Chile’s students want it all

September 10, 2012

Chile's student movement is going on the offensive, organizing a full-fledged social struggle to put an end to Chile's privatized education sector, explains Jason Farbman.

"WE ARE tired of knocking on doors that do not open, we're tired of talking to deaf ears," declared Gabriel Boric, president of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECh, after its initials in Spanish). "Now we are going on the offensive as a social movement, all together, students and teachers."

Boric, still in his first year since as FECh president after defeating the well-known student leader Camila Vallejo, was meeting with other leaders of the Chilean student movement to hammer out a protest schedule for September. Protests to demand free, public education are continuing in Chile, and students and their supporters often number in the hundreds of thousands.

Students are fighting to re-nationalize a public-school system first privatized and municipalized during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and '80s. Ninety percent of Chilean students attend underfunded schools, exacerbating an already large gap between rich and poor.

In the capital city of Santiago, blockades have choked traffic, and schools have been occupied. The mass demonstrations continue despite police violence that has included the use of water cannons, pepper spray, beatings and even forcing some students--including minors--to strip naked.

Chilean students continue to gather in mass protests to defend public education
Chilean students continue to gather in mass protests to defend public education (Diego Ernesto Fernández Gajardo)

CHILEAN STUDENTS are waging a fight that is quickly becoming familiar in the United States and across the globe. They are attempting to roll back the underfunding of public universities, reduce the role of standardized tests in university admissions, and eliminate state-guaranteed private loans that generate enormous student debt.

As elsewhere, promises of upward mobility under capitalism have been sharply contradicted by an education system that offers little hope for the future to most students. Chile has the most segregated educational system in the world--and it has now produced perhaps the most vocal and certainly the longest-lasting outrage among disillusioned young people.

There are a number of features that make this younger generation of Chileans remarkable, especially considering the country's recent history. One is a relative fearlessness. It is the first to grow up free of the legacy of Pinochet, without the constant fear that comes from living under a dictatorship unafraid to murder thousands of opposition activists and sympathizers. A student leader was once asked about the dictatorship and what it meant to him. "Nothing," he replied. "I was born in 1987."

Alongside this is a seemingly indefatigable will to fight. Chilean students have been staging protests for more than a year. Numbers have swelled and receded, but even after more than 40 mass marches in 2011, students show no signs of going anywhere. Two demonstrations took place last week, one of them drawing an estimated 130,000.

Throughout the year, popular support for students has continued to rise: public opinion in Chile runs 70-30 in favor of students over right-wing President Sebastián Piñera. Meanwhile, approval for Piñera, a billionaire, has eroded to the lowest levels since the fall of the dictatorship. This has much to do with his failure to either contain or satisfy the growing demands of different sectors in Chile, the most visible and continuous of which is the student movement.

But the student movement has not yet been able to translate this mass support into many concrete gains. Education has occupied much attention--in the media and in parliament--and at the end of last year, two education ministers were forced to step down. But Piñera enjoyed a rare victory this week, as Chile's Congress passed a tax reform they claim will bring $1 billion into Chile's public-school system.

The students reject tax reform. Among the many flaws of this approach are tax breaks for students that only the wealthiest Chileans will enjoy. And most importantly to the students, this is not the structural change they demand. They have not been fighting for a year--nor have the hundreds of thousands who have come out time and again--to leave in place a privatized education system available only to those who can afford it, nor are they willing to put themselves deep into debt.

The Chilean government has so far refused to consider any structural changes or any measures that would end the profit streams that privatized education provides. Instead, it has offered a number of measures, such as making loans cheaper, offering more scholarships and the just-passed tax reform.

Only 4.4 percent of Chile's gross domestic product (GDP) goes to education--well below the UN-recommended spending of at least 7 percent for developed nations. Even if the new tax law delivers every dollar Piñera has promised, it will mean a rise to 4.8 percent of Chilean GDP--barely half of the UN-recommended minimum.

THE LACK of concrete victories is one of the reasons that Boric succeeded in defeating Vallejo as president of FECh. Vallejo is perhaps the most famous activist in the world. She has been featured in newspapers and magazines around the world, including Time's "Person of the Year" issue. She has been able to articulate the political and social impact of neoliberal capitalism in an uncompromising, popularized way that is immediately accessible.

But Vallejo has been criticized for being too trusting and engaging in talks with mainstream politicians in the vain hope of pulling them to the left, or at least preventing them from moving right. Many have grown tired of marches and stunts that draw much attention, but yield few concrete victories.

Vallejo got more votes than anyone else, but her slate lost. She now serves as vice president to Boric. The key seems to be, as Boric suggested, to "go on the offensive as a social movement, all together." Students, teachers, workers from all sectors and the indigenous are being thrown into the same predicament by the continued neoliberal advance.

Since the beginning of last year, protests have erupted throughout Chile--first in the far south in opposition to rising gas prices, then among indigenous people resisting forced evictions from their land, as well as copper miners fighting wage cuts. Strikes and road blockades of tens of thousands of angry Chileans at a time have been used throughout these protests. Some of the demonstrations won significant concessions--but only after costing capitalists millions of dollars.

The student movement must find a way to do this as well--something that is not beyond its grasp. Last year, a confederation of 80 labor groups called a 48-hour support strike. Workers and students combined to put 600,000 on the streets, leading to financial losses of an estimated $200 million--each day.

Chile, as the world's leading producer of copper, could easily pay for all education demands if it renationalized the copper mines. And now seems the time to do it. Piñera is the most unpopular president since Pinochet was forced out in 1990, and some group in Chile needs to stand up to the government and put the brakes on the vicious inequality of capitalist austerity.

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