Chile’s long hot winter

August 31, 2011

Jason Farbman explains the backdrop to months of mass education protests in Chile.

WHAT BEGAN several months ago with students taking over their high schools and universities has swelled into one of the largest protest movements in Chile's history.

Mass education protests involving tens of thousands of students as well as teachers and other education workers are now in their third month. Dovetailing with the angry demonstrations of workers in other sectors this year, the education protests swelled to 600,000 last week as a confederation of 80 labor groups called a 48-hour support strike.

Officials estimate that the Chilean economy may be losing up to $200 million a day, prompting Chilean President Sebastien Piñera to complain: "It's painful to see those working so hard to paralyze Chile."

But the discontent about education runs deep. Chile's schools have been a laboratory for privatization--with terrible consequences for the majority of students.

Less than half of high school students in Chile attend public schools. Despite a growing number of university students, no new public universities have been built since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship at the end of the 1980s. Pinochet-era policies continue to send public money into for-profit schools directly (through vouchers) and indirectly (through government-backed loans).

Chilean students are taking to the streets in defense of public education.
Chilean students are taking to the streets in defense of public education.

Meanwhile, there is little support for public schools. Teachers at all levels are underpaid, and many schools damaged in the 2010 earthquake have yet to be repaired. With these challenges, the standardized testing that is a requirement for entry into good schools is doubly weighted against students from poor and working-class families.

In a system like this--dubbed "educational apartheid" by one Chilean professor--only students from wealthier families can afford to access quality education, while all others must take out expensive educational loans, saddling them with enormous debt.

THE EDUCATION demonstrations have come alongside a number of other struggles--this year Chile, has seen strikes and occupations against gas price hikes in the frigid Magallenes; against an environmentally unsound hydroelectric damn in Southern Chile; and against pay cuts for workers in the enormously important copper mines.

Many of these protests have shared a common demand: Renationalize the copper mines that were privatized under Pinochet. Then there wouldn't be a need to raise the cost of utilities or build dangerous damns, and there would be money to finance quality public education for every chileno.

Piñera, a millionaire with vast business interests, has often responded to students by saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." But in a country with both the highest per-capita gross domestic product in Latin America and the most unequal distribution of wealth, students have begun to see Piñera's statements as less a free-market truism than sneering contempt.

In the first half of the year, Chile enjoyed 8.4 percent economic growth--Finance Minister Felipe Larraín predicted at least 5 percent growth for 2012. But despite this positive economic picture, there's an enormous gap between what the state should be spending on education and what it actually does spend. Only 4.4 percent of Chile's gross domestic product goes to education. This is far less than United Nations recommendations for developed nations, which call for at least 7 percent of GDP devoted to education.

What some are calling "the Chilean Winter"--a reference to the "Arab Spring"--is in many ways a continuation of mass protests in 2006, in which over half a million protesters forced then-President Michelle Bachelet to concede millions in spending demands and promise reforms. Those reforms never appeared.

As Piñera continued the trend of privatization and state retreat from social services, students and workers have increasingly worked together to fight back. Weeks into the protests, student leader Camila Vallejo promised that after shoring up "all the actors of education," the protests would take a political turn to allow them to "converge with the rest of the social actors."

That promise was kept. The protests have since embraced demands for a new constitution that ends privatized education and guarantees quality education at all levels. Other calls include rewriting the tax system and re-nationalization of important mines. Overall, the increasing political character of the student protests is helping to bring together their grievances with those of workers in many other sectors.

AS PROTESTS have continued, so has the fall of Piñera's public approval. Each month in the past three has represented a new low for the right-wing president. His current popularity--just 26 percent--is the lowest level of support for any president since Pinochet's fall. Yet popular disgust with the opposition to Piñera's conservatives puts them even lower on the approval scale, at 24 percent.

But while popular discontent grows with both sides of the political mainstream, a counterweight has emerged from the student leadership. Most prominent among these leaders is Camila Vallejo, only the second female leader of the student union at the University of Chile in over 100 years. Also a member of the Chilean Communist Party, she has been able to articulate the student agenda effectively enough for the Guardian newspaper to gush:

Not since the days of Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos has Latin America been so charmed by a rebel leader. This time, there is no ski mask, no pipe and no gun, just a silver nose ring.

Meet Commander Camila, a student leader in Chile who has become the face of a populist uprising that some analysts are calling the Chilean Winter. Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run.

Vallejo's sudden rise to prominence over the past few months has also made her a target. The Chilean Supreme Court recently ordered police protection for her and her family after she received death threats. Perhaps the ugliest these came from a high-ranking government official, Tatian Acuña, a senior minister of culture. As the Associated Press reported:

[Acuña] invoked the famous phrase Gen. Augusto Pinohet used while toppling President Salvador Allende in 1973. Pinochet was recorded telling his troops: "If you kill the bitch, you do away with the litter."

Police protection may not be the answer for Vallejo. Students and workers have been facing increased repression from security forces, which freely use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. During the 48-hour strike alone, some 1,400 people were arrested. Many protesters have been injured during the crackdowns.

The eagerness of police to destroy any perceived threat resulted in the tragic killing of 16-year old Manuel Gutiérrez Reinoso last week. Gutiérrez was not involved in any protests--he was walking near the barricades at midnight with his friend and wheelchair-bound brother when three shots were fired from 1,000 feet away. Struck in the chest, Gutiérrez was taken to the hospital, where he died several hours later.

The outrage over Gutiérrez's killing and police repression, plus the determination and mass character of protests from a wide range of sectors, have won widespread public support against government policies. In July, Piñera was forced to concede a package of education reforms--only to be rebuffed by the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations (Confech) for failing to satisfy their demands.

Seeing no end to the protests, Piñera has now invited student leaders to meet with him personally. Confech students met late into the night to discuss the offer, emerging after 10 hours to announce they would attend.

Vallejo assured reporters that the meeting wouldn't result in a compromise of their demands, nor an end to the movement. Instead, students saw it as an opportunity to get the president's reaction to their grievances, face to face.

But the millionaire president and communist student leader will have little in common. As Vallejo described the goals that students and workers alike are beginning to struggle for, "It's time to change the political system, the economic system, so there is a fairer redistribution of power and of wealth...All this development model has done is make a few grossly rich."

Further Reading

From the archives