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.
Chile’s most prominent intellectuals agreed with the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Victor Hugo de la Fuente, who wrote: “In five months of massive mobilisations, Chilean students have changed the face of the country.”
“The Manifesto of Historians”, a document designed to answer some of the basic questions about the protests and signed by some of the nation's leading intellectuals and academics, goes even further. It says: “We are looking at a revolutionary, anti-neoliberal movement” that is restoring politics to civil society and re-knitting the strands of history which were interrupted by the 1973 coup.
Society in motion
Chile has not seen such a vast wave of protest since the 1980s and the huge mobilisations against the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Last year began with solid resistance in the south, around the city of Punto Arenas, and protests against gas price rises.
The movement was so strong that the government had to negotiate with the Citizens Assembly of Magallanes. It eventually reversed the price hikes.
Then in May, more than 30,000 people protested in Santiago against the HidroAysen project to build five mega-dams in Patagonia (a project supported by the government and the opposition) without consulting the public.
Never before had an environmental action united so many people, an indication that change was under way.
Soon after, victims of the 2010 earthquake on the coast of central chile began to demonstrate. Most of them were still homeless, spending their second winter in highly precarious conditions.
As they pointed out, highways used to transport goods had been repaired, but not the homes of the poor and working class.
At the end of April, students began to mobilise. On June 30, 200,000 marched along the Alameda, Santiago’s main thoroughfare.
From then on, there were dozens of marches. “Young people were moved by a festive spirit,” historian Mario Garces said.
There were no political party banners or uniform signs. Above all, there were no marches to familiar state symbols―Congress and the President’s Office, the usual destinations for unions and political parties.
In the following weeks, students, especially high school students, occupied the television network Chilevision to protest coverage of the mobilisations. They also occupied political party headquarters of the ultra-rightist Independent Democratic Union and the opposition Socialist Party.
The most important event took place on August 4. Police repression was very strong and 874 students were detained.
Throughout the country, people responded with cacerolazos (beating pots and pans in protest) and huge, spontaneous demonstrations in the big cities. They even staged a national strike like they did against Pinochet.
President Sebastian Pinera’s popularity had fallen to 22% by the end of September.
What happened in the barrios on the night of August 4 was an indication of the true strength of the movement.
Camila Silva, a member of “militant pedagogy” collective Diatriba, lives in a lower-middle-class barrio called La Florida. “When I went out to the first caceroleo with my companero,” she said, “there were 100 people”.
“The next time, young people from the cultural centre brought their batteries and an electric guitar, soccer fans came with their Colo Colo banners and there were groups with [indigenous] Mapuche flags, something that you only see when there is a big win in soccer.”
Silva highlighted the enthusiasm of the crowd and the way neighbours ― especially women ― organised spontaneously. “That organisation is like a community, and it wakes up your memory. People shouting, ‘And he’s going to fall!’ ― the same thing they shouted during the protests against Pinochet.
“There was dancing until two or three in the morning, on every street corner there was a group, throughout the barrio, in many barrios of Santiago.”
Cristian Olivares, another student in the Diatriba collective, said: “The left thought that repression had destroyed these kinds of social ties. At a certain point those relationships became invisible, but when something really big happens, they resurface, because there is still a latent memory of them. And people help each other again.
“The same thing happened with the earthquake.”
On the outskirts of the city, men and women who had not marched since the “return” of democracy in 1989 took to the streets again. And they did so in the ways that those who have little often do: singing, dancing, sharing food and drink and turning a protest into a party.
In fact, this was a vast mobilisation against social inequality in a country that the United Nations Development Programme says is among the 15 most unequal nations in the world.
Ever since the neoliberal reforms of the Pinochet regime, education has been a commercial product in Chile.
Contributions from students and their families finance 75% of the education system; just 25% comes from the state. At the university level, 70% of students take out loans and go into debt to finance their education.
Education is also highly segmented. Garces said there is one system for the rich, another for the middle class and a third for the poor.
At the secondary level (high school), 7% attend private schools, which cost US$300-$500 a month.
The middle class (about half of all secondary students), attend semi-private or government-subsidised schools operated with a voucher system. They pay a small amount (from $40 a month), and financing is shared with the state.
The poorest students attend “municipal schools”, which have few resources.
The semi-private sector is dominated by a group of small businessmen who profit from state vouchers. They are authorised to have up to 45 students in a classroom, but private schools cannot have more than 35.
Forty percent of those who enroll in municipal or semi-private high schools cannot comprehend what they read; 70% do not score high enough on entrance exams to attend university.
At the university level, social inequality translates into indebtedness; there is no free, universal access to a university education.
The deregulation of the system during the military dictatorship (1973–1980) also led to a rise in the number of private universities. There are now 60 private institutions, where the cost of a degree varies between $150 a month for social sciences and $1200 a month for engineering or medicine.
To finance their education students have to obtain bank loans and go into debt.
Faced with this, students have proposed that natural resources should be nationalised and used to finance public education. There is a precedent: Pinochet did not privatise the Chilean state copper company, Codelco, and by law part of its profits are used to finance the armed forces.
Not surprisingly, the student movement has support among the middle class, even in some of the richer areas of Santiago.
Last year's student movement is the third such movement Chile has experienced in the past decade or so. In 2000, secondary students took to the streets to demand better public transport, in what was called the mochilazo, or the “backpackers’ movement”.
In 2006, there were large demonstrations and schools were occupied, leading to the resignation of the Minister of Education and a partial modification of the education law.
The “Penguin Revolution”, named for the official school uniform of the protesting junior high students, was the first successful movement of the democracy. It was as huge as it was innovative; decisions were made in assemblies, with direct participation and a lack of hierarchy.
But for Garces, “the 2006 secondary school movement was co-opted or trapped in the halls of La Moneda [the seat of the national government] and fell through institutional cracks”.
Then-president Michelle Bachelet created a commission of experts, with little student participation. They drafted a new law, but did not remove the profit motive from the educational system.
This time around, however, the movement is not limited to students, nor is it exclusively focused on education. Chile is going through a crisis of legitimacy brought on by the inability of the political system inherited from the dictatorship to meet social demands.
As the “Manifesto of Historians” points out, society is debating again, questioning top-down authority and enacting “forms of direct and decentralised democracy”.
This “politics of the streets” shows a “vocation for power” that questions the way the transition to democracy has taken place, a transition “alienated from social movements”, Garces said.
Not only are people returning to the streets, they are also practising another kind of politics, broadening the movement, reaching out to the poor in ways that the movement in 2006 did not.
Finally, there are new practices form new people. Marcela Moya, an English teacher at A-90, pointed out “the articulate fluidity the students have when they speak out, their self-discipline”.
This is a personal evolution that is not all about the individual, but instead is collective and political. That suggests changes that are far more profound than what we see on the surface.
Moya said: “This movement has given rise to individuals who I know are going to be 100% committed to the society of the future, because they themselves have made that future possible.”
[This article is abridged from The Americas Program.]