Chile: Students lead uprising to transform country

Chilean students protest for free education.

Chile is becoming a part of the global movement of youth that is transforming the world bit by bit.

Weeks of demonstrations and strikes by Chilean students came to a head on August 9, as an estimated 100,000 people poured into the streets of Santiago.

Joined by professors and educators, they demanded a free education for all from primary school to university.

Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowds and 273 people were arrested.

Later on, the deafening noise of people banging on their pots and pans in support of the students could be heard throughout Chile's captial, Santiago.

Under the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, much of Chile's educational system was privatised. Even after he left power in 1990, private education continued to prevail.

Today, 70% of university students attend private institutions. Private education is sustained by the constitution drawn up during the Pinochet regime, and educational entrepreneurs capitalised on it.

Camila Vallejo, Student Federation of the University of Chile president and a key leader of the national protests, said: “We need quality education for everyone. It is a right.

“Chilean society cannot move forward without it.”

Twenty students from the secondary schools are on a hunger strike and willing to forego the academic year — even die for the cause.

Alina Gonzales, a 16-year-old participant in the secondary school strike, said: “We will do what it takes to change this system and our lives.”

The students are part of a broader movement calling for the transformation of Chile.

In recent months, copper mine workers have gone on strike, large protests have taken place to stop the building of a huge complex of dam and energy projects in the Bio Bio region of southern Chile, gay rights and feminist activists have marched in the streets, and the Mapuche indigenous peoples have demanded their ancestral lands be restored.

Faced with the intransigence of the conservative government of billionaire President Sebastian Pinera, the movement is calling for a national plebiscite.

Vallejo, also a member of the Chilean Communist Party youth organisation, said: “If the government is not capable of responding to us, we will have to demand another non-institutional solution: the convocation of a plebiscite so that the citizens can decide on the educational future of the country.”

Forty-two social organisations grouped together under the banner “Democracy for Chile” have rallied to back the student movement.

Their manifesto says: “The economic, social and political system is in a profound crisis that has compelled the communities to mobilise ...

“An unprecedented and historic movement of citizens is questioning the bases of the economic and political order that were imposed in 1980 [by Pinochet's constitution].”

Picking up on the students’ call for a referendum, the manifesto argues that it should be “multi-thematic” and allow voters to decide whether to convene a constituent assembly that would have the power to draft a new constitution.

In recent years, there has been a growing call for an end to the neoliberal order and a political system that concentrates power in the hands of a political elite.

As in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, there is a movement to reshape the nation with a constitution that allows for popular participation at all levels of government.

Fundamental rights would be recognised, including the right to a free education, health care, culture, and the right to choose one's sexual orientation.

Pinera refuses to endorse the call for a plebiscite. His approval rating now stands at 26%.

The day after the huge demonstrations, he signed a token law calling for “quality education”.

However, he argued universal free education would represent a transfer of wealth to the privileged since “the poor would pay taxes that benefit the more fortunate” who attend the universities.

Chile is at a crossroads.

In the two decades since the fall of the dictatorship, many Chileans succumbed to consumerism, as shopping malls and credit cards proliferated with the “Chilean Economic Miracle”. Annual growth rates were around 6%.

But many Chileans want a more meaningful society.

They recall the Chilean tradition of democratic socialism that was snuffed out with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

On August 18, 100,000 students defied rain to march again in Santiago. Further protests are planed and the call has also gone out for similar demonstrations in other Latin American countries.

[Reprinted from . Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas.]