Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
While watching the images of the student demonstrations currently taking place in Chile I felt a sense of déjà vu. Santiago, Chile’s capital, is encircled by the Andes mountains, and in winter, when the cold atmosphere causes pollutants to settle at ground level, it is one of the most polluted cities in the world. As a young student growing up in Chile I remember the asphyxiating atmosphere created by the pollution compounded by high levels of tear gas and the cold water cannons with which the police always responded to peaceful student demonstrations.
The same toxic atmosphere is now being inflicted on the current generation of students who are out in the streets demanding structural reforms to the country’s largely privatised education system. This time, however, it looks like police repression will not be enough to stem the discontent that has been simmering for several years and that is now exploding on the streets. The wide array of social movements that have become mobilised, coupled with the wide appeal of the movement’s leadership suggest that a real political transformation may be a serious possibility in Chile.
The immediate trigger for the current uprising has been the students’ demands for a free and state financed education with the movement comprising both school and university students. Since May, some 700 schools have been occupied by secondary school students and almost daily street protests have been taking place ever since. In mid-August around half a million students and their families took part in a demonstration in a park in central Santiago. The students have also managed to connect their struggles with other sectors of Chilean society. A week after the park demonstration, the students joined a national strike declared by Chile’s trade union confederation (CUT), mobilising again half a million people onto the streets of Santiago.
The educational system they are protesting against is one of the most unequal in the world. Less than 50 per cent of students attend state funded schools, which are of poor quality and are starved of funds. University education is the most expensive in Latin America and when family income is taken into consideration, one of the most expensive in the world. Around 84 per cent of expenditure on higher education is borne by students and their families while a meagre 16 per cent is funded by the state. For instance, the University of Chile, the country’s main university, only receives 14 per cent of its budget from the state.
In 2006 there were attempts at reforming the system, when thousands of secondary school students took to the streets in what became known as the ‘penguins’ revolution’ (in reference to the students’ school uniform). While they managed to obtain some minor reforms of the education law created under Pinochet’s dictatorship, their expectations of a more profound reform were betrayed by a government and parliament dominated by centre-right political elites who had a vested interest in maintaining a profit-driven privatised education.
However, discontent in Chile extends beyond dissatisfaction with education and in order to understand this we need to look at the origin of the current economic model. On the 11 September 1973, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a US sponsored military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Under a regime characterised by state terrorism, Chile became the world’s first laboratory for testing radical ‘neoliberal’ economic policies devised by right wing economist Milton Friedman’s pupils in Chile, known as the ‘Chicago Boys’. These policies included the wholesale privatisation of state assets in areas such as health, education, public services and sectors of the copper mining industry (a mainstay of Chile’s economy). This resulted in the concentration of wealth in a few hands and the country was transformed from one of the least unequal countries in the continent to one of the most unequal.
It took 17 years before popular protests during the mid-1980s culminated in a plebiscite in 1988, which brought an end to the Pinochet’s dictatorship. But the Chilean elites that had imposed the neoliberal model at the cost of thousands of lives managed to legitimise and consolidate their unjust system, leaving in place an undemocratic constitution (approved in 1980), which ensured the perpetuation of the neoliberal model. The centre-left coalition, Concertacion para la Democracia (Coordination for Democracy) which ruled the country between 1990 and 2010 not only continued but in fact deepened the dictatorship’s free-market model. Although Chile now has the highest per capita income in Latin America (about US$ 15,000 per year), the country is also one of the most unequal. According to the Chilean economist Marcel Claude, at the end of the military dictatorship (1989), the richest 5 per cent of Chileans had an income 110 times higher than the poorest 5 per cent. This trend continued during the next 20 years of democracy and today this same differential is 220 times higher.
The widespread dissatisfaction with the Concertacion’s continuation of the neoliberal model inherited from the dictatorship and the slow pace of political reform of Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution, especially among the young, resulted in a feeling that politicians of all shades had become the main obstacle to changing the political system. This disillusionment with politics was a primary factor that led to the erosion of the Concertacion’s electoral base and their ultimate defeat in the January 2010 presidential election, which was won by the rightwing billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera.
However, in just over a year and a half, Piñera’s government has been unable to revive the fortunes of the neoliberal camp. He initially used to his advantage, Chile’s highly concentrated private media (which is beholden to the country’s political and economic elites), to stage-manage and obtain political capital from major events which have occurred during his presidency. An example of this was the worldwide coverage of the rescue of the 33 trapped miners almost exactly one year ago. The predominant media narrative presented the government led-rescue operation as a personal triumph for President Piñera himself. Following this crisis his personal poll ratings climbed to 63 per cent. But a recent opinion poll in July, after the start of student protests, put Piñera’s popularity at 26 per cent while the opposition coalition, the Concertacion, had a dismal approval rating of just 16 per cent.
Contrast this with the support the students enjoy: an approval rating of 72 per cent. Students, in large part, do not vote in national elections, as a form of protest against the neoliberal consensus of the political elites that they feel do not represent them. But in organising the current protests, students have mobilised their circle of friends and family and used the internet as a means of broadening the base of the movement. Initially the mainstream media largely ignored the protests but as these have grown in numbers and have managed to incorporated wide sectors of the population during the months of July and August, the media has been forced to report on the students’ demands.
Chile’s protests are similar to those seen in Spain, Greece and the Middle East, in that they represent a wave of discontent with the social consequences of neoliberal capitalism. Unlike the riots we saw recently in the UK however, the demands of the Chilean students are of a highly political nature. In Britain the average citizen does not yet make out the deep causes which underlie the looting that took place during the riots, instead attributing it to ‘mindless criminality’. In Chile, the protests are legitimised by wide sectors of society. For example, one man who had his car destroyed during one of the student protests declared that he supported the protests because his daughter was a college student involved in a just cause.
The student movement has been diverse, creative and surprisingly ideological. This has been due in no small measure to the clarity and charisma of its leaders which belong to a generation free from both the fear instilled in their parents by the Pinochet regime and the sterility of the compromises they engaged in during the Concertacion government. Camilla Vallejos, the 23-year-old president of the Student Union at the University of Chile recently said: ‘We do not want to improve the present system. We want a profound change, to stop seeing education as a consumer good, to see education as a right where the state provides a guarantee.’ Student leaders have also proved to be remarkably resilient and have remained defiant in the face of police repression and threats to their personal safety. In response to threats against Vallejo from a Piñera government supporter disseminated through Twitter, she was forced to seek police protection.
The student demands are highly strategic in nature, requiring a wholesale change in the economic and political model that goes well beyond simply reforming the education system. This is because they realise that unless the distribution of wealth in the country is tackled through tax reforms and the re-nationalisation of the mining industry, the state will not have the necessary resources to invest in education. In order to gather support the students have managed to coordinate their demands with a wide network of social movements ranging from environmental activists, workers of Chile’s strategic copper industry, and citizens organised in local assemblies (Asambleas Ciudadanas).
There is also a strong relationship between the environmental protests regarding the building of the HidroAysén hydroelectric project in Patagonia earlier this year and the student movement. And it is very likely that in the near future new relationships will be created between the demands of the Mapuche indigenous people, the public sector workers, the casualised workers in the mining industry (subcontratados), and those that owe money to banks and retail outlets (personal debt levels in Chile are amongst the highest in the world). In all these cases it is the oppressive power structures created by privatised conglomerates that are seen as the main cause of the problem.
So, as the Chilean winter comes to an end, the students’ struggles in the streets of Santiago are now giving way to a spring renewal in which a vast social movement representing the majority of Chilean society is expressing itself. Their aim is to build a truly participatory democracy. Whatever course current events take, Chile will no longer be the same. The students’ protests have managed to awaken the consciousness of vast sectors of the population about the need for a profound change in the country. What even a few months ago was considered impossible is now firmly on the agenda.
However, despite its strength, the success of this movement is far from assured. Today’s demands in education, health, social and political rights, have no solution under the current constitution so the path to success lies in moving towards a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution via a referendum, a route successfully followed by progressive governments backed by social movements in Latin America.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency