♦ student revolt in Chile

• The twenty-one items linked below all concern a long “war” between students and the state in the South American country, Chile. Most are news stories about the latest battles in that war, which began in 2006 and has been going on, sporadically, ever since. In May of this year, it flared up dramatically and, at the time of writing, late August, it has become extremely serious: during the latest demonstrations a high school student was shot dead — apparently by a police bullet — and another young protester was in hospital after being shot in the eye; on July 20, thirty-one students went on hunger strike and in mid-August they were joined by four more who went on a liquidless hunger strike; there were also rumours that the Chilean government — which has so far used only a paramilitary police force, the carabineros, to supress the revolt — was considering calling in the army.

• What follows here is not a summary of all, or any, of the linked items. It is merely a series of comments made after reading them and doing so, first, in light of the recent student protests in the UK; and, second, in light of a long-standing interest in the idea of a human right to a free education. (See the February 17 entry, “Students protest against fee increases in British universities,” the June 23 entry below, and also the comments about free education, made in 2008, on t220;The purpose of flesl.net” page. )

• The issue at the center of the fight is the accessibility of education. The protesting students claim that only wealthy Chileans are able to get a good education while the poor — and a high percentage of Chileans are poor — are excluded. They see this as an injustice which must be corrected.

• The Chilean protests have a lot in common with the recent student protests in the UK, but there are many significant differences between the two situations:

1. There has been much more violence in Chile than in the UK. There, the protesters have been guilty at most of minor property damage while the police, although they have been accused of rough and even cruel treatment of protesters, have avoided outright violence and have never been armed with anything more than shields and batons. In Chile, by contrast, the students have used rocks, firebombs, and slingshots against the police and have burned down a large department store. The police have attacked the students with water cannons, gas, and plastic ammunition and — as was mentioned above — have begun shooting them with real bullets. In early August, the government banned marches in the central part of Santiago and when students defied the ban, the police attacked immediately.

2. Whereas the British students have, it seems, been content to restrict their protests to street demonstrations, the students in Chile have used other tactics as well — and ones that have given their campaign an ongoing impact that has been missing in the UK. In 2006, and during the current uprising, there have been many long occupations of schools and universities. In Santiago alone there have been as many as fifty high schools occupied at once. Students — presumably with the support of their teachers — barricade the doors of their schools and take over. Sometimes they are evicted by the police and then return when the police have left. Inside the occupied schools, some level of political activity is maintained; there is discussion and debate and huge banners stating the students’ demands are hung on the front walls of the buildings. In addition to the occupations, the hunger strikes, mentioned above, seem certain to be an effective way of keeping public attention focussed on the students’ campaign.

3. Another difference between the British and the Chilean student movements is that the Chileans are much more specific, far-reaching, and radical in their demands than are the British. The protesting students in the UK seem to be motivated entirely by anger about recent rises in university fees; apart from that, they do not seem to have a well-thought-out and well-articulated position. On the other hand, the Chilean students have obviously done a lot of thinking and have learnt how to express themselves effectively. They insist not just that public-supported education should be less expensive but that it should be free, and that it should be directly under the control of the Chilean state. They also demand that for-profit educational institutions should be declared illegal. As well as agreeing with the university students that all public education should be free and administered by the state, the high-school students have specific demands of their own: They want schools to operate 365 days a year, free transportation to and from school, and a reduction in the fees charged for university entrance tests.

4. In the UK although the opposition Labor party opposes the university fee increases, they have not been openly involved in the organization of the protest or even given them open verbal support. In Chile, by contrast, the student movement has been actively supported by the Chilean Communist Party. The leader of the university students, Camila Vallejo, is a member of the Party. (The Communist Party of Chile is legal and has, in the past, had some candidates elected to the legislature. In recent elections it has apparently been getting the support of about 5% of voters.)

5. Although a large percentage of the British public (over 70% according to a report in The Guardian) disapproves of the recent increases in university fees and therefore sympathizes with the student campaign against them, the response to the few quite minor incidents that have occurred — from the public and the media — has made it look as if, were the students to resort to violence, they would quickly lose all public support. By contrast, although the students in Chile have been becoming more and more violent in recent months, the Chilean public seems not to have wavered in its support. (It is also worth noting that what might be called the “near violence” of the occupations and the hunger strikes could scarcely have proceeded without large amounts of public approval.)

Some final comments: quite apart from any specific comparisons with their UK counterparts, the Chilean students have distinguished themselves by their awareness of fundamental socio-economic issues. For example: one prominent issue has been the way banks have been allowed to profit from student loans. (The loans are arranged by the government but the money comes from the banks and they collect the interest.). And beyond that specific issue, the students are outspokenly opposed to any sort of profiteering by educators. (There is at least one spectacular example of a Chilean educator profiteering: the former Minister of Education, Joaquin Lavin, who was forced to resign as a result of the recent protests, made his fortune as owner of Desarollo University.) More generally, the students, and their supporters, emphasize the fact that, although Chile has a better educational system than most Latin American countries, the discrepancy between the educational opportunities of the rich and those of the poor is greater there than it is in other countries of the region.

• What is most significant about the turmoil in Chile, however, is the simple fact that we are witnessing there a social upheaval which has, for the moment at least, education as its central issue. This is a situation which, as far as I know, is unprecedented — and one that may turn out to have large implications for the future.

♦ links to the articles:

1. 2011 student protests in Chile (Wikipedia)
2. The dam breaks (Economist)
3. Chile (New York Times backgrounder on Chile)
4. 120,000 students march in Chile (World Socialist)
5. Chileans protest for education reforms (Bloomberg)
6. Chilean protests point to deep discontent (BBC)
7. 1 dead, score hurt in Chile protests (Fox News Latino)
8. Chile president berates students (al jazeera)
9. Chilean students (NPR) (audio + transcript)
10. Chile’s Commander Camila (Guardian)
11. Chilean police detain over 100 students (EduFactory)
12. Demands for free education (Honduras Weekly)
13. Chile shaken by student revolt (Green Left)
14. Chilean students storm ministry (Edmonton Journal)
15. Hunger strikers hold Piñera responsible (The Nation)
16. In Chile, a new form of protest (GlobalPost)
17. Protesters challenge Piñera (GlobalPost)
18. 874 arrested in student protest (World War 4 Report)
19. Protests demand deeper reforms Inter Press Service
20. Camila Vallejo’s blog (in Spanish)
21. Student protests in Chile: 38 photos (The Atlantic)