The ongoing student protests in Chile are an unwavering accomplishment aimed at combating the social injustice infecting the country's education system.
What started out as a series of peaceful protests in May has become a movement that unites students, artists and much of the general population. They are defying the government’s stance on social class, cultural difference and political division with regard to education.
Upon assuming power in the September 11, 1973 military coup that ousted president Salvador Allende, General Augusto Pinochet implemented a series of policies that spelled poverty for the working class.
To this day, remnants of the military dictatorship are evident in Chile.
On the advice of United States' neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, Pinochet altered the education system in Chile.
Responsibility for public schooling was transferred from the education ministry to public municipalities. Private schools were financed by the voucher system in proportion to student enrolments.
The elite families began enrolling their children into schools that charged for enrolment. No effort was made by the government to improve the curriculum, education quality or management. This led to a society that for decades had to contend with a class division within education.
Private universities meant excessive tuition fees. Students and their families incurred debts while the quality of education barely improved.
Universities were mostly attended by students from the middle class and higher income families.
Impoverished areas had no access to quality education. Low income families were obliged to send their children to public schools where no incentives, such as better working conditions for teachers, were offered, to promote and enhance student educational performance.
The current system exploits class as well as cultural differences. Indigenous Mapuche people living in rural areas have to contend with an inferior education as well as a lack of inter-cultural awareness.
Students are demanding the state assumes responsibility to provide free education and broader access to education.
The students’ proposals include eliminating the business concept of education, ensuring quality public education, the creation of an education system that falls under the responsibility of the education ministry and ensuring educational rights for indigenous people.
Protests have ranged from sit-ins, to barricades and marches, and hunger strikes. Hunger strike protesters have read statements holding the government responsible for their plight.
Cacerolazo protests (a common form of protest in Latin America involving banging on pots with kitchen utensils) have also grown.
Thousands of students in Santiago have clashed with the police as force was used to try to restore what the state defines as public order. Students have been met with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
In what may be seen as another relic of the dictatorship, some protests were deemed illegal. Authorities cited the lack of a permit allowing students to demonstrate.
Camilla Vallejo, spokesperson for the student’s movement, described the state repression as a great mistake. Vallejo said the student movement was not intimidated by threats and encouraged students to persist in their various forms of protest.
President Sebastian Pinera’s attempts to appease the students have been rejected outright.
In a televised speech, Pinera raised proposals including a cabinet reshuffle and an annual education fund to support public education. These were dismissed as not addressing the students’ concerns and demands.
The students were calling on the government to end private education schemes, but Pinera declared that nationalising the education system would damage quality and freedom of education.
The government's second attempt at reform was its 21 point plan, which was once again swiftly rejected by the students.
The right to a quality education, promoting student involvement, promoting multiculturalism in higher education and an inclusive admission system were listed among the proposals presented as reform.
The discrepancies in Pinera’s proposals highlight Chilean divisions. There is no mention of state takeover of education; hence the right to a free quality education for all society remains debatable.
Education administered by the private sector remains the estate of the privileged, enforcing further gaps within Chilean society.
Student involvement in education remains a distant objective, as protests continue to be met with force.
Multiculturalism awareness and inclusive admission border on illusion when considering the intolerance and abuse of human rights suffered by indigenous people.
As a result of state repression against indigenous people, the Mapuche have been subjected to discrimination.
Apart from the anti-terror law, which allows the state to prosecute Mapuche in a military court, the community has been subjected to cultural repression.
Yonatan Cayulao, leader of the Mapuche Federation of Students has proposed a Mapuche University. Cayulao said the Chilean education has marginalised indigenous people in its quest to create a homogeneous nation.
The Mapuche University would allow the community to protect their culture within their own environment.
Recently, Vallejo was reported to have delivered a letter to Pinera.
She challenged the president to a transparent debate and urged him to acknowledge education as a universal right instead of a consumerism scheme, as he had previously announced.
The letter denounced student segregation under the education system and called for education to be guaranteed constitutionally “as a social law”.
Reminiscent of the past is the way nueva cancion singers (a genre of socially committed folk music in Latin America) are uniting once again in support of Chileans.
In a message broadcast on YouTube, Jorge Coulon from the legendary Chilean folk band Inti Illimani reiterated his support for the students.
Pinochet’s influence in Chilean democracy is never far from the people’s consciousness. Each year, Chile’s September 11 anniversary is marked with violent incidents ― a reminder that justice remains a remote illusion for many victims of the military dictatorship.
With the protests set to continue, there is talk about the possibility of the army being deployed against the students if the protests continue up to September 11.
An issue which portrays the social injustice incited by Pinochet is the attitude of Chileans towards state violence.
Julieta, a local anthropology student, said: “In Chile, because we are accustomed to police violence, we have naturalised this violence that we receive.”
The memory of the military coup is far from being relegated to the confines of history.
With a democracy that moulds itself on past legislation, the concept of freedom and dignity for Chileans remains a battle to be fought in many aspects of society.
The struggle for free education seems to have ignited the memory of the past to be combated in the present.
[Abridged from UpsideDownWorld.org. Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog at Walzerscent.blogspot.com .]
August 21 demonstration and concert in Chile.
Al Jazerra report on the huge movement for free, accessible education.