Huge student protests that broke out last year gave a tremendous jolt to Chilean society, as reflected even by public opinion polls. When La Nacion asked a group of poll takers to name the best thing about 2011, 63% answered the student and environment mobilisations, compared with just 17% who chose the University of Chile soccer team, which won the South American cup at the end of November. Just 3% chose the Cervantes Prize, the big Spanish-language literary prize, which was awarded to Chilean writer Nicanor Parra.
“The future of the education struggle in Chile is uncertain, but we are very hopeful of the outcome," University of Chile academic Dr Leonora Reyes told a September 15 forum at the Queensland University of Technology. "But for sure, after this cycle of student upsurge, our country will not return to the past.” The forum was sponsored by Australian Solidarity with Latin America (ASLA), the National Tertiary Education Union (University of Queensland) and the QUT Student Guild and was chaired by Socialist Alternative's Rebecca Barrigos.
Since May, Chile has been rocked by sustained protests, occupations and strikes by students and their supporters in a huge struggle for free, public education. The fight is part of the struggle to overturn the legacy of the 1973-'90 Pinochet dictatorship. From the very beginning, students and educators were an important target for the dictatorship. General Augusto Pinochet led a US-backed military coup against the elected left-wing government of president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
What began several months ago with students taking over their high schools and universities has swelled into one of the largest protest movements in Chile’s history. Student protests, involving tens of thousands of students and teachers, have dovetailed with angry demonstrations of workers in other sectors. The education protests swelled to 600,000 on August 25, the second day of a 48-hour general strike called by a confederation of 80 unions.
There were amazing scenes in Chile on August 21 when 1 million people marched in Santiago chanting: “The people united will never be defeated!” These were awe-inspiring scenes of mass mobilisation. The acute trigger is the privatisation of the education system. The underlying trigger is relentless and ever widening social and financial inequality. If the people know about neoliberal policies, it is the Chileans.
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.
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.
As I walked out of the tercera comiseria (police station based in the centre of Santiago) on August 4, it hit me what had transpired on this incredible day. All I could hear were the sounds of the cacerolazo, people beating pots and pans in protest, every street corner occupied by protesters who had erected barricades and lit bonfires. The echo of an updated song from the time of the Pinochet dictatorship sounding through the streets.
Chilean activist Manuel Olate Cespedes was arrested in Santiago on October 29 after the Colombian government alleged he is linked to left-wing guerilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Below is an abridged statement issued by the Latin America Social Forum (LASF) Sydney that calls for Cespedes’ release and opposes plans to extradite him to Colombia. *** The LASF (Sydney) wishes to express its opposition to the arrest and detention of Manuel Olate Cespedes. We also express our grave concern regarding Colombia’s request to extradite Cespedes.
Remembrance Day, on November 11, was celebrated again this year in the Australian media with pictures of red poppies and flag-draped coffins and historic photos of Australian soldiers who gave “the ultimate sacrifice” from the human-made wasteland of Flanders to the stony deserts of Afghanistan. Paying tribute to the ten soldiers killed this year in the long war in Afghanistan, Governor-General Quentin Bryce said that Australians were good at remembering: “We seem to know what we ought to hold onto and what is best let go.”