By Armando Chaguaceda
HAVANA TIMES – Academic freedom is understood as academic personnel’s unrestricted right to freedom of teaching, opinion and discussion, when carrying out their research and the dissemination of their findings. It also covers the right to freely give their opinions about the institution or system they work under, and to take part in professional and representative academic institutions.
Drawing from guidelines set out by organizations such as UNESCO, colleagues have the right to express themselves freely about the institution that employs them, carrying out their duties without discrimination, fear or repression. They also have the right to participate in professional academic organizations, with respect for all of their internationally-recognized human rights. As a result, it is understood that members of the academic community are free, as individuals and a collective, to seek, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas via research, teaching, studies and debate, to name a few processes.
However, academic life can’t be understood, anywhere or at any time, without first understanding the social and institutional context they are working in. For the objectives and practices of any scientific community depend upon a much broader social context. They need to be firmly rooted. This determines the degree and way scientific activity is integrated into society and the connections it has with those who hold power.
The active role of Latin America’s academic communities in the defense of their colleagues and workplaces under Right-wing authoritarianisms during the Cold War is well-known. From their centers of independent thought, different generations of academics have mobilized in the face of repression, privatization and social exclusion in their countries. Nevertheless, when we take a look at the regional reality today, academic freedom is living tragic times, threatened by anti-democratic actors with different ideologies and objectives. Both from radical Left movements and governments, as well as conservative Right-wing populisms.
With democracy returning to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Central America, rights returned for university autonomy, freedom for lecturers and the public influence of academics in national political life. In spite of this, right-wing politics in many countries are now waging a campaign against universities, for being a bearer of “subversive discourse” such as so-called gender ideology, while they continue in their efforts to cut back on budgets and to restrict federal universities’ autonomy, by electing their deans. Cuts in funding, under neoliberal government programs, have a material impact on the way academic freedom works in practice, which is guaranteed in theory by democracies within the region.
On the other side of the street, “revolutionary” regimes are doing their part. In Cuba, a kind of political/ideological restraint has been created in systematic academia, under bureaucratic control. Today, we can find suggestive analyses and debates about issues such as poverty, gender and race, which challenge hegemonic views. In spite of this, a vice-minister of Further Education decreed that: “The person who does not identify as a revolutionary political activist of our Party, a defender of our ideology, our moral, our political convictions, should step down from being a university professor.”
In Nicaragua and Venezuela, universities have suffered a financial blockade and government interference, amidst repression of civil society.
The State really is the main entity responsible for ensuring academic freedom. But it’s not the only thing that can affect it. Powerful business interests are operating within the region, which aren’t very well regulated and favor growing commercialization of the knowledge production and dissemination process. There are also many criminal players – who do or don’t collude with politicians – who take violence into the heart of academic communities. Last but not least, the political activism of academia can also attack freedom at its heart, with overrepresentation of discourse and writing off people, debates and safeguards.
We are perhaps living on the brink of an era, where we slip between the avenues of a fragile democracy and the trenches of aggressive authoritarianism. A multidimensional threat lies over academic freedom in the region. We have to defend it, amplify it, for the common good. So, that the idea of citizen democracies stops being a mere slogan, and takes firm root in knowledge, education and civil life.