Chile’s winter awakening

As student protests continue to rock Chile's neoliberal consensus, Roberto Navarrete sets the revolt in context

September 1, 2011
10 min read


Roberto Navarrete is an editor of alborada.net, a website covering Latin American politics and culture

‘March of the penguins’: School students demonstrate in May

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.

Neoliberal origins

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.

Government by billionaire

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.

Global echoes

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.

Radical and strategic

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.


Roberto Navarrete is an editor of alborada.net, a website covering Latin American politics and culture


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