On the 18th of October 2019, mass fare dodging in Santiago de Chile expanded into city-wide protests and violence. Initially in response to a transport price hike, the situation subsequently developed into a nation-wide movement against Chile’s stark inequality issues. Amongst the cities where protests and marches are in full swing is Talca, where students of the University of Talca have voted this week to extend the shutdown indefinitely.
Talca on the map
Talca is the capital of Maule province, located in Central Chile approximately 3 hours south of the country’s capital, and one of several cities where curfews were imposed at the height of the unrest that has recently swept Latin America’s most prosperous nation.
Despite enjoying a ‘high’ status on the HDI (Human Development Index), inequality is easily visible in this small city of 220,000 people. Social studies expert Guillermo Riquelme wrote a study detailing ‘the growing inequality that exists in the Maule region’ and showed that even in Talca ‘the population has, at a national level, a lower average level of education and, especially, a lack of qualifications that could produce better industrialisation and technology’.
Photo by Sarah Burgess
The hashtag #TalcaResists trended on Instagram just days after the initial protests. At the forefront of this movement are university students who have filled the streets day after day to call for Chile’s current president, Sebastian Piñera, to step down.
The University of Talca closed its five campuses and classes have remained suspended since 21 October.
¿Seguir en paro?
On the 11th of November, the University of Talca held a vote, asking students to vote in favour or against the proposal to ‘continue striking’. The results were subsequently published: Yes won with a 69.7 per cent majority, extending the university’s suspension of classes indefinitely.
I asked several students at the university the reasons for their voting choice and any other thoughts on the situation. They gave permission for their responses to be shared.
I voted YES
Daniel, Law student at UTalca: ‘I believe that we, as students of a public state university, cannot ignore the crisis that is happening… it would be extremely irresponsible to resume classes when there are people in the street fighting every day, putting their lives and health on the line before an institution like the carabineros [Chile’s police], who have already lost all the people’s respect. Basically, I voted yes [to continue striking] because it is time to solve the problem that Chile has had for many years, from the ground up. We can’t be oblivious to it’.
Catalina, Business Computer Engineering student: ‘I voted yes because the national context is really complex. The university has opened its doors to the community, informing and generating spaces for people to express themselves. Many of the students are participating in the marches and so returning to classes is really difficult. As well as this, people who live outside of Talca cannot travel now. While I worry personally about what will happen with the academic year (I was supposed to go on exchange), this is a much bigger and more important issue’.
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I voted NO
Nicolas, Law student: ‘I voted no because there has been a lack of leadership in terms of addressing the crisis we’re in today as a country. After almost a month of protests, there hasn’t been any stronger participation from the university’s Student Federation, who represent us before society and the authorities. Taking into account that my vote wouldn’t have any effect on the decision to strike – because the public transport timetables aren’t back to normal yet – I took the opportunity to vote against a strike, that has yet to deliver anything of practical use, that paralyses other services provided by the university, such as health clinics, and that keeps students in a constant uncertainty’.
Javiera, Dentistry student: I study a subject which is about taking care of patients, and we owe it to them to be back in work. We look after elderly patients and children and their emergencies and worries are our responsibility, so having them wait for so long to be seen and to have their questions answered doesn’t reflect well on our professionalism.
‘Of course, I support the protesters. In Chile today, it is very difficult to live day to day. Getting to the end of the month is a challenge for the vast majority of the population. Everything that people are saying is true. Life is expensive, as is studying, and the quality of health is not the best either. I agree with all the complaints and with the people’s demonstrations. I do not feel comfortable with the aggressive form the demonstrations have adopted recently, but a change is necessary’.
I did not vote
Sergio, Law student: ‘I didn’t vote because I knew that the strikes would continue either way; the movement affects every corner of society and it has been a long time since Chile has had a social uprising. The result is that everybody is upset, and wrapped up in the situation, I don’t think [the strikes] will stop.’
He adds: ‘This is one of the biggest instances of social uprising in Chilean history, comparable even to the protests demanding a return to democracy in 1980. The problem is that we are nowhere near the end of this because the ruling party has political-business interests too opposed to what the citizens demand. There are business interests so powerful that they even extend beyond national frontiers. The distribution of power is too concentrated in the hands of too few people, which has led the political class to be completely at the mercy of large business interests.
‘To be clear, we have much lower salaries than in Europe, but the food is as expensive as there, health is more expensive than there, and pensions are incredibly low… the state has not taken care of people’s most basic needs, instead only worrying about large-scale and uneven economic growth’.
The students who voted against the strikes or abstained, are not turning their backs on the fight for justice in Chile. The majority of students, in their own way, are taking responsibility for the future of their country, whether that is to continue protesting in the streets or to contribute to some degree of normalcy for those who need their help.
On the other side, students who have voted to continue striking are aware that there will be an impact on their education, that it is almost guaranteed that they will be met in the streets with tear gas and violence by the police. It is worth emphasising how fully this social movement has permeated everyday life, and how it has rocked the whole country.
Furthermore, Sergio raised some interesting points about the Chilean government’s interests, and certainly reasons for its hesitation in responding to the protests, despite their national scale. It is anyone’s guess how this situation will end. Sergio summarises well:
‘Chile is a special and different country. There is no other reality like here. If Pinera does not yield or open a path to dialogue, the violence will only grow and have even worse consequences.’
All translations by the author
Jessica Rothwell studied Spanish and Russian at the University of Bath. She is currently working as an English language assistant at the University of Talca, Chile.