From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters
Once again, as they have done since 2011, Chile’s students have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands to demand fundamental education reform. Their earlier fight was to roll back the neoliberal, private-dominated educational system imposed during the Pinochet dictatorship and continued by the rightist President Sebastián Piñera.
This time their struggle was against President Michelle Bachelet, a socialist, who had guided a significant education reform package through the Chilean Congress. The new reforms will, over time, eliminate profits, tuition fees, and selective admissions practices in privately owned primary and secondary schools that receive government money.
Many students, led by the Confederation of Chilean Students, and joined by teachers and others, saw the package as a halfway measure—“not the reform we mobilized for”—that would only modify the commodification of education, not abolish its mercantile base.
The protesters, who were met by tear gas, water cannons and police batons, are demanding more thoroughgoing reform. What is at stake is made clear by what the Pinochet dictatorship did to Chile’s educational system, and by the shadows that dictatorship still casts.
Before Pinochet, education was a public right with state schools, tuition-free education at the university level, and state-sponsored education at primary and secondary levels. This is what the dictatorship completely destroyed, creating in its place one of the most expensive, elitist systems, where only the rich had access to a decent education. The students and their allies are demanding that this legacy of dictatorship be destroyed root and branch, not just gently trimmed.
Despite having moved beyond the dictatorship, and even to “socialists in power,” it has not been through the political process of elections, legislation, etc., that change has primarily occurred. Rather, it has been mobilizations from below, particularly the student demonstrations of recent years, that have opened the door towards social transformation. Will they continue to be a catalyst of authentic change in Chile?