By AJ Thomason
From its independence in 1818 until Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power in 1973, Chile stood as one of South America’s most economically stable countries while also remaining absent of the frequent springs of militaristic governments that plagued Latin America. Pinochet’s reign, assumed after a successful coup de’tat, lasted 17 years and left behind some 3,000 dead, a polarized citizenry and, among other things, a broken educational system.
In 1981, Pinochet began dismantling the free public education system and replaced it with a voucher program for primary and secondary education. This dissolved the centralization of Chile’s higher education, switching it with three tiers of schools run by municipal entities: government-funded public schools; private schools subsidized by the government; and private, fee-paying schools. The growing inequity of the quality of education between these systems, their accessibility and funding sources has manifested itself throughout the years and currently leaves Chile in the midst of its largest state of social unrest since its return to democracy in 1990.
The protests began on August 4, 2011 in the capital city, Santiago, after the decades old, ever-growing disparity came to light. Students took to the street en masse. Nearly 100,000 people organized to voice their collective message that inequality between the education systems available to the upper class and that available to the lower class is unfair.
The plight felt by these students is legitimate and backed by statistics. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has named Chile as the most socio-economically segregated country in regards to education opportunities. According to OECD, the average percentage of integration between students of different backgrounds is 74.8 percent worldwide. Chile rests at less than 50 percent.
Hugo Nicolás, a visiting Chilean student at the University of California San Diego, sums up the problem in the eyes of young Chilean academics. “The Chilean people” he said, “are in a process of significant change. Young people have awakened after 20 years. The problem is that in Chile education is a business, it is another product you can buy at the corner of your neighborhood. In Chile we want free education because the government can afford it.”
The protest and outcries have only grown since 2011; and the message has gotten engrained more deeply into the culture of consciousness that has swept Chile’s youth. April 11 saw the year’s first organized march—only this time a clearer message was presented. The cloudy Thursday morning was met with masses of students gathered in a dozen cities, with more than 150,000 people marching in Santiago alone. Rallies of this scale are organized by functional student run entities that have found that together the collective voice makes more impact than a myriad of individual cries of discontent.
Camila Vallejo is the vice president of the University of Chile Student Federation and also serves as a main spokesperson for the Confederation of Chilean Students. Camila provides an explanation for how marches of this scale are assembled. “What brings the students together, and the many organizations involved in this, is the fact that in Chile education has been turned into a consumer good, a commodity for consumption, which has created an enormously segmented socio-educational system,” she said.
Vallejo’s comments not only reify Nicolás’s claim, but also unify the message of the student body as a whole that the drag on justice created by the market driven nature of the educational system is no longer to be accepted. Vallejo adds that, even with 80 percent approval from the public, “our demands were simply not taken up and channeled through the institutional means, the political institutions that exist, and so there is a crisis really in political representation.”
The broken educational system in Chile is fortified and strengthened by the government lent media that, according to Noam Titelman, the current president of the Catholic University Student Federation, make it very difficult to reform. “They’re owned by the same people who want to maintain things,” he said.
Titelman highlights the classic struggle between the word on the streets that often rings most true, and the monopolized, faux-publicized word that reaches the ears of the global community.
Unique to this movement compared to others in recent history is the determination of those effected as a collective whole. After three years of tear gas, fire hoses, expulsions and blacklisting, students, educators and community members at large have maintained the cry for justice and change. With presidential elections just on the horizon, the dawn of that very change may be closer than ever for these soldiers of sense who believe that the government capable, be it for the people, is the government that should. November will mark a major movement either forward or backward for the Chilean students but, irrespective of the results, this generation of doers, who, in numbers found clout, will have had their message heard.
Image by Marie Barranco