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As Chilean students take to the streets again, Alastair Stephens explains the background and demands of the movement.

Chilean students are back on the streets. A year after the start of the movement it has exploded again, after a four month gap. Already, demonstrations are swelling to more than a hundred thousand and the capital Santiago is again obscured in clouds of tear gas.

If 2011 was the year of the youth revolt around the world then one of its most explosive, and innovative, movements was one we heard little about here. It was the so-called Chilean Winter.

The Chilean student movement has been able to mobilise hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets, over a period of more than six months. It has also helped detonate a broader reaction in society against neo-liberalism, and this in the country in which neo-liberalism was 'invented'

From flash mobs to demos

Led by a the 23 year old president of the student’s union Confech (and Young Communist militant) Camille Vallejo the movement has been characterised by a mixture of massive demonstrations and street actions; such as a mass re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video (not to mention the Lady Gaga inspired flash mobs known as Gagazo)

The student protests began last May after the education minister Lavin announced funding to “non-traditional” universities would be increased. These universities, not part of the elite club of traditional universities, are privately owned. Although in theory prohibited from making a profit they frequently do so through loopholes and front companies. Education Minister Lavin, himself, is a shareholder in just such a concern.

On May 12th the students’ union called a demonstration which pulled 100,000 across the country and 30,000 in the capital Santiago. This sparked a wave of protests and occupations as students demanded a shake up of the entire education system. The movement gathered momentum and a national student strike called for 30 June brought 100,000 onto the streets of Santiago alone.

The government responded by announcing another plan of reform which included greater funding, but also proposals to allow the universities to become “for profit” bodies. It was precisely this profiteering that had sparked the protest in the first place.

This only added fuel to the fire of student anger and the tide of protest again swelled. The demands put forward, including the creation of state education system, seem mild but in the Chilean context of the most ‘neo-liberalised’ education system in the word, they amount to wholesale overturning of the current state of affairs.

A neo-liberal education system

The current system, created during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, has long been the perfect example of what a real neo-liberal education system looks like.

For whilst Chile as a nation spends about the same as most other developed countries on education, about 7% of its national wealth annually, the state only spends 4%. The rest is provided privately by students and their families. This is one of the highest proportions in the world. In fact some 40% of all education funding comes from families’ pockets. The system is marked by great inequalities and a form of social apartheid that starts early in life.

The state does not actually own or run any schools. It provides a voucher to all children which is used to buy education. Of course, the rich and middle classes can then ‘top up’ this voucher with their own money. This has created a two tier system of well financed private schools for the upper classes, and poorly funded private and municipal schools for the rest. 60% of schools in Chile are now privately owned.

These inequalities continue into the university system. The state does provide grants to pay university fees, but only 60% of students get these and they don’t even provide the full fee amount.

Universities are 80% dependent for their funding from fees. In most OECD countries the state pays 70% of university outlays one way or another. In Chile it is just 16%. In the non-elite universities fees are nearly as high as in the ‘traditional universities’ but the dropout rate is high and it can take years to complete a course. Students run up huge debts to pay for their education.

And yet, contrary to the neo-liberal propaganda, this marketisation of education has not lowered prices or improved standards. Education is often of a poor standard and fees are amongst the highest in the world compared to average income. Students pay on average $300 dollars a month, equivalent to the monthly minimum wage.

Yet, with some 45% of school leavers now going to university the competitive advantage in the job market that having a degree might give you is rapidly being eroded. Many find they are heavily indebted yet cannot get any better a job than if they had not gone to university in the first place. Their lot is not as bad as those who are forced to drop out, and drop out rates are highest amongst poorer students: they still have to pay back their debts despite the lack of anything to show for it.

Not only is the system expensive and unequal it is also authoritarian. Students have been excluded by law, since the coup, from any participation in the governance of their colleges.

A social movement

It is, therefore, not surprising that student protest was not stemmed by the government promises of reform.

In July students united with striking miners (traditionally the most militant workers) in one of the biggest protests since the end of the dictatorship in 1988.

In August there was yet more protest, including some of the most militant yet. On August 9th and 18th an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 marched through the capital. The centre of the city was brought to a standstill by clashes with Carabineros, the paramilitary police, as the government turned to strong arm tactics to rein in the movement.

Towards the end of August the movement reached its high point when a million people demonstrated in Santiago at a massive ‘Families for Education’ rally. Further inter-generational solidarity was seen a couple of days later when students in huge numbers supported a two-day national strike called by the CUT, the national trade union federation. This time 600,000 joined rallies across the country.

Then on 25 August a 14 year old Manuel Guttierez was killed by police bullet.

The increasingly political consciousness of the movement was clearly displayed when tens of thousands of students joined demonstrations on September 11 to commemorate the military coup in 1973.

But despite the start of negotiations with the government in September, the movement did not let up the pressure. Demonstrations carried on through October and November and only slowed in December. Yet still the students retained massive public support whilst President Sebastian Piñera has seen his approval ratings slip to 25%.

Neo-Liberalism from the barrel of a gun

The student protests seem to have crystallised discontent in a society of massive inequality. Chile is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. This is a result of having suffered one of the most radical, and the oldest, programme of neo-liberalism.

Chile was the laboratory of neo liberalism in the 1970s. As the recessions of the early 1970s afflicted economies around the world governments turned to established Keynesian tools to remedy the situation.

But in Chile the left wing Popular Unity government led by President Salvador Allende had been elected in 1970. Its programme of social reform was blocked by the Chilean ruling class, which first started an investment strike and then collaborated with the US to destabilise the country and bring down Allende.

Their plans were frustrated by the massive working class for Popular Unity backed up by occupations and the creation of workers’ councils. So in September 1973 the military, with US backing, staged a coup. Allende died in the presidential palace as it was bombed. Soon tens of thousands of activists had been rounded up and thousands were killed. The Chilean workers movement was smashed.

On its ruins the new military government, led by General Pinochet, began an experiment. Defying economic orthodoxy it brought in a group of free market economists known as the Chicago boys (after the university they were based at). Workers living standards were slashed as a crash programme of privatisation and deregulation was unleashed.

The result was a series of economic crises, but the cost of each of them was passed on to a working class held down under the jack boot of the regime.

Failure and rebirth of a left

When the dictatorship was finally ended in 1988 the centre left Concertacion coalition was swept to office and ruled for the next two decades up until the current right wing president was elected in 2010.  Concertacion did not, however, alter the basic neo-liberal set up of the country.

The current protests, by students not even born when Pinochet left power, have shaken all this up. Led by left wing students, it has proved bad news for all the establishment parties.  The ratings of the president’s right wing alliance may have crashed, but this has not been to the advantage of the Concertacion which is running at just 15% in the polls.

Though the Communist Party’s activists, in particular Camilla Vallejo, have been

central to the movement, as the movement has matured its closeness to Concertacion has started to damage it. In December Vallejo lost the election for the presidency Confech and the CP lost control of several university unions.

A new left is clearly being born in Chile. How it will develop remains to be seen. In many it is breaking politically with the logic of neo-liberalism which it has been bound the left since the transition.

The rejection of the old parties, though, has at points turned into an autonomist inspired rejection of all parties; similar to that seen in the M15 movement in Spain.

The movement has politicised and inspired a whole new generation who have no memory of the dictatorship. Chile could, at last, be waking itself from the neo-liberal nightmare it has been in for the last forty years.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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