Struggles erupt across Chile

August 1, 2011

Jason Farbman looks at the multiple social struggles challenging the right-wing policies of Chilean President Sebastian Piñera.

WORKER AND student and struggles have broken out across Chile in recent months in a series of challenges to the new right-wing government and its polices.

The recent eruption of Chile's Puyehue volcano, dormant for decades, has been seen by many commentators as a metaphor for the sudden emergence of resistance in a multitude of sectors, from copper miners to indigenous groups to high school and university students.

High school students are at the center of the new movements. Since mid-June, tens of thousands of students and teachers have been fighting back against the administration of President Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing billionaire. By June 13, some 100 schools were being occupied across Chile, 80 of which were in the Santiago metropolitan area. Demonstrations have repeatedly brought out tens of thousands, including 80,000 on June 14. More than 100,000 filled the streets June 30 in what is estimated to be the largest protest since the fall of the longtime military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

Chilean students strike, march and mourn the death of public education
Chilean students strike, march and mourn the death of public education (Gonzalo Zapata)

Another day of action on July 14 saw protests across the country, including 20,000 marching in Valparaíso and 4,000 in Concepción. And 80,000 returned to the streets in Santiago, doing battle with the police for control of the streets. "It is really common to see 20,000-30,000 people marching," said student protester and journalist Max Rubio.

Eyewitness Paul Kearney reported on the takeover of a high school in the Los Lagos region of Chile:

At 1:30 in the morning, in what must have been sub-freezing temperatures, [30-60 students] had jumped the fence, opened the locked doors, disabled the alarm, put up signs and chained the gates against the public.

In the school, the students were busy. They opened the canteen, and worked out how to make food there last as long as possible. They divided themselves up into groups, including cooking duty, guard duty, treasurer and heating. Even, after some debate, a discipline committee. They organized places to sleep, mealtimes and a Nintendo Wii.

Students spent time during the toma removing graffiti and improving the school. But they hadn't occupied their school to demand local improvements. They took action in solidarity with the national student strike against the latest attacks on public education in Chile.

PRESIDENT PIÑERA'S response has been inconsistent and ineffective. He has vigorously defended for-profit education, selling education as an investment opportunity, both for students and for corporations looking to profit from it. "Education is a consumer good," he has said, and, "profit is the reward for effort." He also downplayed the protests. "However massive and crowded the marches are, most students want to study."

The president ordered a police crackdown on students in Santiago July 14. "The students must understand that the street is not theirs," his spokeswoman said.

When brash overconfidence and repression failed, Piñera tried shuffling his cabinet several times, first replacing his minister of education, and then replacing the replacement. This juggling act has had little effect on protests. The same could be said for his administration's attempt to buy tranquility, by proposing a $4 billion scholarship fund for poorer families. This offer was rejected. The students are demanding more.

The movement's central demand is for the re-nationalization of the public school system, which 90 percent of the 3.5 million Chilean students attend. The nationalized school system was first pried apart during the Pinochet era, when early forms of market-oriented neoliberalism were forced through by the military regime.

The current system, of education under localized control, has resulted in underfunding and inequality between wealthy and poor localities. Instead, students want free, publicly financed education from preschool through university.

Other demands include ending school vouchers, which leads to underfunding of public universities; reduction of the role standardized testing plays in university admissions; liberal arts classes in technical schools; greater accessibility for disabled students; and the elimination of state-guaranteed private loans that generate enormous student debt.

There is an enormous gap between what the state should be spending on education, and what it actually is spending. Only 4.4 percent of Chile's gross domestic product (GDP) goes to education. This is far less than UN recommendations for developed nations, which call for at least the 7 percent of GDP for the education budget.

Many acknowledge the roots of the current student strike in 2006, where over a million students participated in strikes lasting nearly two months. During that time students occupied nearly 1,000 high schools and universities.

With a "moderate socialist" president, Michelle Bachelet, in office at the time, students initially expected to be acknowledged and negotiated with. But they were instead met with indignation and police repression, increasing the size and radicalization of protests.

More than 100 unions and political and social organizations joined the 2006 strike, in what became the biggest mass movement since Pinochet. The Bachelet government was forced to concede on a number of issues. While many remained to be tackled, students had entered the stage as energetic leaders of mass mobilizations.

Many of the same schools that lead the 2006 strike are again leading today. And many see their work today as building on efforts from five years ago, particularly in making demands more political.

OTHER PROTEST movements around Chile have also developed politically as they increasingly have put forward their demands.

The year began with protests in the southernmost region, Magallanes, after a 16.8 percent rise in cost of natural gas. For weeks, there were mass mobilizations and a work stoppage in important cities. In Punta Arenas, dozens of trucks and protesters blocked access to the port terminal's entrance.

After routes to Puerto Natals and El Clafate were blockaded, tourist transport was made impossible in the Torres del Paine National Park. Protests also forced suspension of some Sky Airline and LAN Airlines flights. These actions inflicted significant economic damage--approximately $14 million.

Piñera responded to the Magallanes protests by shuffling his cabinet, accepting the resignation of his energy minister. Unsurprisingly, this did not quell actions. Protests continued, and a wider layer of unions considered getting involved.

Four days later, the government and Magallanes Citizens' Assembly signed a deal which contained major concessions to the people. Gas prices were to be increased just 3 percent, and subsidies were to be earmarked for the region's 17,000 poorest families (who would additionally be exempt from the price increase).

May saw an escalation in the fight against construction of HidroAysén hydroelectric dam in Southern Chile. Mapuche indigenous groups, farmers and environmental organizations all aligned against the project, which will force people off their lands and damage the local ecosystems (including affecting six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 conservation priority sites, 16 wetlands and 32 private protected areas).

Organizers were able to convince a majority of Chileans, 61 percent of whom were against the project. When the Piñera government pushed it through anyway, that number rose to 74 percent, and several street protests took place around the country.

Protesters argued the dam was unnecessary. They pointed out that Chile wouldn't need to expand its ability to generate electricity if there weren't massive overuse of electricity from private industry. One sector where this was particularly true was in the mines, where better regulation could be achieved through nationalization.

Then, on July 11, as student protests were well under way, nearly 40,000 union and subcontracted copper miners struck for a day against the state-run Codelco company. Workers shut down the Chuquicamata mine, the largest copper mine in the world and source of nearly a third of Chile's copper.

Despite enjoying some top pay and benefits in Chile, miners were refusing to accept 2,600 job cuts that were likely laying the groundwork for privatization. Warning signs included Codelco's announcement that its new CEO would be Diego Hernandez, formerly of multinational Anglo-Australian corporation BHP Billiton.

THE STRIKE marked the 40th anniversary of Socialist president Salvador Allende's nationalization of the mines, and workers called for a return to the policies of the Allende years. After the U.S.-backed Pinochet overthrew Allende in 1973, the mines were privatized. The result is that today only 30 percent of profits from copper exports go to the state. The rest goes to transnational corporations like BHP Billiton.

Support for nationalization of the copper mines is growing in Chile not just because of the improvements to working conditions for copper miners. If controlled by the state, the vast mining profits could be used to fund education, health care and other development programs. This had been the intended effect in 1971 when they were first nationalized.

Activists who put nationalization of the copper mines on the table have highlighted the common interests for a wide range of Chileans: between miners losing jobs or pay; students whose education is desperately underfunded; indigenous groups and farmers whose lives and livelihoods are threatened in the search for new energy sources.

In the meantime, copper miners' struggle for more immediate demands is heating up. Workers at the Escondida mine recently announced an indefinite strike to combat bonus drops of up to 70 percent. The work stoppage could cost BHP Billiton 3,000 tons of copper--worth nearly $30 million--each day. With Codelco workers now threatening to strike again for improved benefits, there are worries in the business community of "contagion risk," or strikes spreading further.

This series of struggles mark a dramatic change of fortune for the right-wing Piñera, whose election as president in early 2010 bucked much of the trend in South American over the past decade. While his margin of victory was slight--51 percent to 49 percent--it was first defeat for the social democratic-centrist coalition that had reigned since the fall of Pinochet in 1990.

Piñera was able to ride the rescue of 33 trapped miners to a record high approval rating of 63 percent last October; but that support has since unraveled in the wake of revolts from sector after sector throughout the year.

Approval for the Chilean president is now less than half of what it was in October 2010, and may not have bottomed out yet. In June, Piñera received a 31 percent favorable rating, which had replaced May as the new low. Even Piñera's big success--the rescue of the miners--has turned sour, as 31 of those 33 miners are suing the Chilean government for allowing mines to operate with such lax attention to safety.

And despite the government's intention to steer sharply to the right, strikes and calls for nationalization seem to be contagious, while Piñera's legislative agenda has sputtered to a halt. As the political research and consulting firm Eurasia Group put it, "We've already kind of seen that he's stopped putting things forward, because that seems to be the tactic to avoid confrontation, or basically failing."

The protests dogging Piñera don't appear to be going away any time soon. The student struggle reflects the spirit of resistance. In a recent nine-hour discussion, representatives in the student coalition Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (Confech) agreed to continue the tomas. Despite that fact that a few universities have ended their occupations, the number of taken schools had grown to 148 by July 19.

In their Confech summit, students promised to bring an increasingly political agenda into their protests. Framing their demands politically allows students to set the terms for those demands to be met. It also enables them to organically interweave their demands with other major protests throughout Chile this year.

As Universidad de Chile Student Federation President Camila Vallejo said to the Santiago Times:

We have already reinforced our social platform with all of the actors of education, and that's where's we are working with the most energy...but also we want to give political projections to this space we have created, as there are many other issues that have made us converge with the rest of the social actors.

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