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ISR Issue 49, September–October 2006

Biggest mass movement since Pinochet

Chilean students launch mass protests


ORGANIZÁNDONOS CONTRA la Educación de Mercado”-“organizing against market-based education.” So read the sign hanging from the façade of the Instituto Nacional Barros Aranas (Inba) in Santiago, Chile, on June 9. It had been there for weeks. Inside, high school students held a meeting to decide if they should end the occupation of their schools. In hundreds of other schools the situation was the same. For ninety days, the students had been meeting; with government ministers, with the press, with supporters, and with thousands of other students, in marathon meetings, demonstrations, and marches.
Read an Interview with
a student leader
For more than a month they had been embarrassing politicians and fighting back against the cops. Finally, they forced the president to go on national television to address their demands, pushed the Congress to convene an emergency session, and forced the nation to open up a question for debate: Can education be left to profiteers?

The mobilizations that shook Chile from the last week of April until the second week of June took the government of the newly elected president Michelle Bachelet by surprise. Bachelet, a leader from the left wing of the Socialist Party, was elected thanks to the expectation of the Chilean poor that finally the promises of the first government of the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Agreement of the Parties for Democracy), Chile: la Alegría ya viene (Chile: Happiness is on the Way), might be fulfilled.

For sixteen years, the post-Pinochet administrations were characterized by what came to be known as the “democracy of the consensus,” prioritizing broad national agreements with the Chilean right wing and the remnants of the military dictatorship. But last year, breaches began to open up in this consensus. The appointed senators-for-life, one of the anti-democratic residues of Pinochet, were eliminated. Meanwhile, the sustained increase in the price of copper, the Chilean state's main source of cash, provided the revenue that could be put at the service of Chile's poorest.

Toward the end of April, Bachelet's honeymoon with the Chilean people showed the first signs of petering out. The horrible condition of four high schools in Lota-a rundown mining town 300 miles south of Santiago-was the center of a joint mobilization of parents and students. The protesters demanded state funding to repair school buildings whose walls and roofs leaked each time it rained. The movement in Lota was a manifestation of a more general crisis in Chile's educational system.

In the last year of the Lagos administration, which preceded Bachelet's, cuts in government spending in Chile's partially privatized education system forced students to pay more school fees out of pocket. Meanwhile, high school students were faced with an increase in the cost of the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (PSU, the main college-placement test). Then the government restricted the use of the discount student transportation pass to only two times a day. These were only the latest in a long string of attacks on public funding of education, initiated by the Pinochet dictatorship, and continued by each subsequent government.

The destruction of public education in Chile

From the early twentieth century, education in Chile was considered the responsibility of the national government. By the beginning of the 1960s, Chile had achieved universal elementary education. During the decade prior to the military coup in 1973, the Chilean state carried out the largest expansion in spending on public education in its history. The period saw major construction of educational facilities, and huge programs for teacher training. Between 1964 and 1974 the elementary and secondary school population expanded by 1.3 million students. Teachers' labor conditions and contracts were protected by the state. At the university level, tuition was based on a sliding scale according to each family's ability to pay for the first student with tuition waivers for other family members.

General Pinochet's coup d'état not only ended fifty years of democracy in Chile; it also heralded the beginning of the dismantling of what was known in Chile as the estado docente (educator state), and ended the expansion of public education. This could not be accomplished without political repression against leftist teachers and students. Teachers' unions and student organizations were disbanded, their leaderships persecuted-and many times summarily executed. That was the beginning of a dark decade in which the military appointed school administrators and leaders of teachers' organizations.

In 1975, the government published the document “Educational policies of the Chilean government,” in which it laid out two “reforms” in the name of libertad de enseñanza, freedom of instruction. One was municipalization-the transferring from the national government of all school property and administration to local school boards. This decentralization broke the single national agreement of the teachers' unions with the national government. The second “reform” was the institution of a voucher system to open the door to the privatization of Chilean education at all levels. In its last days in power in 1990, the military dictatorship locked in these attacks on universal public education in the Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE). This law, enshrined in the Chilean constitution, requires a supermajority in parliament to change it.

The Concertación governments never confronted the LOCE. Instead, they continued to chip away at public education every year, transferring more public money to private hands, and passing the cost on to the families of students. In 1981, the dictatorship ended the sliding scale for university tuition, offering instead student loans from the government. In 2005, President Lagos accelerated the move to privatization in higher education, opening student loans to the banks.

The Concertación governments did initiate an expansion and modernization of the educational infrastructure, in order, it argued, to make Chilean workers more “productive” in the world economy. This included the massive construction of classrooms, implementation of the Jornada Escolar Completa (JEC, full school day), and equipping most schools with computers and Internet access. One of Bachelet's early promises was the extension of the voucher system to the pre-school level, so mothers could join the labor force.

But whatever improvements in education the Concertación governments proposed, they all remained within the LOCE framework that applied free-market economic principles to education, strongly reduced the role of the state, and transformed education into a for-profit endeavor. As the University of Chile professor Jenny Assael told La Nación: “this is the only country in the world in which the state gives public funds to profit seeker private school sustainers without any mechanism of control.”

In 1981, public education covered 78 percent of students. Today, only 50 percent attend public schools. This has produced huge inequities in the Chilean educational system. Rodrigo Cornejo of the Observatory of Educational Policies, a Chilean think tank, said that the Chilean system has become “too similar” to South African apartheid, with separate and unequal education systems depending on if the schools are private, subsidized, or municipalized, in which the municipalized schools are located in rich or poor areas. The savage inequalities of Chilean education were exposed when the Ministry of Education announced the results of the last national test of fourth graders. Students from private and paid subsidized schools in the richest areas of the country had the top thirteen highest test scores.

As a result of these conditions, mobilizations of students and teachers have been nearly an annual occurrence in Chile since 1990. For years, the fight has been embraced by teachers in the Colegio de Profesores, the teachers' union, universities' student federations, the extra-parliamentary Left and the left-wing youth of the political parties, and numerous independent bottom-up organizations for the defense of public education and against LOCE. This movement has been at the center of many mobilizations, with varying results. The Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (ACES-Coordinating Assembly of High School Students) was born in the fight against LOCE. In November 2005, it presented Martin Zilic, minister of education, with a document spelling out its concerns and proposals concerning the LOCE. The minister never read it.

The mobilizations

After the government announced its decisions about the PSU and the transportation pass, ACES called an April 26 march down Santiago's main boulevard to the Ministry of Education. More than 5,000 students marched. The march denounced the cutbacks and restrictions, but also the LOCE and the JEC. Police attacked the students, and forty-seven high school students were arrested. The next day, the Chilean Student Federation's annual political and cultural events against LOCE turned into militant protests. Those events merged with a half dozen spontaneous demonstrations in cities across the country. The police repressed these, arresting hundreds.

Read an

eyewitness account

The students demanded to meet Minister of Education Zilic, but Zilic eluded them. For the next three weeks, the students planned weekly mobilizations. Despite the fact that they ended with hundreds arrested, each mobilization was bigger than the one before it. Each day new schools, responding to the calls by ACES, entered the fight in dozens of demonstrations around the country. The government sought to beat the movement on the streets, but weeks of repression embarrassed the government.

The students denounced the repression: “We carried out a peaceful protest, which the media can corroborate, but the police proceeded to disband us…we weren't obstructing traffic; we didn't throw rocks or Molotov cocktails,” ACES activist César Valenzuela told Radio Agricultura. When the high school students finally got to meet with ministry officials, Zilic did not show up. “In the meetings in the Ministry…we haven't gotten any concrete solution. We are planning to continue our mobilizations until the government gives us a favorable answer,” declared María José Sanhueza from ACES. By the third week the minister couldn't hold out any longer. Though he claimed, “there are just a few groups calling mobilizations,” Zilic finally met with students and agreed to put off implementation of the restrictions on the transit pass. The students rejected his offer and the Ministry of Education broke off negotiations with the students. Santiago Metropolitan Governor Víctor Barrueto then warned students “to be careful,” if they followed through on plans for a demonstration on May 17.

The students continued with their plans to mobilize on May 17 and 18, only three days before the annually scheduled presidential “state of the nation” speech to Congress. The government wanted to end the movement and sent out its repressive forces. In response, the students of Inba and of the Liceo Javiera Carrera retreated into their schools, and declared them occupied until the government agrees to their demands. Although Zilic threatened to expel the occupiers by force, by the next day a dozen high schools were occupied. From the occupied schools, students waited through the weekend for the president's speech. On May 21, Bachelet ignored them and their demands.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Bachelet said. “What we have witnessed over recent weeks is unacceptable. I will not tolerate acts of vandalism or intimidation. I will apply the full force of the law.”

Furious over this insult, the high school students, with widespread popular support behind them, launched school occupations around the country. Within a week, more than 600 schools-public, private, subsidized universities, and high schools-were en toma (occupied). Solidarity grew among teachers' and workers' unions, left-wing organizations, parents' associations, all of which announced their support for ACES' call for a national strike on May 30. Zilic offered to meet with student leaders on May 29, but stood up the students once again. “This caused a fury in the movement,” reported Rodrigo Olivares, president of the Federation of Students for Solidarity (FESOL), one of the founding organizations of ACES. “We said we wouldn't sit down until the minister came himself. Now we imposed the conditions, not the government. Plus, all the students that came from across Chile joined the ACES, which became a truly national assembly.”

The May 30 national strike was a political success for the student movement. The high school students were recognized as the leaders by university students, teachers, and many other workers, notably workers from the Ministry of Education. Though the morning was relatively calm, as the day wore on confrontations with police increased. While outside a battle between students and police raged, Zilic finally met with students in the National Library, a site of the students' choosing. The day ended with more than a thousand people arrested in the whole country, and with no serious proposal from the minister that day. The next day was very similar, but police repression was no longer sustainable. Widespread criticism of the repression were coming from all sectors of society, and the head of the Santiago regional police backed off.

Conceding that the only way to quell the unrest was a presidential response, Bachelet announced she would make an offer to the students in a nationally televised address on May 31. She offered grants for the poorest 80 percent of high school students to pay for the PSU; free transportation passes also for the poorest 80 percent of the students, benefiting about 1.5 million students; a 25 percent increase to the family subsidies to help to pay the transportation fee, benefiting almost a million people; half a million more school meals; some other grants to sugarcoat the deal; and the creation of a Presidential Advisory Committee, with student participation, to review the JEC and the LOCE. The president told the nation that there was just not enough money to completely abolish fees for student transit.

After meetings in the hundreds of occupied schools, the students decided the offer was insufficient. FESOL's Olivares explained that, “the average cost of college is $4,000 a year…only 30 percent of high school students make it to college, and working-class families can't afford their kids' meals and transportation fares. Bachelet says there's no money, but the price of just one of the seventeen F-16 jets she bought for the armed forces this year is enough to cover all our demands.” They called for a national strike on June 5 of all who supported the students. The number of schools seized by their students increased, including even some elementary schools, and in total more than 100 political, social, and union organizations joined the strike. The students demanded that the president promise in writing that she would work to reform LOCE, and they demanded that the advisory committee be composed mainly of social organizations.

The government declared that the time for negotiations was over, and that with occupations or without, the government proposals would go ahead. On June 5, the day of the national strike, the president called the House of Representatives into emergency session in order to approve a couple of documents to establish a path for the reforms, while the minister of education started to set a timetable to comply with the president's proposals. The politicians gathered against the backdrop of a national strike of an estimated 900,000 students, the biggest student mobilization since 1972.

For the next three days, marathon meetings in the occupied schools took place as students assessed the mobilization and what had been accomplished. Despite the willingness of many to continue the struggle, many, including some ACES leaders, were worn down. After a month of mobilizations setting the political agenda for the country, the ACES and other student organizations called on students to end school occupations on June 9. But the ACES also declared that, far from retreating, they would keep mobilizing. They warned: “Bachelet's latest offer to the students, while undoubtedly a victory, is a trick. She gives the PSU and transportation pass free to the poorest four-fifths of students, but privatizes the administration of both services. As far as the LOCE, she offers a commission to reform it, with 10 percent student participation, but it's only advisory. The Congress can just ignore whatever it says…for now, the ACES has decided to end the occupations, but maintain the mobilizations to pressure the government. This is fine because the kids were tired and strained…but it's going to be hard to quiet all the students who thought they were fighting to eliminate the LOCE.”

Nevertheless, no one could deny the student mobilization's gains. In fact, it opened a national debate and forced society to rethink how it deals with education. More importantly, the students gave a first, powerful punch to Pinochet's neoliberal law on education. More generally, the students, in leading the largest mass mobilizations since the coup, have changed the face of Chilean politics.

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