On June 16 a wave of students, workers, and teachers covering more than 20 blocks of Alameda Avenue in Santiago, Chile, flooded towards La Moneda presidential palace; they demanded the reconstruction of the Chilean public education system and an end to education policies based on profit. To fund public education, the students call for the re-nationalization of the copper industry. The magnitude of the movement—approximately 100,000 in Santiago alone—swept Chile by surprise; no one would have predicted that this day of protests would turn out to be worthy of the title “the penguin revolution 2.0.”
One of the most surprised by the mass protests was right-wing President Sebastian Piñera, who has faced increasing opposition to his free-market policies by environmentalists, workers, and especially students.
June 16 was one of a series of student strikes that began on April 28 and continued to grow in magnitude and size since. The main forces involved are university and high school students, but teachers’ unions, state employees and even school principals have joined in the action. The marches are initiated by calls from the Confederation of Chilean University Students (Confech), the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (ACES), and the Metropolitan Federation of High School Students (FEMES.)
To date, there have been student strikes and occupations in 500 school establishments accompanying the mobilizations. Popular educational forums and wide-ranging political discussions are frequent as students grapple with the best ways to move forward. Student songs and street theater acts critique and lament the crisis of their educational system. One student dressed and painted as a zombie held a sign around her neck referring to the lifelong debt students face: “Died owing 17,250,530 Chilean pesos” (equivalent of $36, 733 U.S.).
Despite unity in action between the high school and university students, there seem to be differences in the demands they raise. Both student organizations call for free public transportation all year round, a restructuring of the college entrance exam (PSU) that would make it free, a voice in education policies, and more state resources. But the demands raised additionally by the high school students seem to be more militant. For example, high school students demand immediate free, quality public education that includes health services and meals; whereas the Confech calls for increased state funding in higher education with free education as a future goal at an undetermined date.
According to former Minister of Education Martin Zilic, quoted in the radical Chilean magazine, Primera Piedra, “Chile is the most privatized country in the planet, not only in college education, but in elementary and middle school education as well.” The average proportion of resources that come from the state is a mere 15%, leaving the brunt of costs on the families (Chilean education, according to the World Bank, is some of the most expensive in the world*). Many families end up indebted to private banks to pay for their children’s education. But it wasn’t always this way.
From the 1960s until the coup d’état of 1973, the Chilean state underwent huge improvements in public education. This period saw expansion in state funding of education at the high school and university level, including the improvement of teachers’ working conditions and contracts.
However, with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came privatization and attacks on public services and unionized sectors (while carrying out a campaign of torture and murder against leftists); public education in Chile—among other things—was decimated. Pinochet transformed education by replacing the central role of the state with that of the marketplace. The process of decentralization that also took place led to municipalized schools and smashed the single national agreement of the teacher’s union. The introduction of the vouchers and government loans furthered the privatization process. Pinochet signed and sealed these reforms in the Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE) a day before stepping down from power in 1990.
The coalition of center-left parties known as Concertación, which governed after Pinochet and until Piñera was elected, did little to change Pinochet’s wretched 1980 Constitution; which is inherently undemocratic (e.g. the binomial system) and favors the right-wing. The Concertación parties, including the Socialist Party, have always preferred sharing political power with capitalist parties over pursuing distinctly working-class politics. They have consistently sold out the demands of social movements through negotiations in order to maintain the status quo.
The third president of the Concertación, Ricardo Lagos, furthered the free-market agenda in regard to education by opening student loans to banks, deepening the transformation of education into a profitable business for the benefit of a few.
More recently, in 2006, Concertación and the Socialist Party (SP) once again showed their lack of commitment and support for the students. That was the year of the “revolution of the penguins,” a grassroots movement primarily led by high school students that gathered a million people in the streets denouncing market-based education and demanding an end to the LOCE. This movement symbolized a significant rupture from the remnants of post-dictatorial society. The “pingüinos” forced the government of SP member and Concertación President Michelle Bachelet, to place the issue of education at the forefront of the political debate. The students demanded an end to Pinochet’s law!
After weeks of massive protests, which captured the attention of the world, the students were handed a mere re-packaging of the hated LOCE. The General Law on Education (LGE) issued by Bachelet, despite providing some grants for the PSU and offering public transportation fare to a large section of the poorest students, ultimately fell short of meeting the original demands of the “pingüinos.” It failed to address the fundamental axes: the role of the state and the profit motive. Bachelet’s backhanded deal sold out the true demands of the students; fundamental changes were not gained. It was a matter of time before Chilean students would rise again.
The current struggle for better education in Chile looks like it will continue to intensify; both the students and the government have dug in their heels. When Minister of Education Lavín offered the students a deal that did not address their fundamental demands it was rejected in the high schools and universities. In what is seen as a desperate attempt to demoralize and disband the student movement, Lavín responded by calling for an early start to winter break.
One of the high school students’ spokeswomen, Paloma Muñoz, upped the ante when she said, ‘We have analyzed it in the National Assembly of High School Students, we are ready to miss the entire year if it’s necessary, because we have to fulfill our end goal.’
Half a million participants took to the streets throughout Chile in response to united calls by both high school and university students on June 30. In Santiago, the march gathered approximately 200,000 protesters; double the numbers of the historic June 16 march. The Council of Educational Workers (an entity of the Central Union of Workers, with a membership of 300,000), the Teachers Union, parents, school principals, and private school students supported and joined the mobilizations.
The students are reaching out to different layers of the Chilean society and are receiving increasing support. Workers in educational institutions have experienced first hand the consequences of market-based education, as they also face high interest loans and debt just to educate their children. Alliances between students and workers are of paramount importance, especially since students propose the re-nationalization of the copper industry to fund public services. (The copper industry was nationalized under Allende and was privatized and handed to multinational companies under Pinochet.)
What first initiated as a student movement for education has transformed into a broader people’s movement that is questioning the political system and rejecting the market-driven economic policies. To show their negation of the current political parties, students of the University of Chile occupied the offices of the Independent Democratic Union Party (UDI) and demonstrated outside of the Socialist Party offices. Loreto Fernández, one of the students involved, explained that “we are a movement that is political and has ideology, but that is not with any of the political parties.”
The student movement is not just exposing the “crisis in representation” of the political system, as many analysts have said. The increasing social discontent in what is widely regarded as the most politically stable country in Latin America is exposing a deeper crisis; that of the neoliberal economic system implemented by Pinochet’s regime and the Concertación.
In order to make real gains, the student movement must continue to broaden its base and engage more worker unions. A broadened base must also ensure they have a militant leadership that will remain unwavering in their demands. The main crisis confronting all social movements in Chile is the lack of a mass working-class party with its own action program and independent of the capitalist parties in power, be they under the cover-up of Concertación or the blatant right-wing.
The high school students understand the importance of engaging workers as part of their struggle, a struggle that essentially calls for the over-throw of neo-liberal policies. By calling for the re-nationalization of the copper industry as a way to fund education, students are making important connections between the lack of resources for public services and the privatization of Chilean economy. Adelante!
> The article above was written by Ana Noli. It first appeared in the July 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.