Re-Radicalized Chilean Students Plan Mass Strike

Jackson Foote

Chilean students, many of them minors, have mass-mobilized against education policies.

Chilean students will hold a nationwide strike for quality public education on Tuesday, marking the end of a month of heightened tensions between protestors and the police. For almost a year and a half, students have forced education onto the national agenda. Over the past few months, they have returned to their early radicalism. With more than nine high schools currently occupied and shut down, Tuesday will serve as a test of these renewed tactics.

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of Chilean teenagers have been arrested, detained or injured by police trying to retake control of occupied high schools. Many staged sit-ins and resisted violent police intrusion. The majority are minors. Some have been subjected to strip searches, which have been called sexual abuse. A young teen boy was reportedly shot in the stomach at close range on Saturday with a tear gas canister.

New audacity has been met with new repression. No one is backing down. In a country that lived through the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which killed, tortured and disappeared” thousands of dissidents and installed a free market economic regime, the challenge to traditional authority is an important growing pain in a political culture going through puberty once again. It may also signal a fundamental generational rift in political philosophy.

Many of the young activists have no memory of the 17-year dictatorship, and they aggressively confront the police force that haunted previous generations. But they are living the legacy of the privately funded school system that ballooned during Pinochet’s rule from 1973 – 1990. They strive for change that goes beyond the transition to democracy that their parents fought for.

After a dip in activity during the first half of 2012, high school students have taken center stage, organizing national marches, occupying school buildings and calling for student strikes. The young teens are also sticking to demands that have been around for a decade – free, quality public education and an end to profiteering in the education system.

Leaders at the powerful Chilean Confederation of (University) Students, along with high school student organizers, called for Tuesday’s mass strike in response to the continued violence and neglect on the part of the government. They are frustrated that the government has ignored a five-point plan that they submitted two months ago on June 28.

It appears the minister reads slowly, we even sent him our proposals as an infograph,” quipped a confederation spokesperson after the education minister, Harald Beyer, characterized student demands as all or nothing” in a live television interview Sunday night.

The fundamental philosophical differences between Beyer and the protesters are emblematic of a government that does not understand social movements, and a social movement that is cynical about the government.

In response to the newest school takeovers, Beyer characterized the occupiers as small groups that are not following their leadership.” Eloisa González, spokesperson for the major high school student association and recent media darling, responded, Minister Beyer is right, the base doesn’t follow its leaders, the leaders follow the base.”

The original Chilean Spring uprising of April 2011, named after the revolutions in the Arab-speaking world, brought hundreds of thousands into the streets and outlasted two education ministers. More than a year later, tensions remain high.

Protesters consider the government-promised $700 million fund for educational scholarships inadequate to meet their demands for free, public education for all. Students also see a reduction in student-loan interest rates, from 6 to 2 percent, as a band-aid on a system that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development considers [PDF] the most unequal of 19 OECD countries.

Ahead of municipal elections that will take place in October, high school students are demanding that the central government take over school administration from municipalities and get rid of fees. They aren’t getting far.

For some students, especially those who were born after 1990 and have grown up in democracy, the dominant parties are too similar. For those not tied to the pro-dictator or pro-democracy legacies of the coalitions, they both promote the same free market management of economic affairs. More radicalized students completely reject the current political system, chastising even the Communist Party for participating in October’s elections.

The municipal elections, an important preview of the 2013 presidential vote, represent a moment of debate. Many students will become eligible to vote for the first time. Many still are reluctant to participate in an electoral system dominated by two major coalitions, the center-left Concertation and the right-leaning Alliance.

Many students lost even more respect for the traditional political system when the national congress rejected a report in July that accused eight private universities of illegal profit making. Facebook and Twitter lit up with invectives about the cowardice of elected representatives from both the center-left and center-right coalitions who ignored blatant catalogued abuses of what activists say is a rotten education system. 

At a time when cynicism about traditional institutions is growing in Chile, just over a third of the population approves of the government, media or the church. It is not surprising that more people are taking to the streets.

In last week’s Chilean edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, González reflected on what the student movement had learned in the last year and a half: Mobilizations are the only way to be heard. Institutions are unable to speak for social movements. [And] it is necessary to construct cross-cutting movements to put forth alternatives to the neoliberal system.”

The August mobilizations have demonstrated the staying power and the increasing radicalism of the student movement. They have also shone a light on a new generation of Chilean students who may be more cynical about the country’s political system, more critical of the recent free market tradition, and even less tied to traditional power structures than their parents or university predecessors.

It remains to be seen whether students will continue to support mass strikes and occupations, returning to the uncertainty of a school year marred by backed-up classes and irregular schedules. For now, the government is counting on a combination of student fear, impatience and thuggery as they wait for the momentum to once again die down. If the rhetoric and energy of the youngest protestors is any indication, the standoff will continue into the fall.

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Jackson Foote is a Ph.D. student in mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies the relationship between social movements and the media in the Americas.
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