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Chile: students occupy their schools to demand market-free education

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Claudia Orellana is a Chilean teacher and writer who lives in Britain. A former student and women’s rights activist, she took part in student protests and the victorious ‘No’ campaign which spelled the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Students at the school she herself attended in th 1980s were among those occupying their schools to draw attention to their demands, ahead of the presidential primary elections in Chile, which used the schools as polling stations.

Pablo Valenzuela is 14 and he likes playing guitar and reading in his spare time. He has lots of friends and enjoys school. By all accounts he is a normal, lively teenager. Lately, Pablo has been involved in activities that landed him in a police station for 10 hours. This because he wants free education for his country, as do tens of thousands of secondary and university students across Chile, who have been organising massive protests and occupying schools and university buildings since August 2011. Pablo was only 12 when this movement started.

Police begin to break down the barricadesPablo’s school, Liceo Experimental Manuel de Salas, is a private middle class school in a traditionally middle class area of Santiago. Not many students from other backgrounds make it to this school because the education system in Chile is one of the most segregated in the world. The state-funded system only covers the schools that serve the most deprived 30% of students. Anyone who can pay anything at all will take their children out of state-funded schools because the infrastructure and standards are, with few exceptions, very poor. Half the students go to partially state-funded schools, where they have to pay a relatively small fee, and around 20% go to private schools, which charge a wide range of fees. So effectively each segment of the population goes to their own type of school. Yet this hasn’t stopped the students getting organised and staging massive demonstrations and coordinated occupations.

When I asked Pablo what he and his classmates are fighting for, he says simply: good quality education, free of charge. But Pablo also mentions that he would like to be taught differently, with innovative methods, and adds that the students believe that Chile has enough resources to be able to afford free education and health. The main point and slogan of the students’ protests throughout has been to call for an end to profit-making in education. On the one hand the students’ movement states that education is a right: they quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Chile has signed. On the other hand right of centre President Sebastián Piñera famously declared in 2011 that education is a ‘consumer good’. Apart from betraying the kind of values in education he endorses, this is a plain statement of fact—given the country’s highly privatised education system, the best education is purchased by those who can afford it.

On Wednesday the 26th of June, students in 23 secondary schools in Santiago decided to occupy their schools ahead of the primary elections to be held the following Sunday, for which most schools were to be used as polling stations. The students claimed that they did not want to ‘lend’ their schools to an election process that does not represent or favour them in any way, as none of the candidates, they argue, has listened or responded to their demands and therefore none will represent their interests. They knew well that the police would clear the schools and that they themselves would be arrested, given that this wasn’t a ‘normal’ occupation and the arrests would be made under the electoral law, which lays down harsher penalties.

In this round of occupations the students sat down in the school playgrounds and linked themselves together in a non-violent action. The police had to spend hours separating them and taking them one by one to the police vans. This time the police didn’t use their truncheons and the students didn’t fight back. The police didn’t use tear gas and the students didn’t shout insults at them.

This mutual respect hasn’t always been the case. During the last couple of years, many incidents have been reported of maltreatment of students by the police, and also of vandalism by a minority of balaclavawearing youths. Almost invariably , the police use tear gas and water cannon in a heavy display of anti-riot tactics which haven’t changed much since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

This time Pablo and his classmates spent around 10 hours in the police station. The police came to the school in the middle of the winter night, the students read a statement, the head teacher spent some time conducting negotiations and clarifying the situation to both sides, but making it clear that the student protest was the result of a democratic process.

The police broke the chair and table barricade the students had built at the gate and warned the students of what was going to happen, giving the opportunity to those who wanted to leave, to walk free. Finally, after a tense silence, the students broke into song and the police proceeded to pull them apart and carry them bodily to the police vans, while the students clung to each other in scrums and sang the school anthem.

All the while, parents, teachers and neighbours supportive of the school watched and waited in the freezing night. This has been another characteristic of this student movement, many parents and even grandparents support the student demands and sometimes even go out on the streets with them. I spoke to Pablo’s mother, Irma, and she too had been waiting anxiously outside the school, trying to ensure the students were safe or at least be a witness if they were not.

This particular sit-in had a special significance for me, because this is the same school at which I was a student in the 1980s.  Back then the situation was in many ways more dangerous: we were in the middle of the dictatorship. Our head-teacher would have probably sent in the police himself and tried to get most of the students involved expelled, as he always did when any of us was found to be involved in demonstrations. Many parents in those days would have been too scared to support their children and would have either tried to dissuade them from participating or just grounded them at home.

Even in recent times, following the month-long occupations of schools in 2011, hundreds of students were excluded.

Victor Osorio, leader of the Federation of Secondary Students, FESES in 1985 and current leader of the Christian Left party says that the struggle of the students today is motivated by the same things as it was then: it for an end to the market approach and profit-making in education. This in a way reflects the continuity of education policies under the democratic governments since the dictatorship. He doesn’t think that much has changed, “this has been a problem with the ‘agreed’ transition to democracy”, he says. Many agree, especially now that Chile has a government, led by supporters of the dictatorship, some of whose ministers have used the same dictatorship-era rhetoric about coming down hard on those causing ‘disorder’.

Placard says: They have evicted our democracyWhen I first contacted Pablo, on Sunday morning, he couldn’t speak to me because he was in the midst of another protest. He and his group stood opposite their school during the election wearing the school red T-shirt, linking arms and with gaffer tape on their mouths. After this demonstration, he was too exhausted to talk, “he has been through a lot of stress”, his mother says. The extent and duration of such demonstrations by secondary school students throughout Chile makes it clear that many young Chileans are prepared to make sacrifices now in the quest for the right of future students to have access to good quality education.

After the primary elections, from Monday morning, some of the schools started being re-occupied and remain so as of today, 3 of July.

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Two videos of the police action to clear the Liceo Experimental Manuel de Salas can be seen at the links below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcbQzpBKJBg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

http://www.lanacion.cl/video-con-masivo-desalojo-pacifico-del-manuel-de-salas/noticias/2013-06-28/184924.html

A third video shows police clearing the Liceo Carmela Carvajal de Prat:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HHJnDPBHYM

The text of the Students’ demands can be read at:

http://elchileno.cl/world/nacional/1061-petitorio-nacional-estudiantes-secundarios.html