Back to the streets in Chile

April 18, 2013

Chile's student movement to demand free, quality public education is continuing--and growing--alongside a wider radicalization, explains Jason Farbman.

"THE STRUGGLE continues," read the banner hanging above the crowded streets of Santiago, Chile, on a day in which an estimated quarter million students, teachers and professors protested across Chile. The mass student-led movement to demand free, quality education for every single Chilean is now entering its third year. Seemingly inexhaustible, the first major mobilization of 2013 was one of the largest since the fall of the dictator Pinochet.

Students remain at the forefront of a movement for education reform that has at times united dozens of different labor groups behind it. The students have produced massive national protests as large as 600,000 and a 48-hour strike that cost the Chilean economy up to $200 million a day.

As impressive as these feats have been, the movement has yet to achieve its ultimate goal: quality public education that is accessible to all. Chileans must still shoulder 75 percent of their education costs, while the state subsidizes just 25 percent. Compounding this injustice is fact that schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive far better funding. Chile's is the most unequal educational system in the world--some call it "educational apartheid."

Chilean students flood the streets in a continuation of mass protests
Chilean students flood the streets in a continuation of mass protests

Movement demands include increased taxes on the rich, the return of state control over privatized public universities and an end to education as a for-profit business. "Education is a right and not a privilege for some," explained a spokesperson for the organizations of parents and guardians, which have backed the students. "Not a business, not for profit-making and negotiating, which it has been all these years."

The administration of right-wing billionaire President Sebastián Piñera has been unable to quell the protests, casting about for a response that sends the students back to class while leaving the infrastructure of privatized education intact. Before the protests in early April, Piñera's education minister announced an increase of scholarships that a larger percentage of students could compete for.

The education minister also called on "young people, as they have expressed concern about the quality of education, to continue working very hard because it is within their reach to build their future."

UNSURPRISINGLY, EXHORTATIONS to "work harder" in a system of obviously unequal opportunity rang hollow with the vast majority of Chileans. Approval ratings for Piñera's political party sunk as low as 23 percent in February, and Piñera himself has the lowest approval ratings of any Chilean president since Pinochet's dictatorship ended in 1990. Chilean law prohibits a president from serving consecutive terms, saving Piñera the embarrassment of what would no doubt be an electoral drubbing if he were to run for reelection.

With national elections coming up in November, former President Michelle Bachelet has returned to Chile to announce her candidacy. Bachelet left Chile while enjoying strong approval ratings to lead the United Nations organization for women. Now she is back, and already the frontrunner by a wide margin over her likely opponents, according to recent opinion polls.

Acknowledging the popularity of the students' demands, Bachelet is promising that if elected, her first act will be to end for-profit education at all levels of the system. "We must guarantee everyone a public education system that integrates them at all levels, takes the profit motive out of the system and advances toward universal gratuity," she said.

The promise to end educational profiteering is thrilling. But as the Economist observed, "The obvious rejoinder is why didn't Ms. Bachelet ban it more widely when she was in power?"

It's a good question. In fact, the massive student movement in Chile today is a descendent of the one that exploded in 2006 under Bachelet's presidency. Bachelet, whose father was murdered in a Pinochet-era torture cell, had been expected by many to reverse the policies put in place during the dictatorship.

Those policies were originally implemented after Pinochet's U.S.-backed coup. On the advice of economists from the University of Chicago, the dictator began dismantling Chile's "educator state." These and other moves represented the introduction of neoliberal capitalism.

Before Pinochet, it was the Chilean government's duty to provide education to its citizens. They had nearly universal elementary education, university tuition was calculated on a sliding scale, and "teachers' labor conditions and contracts were protected by the state," wrote Orlando Sepúlveda during the wave of student protests in 2006.

Under Pinochet, "Teachers unions and student organizations were disbanded," describes Sepúlveda, "their leaderships persecuted--and many times summarily executed." With any resistance crushed, Pinochet used a voucher system to introduce privatization. Schools were funded differently depending on whether they were public or private, with schools in wealthier neighborhoods tending to get better funding.

Public education, which was nearly universal in the 1960s, fell to an enrollment of 78 percent of children by 1981. By 2006, only 50 percent of students were covered by public education. Policies that corporate education reformers are today introducing in the U.S.--with the backing of foundations funded by well-connected billionaires--were pushed through first in Chile, by brute force under Pinochet.

Since the fall of the dictatorship in 1990, no president in the democracy era has attempted to repeal privatization. Nearly every year, students and teachers have mobilized to end privatized education, but their movement--as with most of the Chilean left--is still recovering from the blows dealt by the dictatorship. Throughout those years, they were unable to accomplish much except to hold symbolic protests and patiently rebuild their forces.

Meanwhile, neoliberal privatization continued. In 2005, Chilean banks were given the green light to give loans to students to finance their education, putting students even deeper into debt upon graduation.

When Bachelet was elected in 2006, she proved no different than her predecessors, refusing to challenge privatization. Students organizing against market-based education protested in the streets and occupied schools. When the police tried to repress them, they battled back. As students began to lose their fear and develop new networks of cooperation and coordination, their movement exploded in size and militancy. They organized a national student strike of nearly 900,000 students.

This newly strengthened student movement was able to force concessions as part of a package of grants, subsidies and passes for transportation to and from schools. This was something new for students, and for much of the post-Pinochet Chilean left. While the reforms fell far short of making quality public education available to all, they were far more than had been achieved previously. Some warned further victories could not be won without continued mobilization and pressure, but many more returned to class, jubilant and expecting Bachelet to eventually make good on their demands.

Bachelet's betrayal of their hopes taught students a valuable lesson. As they marched through the streets of Santiago last week, many chanted, "Bachelet, Piñera, the same misery." That sentiment seems generalized across the majority of Chilean society: while Piñera's political party has abysmal approval ratings (23 percent), the supposed left opposition party of Bachelet is doing even worse (19 percent). In sharp contrast, 80 percent of Chileans support the students in the streets.

THERE HAVE been many lessons learned over long years of organizing, surging forward and falling backward, that have now placed the students at the forefront of an increasing radicalization among workers across Chile, according to Jeffrey Webber:

As the student movement gathers momentum it accumulates forces around it; and with those new forces the movement acquires new causes, new demands, and new sources for reflection on how different social sectors are in various ways pitted against a common enemy, expressed ultimately in the neoliberal state, established decades earlier during the dictatorship but never dismantled under electoral democracy.

One other factor that may prove important is the repeal of compulsory voting, which comes at a time of mass discontent with both major parties. For the first time in Chilean history, there may be significant absenteeism at the ballot box due to disillusionment with the choices on offer.

Thus, electoral politics may not present as large a drag as usual on social movements, and continued mobilization during an election year could force Bachelet to tack left in an attempt to capitalize on support for students and their demands. If this proves true, and the confidence, resolve and militancy of students is maintained, they may finally realize the equality in education they have been fighting for for years.

Just as importantly, long-sought victories could embolden other sectors of the Chilean working class. As President Piñera himself put it, "Education is the mother of all battles, and we will win or lose our battle for the future in the educational sector."

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