How did an organization that was supposed to guarantee the independence of studies in Cuba end up becoming a body at the service of Castroist repression?
Originally emerging during the process that saw the emergence and strengthening of Cuban civil society in the 1920s, the Federation of University Students (FEU) marks its centennial reduced to a component of the totalitarian system overseen by the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
Aware of the need for change, determined to participate in shaping the destiny of the Cuban nation, and imbued with the spirit of reform that took place in 1918 at the University of Cordoba (Argentina), and the aspiration enunciated by its rector Carlos de la Torre in 1921 (that the University should be administrated with absolute independence, except with regards to its funds) on December 20, 1922 a group of Cuban students founded an independent civic association: the FEU.
In 1962, in the process of dismantling the civil society that had been developed under the Republic (after limits on freedom of expression were articulated in Fidel Castro's speech that came to be known as his "Words to the Intellectuals") university autonomy was eliminated and the FEU was subordinated to the established power.
Up to that point there had been a gradual process favoring autonomy and democratization, which might be briefly summarized by citing the following moments: in 1842 the colonial authorities granted the Royal and Literary University of Havana the right to elect its leaders; in 1885, it was established that any university professor could hold the position of rector; as of 1898, the positions of rector, vice-rector and dean of the faculty were elected by the latter; and in 1910, in its bylaws the University of Havana was defined as a higher educational organization having autonomy in everything related to its internal regime, governed by a rector, a University Council, and a general faculty.
The FEU, since its foundation, concentrated on furthering this process. In October 1923 the First National Congress of Students demanded legal personality and autonomy for the University of Havana in economic and teaching matters. The Government of the Hundred Days, headed by Ramón Grau San Martín, put university autonomy into effect in September 1933. In 1935 the Government of Carlos Mendieta voided this, but in 1937 President Federico Laredo Bru declared the University of Havana a "corporation of public interest with broad autonomy," and Article 53 of the 1940 Constitution stated that: "The University of Havana is autonomous and will be governed in accordance with its bylaws and the law, to which they must conform."
The institution of university autonomy played a crucial role in all the political events in the Republic until the establishment of the revolutionary government in 1959, which in February of that year replaced the 1940 Constitution with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State, whose Article 53 ratified that the University Council, comprised of the rector, the vice-rector, the deans of the 13 departments, and a secretary, continued to be in charge of administrating the University of Havana.
In the midst of a conflictive situation born of the ideological struggle within the University, in violation of the Fundamental Law of February 1959 the University Council was replaced by a Higher Governing Board, whose power remained in the hands of a representative appointed by the Government, a step that proved decisive for the control of the University by the State.
Then, in December 1960, the Revolutionary Government created the Higher Council of Universities, presided over by the Minister of Education and composed of four representatives from each of the three universities, and four from the Revolutionary Government. At the behest of this Council, university reform was undertaken and presented on January 10, 1962 —the same day that Communist leader Juan Marinello was appointed by the Government rector of the University of Havana, which represented a step backward with respect to 1898, when the election of that position was the prerogative of the university faculty.
Evidencing the true objectives of the university reform, Communist leader Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, while stating that the new University would be administrated jointly by professors and students, clarified: "In so far as the university revolution is the work of a true revolution, and that socialism presides over transformations, it is not possible to conceive of professors and students as two antagonistic groups (....) A professor with a revolutionary ideology, informed by Marxism-Leninism, and an advocate of this ideology for years (he was referring to Juan Marinello), will not need the students’ vigilant presence in the Administration of the University, because he will be mature enough to approach the problems of higher education in the right manner" ("La reforma universitaria," Cuba Socialista, Havana, Issue 6, February 1962).
Thus, the Higher Education Reform enacted in Cuba in January of 1962 did away with university autonomy, higher education institutions were placed under State control, and the arbitrary expulsions of professors and students that had been taking place since 1959 were given green lights.
Subordinated to those in power, the FEU ceased to be a source of social change and become, instead, a defender of the status quo, a function that took on greater importance in April of 1971, when the revolutionary government, in an effort to ameliorate ailing relations with the Soviet Union, decided to remove left-wing intellectuals who spoke out against the repression of the freedom of expression and the Sovietization of the country. This gave rise to the exclusionary slogan adopted by the FEU in its capacity as a champion of the power structure: "The University, for Revolutionaries." In other words, the Revolution was to come first, an imposition that was not limited to writers and artists, but included, and includes, to this day, all Cubans.
On March 13, 1979, at the closing of the First Congress of the FEU, Fidel Castro, trying to direct students’ energies in another direction, asked the delegates: "Has the Revolution deprived students of their field of struggle? No. (...) The Revolution has actually created a much broader, much more universal field of struggle, an enormous task: (...), that of building socialism, that of practicing internationalism." And, in the "Final Declaration of the VIII Congress of the FEU," in June 2013, he repeated that: "there is no greater responsibility and task for the children of the alma mater than defending the continuity of the Revolution and socialism."
The continuity of this line was just ratified by President Miguel Diaz-Canel at the X Congress of the FEU; at the closing ceremony, coinciding with the association’s centennial., he said: "The pre-revolutionary FEU fought for the Revolution. The FEU today is an essential part of the body of the Revolution. What in appearance is a difference, in essence, is continuity," words confirming the transition suffered by this association, reduced from independence to subservience.