Protests involving more than a million students shook the streets and classrooms of Chile in mid-2006. This movement, also known as the "penguins' revolution" (after high school students' black jacket and white shirt uniform), arose in response to the continued neoliberal approach to education in the country.
Neoliberal attacks on the education system have continued despite the election of the Socialist Party's Michelle Bachelet as president in January 2006. Green Left Weekly's Sean Seymour-Jones spoke to Popular Assembly Movement activist Claudio Castro, who is currently touring Australia, about these student protests and other social movements in Chile.
What were the circumstances that provoked such massive protests by high schools students?
Initially, the movement started with demands around more economic issues — like the abolition of the fee for university entrance exams, which is around US$60, when the minimum monthly wage is only $300, and getting student concession cards for public transport. But, as well as this, [it was sparked by] the need to improve school infrastructure, as some classrooms flood when it rains, forcing classes to be held in the hallway or near toilets.
This under-funding of schools is due to a law made by [Augusto] Pinochet [the US-backed dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990], which makes the municipalities responsible for high schools. This creates huge differences between schools in rich and poor areas. The law was the last one that Pinochet enacted before ceding power in 1990 ...
After the police attacked student demonstrations in Santiago in May 2006, Bachelet sacked the commander of the riot police. Why was this? Was it just a political manouevre?
The Carabineros [riot police] always attack us, fire tear gas and use water cannons, arrest us and then beat us up in their cars. But this time they went too far, because they hit journalists and they started talking about the violence being used, so Bachelet fired him to keep the press quiet.
What happened to the movement after the nation-wide student strikes on May 30 and 31?
The movement changed tactics. As there was pressure from the government on parents to keep their children away from schools — because that was where the protests were being organised — we started to do the opposite. That is, the students went to occupy their schools and universities. Some high schools were occupied for over a month and universities for about two or three weeks. This was when the students began to realise that the problems with the education system couldn't be solved just by budgetary solutions, but the whole structure of education and the education law needed to be changed.
After these occupations, there was a new education council created by Bachelet, and there was a call from the movement for 50% plus 1 of representatives to be elected from students. What came out of this?
I was part of this council. We participated in it basically to give the students a rest from occupying, and then we hoped to start up the struggle again in the second semester. It was made of around 81 people, but there were only four public university students' representatives (which I was one of), and then four from private universities and institutes and four from the high schools.
This council went from June until November, but it ended up just being an advisory body. They wrote down what everybody said and put down every proposal to be submitted. But when it came for the final report to be released, the right wing people in the council, who dominated it, changed it all and the majority of students opposed it, so we left the council and we didn't sign the final report.
What is the state of the student movement at the moment?
The student movement isn't as strong as last year. There continue to be protests and some occupations, but there is nothing in the news about them. But also the schools have been expelling students who were involved in the protests and occupations. Only a few at a time though, generally key leaders, so it goes unnoticed. This is a strategy that they learned from the police.
The police at the demonstrations were conducting mass arrests of students, but their system couldn't process the hundreds of people they were arresting, so they generally had to let us go uncharged. So they turned to just going into the crowds and arresting a few key leaders, and now the schools are doing the same thing.
On top of this you also have generational change, as the students who were involved have finished high school and have moved on to universities or work. But also a lot of the leadership has been co-opted by money from the government. So there are still protests, but the movement now is in a moment of re-organisation.
You are also involved with the Aiyen and Avansar collectives. What issues do these groups deal with?
It's good to protest and try to change things in the future, but we also need to be concerned with what happens to the current generation. These collectives focus on attempting to change the system now, through communities being autonomous and self-sufficient. Aiyen is based in Valparaiso and it created a people's library which those excluded from education and disadvantaged people who are studying at school can come to and get tutoring. It tries to create a space for people to study and meet.
The Avansar collective is in Santiago de Chile and does similar things. But also, due to having more time, it is able to do things in other areas, like advise people on legal matters. For example, the government wanted to build a highway right through a shantytown and the collective helped the people from that community fight the development. Avansar is also helping with health, by teaching first-aid courses and getting funds to start a public health-care centre.
Most of the student protests occurred in 2006. What are some of the social movements that have been prominent in politics this year?
Before the student protests of last year, there hadn't been as much activity by the other sectors. So it acted as a spark for the rest of the social movements. Before May 2006, education wasn't on the political agenda, but by June/July it was; other people saw that and started to mobilise again.
There have been the mortgage people, who took out loans with the government acting as their guarantors for their loans. These people have now repaid five or six times the amount of the loan in interest. They have complained to the government, but the government says it's a private matter between them and the banks. So the mortgage people have been interrupting the president and other government officials every time they make public appearances, and they continued to be arrested each time.
There have also been struggles by subcontractors. These people are employed by big companies, but not directly. The big businesses hire contractors and then they hire the subcontractors. Both the contractors (directly employed by the companies) and the subcontractors work the same jobs, but the subcontractors receive a fraction of the money that the contractors get.
At one of the conflicts, at Palmin, a forestry company, a worker, Rodger Cisternas was killed in May this year. Police fired a hundred rounds at him and only three bullets hit him. One in the head, one in the chest and in the leg, all coincidentally vital target areas. After this, the labour minister talked the owner into giving more money to the subcontractors, in order to stop the conflict.
There has also been big protests at Codelco, the state copper mining company. At this company, for every employee of the company there are two subcontractors. These subcontractors were asking for higher wages — equal to the contractors — especially given the rise in the price of copper last year and the fact that the directly employed people received a bonus due to this rise. In June, there was a big demonstration and picket to stop the state employees from going to work, which ended with eight buses that transport the state employees being burned. This struggle is still going on.
These subcontractor protests are worrying for big business, because the subcontract system was created to stop conflict. But it has also opened the door for subcontractors to unite together in mega-unions in order to fight against the main employer.
[Claudio Castro is currently touring Australia. To find out about upcoming meetings, visit http://www.latinlasnet.org.]