Sunday, Oct 26th, 2014

On the Chilean student protests

Why has there been such a marked difference between the student movements of Chile and the UK?

By on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 - 2,487 words.

The scale and intensity of the student protests that have rocked Chile in recent months is testament to the unwavering resilience of those who have participated in the movement. As the protests have grown steadily, the sense of unity and solidarity that has arisen through large parts of the Chilean populace has served to strengthen the movement and leave the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera with public approval ratings of a mere 27%. Following last year’s dramatic rescue of the trapped miners, in which over two thirds of Chileans supported the president, the collapse in popularity is evident of the numerous social struggles which face many people in the country today, and the rejection of a system that sees the vast majority of the Andean nation’s wealth controlled by a highly privileged elite.

It is this level of inequality which has given rise to a level of public protest that has brought education in the country largely to a halt, creating a governmental crisis and dominating the news agenda. The protests are rooted in a number of long-standing grievances which successive governments have done little to address. The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) has issued a series of demands which it claims are necessary in order to implement a fairer system. Among these is a call for greater state investment in public universities, free education for those from poor families instead of the current loans system with high interest rates (which can result in a degree costing double for the less well-off), and an end to the controversial money-making universities in which profit goes into the pockets of rich shareholders rather than being reinvested in the development and improvement of the education system.

The protests have taken on a number of methods and tactics. Virtually all public universities, and many private ones, in the country have entered a fourth month of student occupation, while in Buin, near Santiago, student activists have spent over fifty days on hunger strike. Then there are the mass demonstrations, rallies and concerts that take place all over the country on a weekly basis, with carnival atmospheres of music and costume. While the majority of people have protested peacefully, there have also been pockets of heavy violence between carabineros (Chile’s military police force) and encapuchados (hoodies) with those on both sides left badly injured, and a fifteen year old boy shot dead by police. The rioting that has blighted Santiago in recent weeks, although not condoned by the CONFECH, is attributed by the student movement as an inevitable result of police aggression and provocation.

After four months of protest, there still appears to be no resolution to the crisis, as students indicate their willingness to repeat the year if necessary due to the lengthy period of time in which classes have been suspended. There is a widely-held view that maintaining the struggle is of far greater importance than missing a year of study. It is a standpoint typical of the spirit that surges throughout the student campaign.

This provides a stark contrast to the student protests that began in the UK in November 2010 following government proposals to treble the already high cost of university tuition to up to £9,000 per year. Following an initial surge of protest and anger against the plans, which saw the mobilisation of tens of thousands of people throughout the UK and the occupation of universities, the movement soon weakened and was undermined by a lack of commitment and belief by its members. With the exception of a few small groups of dedicated student activists, the introduction of the new fees in 2012 is now accepted as inevitable, and many young people face a future of limited opportunity.

So, why has there been such a marked difference between the student movements of Chile and the UK? In both cases, the roots of the protests lie in elitist education systems that maintain opportunity in the hands of the privileged. Yet, whereas in the UK the movements fizzled out in resignation and acceptance, in Chile there has been a swelling of public opposition that has paralyzed sections of the country and given birth to a student uprising. There are a number of factors which explain why the movement in Chile has remained unyielding in the face of adversity. Here are some of them:


The legacy of the dictatorship

The Pinochet dictatorship’s brutality towards shows of public dissent is laid bare in the powerful documentary Imágenes de una Dictadura. The authorities practised a zero-tolerance approach to demonstrations that saw women beaten and funeral processions tear-gassed.  While this failed to stamp out resistance entirely, it went a long way to suppressing public protest and forced the population into submission.  The latter years of the military regime saw a marginal acceptance of protest but following years of brutal repression many people had had the fight drained out of them.

As a result, today there is a fervent passion for protest, with citizens determined to exercise the basic rights that were denied them during the dictatorship. The streets, parks and plazas of Santiago and other cities see marches and rallies on a regular basis. In recent months there have been large-scale demonstrations over education, the Hydroaysen project, indigenous Mapuche political prisoners, gay rights, and the minimum wage. The hunger with which the Chilean public takes to the streets in opposition to governmental policies or in solidarity with disadvantaged groups is a result of the many years in which shows of opposition were banned. It is an energy born out of the frustration and fear that once permeated Chilean society.

Nowadays, as Chileans born in the final years of the dictatorship or in the few years after it ended reach early adulthood, a new generation has stepped up and taken protest to a higher level. Without personal memory or experience of life under the military regime, they nevertheless grew up in a society blackened and bruised by the dark years.  They have taken on the mantle of fighting against the many inequalities and injustices of Chilean society and governance. Aware of the suffering and traumas inflicted on their parents’ generation by the military regime, it is this generation that fills Chile’s universities today.


Strong and committed leadership

The student movement has been energised by the inspirational leaders of the CONFECH, Giorgio Jackson of La Universidad Catolica and Camila Vallejo of La Universidad de Chile. Since the protests started in May these two have been an almost daily presence in the Chilean media, articulately laying out the arguments for a fairer education system as they debate with politicians and government-lackey TV presenters. Emerging from the masses of disgruntled students and young people, Jackson and Vallejo have remained focussed and dedicated on the task at hand, and as a result have become heroic figures in the eyes of not only their student peers, but many other Chileans as well.

Vallejo in particular has gained widespread attention as the face of student resistance. The international media has become enthralled by her youth, spirit and looks, with The Guardian saying that ‘not since the days of Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos has Latin America been so charmed by a rebel leader’. Yet this kind of focus provides a superficial analysis of Vallejo and serves to patronize her. She has been tireless in rallying the movement and shown great strength of character when up against millionaire politicians more than twice her age. Only the second female president of La Universidad de Chile in its history and now by far the most prominent member of the Communist Party in Chile, Vallejo, at the age of twenty-three, holds great political influence in the country.

Contrast the esteem in which the student leaders of Chile are held with the criticism directed towards the president of the National Union of Students in England, Aaron Porter, during the protests that occurred there in late 2010. Of the numerous theories as to why the student movement faded away in the face of the Tory reforms, the lack of a central figure to coordinate and mobilise the campaign is a crucial factor. Criticised for putting his own interests ahead of those of the NUS, his resignation was demanded by the student unions of several universities.

In Chile, the influence of the student leaders has been a major element in the mobilization of a movement that has gone from strength to strength. When they speak, it is not as the voice of individuals but as that of hundreds of thousands of disgruntled young people. It is this that is the key to their power: not only do they represent the movement in the eyes of the politicians, the media, and the public at large, they represent it in the eyes of the students themselves.


The domino effect

What began as a series of student demonstrations has evolved into a prolonged period of national dissent. Inspired by the younger generation’s militancy and commitment, other sectors of Chilean society have found their voice and begun to mobilise against the government, culminating in the nationwide general strike of the 24th and 25th August, the first two day strike since the Pinochet years. Topics of contention have included workers’ rights and the minimum wage. Yet it was initially another issue that raised the temperature on the political stage.

The Hydroaysen protests began in May this year following the government’s approval of plans to construct huge hydro-electric plants in the Patagonia region, in some of Chile’s most pristine wilderness, despite almost three quarters of the public being opposed to the project. As the government moved ahead with its plans, massive mobilisations saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets throughout the country. Again largely led by the nation’s young, the anti-Hydroaysen movement was at its peak as the focus shifted, without any loss of momentum, to combating Chile’s unequal education system. Having realised the power of their united voice, the movement’s members took things to the next level as the Hydroaysen protests merged seamlessly into the student protests. Rather than two separate movements, what took place was a natural evolution as one issue was absorbed into another.

Unfortunately for the government, who had been relying on the naive enthusiasm of youth eventually burning itself out, the level of protest emboldened other sectors of society to bring their own grievances to the fore. The national strike saw a coalition of students, transport workers, teachers, service sector workers, and many others take part as Chilean cities ground to a halt. Rather than coming to a natural end as the government had hoped, the student protests in fact acted as a rallying call across the Chilean employment spectrum, with citizens made aware of the strength they could muster in unity.


Large public support

With the election of Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970 Chile became the first country in the world to elect a socialist head of state and, in spite of last year’s election of the first right-wing president since the end of the dictatorship, it remains a country with strong left-wing tendencies. The student movement has struck a chord with the many Chileans disillusioned with a government that has seemingly put the interests of big business ahead of those of the people, answered legitimate protests with aggression, and is intrinsically linked to the Pinochet regime.

This has been exacerbated by numerous recent events involving police. The fatal shooting of fifteen-year old Manuel Gutiérrez by carabineros, footage of helicopters launching teargas over the heads of demonstrators, and the tear-gassing of people helping a badly-injured young woman who had been run over have hardened animosity towards the government and strengthened support for the students. The clear parallels that can be drawn with the times of the dictatorship have outraged many Chileans. It has been a disastrous PR exercise for the government.

The marches began with predominantly young people fighting for their own education but as the movement has grown, they are now attended by people from all walks of life who have attached themselves to the movement. Recent marches of over 100,000 people have seen Chileans of all ages and backgrounds attending, while a survey carried out in mid-August by the daily La Tercera newspaper found that 76% supported the student movement’s demands and 74% believed they had the right to protest even when it caused large-scale disruption in Santiago.


Revolutionary traditions of Latin America

When Vallejo, Jackson and other student leaders stand in front of the TV cameras in army jackets and Palestinian scarves, one’s mind is drawn towards the rebel leaders of the past. This may well be unintentional on the part of the student leaders as this kind of attire is beloved by young people all over the world, but this evocation of the revolutionary traditions of the continent arouses romantic notions of struggle, sacrifice and independence: something that touches a raw chord in South American countries whose fabric is sewn with the legacy of colonial repression.

Young Chileans are heavily influenced by these ideals and in the perception of following in the footsteps of those who shaped the destiny of Latin America. Far more than any contemporary politician, it is Simon Bolívar, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende with whom many identify themselves, and the belief that they are participating in a continuation of work began by figures of great historical significance has a galvanising effect, manifesting itself in today’s protests. There is a keenly-felt sense of being able to shape the destiny of the country, a concept less appreciable in countries where the status quo has been steadily maintained over many centuries.

Although to compare the liberation of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule with education protests may be superficial on the surface, the student movement and other protest groups are focussed on the same ideals that course throughout revolutionary thought: the development of a just and equal society and the reclamation of rights of the lower classes. In a country regarded as one of the most unequal in Latin America in spite of (or possibly due to) its economic prosperity, these values strike a chord with many Chileans and serve as a moralistic code in which a large-scale mobilisation of citizens has found guidance and inspiration.

In Santiago people speak of a historic moment in the country’s history and the extraordinary determination with which young people are fighting for theirs and their nation’s future. No longer are they prepared to sit back and be the exploited pawns in a system whose primary function has for too long been the enrichment of a minority at the expense of the masses. While the Piñera administration sought to play Chilean society into the hands of its wealthy and conservative political base, it has succeeded in arousing a mass populist movement that threatens the government’s stability and has politicised swathes of Chilean youth to the extent that the current government’s hopes of re-election in two years time are seriously jeopardised. The Chilean students’ have shown the power of unity and the effectiveness of peaceful protest and it is something of which the country can, and should, be proud.

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Nick MacWilliam


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