia.

With the National Constitution abolished and replaced by the Statute of the Argentine Revolution, Congress and the Supreme Court dissolved, all provinces intervened and all political activity prohibited, the University, before the terrifying night of July 29, was – it seemed – a holy island. But Luis Botet, the comptroller of the UBA anointed by the messiah who promised a century of military boots, assumed with a coup de grace: "Authority is above science."

Onganía was dismissed in 1970 – annus terribilis – after the Cordobazo and with half the country in flames: protests and workers' strikes and the debut of the Montoneros with the kidnapping and murder of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. He was replaced, just for eight months, by the inconsequential General Roberto Marcelo Levingston, displaced by his peer Alejandro Agustín Lanusse.

The university continued to be lethargic and forgotten. And the blackout was still missing, the tragedy of the Process: the criminal dictatorship 1976-1983.

Ominous shadows until Alfonsín: democracy recovered.

The proud ship has sailed again. But the lost time, the nullified science, the silenced talent of its professors, will never be recovered.

It is impossible to calculate, in terms of cultural backwardness, the wound opened by the dictator. The one who, like the Nazis Göring and Goebbels, or the Francoist Millán-Astray (the quote is attributed to all three), when he heard the word culture did not draw his pistol: he resorted to long canes.

(Post scriptum: at midnight on June 30, 1966, one day after the massive attack on the universities, the editor-in-chief of Primera Plana magazine, Julio Algañaraz, recalled The Night of the Long Knives, a bloody political purge - July 1, 1934 – within the Nazi party that ended with a massacre. In Operation Hummingbird – as it was called – knives were not used: it is an old German metaphor. That memory dictated a cover title that went down in history : The night of the long batons).

Alfredo Serra July 30, 2017 Special for Infobae

Last Updated November 2022