Thursday, September 17

From “Golden Age” to Dangerous Subversives: Argentinian Science under Frail Democracies and Military Regimes (1955-1973)

ESP. Lucia Cespedes
Latin American Social Studies Ph.D. Candidate, National University of Cordoba (CONICET-UNC)

Despite the sticks and the beatings, scientists and intellectuals developed a truly original current of critical reflection on Latin America’s economic, scientific and cultural dependency, and upheld the potential of science and technology as a tool for the transformation of societies. STS as an academic field would become institutionalized in the later ‘80s and ‘90s with studies which, in turn, recovered the writings of those early pioneers. Far from being outdated, their central concepts still hold a great vitality and analytical capacity, as well as being a call for action for scientists and academics.

We, as Istanbulab, organized a panel for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in 2019. Our panel, entitled Advocating for Science in the Contemporary States of Authoritarianism, invited papers discussing different aspects of concrete encounters between authoritarianism and science through past and present examples. Our aim was to open up new spaces of conversation for thinking about how STS informs new research methodologies that delve into the complex relationships between political power and technoscientific practices. Lucy Céspedes, one of the presenters on our panel, gave a paper that focuses on the historical development of science in Argentina with regards to the changing military and civil governments in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century. Excited about her study, we asked Lucy to turn her conference paper into a blog post, and we are happy to share the final outcome on our blog!

Can sciences thrive in times and places of authoritarianism, asks Céspedes at the beginning of her article. Seeking an answer to this question, she not only identifies the problems attached to the development of the scientific field but also traces the roots of Argentinian STS, which has been grown by those very problems. In this sense, Céspedes’ paper is revealing in terms of how non-Western scholarship can bring different perspectives to STS, a research area rooted mostly in Northern Hemisphere contexts. Drawing on Argentinian experience, we, as researchers and scholars in Turkey, can also ask ourselves about the particular experiences we have been through and how these experiences might be informative for understanding the possible trajectories of STS in Turkey.

Can sciences thrive in times and places of authoritarianism? Is democracy the only possible political regime under which scientific and technological research can be conducted? What happens to science and scientists when that democracy is flawed? This debate has been going on for decades and has not been restricted to the academic exchanges and theoretical developments of Science and Technology Studies (STS). Scientists themselves, from all disciplines, have engaged in the discussion around science policy and science politics; therefore, contravened the traditional code of conduct of the “Ivory tower”. Indeed, while the tower may still be standing, researchers have been coming down from it for a long time. This movement has had consequences on the people involved and, more broadly speaking, on the scientific fields where they have been immersed.

Of course, there is no single answer to such big questions. On the contrary, they register multiple explanations that we strive to come up with considering the particular contexts we are situated in. In this essay, we will fix our gaze upon Argentina; more specifically, Argentina in its intensively conflictive 1955-1973 period. This is a pivotal stage in the development and institutionalization of Science and Technology (S&T) in the country, where the scientific field has historically been torn between the demands for autonomy from scientific elites, and the will of some groups with a strong sociopolitical commitment to “open up the labs” and establish stronger links with other members of the Argentinian society. Throughout these years, hand-in-hand with a number of sociopolitical landmark events, a part of Argentina’s scientific and academic community became increasingly politicized and, consequently, was framed as “dangerous” by successive military governments. The political trajectory of Argentinian scientists, and their relations with different political regimes in these years, would shape the character of the foundational STS works in the country. Such work would be interjected within a series of region-wide conversations: towards the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, an eclectic group of researchers and intellectuals would make the first attempts to think critically about Latin American sciences from within Latin America. Hopefully, we can still learn some lessons for understanding our present reality.

On September 16, 1955, armed forces perpetrated a coup against Juan Domingo Perón’s government, in the so-called Revolución Libertadora. The military junta shut down Congress, dissolved the Supreme Court, exiled Perón, and outlawed his party. Elections would not be held again until the new president-elect Arturo Frondizi was handed over a State that was torn apart, in 1958. Sciences, however, experienced a period of modernization, professionalization, and institutionalization (Feld, 2019). Some S&T institutions founded under Peronism enjoyed a certain continuity, while others underwent processes of restructuration, and many new ones were started.

Just to cite few examples: in 1956, the Institute for Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics in the National University of Córdoba was founded, in addition to the National Institute for Agropecuarian Technology (INTA), the Argentinian Antarctic Institute, and the National Institute for Industrial Technology (INTI, 1957). In 1958, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) instituted its own publishing house, EUDEBA (by 1966, it would have published nearly eleven million low cost, high-quality books). In 1959, UBA acquired its first electronic microscope while in 1961, the Calculus Institute was founded to house the country’s first scientific computer, the now legendary Clementina. 1958 also witnessed the creation of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Its first president was Dr. Bernardo Houssay, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 for his work on the role played by the pituitary hormones secreted by the anterior pituitary lobe as part of the sugar metabolism of the human body. CONICET would become the main scientific institution in Argentina for funding research teams, investing in equipment, creating career opportunities for scientists, and offering doctoral and postdoctoral grants and scholarships.


Clementina computer at the Calculus Institute, UBA, 1962 **

Therefore, by the end of the 1950s, Argentina had a constellation of sophisticated research centers with diverse institutional cultures and different institutional models. Moreover, there were virtually no long-term connections between the scientific sector and other active institutional structures, such as the industry, the military, or the state. The picture was that of an S&T national complex but not a system. The infrastructure for scientific and technological development was there, but it lacked a clear roadmap or any kind of centrally coordinated organization. This had to do with the coup’s rupture with previous S&T national policy and the subsequent shrinkage of state scientific planning, in contrast with Perón’s famous five-year-plans, which had privileged applied research to support the country’s industrialization. Scientific elites in Argentina (led by Houssay) had historically opposed these kinds of interventionist measures and had therefore antagonized Perón. However, other groups bemoaned the lack of integration, articulation, and isolationism among the country’s emerging scientific institutes (especially after the coup). The division between those supporting state intervention and planning of S&T, and those supporting autonomy and research freedom, symbolically translated one of the most distinctive features of Argentinian political life in the second half of the 20th century, that of Peronism or anti-Peronism, into a scientific conflict. In Bourdieu’s terms (1975), different representations of science, corresponding to different positions in the field, are not only epistemological positions but also ideological strategies.

While the late 1950s witnessed a (rather chaotic) profusion of scientific institutions, the modernization process stemmed mainly from public universities throughout the 1960s. Hitherto, universities in Argentina had had a strong orientation toward professional practice. Teaching at universities had traditionally been a secondary activity of reputed doctors, lawyers, or accountants, which added to their social prestige (Slemson et al., 1970). In the ‘60s, on the other hand, students and professors formed alliances in order to elevate the level of teaching and research to international standards. The position of full-time professorship was carved out for bringing teaching and research together in a particular practice-and-activism oriented nexus. Moreover, the principles of university autonomy and tripartite government (the participation of student, faculty, and alumni representatives in universities’ Superior Councils, the highest decision-making instance) were upheld. New labs and research centers were founded, as a consequence of kicking off new fields of study such as Psychology and Sociology, and the revision and update of syllabi in numerous already existing fields, especially in the areas of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Agronomy, and Computer Science. In fact, UBA’s Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences (known as Exactas) was the leading institutional actor in this process. The 1955-1966 decade has gone on to be considered as the “Golden Age” of Argentinian science, although some argue that this impression is based solely on the experiences of those working at Exactas (Beckerman, 2016) and some other departments and schools at UBA, for example, Architecture and Design, Psychology, or Humanities.

Aiming at scientific excellence did not mean that professors and students were detached from people’s needs. At least, no longer. On the contrary, this generation of scholars perceived science as a social priority and did not shun from its political implications. “Science, what for? Scientists just to get better cars, better houses? No, science for a new world. And to accomplish that we had to become involved in politics,” declared Dr. Rolando García, meteorologist, epistemologist, and former Dean of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences (1957-1966) (Arca, Bauer and Scaglione, 2003). Something new was emerging. Scientific elites in Argentina had hitherto limited their political engagement to demanding funding and the establishment of basic conditions for conducting academic research from the State. But now, there was an active movement towards linking science, research and higher education in order to foster an autonomous, genuine, independent process of institutional development. This new ideological-epistemological orientation necessarily exceeded the scientific field and claimed for the establishment of a new set of explicit national S&T policies.

Indeed, Argentina’s scientific community was far from being ideologically homogeneous, although still dominated by the overarching figure of Houssay. During the time period we are considering, the traditional hegemony of the biomedical sciences and the predominance of basic research began to be questioned by creatively critical social actors situated within the academic fields of Physics, Mathematics, Geology, and Engineering. Besides, the progressive expansion of Argentina’s scientific base (due to the democratization and expansion of university enrollment) necessarily diversified the sociopolitical origins and dispositions of agents at play in the field.  Bear in mind that even if elections had been held, the major political force in the country, Peronism, was outlawed. Hence, a great part of Argentinian society, especially working classes, could not freely express their political preferences. Moreover, Latin American governments and societies were being closely monitored by the USA, in the context of its fear of the spread of Communism in the region after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. All of these factors made for a context of mounting social conflict, which meant that politicization within the Argentinian society increased, especially between different student movements, and scientists.

In Exactas, a point of contention was the acceptance of funding by foreign philanthropic organizations, such as the Ford Foundation, for the purchase of laboratory equipment and sending scientists to study abroad via grants. This raised criticism on both sides of the sociopolitical spectrum. The right-wing accused Dean García of using those funds to spread Marxism into the university, while the left-wing saw the rise of foreign capital as imperialistic penetration (García, 2006). In April 1965, a student was killed protesting the US invasion of Santo Domingo. The same year, students threw coins at the marching officers from the rooftop of Exactas during a military parade. These incidents contributed to the mounting tension between police and military authorities and the academic community. Furthermore, Exactas cemented its reputation as a propagator of “subversive communism” in the discursive logic of a Cold War Western mind frame.

Such was the ideological context of science and academia in Latin America during the ‘60s: frail democracies or semi-democratic regimes, frequently interrupted by military de facto governments. Besides, any slightly leftist policy could be a matter of alert from the USA, who was in favor of authoritarian regimes in case o democratically elected authorities proved to be “too leftist”. Indeed, while President Frondizi’s administration seemed a paramount example of the socioeconomic benefits of US-led developmentalism, he was removed from his office by military officers in 1962. After a short military interregnum, in 1963, president-elect Arturo Illia took office. His was another frail civilian government, facing military and social pressures. Weakened by the press, afoul with the armed forces, accused of inaction, Illia was overthrown by yet another military coup known as Revolución Argentina on June 28th, 1966. Retired general Juan Carlos Onganía, a fervent nationalist, Catholic, and anticommunist, then established what O’Donnell (1979) calls a “bureaucratic-authoritarian political system”, a peculiar form of authoritarianism emerging from conditions of fast-paced modernization in political contexts with distressed democracies:

it was the first time that the Armed Forces, with a high degree of internal cohesion, had decided to take political power directly in their own hands for a long and indefinite period, and with no intention of convoking elections or returning government to political parties in the foreseeable future (O’Donnell, 1979, p.116).

The coup itself was qualified as “smooth” and “calm”, and US officials in Buenos Aires highlighted the quiet and mild responses from Argentinian society and the rest of Latin America (Central Intelligence Agency, 1966a, 1966b). UBA was one of the sole social actors that openly condemned the coup. On June 29, 1966, in an attempt to keep universities on a tighter grasp, the Ministry of Education was demoted to the status of secretary under the Ministry of Interior. At UBA, faculty and students held regular meetings to discuss a joint strategy in case the government intervened in universities. Their concerns were perfectly understandable. Premonitorily, on July 1 the CIA briefed President Johnson:

Onganía may find security concerns uppermost. Yesterday, police clamped down on the Communist party. Peronism and political activity by trade unions will be prohibited. The University of Buenos Aires, which with some justice the government believes to be a hotbed of subversion, may be next for the treatment. (Central Intelligence Agency, 1966c)

A month after the coup, on July 29, the government intervened in all national public universities. University autonomy was annulled. Students, professors, and alumni were banned from participating in university administration and decision-making processes (this ban did not apply to private universities). In line with the military’s attempt to exclude and deactivate a highly mobilized popular sector via strong and systematic coercion, all forms of political expression among students were forbidden (Onganía, 1966). Deans and rectors would hold all power but remain restricted to administrative functions. They had 48 hours to comply or be replaced. At UBA, none of the faculty’s Deans were willing to remain in their posts as delegates of the military government. University authorities, professors, and students occupied the buildings of Architecture, Science, Philosophy and Literature, Engineering, and Medicine. The plan was to symbolically resist the intervention during the weekend, using desks as barricades and sealing doors.

What happened next was widely reported by national and international media. On Onganía’s orders, the police cleared the facilities in the most brutal way. They forced their way into the university’s buildings screaming and cursing. Tear gas was used to force people out of the premises. Students, professors, and university authorities were made to walk between a double line of police officers beating them with their clubs and sticks heavily from both sides. This episode came to be known as the Noche de los bastones largos (Night of the Long Batons), referring to the clubs and sticks used by the police. García himself received two blunt hits on the head as he famously asked one of the commanding officers: “How dare you commit this outrage? I’m still the Dean of this house of studies.” The police went as far as to stage a simulated execution, making men and women stand against the walls and holding them at gunpoint.

the night

Students and professors detained at the historic Peru Pavillion of Exactas during the Night of the Long Batons***

More or less 400 people were arrested that night. 200 of them were from Exactas only, and more than 50 were severely injured. Among them was MIT Professor Warren Ambrose, who was teaching Mathematics at UBA for a semester. The day after the incident he wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, which was eventually published on August 3.

I got seven or eight wallops and a broken finger (…) This gauntlet was run by all of us, women, distinguished professors, the dean and vice-president of the faculty, teaching assistants, and students (…) We were herded into trucks and taken to a police station (…) I was released at 3 am. To the best of my knowledge, students are still imprisoned (…) At no time was any explanation given us for the police beatings. It seems to reflect incomprehensible hatred towards a magnificent group of scholars… (Ambrose, quoted in Maidenberg, 1966)

As Science headlined, no lives were lost but the Night of the Long Batons left serious “intellectual casualties” (Langer, 1966). Only three of the eight national universities’ rectors (those of Cuyo, Bahía Blanca and Northeast, the smallest and most recently created) agreed to stay at their posts given the new conditions. UBA was depleted: 1378 administrators, tenured professors, teaching assistants, and personnel resigned. 28.3% of Exactas’ faculty quit; the percentages of quitting faculty were 22.1 and 19.4 for Philosophy and Literature and Faculty of Architecture, respectively. Libraries and laboratories were dismantled, and EUDEBA’s team also resigned. Facing political persecution, scholars and scientists deployed different “survival strategies”, which included going into exile abroad or internal institutional migration. This meant, for example, relocation from public universities to “lower profile” institutions or private research centers, among which we can count the first think tanks in Latin America.

Such was the brutality of the Night. It was one of the decisive factors in the mythification of the previous decade as the “Golden Age” of Argentinian science. Unsurprisingly, the most affected institutions and people were precisely those whose vigorous scientific activity and sociopolitical commitment in the previous decade had made them a target for an authoritarian regime acting with total disregard for the subtleties of the debates within universities and research centers. This traumatic experience for the Argentinian scientific and academic community meant that, for years, the collective representation of the post-1966 years was that nothing of value was achieved, no notable developments, no nothing. Intellectually, scientifically, there would be a sort of barren continuum from 1966 until the return of democracy in 1983. In this sense, the Night of the Long Batons was also the closest antecedent of what was to become commonplace during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship: sheer violence, brutality, and dogmatism. However, historical revisionism and the recovery of certain experiences show the emergence of the Latin American thought on Science, Technology and Development in the late 60s and early 70s as we know it in today’s terms.

The emergence of STS in Argentina and Latin America has to be thought jointly with the emergence of critical thought in social sciences, and in particular, with the development of Dependency Theory in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the works of Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch and certain theorists associated with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto were important in that regard. Kreimer and Vessuri (2017) point out that “early thinking about S&T in Latin America was, until well into the 1980s, clearly very closely bound up with a political –in the sense of both politics and policy focused– rather than a merely analytical concern in institutional terms” (2017, p.6). Indeed, one of the key contributions of early Latin American STS thinkers was to extrapolate the concept of structural dependency[1] to certain fields of scientific, technological, and intellectual production.

While not strictly a theoretical school, there was an identifiable group of scientists and technologists connected by a common concern about the role of S&T in the development of Latin American societies in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The most prominent thinkers were not based in traditional academic institutions, nor did they establish continuity towards the formation of new researchers in this area, nor did they necessarily share political or epistemological views. Indeed, researchers-turned-intellectuals such as Jorge Sábato, Oscar Varsavsky, Amílcar Herrera, Rolando García, Manuel Sadosky, Enrique Oteiza or Jorge Katz, just to name a few, highlighted the centrality of S&T in the process of breaking with the structural dependency that still tied Latin America to the USA and Europe. These dependency ties prevented Latin American science from acting as a real tool for social change. The diagnosis was that, as long as they remained focused on basic science and disconnected from the people’s needs, Latin American research agendas would not produce growth nor wellbeing for Latin America.

Such conclusions drove many of these academics to become actively involved in the design and execution of public policies. “As public actors, they often sought to occupy decision-making positions to affect social change. Their commitment drove a movement geared to the transformation of their societies, and they believed in S&T as an important tool to achieve it” (Kreimer and Vessuri, 2017, p.5). In Argentina, for a part of the most radical thinkers, this transformation implied questioning the very foundations of science as an institution, the role of scientists in society, and even the methods and practices of scientific research. The goal was not to reestablish the state of affairs prior to the Night of the Long Batons, but to carve out new places and new ways of doing a new science eventually. The wave of military dictatorships in the South Cone of Latin America would thwart these efforts and, once again, persecute scientists, academics, and intellectuals into exile (or worse, force them into the lists of desaparecidos, those “disappeared” under regimes of State terrorism).

Has this brief historical recollection helped us answer our original questions? In the case of Argentina, the answer is mixed. In a period of relatively high political autonomy, the scientific field was allowed to flourish, while democracy in the country weakened. However, new “dangerous agents” were stemming from laboratories and universities in the eyes of those authoritarian figures: biologists, chemists, physicists, computer analysts, mathematicians, who combined sophisticated scholarly work with strong political conscience and thus questioned the social detachment of scientific elites. This might have challenged traditional assumptions about who the “subversive enemy” was. The instinctive reaction of fearing dissent and destroying the unknown led to the exile of hundreds of Argentina’s most brilliant thinkers and the dismantling of innovative fields of study before they could consolidate. Not everything was lost, however. Despite the sticks and the beatings, scientists and intellectuals developed a truly original current of critical reflection on Latin America’s economic, scientific and cultural dependency, and upheld the potential of science and technology as a tool for the transformation of societies. STS as an academic field would become institutionalized in the later ‘80s and ‘90s with studies which, in turn, recovered the writings of those early pioneers. Far from being outdated, their central concepts still hold a great vitality and analytical capacity, as well as being a call for action for scientists and academics. In Jorge Sábato’s words, to look at our reality with our own eyes is no small feat, since it surely is the first step towards changing it

Editing by Aybike Alkan, Ph.D. Candidate at  Koç University, Sociology Department


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Feld, A. (2019). Science, Politics/Policy and the Cold War in Argentina: From Concepts to Institutional Models in the 1950s and ’60s. Minerva

García, R. (2009). ¿Hacia dónde van las universidades? Buenos Aires, Argentina: Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales. Universidad de Buenos Aires. Retrieved from

Kreimer, P., & Vessuri, H. (2017). Latin American science, technology, and society: A historical and reflexive approach. Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society1(1), 17-37.

Langer, E. (1966). Argentina: Seizure of Universities Leaves Intellectual Casualties. Science, 153(3742), 1362.

Maidenberg, H. J. (1966, August 1). 4 of 8 Rectors Quit Posts, The New York Times.

O’Donnell, G. (1979). Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism. Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: University of California.

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Slemson, M. et al. (1970). Emigración de científicos argentinos: organización de un éxodo a América Latina. Historia y consecuencias de una crisis político-universitaria. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Instituto Di Tella.

[1] Originally posed in economics, structural dependency refers to the fact that underdevelopment is not a temporary situation that can be easily overcome, but rather the consequence of long-term unequal relations of exploitation between centers (namely, Europe and the USA) and peripheries. See, for example, Cardoso and Faletto’s classic Dependency and Development in Latin America (1979).

Photo Credits

* “Desalojo Facultad de Filosofía y Letras”. (1966). Universidad de Buenos Aires: (Featured Image)

**  “Computadora Clementina – 01”. (1962). Programa de Historia de la FCEN – UBA :

***  “La Noche de los Bastones Largos. Desalojo Perú 222”. (1966). Universidad de Buenos Aires: