Chilean students fight for free education and a new society

Photo: nfotografias
Students marching in Santiago Chile

By Stephen MacAvoy

The huge youth student protests that have shaken Chile in recent months have shattered the myth that it is Latin America’s neo-liberal success story and underlined how mass protests are key to forcing concessions from politicians who argue “there is no alternative”.

The students, whose demands are free education and an end to profit-making in education, have organised six months of resolute protests involving prolonged occupations of hundreds of schools some for months at time, regular demonstrations attracting as many as 1m people (as shown in this video report) in a country of just 16 million people and civil disobedience in the form of direct action, such as this occupation of Parliament (seen here).

Both high school and university students are protesting with the school students demanding an end to the Chilean school voucher system that has led to a segregated school system whereby the wealthiest families “top up” vouchers and send their children to the very best schools, leaving the rest in poor quality education. They also want greater central government control over secondary and primary education rather than local funding which entrenches inequality by benefiting those in the wealthiest areas.

University students are demanding free education and an end to the current funding policy where tuition fees average nearly three times the minimum annual wage and costs are further increased by commercial interest rates on student loans from private banks, a source of easy private profits as these are state-guaranteed.

The sheer scale of this inspiring movement (as can be seen in these videos) and their popular backing, with over 70% of Chileans expressing support in some polls, have already forced concessions from the government. They have also helped smash its popularity, reduced from 63% one year ago in the aftermath of the rescue of the Chilean miners to just 25% now, the lowest ever levels recorded by a sitting president since democracy was restored in 1990. One recent poll showed two thirds “believe little or anything” that the government says.

The Economist has labelled it Chile’s “most serious political conflict for two decades” and these are the largest protests in Chile since the elite-led transition to democracy in 1990, following years of dictatorship after the coup of General Pinochet against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973.

With the backing of the US, General Pinochet oversaw, at the barrel of a gun, one of the purest neo-liberal experiments in history almost completely liberalising Chile’s economy, privatising whole areas of social spending including healthcare, higher education and the pension system. Working class resistance was violently crushed, with political parties banned and those who sought to defend the legacy of Allende’s socialist government, assassinated, imprisoned, or exiled.

The framework imposed following this huge defeat of the working class, and corresponding strengthening of the Chilean oligarchy through dictatorship, has remained, in many ways, relatively untouched by the re-establishment of democracy in 1990, as this did not lead to any accompanying economic structural reforms.

Whilst Chile has witnessed record economic growth over the past two decades, deep inequalities scar Chilean society. Income inequality has barely changed since the end of dictatorship and is amongst the highest in the world. The privilege of the wealthiest has been preserved. Under Pinochet, the richest top 10 % accounted for 45% of income, today it’s barely changed at 43%. Wealth remains concentrated in four families – including that of the billionaire current President Sebastian Piñera – and accounted for 12.49% of GDP in 2008 and holding 47% of assets on the Santiago stock exchange!

During the economic “miracle” so lauded by free-marketers as a role model for others, real wages grew much more slowly than economic expansion meaning a greater share of growth went to capital and the bosses. Whilst the numbers in poverty did fall, three million Chileans (19%) still live in poverty, including 500,000 in extreme poverty

Inequality in Education

This free-market domination and deep inequality is also entrenched in Chile’s education system.

As the BBC has pointed out “Chile’s education system is one of the most privatised in the world” and nearly 40% of all education spending comes from households through tuition fees, higher than in any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In higher education only 16% of spending comes from public sources, compared with an OECD average of nearly 70%. Three-quarters of Chile’s universities are privately owned, with no public university built over the past 30 years and the cost of a university education is the highest in the world taking into account the country’s GDP and per capita income.

At school level, the private sector also dominates with less than half of Chile’s high school pupils attending fully state-funded schools. The rest go to private schools (7%) or subsidised schools (48%), where costs are split between the state and parents, who pay on average $400 per child a year (in a country where the monthly minimum wage is $363). As The Guardian reported: “many Chilean schools are for-profit institutions, run as businesses. Until recently, the classified section of the leading newspaper regularly featured schools for sale, in adverts that often described the institutions as highly profitable investments. Universities also profit making, having found various loopholes to circumvent rules outlawing this.”

All this has contributed to deep educational segregation with Chile ranking second to bottom in one international test of inequality of 65 nations and the OECD ranks Chile bottom for both income and for education equality amongst its 32 nations.

A fight to restructure Chilean society

This is the backdrop against which youth and students have mobilised for months. In seeking to challenge the inequality and nature of their education system they are also seeking to fundamentally alter the values governing Chilean society.

By August, the students protest movement had become a truly national social mobilisation. As the government sought to prevent further student protests through the implementation of the State Security Law and arrested hundreds of protestors, millions of Chileans responded in solidarity with the students by banging pots and pans on the streets, a form of protest popular in Latin America and which, symbolically, was common during the dictatorship of Pinochet.

The first general strike soon followed with over 600,000 protesting in the capital city, Santiago, and the first 48-hour national strike since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. The government responded with increased violence that saw the killing of a young protestor in Santiago, but in turn the movement widened further, for example with teaching trade unions organising a national plebiscite for a not-for-profit education system in which over 1.5m people voted, with 90% backing the students. Huge mass mobilisations are still ongoing at present.

The huge students protests have succeed in reaching out to wider layers of society, uniting broad range of forces for the first time since the re-establishment of democracy, with public sector workers, trade unions and many others joining with the students and their parents in the protests. Consequently, this has emboldened other mass movements with the demands now extending from a focus on to education to wider economic and social changes. The national trade union movement has demanded change in the constitution and better distribution of wealth and the students themselves have demanded the nationalisation of Chile copper industry, a huge source of the country’s revenue.

Chile’s billionaire President Pinera has responded to these social mobilizations with concessions to try to head off the movement. Three packages of (increasingly deep) reforms have been announced over recent months including a new $4bn education fund, lower interest rates on student loans, outlawing of state support of for-profit educational institutions, increased scholarships and the end of local control over public secondary education. Even the Chilean business community is proposing reforms to seek to limit the demands of the movement, with for example, Felipe Lamarca former president of Chile’s powerful business association, the Society for the Promotion of Manufacturing, saying “Once and for all we have to do something. Chile has grown at lot, but we must address the problem of inequality. For that we need a tax reform that helps solve the lack of fairness”.

Each package of reforms however has been met with an emboldened student response, who have labelled these “band-aid solutions” and who understand that it is their mobilisations taking them closer to their goal of free education and wider reforms.

At the same time as offering reforms, the government has also sought to break the movement through heavy violence by Chile’s militarised police. This can be seen in videos (here and here). Teargas and beatings from very heavily armed police are common and students have been wounded by police bullets in addition to at least one fatality. On the anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende in September, police arrested nearly 300 in Santiago alone. The most prominent leader of the student movement, Claudia Vallejo, a member of the Chilean Communist Party, told Prensa Latina that “the government has closed the doors to dialogue, and has tried to divide us and to criminalise the movement”. The Chilean police and other thugs have stormed Communist Party of Chile HQ assaulting workers there and smashing up equipment. However 100,000s continue to mobilise.

Chile’s enormous mobilisations for social reform reflect the left shifts that have swept Latin America in recent years, leading to left governments that have been improving the living standards of ten of millions of people. Within the Chilean mobilisations is, not only the possibility of winning free education, but the possibilities of building movements that take power to deliver other important reforms across society, as we have seen in Brazil and Argentina or even that fundamentally restructures society as has been taking place in Venezuela and Bolivia.