World in View: Students awaken Chile

September 19, 2011

From the September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View: Students awaken Chile

Hundreds of thousands of students–teenagers, and college students–have taken to the streets of Santiago, the capital, and the cities of Concepción, Valparaíso and Temuco, among others, to demand a decent public education. Hundreds of schools have been taken over. Students have been joined by parents and friends. Now workers have joined the fight, adding their own demands. Rallies, a hunger strike, and sit-ins have been their methods. They demand educational reform from pre-school through the university.

The protest is against the rightist government of Sebastián Piñera, who mouths words of support but sends in riot police to beat and arrest students. The government has also resorted to provocateurs.

In months of demonstrations, the students refused to yield. While education is central, protests have also involved transportation and the environment, particularly hydroelectric projects which threaten Patagonia.

Only last year, students were accused of being apathetic because they had not voted in the last presidential election. The “Socialists” were defeated, allowing the right wing to regain power for the first time since the ouster of dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who had led a bloody 1973 coup against a genuine Socialist president, Salvador Allende. But the students saw little reason to vote. Socialists had won the two presidential terms post-Pinochet, but the policies that followed were a continuation of neoliberalism imposed by Pinochet under the army’s boot heel.

Pinochet launched the great privatization of Chilean education, resulting in huge school inequalities and high costs for families who wanted their children to have a decent education. Pinochet also closed several “radical” departments at the public university.

Students have dared to break the shadow of fear, launching a movement that begins with education reform, but opens the door for challenging the neoliberalism that has been Chile’s hallmark since the 1980s.

The great Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano sent the students greetings: “A million thanks to the students, who, in the streets of Chile, are returning us to a faith that at times had fallen away from us, or we had lost. A faith that tomorrow is not another name for today; the faith that the best of our days are those that we have not yet lived.”

–Eugene Walker

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