By Nick Caistor, LAB
It was meant to be a celebration of the first anniversary of the rescue of 33 miners trapped underground in the north of Chile for more than two months from August 2010.
But the commemoration coincided with mass protests organised for Thursday 4 August by organizations of Chile’s secondary school and university students. Their demonstration was banned under a law that has been in place since the days of General Pinochet’s dictatorship – a move that only caused more anger.
The result was chaos on the streets of the capital Santiago and several other Chilean cities. One of the country’s largest supermarkets was set ablaze, the centre of Santiago was cordoned off. More than 800 arrests were made.
The students have been protesting for several months over what they see as President Piñera’s lack of support for public financing of the Chilean education system.
In a similar way to Spain’s indignados, secondary and university students have been using social media to organise rapid demonstrations (‘flash mobs’) and peaceful marches. In July, more than 100,000 students and their supporters marched through the capital Santiago, while on other occasions several thousand have danced Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance, or staged a ‘kissathon’ in front of the presidential palace.
In addition, secondary school students have taken over as many as a hundred schools, making teaching impossible and leading to threats from the government that many will be forced to repeat the school year. The secondary students want the central authorities to take control of all schools, and not leave the financing and running of them to local municipalities, which they say has led to great differences in quality.
In April 2011 the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECh) issued its call for a complete overhaul of the current Chilean educational system. (http://fech.cl/blog/2011/04/20/petitorio-confech-principios-para-una-reforma-a-la-educacion-superior).
The main stated aim of the confederation is to ‘construct an educational project constitutionally guaranteed as a universal social right at every level, based on a system of education that is public, democratic, pluralist, free and of high quality, aimed at the production of knowledge that will contribute to an integral and egalitarian development and the satisfaction of the needs of Chile and its peoples.’
President Piñera’s initial reaction in July 2011 was to sack Education Minister Joaquín Lavín, and promise fresh state funds for education. He insisted however that education was a ‘consumer good’, which only incensed the students still further. He also rejected the students’ demand for public ownership of tertiary education as ‘a serious mistake and something that badly damages the quality as well as the freedom of education’ (Cadena Nacional de Radio y Televisión: Presidente Piñera anunció Gran Acuerdo Nacional por la Educación: Government of Chile, July 5th 2011 ).
All the main student groups rejected these proposals, and the protests and occupations continued. The students were joined by striking miners from the huge El Teniente copper mine, making this the strongest challenge to the authorities in many years. Local opinion polls showed that whilst almost three-quarters of Chileans supported the students, President Piñera’s popularity had slumped to less than 25%.
“Políticas y propuestas de acción para el desarrollo de la educación chilena”: Gobierno propone 21 medidas para alcanzar pacto en educación”. Mineduc. http://www.mineduc.cl/index2.php?id_portal=1&id_seccion=10&id_contenido=15546 .)In response, at the start of August the government and new Education Minister Felipe Bulnes made a fresh 21-point set of proposals. These offered a constitutional guarantee of a quality education for all; student representation in the running of universities; the end of municipal control over public secondary education; more university scholarships and help with the repayment of student loans. (
The student organizations rejected these new proposals, arguing that they did not offer free and equal access to higher education, and did not answer other specific demands they had made. They continued with their call for a national strike and protest on 4 August, which was banned and then violently repressed by riot police using tear gas and water cannon.
This tough stance by the government, including statements by Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter that ‘the time for marching is over’, only served to increase the students’ determination to continue.
The leader of FECh at the University of Santiago, Camila Vallejo, said that the authorities had ‘imposed a state of siege’ and said she imagined this is what it must have been like under the Pinochet dictatorship.
As a result of the repression and failure to reach any comprehensive agreement, another day of strike action and protest was called for Tuesday 8 August. This time there were fewer violent confrontations, but both sides appear as far apart as ever. The students are calling for a referendum to see what kind of education Chileans want to see in their country; the new Education Minister Felipe Bulnes has rejected that idea and said that to return to a complete public education system in Chile would be a ‘backward step’.
SEE ALSO: YOU TUBE: Voces Globales por la Recuperación de la Educación Pública en Chile. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alPTIlLZEkk) ). University lecturers and researchers in Spain, the UK and Brazil offer their support to the student movement in Chile, seeing it as a challenge to the current neo-liberal view of education as simply another commodity.