Student Movement in Chile:For An End to Privatised Education
Since May this year, Chile has been witnessing a remarkable and highly successful student movement, targeting the privatised system of schooling and university education that has prevailed since the US-backed Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).
The movement began with demands that the Government increase the funding for schooling and improve the quality of classrooms. As the movement gained ground, led by the Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (CONFECH), it demanded an end to for-profit education. The Pinochet regime (which took over after the CIA-backed overthrow of the elected communist Salvador Allende Government) had placed the country’s primary and secondary schools under municipal management; the student movement is now demanding that the central government reassume control over these schools.
The movement, said to enjoy the support of 80% of the population, has forced the Education Minister to step down, and has contributed to plummeting popularity rating for the Chilean President, Sebastian Piñera.
Most of Chile’s universities are in private hands – another legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. One example is the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD), co-founded by two of Piñera’s cabinet ministers – including Education Minister Joaquín Lavín – who also held posts under the military government. Under pressure from the student protestors, Piñera was forced to make Lavín step down.
The student movement drew widespread support from teachers, unions and people at large, who see it showing the way for a left-turn from neoliberal policies and right-wing politics in Chile. The student rallies have been huge – up to 1,00,000 strong. The student protests have been imaginative – with forms of protests including a mass ‘suicide’ (to underline that without affordable education, students are as good as dead); a mass ‘kiss-in,’ a ‘dance-in’, a day-long family cultural event in which lakhs participated; and a two-day general strike on August 24-25 supported by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest trade union.
During the strike, Carabineros (uniformed police) arrested nearly 1400 students over two days, and a police bullet claimed the life of one 16-year old boy Manuel Gutiérrez. The police tried to deny the killing, but eventually the President was forced to sack the country’s top police officer, Gen. Eduardo Gordon as well as several other unit chiefs. The killing and its political aftermath forced the President to open negotiations with the students.
In 2006 too, high school students in Chile held occupations and strikes (dubbed the ‘Penguin Revolution ‘) for democratisation of university entrance exams and other pro-student policy changes. It is said that many of those high school students are now the main force of the university students who lead this year’s movement.
President Piñera tried to convince people, “We’d all like it if health education, health and many other things were free for everyone, but at the end of the day, nothing in life is free. Someone has to pay,” but found few takers.
The movement is led by 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, a member of Chile’s Communist Party, who was elected President of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) in 2010, and is now the main spokesperson for the CONFECH (Confederation of Chilean Students). Student Union elections for the FECH are due soon, posing a challenge for Vallejo’s leadership.
The Chilean student movement, with its impact on popular imagination and the country’s politics, is a source of great inspiration for students in India, who face many similar problems – of privatised and profit-oriented schooling and higher education.