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The Academic Crises of 1969

Written by Dário Encarnação
Translated by Sara Fernandes

In Honour of our colleagues from Coimbra who courageously fought for the democratisation of higher education and against the Estado Novo.

On the 17th of April it was celebrated 54 years of the event that marks the beginning of the Academic Crises of Coimbra, in which the students of the University of Coimbra, unhappy with the regime and the situation they were living in the Portuguese Academia, took advantage of the visit of the President, Américo Thomaz, and some members of the government to the University to manifest their dissatisfaction and demands, thus beginning months of fight and persecution.

April 17th, 1969. Portugal was under threat of dictatorship and in the middle of a Colonial War. The atmosphere of dissatisfaction was spreading, and it was all over the country. In Coimbra, the Department of Mathematics of the University of Coimbra was inaugurated and the President, Américo Thomaz, had been invited for the inauguration speech, accompanied by some members of Marcelo Caetano’s government. This occasion was, in the eyes of the student community, a window of opportunity to make themselves heard and voice their unhappiness and some of their demands. The motives for their dissatisfaction were related with the world of higher education and with multiple aspects of the political, economic, and social life that had been dragged throughout the years and had led to a higher wear down of the regime and dispute against it, which had been seen as anachronistic and dated. The suppression of freedom of speech, the Colonial War, the political paralysis, and the poverty the country lived in were just some examples. Change was demanded!

When the President’s entourage arrived with the members of the government who accompanied him, a ‘warm’ welcome had been awaiting them at the entrance of the new building, about to be inaugurated, from a crowd of students that brought signs and banners with watchwords and displeasure, a prelude to what would follow in the next days. Inside the building, Américo Thomaz gave his inauguration speech and, by the end of it, Alberto Martins, President of the Coimbra Academic Association, gave the famous speech where he requested to speak, in the name of the students at the University of Coimbra. His request was refused. The speech continued and, by the end, the entourage was accompanied by a wave of protests from students, unhappy with what had just happened inside the building.

Later that same day, Alberto Martins was arrested. He spent the night in prison and was released the following day. His arrest did not have the effect that the authorities, probably, probably intended (of intimidation and persuasion, with the goal to prevent possible insurrectionary actions), it had the opposite effect, accentuating the student’s hostility against the regime even more. From that moment onwards the discontent turned into actions that led to months of struggle. This fight gained strength, especially due to the exam strikes and the spontaneous protests through the city streets. The exam strikes were a big risk to those who joined, since failing the exam, due to the strike, could mean those students were sent to the Colonial War. Therefore, it is not exaggerated to mark the courage and resilience of strikers. The strike was a success, with most of the students - around 87% - joining it, despite the persecution and search for targets and the already mentioned risk of being sent to the Colonial War.

To these initiatives was added the final football match of the Portuguese Cup, at Jamor Sports Complex, where, on June 22nd, Benfica faced Académica de Coimbra. The result was not in favour of the team from Coimbra, which was defeated 2-1, but that is not the important thing to take away from it, since the most important game was played outside the four lines. It started with the President being absent for the first time, who until then had been present for the final stage of the competition. The TV transmission was also cancelled for the first time, to contain the media hype from the event, which was not good for the regime’s image. Lastly, at the end of the game, the players from the Académica de Coimbra placed black capes on their shoulders, a demonstration of solidarity for the students of the city, who had all gathered to watch the match.

The bravery and irreverence of the students that took part in the Academic Crises of 1969 was not enough to reach the desired achievements nor to make the Estado Novo fall, but it surely contributed to the acceleration of its decline and the rise in protests. In the present context, of bigger political freedom as well as freedom of speech and of association in comparison to our colleagues from 1969, there is still a lot to conquer. The democratisation of higher education, one of the flags of the students of Coimbra of 1969, still has a long way to go and it is up to us, who believe in a more accessible education and available to all, to keep the legacy of the fight that our colleagues of 1969 gave an enormous contribute.

The legacy of the student fight and the example of courage, resilience and solidarity of our colleagues who fought fearlessly against Estado Novo and the democratisation of higher education stays in our memories.

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