In 2006, a generation of Chilean secondary students learnt how to mobilise, blockade streets, raise demands and carry out occupations. But they also learnt how they could be defeated by a system capable of accommodating and coopting mobilisations.
It is important to note that this revolt, referred to as the “penguin revolution”, did not arise out of nowhere. Its origins lay in the mobilisations for student transport concessions in 2001 and the creation of a series of collectives and small groups.
The central demands of the students included the repeal of the Organic Teaching Law, inherited from the dictatorship period. Another was for an end to “municipalisation”, so that schools are no longer dependent on municipal councils for their funding.
Instead, funding would be the responsibility of the national government, thereby eliminating big inequalities that exist between schools.
There were other demands, but these dominated negotiations between students and government.
However, the movement’s spokespeople, members of the Socialist Party of neoliberal ex-president Michelle Bachelet, negotiated winding up the mobilisations on the cusp of the 2006 Football World Cup. This meant the movement disappeared from the media spotlight, while a grand “Presidential Advisory Council” was established.
Despite student representatives walking out of the council, a new General Law of Education was passed. This law did not change any of the established education priorities.
It legitimated the system of subsidies that creates a totally deficient funding of the municipal system, while allowing for direct state funding of private schools.
In concrete terms, no one can say that the mobilisations of 2006 won. But we can say the process that led to the mobilisation was of vital importance to the emergence of a vision for revolutionary transformation within the student movement — even if this view remains a minority one.
We learnt that a mobilised popular movement cannot rely on resolutions passed by government institutions, that negotiations occur within a certain relationship of forces and that strengthening our forces is a key task if we want to break down the unequal structures in our society.
Some of us who were secondary students in 2006 were at university in 2011. This is especially the case at the University of Chile, one of the sites of the strongest mobilisations that broke out in 2011, with strikes that lasted seven months on average.
What balance sheet can we draw up of this process and the challenges that this movement faces today in a context of presidential and parliamentary elections?
Without a doubt, 2011 was the year the student movement came back onto the streets in a huge way. It put the issue of education at the centre of media and public discussion.
Nevertheless, we have to recognise that the demands raised by the student movement were reduced to mere slogans, and were not backed up by a clear vision of the kind of education students wanted.
By the end of the year students could see, with a certain uneasiness, that the vibrancy of 2011 had not necessarily translated into a greater level of organisation in the universities. Nor had it led to greater political clarity within the student movement.
They lacked a network of permanent groups capable of projecting a long-term vision of struggle. This is why the student movement was unable to achieve much more than simply drawing media attention to the discontent that existed, and above all paved the way for its leaders to seek posts in different institutions.
For example, Camila Vallejo from the Chilean Communist Party, and Francisco Figueroa and Giorgio Jackson, are using their position in the student movement to run for parliament.
That is why at the start of last year, an assessment of the movement's weaknesses showed the student movement needed to take a qualitative step forward internally to be better placed to take forward our struggle.
Nevertheless, the political forces that led the movement chose to stretch out the situation, deeming last year to be the year of proposals. They focused their efforts on lobbying and attracting media attention, not street protests.
Through these actions, they began to move towards an institutionalisation of the student movement. This has now shifted towards viewing the key task as maintaining a constant media presence and challenging presidential candidates, while sections of the movement put forward parliamentary candidates.
This year, the student movement is torn between the supposed necessity of “making use of the political capital” of the social movements and the need to accumulate forces in a context where any small demand can be absorbed into the program of the right-wing government or main opposition group.
Small electoral initiatives have also emerged, but none have the support of the majority of people. They have no possibility of winning, much less of implementing the supposed “popular” programs they are proposing.
Today, the movement is debating whether to break with the existing institution and its spurious mechanisms of participation (such as elections) or see its mobilisations co-opted.
It is urgent that we put forward demands that go beyond the current slogan of free education, explaining what this concretely means and avoid being absorbed by electoral campaigning.
We must understand the coherence that exists between a national struggle against the pillars of the current education system and local fights against the way in which this model manifests itself in our campuses and schools.
Only in this way can the movement convert itself into a revolutionary subject capable of placing on the public agenda not just particular demands, but also the need for a complete transformation of our society.
[Roxana Valdebenito is a leader of the Chilean student group Plataforma Colectiva.]