Chilean students continue struggle

By Sam King, in Santiago — Overthrowing the Chilean government, in the manner of the Egyptian or Tunisian uprisings, is not the immediate aim of Chile’s massive student movement, but that is what large sections of it would like to do. The powerful and sustained mass student movement grows out of the impact on education of capitalist economic policies pursued under both the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and 22 years of “democracy”, led mostly by parties of the parliamentary left.

In 1990, days before its end, Pinochet’s government passed the Organic Law on Education (LOCE). LOCE allowed private businesses to open universities for profit. It also handed over the funding and management of schools to municipal councils, meaning that rich municipalities have better funded public schools while the poor council schools suffer. As a result, by 2008 half of students were in private schools that receive public subsidies.

University privatisation has taken place in the context of massive expansion of the number of students — part of a global trend. In Chile there were some 1 million tertiary students — 40% of 18-24 year olds — by 2008. Allowing private business to monopolise this expanding “market” has resulted in wildly uneven academic skills and questionable degrees. Students and their families are forced to pay 85% of the cost of degrees — on average US$45,000, among the highest in the world.

Recaredo Galvez, a member of Fuerza Universitaria Rebelde (Rebellious University Force) and president of the Concepcion University Student Federation, explains the two-tier education system as not primarily a cost-saving measure: “The division between rich and poor in the education system is necessary to reproduce the class divisions of capitalist society, with the privileged schools and universities producing the next generation of rulers and the rest preparing the workers and poor to carry out the shit work or to be unemployed”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because consecutive Australian governments have been implementing similar policies.

First explosions

Pinochet’s regime killed around 60,000 opponents, tortured many others and forced around 1 million people into exile, but never succeeded in completely stamping out the radical tradition among Chilean working people. This radical tradition, memory and anger at gross inequalities today fuel social struggle among large sections of young people.

Six years ago the Socialist Party-led government announced a fee increase for university entrance exams. This provoked the “March of the Penguins”, named for how high school students were said to look in school uniforms. Students demanded total abolition of fees for entrance tests, as well as free public transport for students and an end of the LOCE.

Throughout May and June 2006, high school students carried out thousands of mobilisations, strikes, occupations and other actions. The peak occurred on May 30, when 200 schools and 50 technical colleges were shut down by the Assembly of Secondary Student Committees (ACES); 600,000 students, teachers, parents and university students marched.

In the following days, then President Michelle Bachelet partially met student demands. Exam fees were abolished for most (not all) students. Public transport became free for a small number of impoverished students. The government also initiated negotiations that eventually co-opted a section of the secondary student leadership onto an advisory council tasked with drawing up a new education law. At the same time, the government revived the military dictatorship’s response to protests: police provocation and repression, coupled with the consistent slander of “violence” on the part of the students.

The dual impact of repression and a perceived opportunity to “negotiate” a better system tended to demobilise the movement in the second half of the year. However, student organising continued, spreading to universities.

In early 2008 the University of Valparaiso announced that it would not recognise the National Student (concession) Card system, which individual universities are expected to fund, because that university was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. A sharp struggle broke out in Valparaiso and surrounding regions in March and April, involving all the universities in the area. Students occupied regional government and education department offices, took over the Catholic University of Valparaiso and blockaded roads.

Secondary students in the region established committees. In June the Chilean College of Teachers called a one-week strike to protest the new education law, which is widely seen as the old LOCE with a new name. It later came out that the bankruptcy of the University of Valparaiso was caused in part by executive corruption.

Winter 2011

Student struggle exploded in 2011 as a larger wave of concurrent social struggles swept Chile. These included protests against rising gas prices in the remote Magallanes region, national protests against a proposed mega hydroelectric dam in the far south and intensification of the ongoing struggle of the Mapuche indigenous people for ancestral land and other rights. This was the year Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings impacted youth conciousness everywhere.

Student actions centred on the demands “end profit in education”, “free education”, “reverse municipalisation of schools”, “revoke the basic law on education” and renationalisation of copper mines. One popular graffito states “copper = free education”, pointing out that revenues from Chile’s copper mines, privatised by the dictatorship, could easily fund universal free education.

The first national march by the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH — the public university student union confederation) in 2011 mobilised more than 15,000 students in Santiago before a May presidential speech addressing education. CONFECH rejected the speech and called a new march for May 26 that mobilised 8000 people, including 2000 high school students.

The first national student strike for the year, on June 1, drew 20,000 onto the streets of Santiago. By June 16 the numbers had increased to 200,000 nationally. On June 20, 20,000 secondary students marched on the capital and by June 25, 600 schools, public and private universities and colleges were occupied by their students and/or staff.

The minister called vacations early to disperse the occupations, but most institutions remained under student control. On June 30, 400,000 mobilised nationally; in response the Santiago governor declared that no more marches were permitted on the main street. A mass rally in Santiago on July 14 was 100,000 strong despite the state’s threats to crush it.

On August 4 a Santiago action was repressed, contributing to intensification and greater militancy of the occupation movement. On August 9 a joint university, high school and worker march brought out 150,000 people in Santiago. On August 18, in a “March of the Umbrellas”, more than 130,000 people nationally braved winter rains, the Santiago action ending with a spirited rendition of “The People United Will Never be Defeated”. An estimated 1 million people gathered in Santiago’s O’Higgins Park on August 21 for a mass rally and concert for free education.

The Workers Union Confederation (CUT) called a national two-day general strike for August 24 and 25 in support of student and worker demands. During the first day, barricades were thrown up around Santiago. While the education system and government offices were paralysed, most private businesses continued to operate. On the second day, 400,000 people marched in different parts of the country. All of this took place against a background of escalating repression; on the night of August 25, a 16-year-old was shot dead by military police.

Discussion, debate, awareness raising, local protests and efforts to improve learning and facilities through student and teacher control were organised across the country. A new sense of confidence and purpose also stimulated an explosion of puppeteering, dance, music, banner painting, graffiti art, web design, poetry and polemic — all important in winning majority support. Popular radical musicians such as Calle 13 have supported the movement.

The Chilean winter peaked with a general strike of workers and the state’s deadly response. The failure of the general strike to organise the majority of workers meant mass protests declined in the second half of the year. Large actions were organised again in September and October, including an occupation of parliament. Because of heavy repression, many students were awaiting the outcome of negotiations between the government and student leaders.

The government offered what would be considered substantial concessions in many other countries, including interest rates on student loans reduced from 6% to 2%, an expansion of scholarships and a 10% increase in funding for education. Because the movement was waging a serious campaign for free education, these were dismissed as crumbs.

Many of the occupations lasted for most of second semester 2011. However, after the August peak came a period of consolidation and reorganisation. A high school organiser told La Chispa researcher Raul Zibechi: “Things were getting complicated because the occupation was weakening ... We had to do something more, but we didn’t know where to start until we heard that the Zanon [ceramics workers, who have occupied and managed their Argentina-based factory for more than 10 years] were giving a talk at the University of Chile. We went to listen to them and when we came back we started running the school ourselves.”

Radicalisation and debate

By 2012 most student organisations had moved to the left. The student union of the University of Chile — easily the most influential organisation of the student movement — held elections in December 2011. The result was a clear move to the left, at least in voters’ intentions. The presidency passed from the Communist Party of Chile (CPC) candidate Camila Vallejo to Gabriel Boric, candidate of the Autonomist Left. Boric was seen as a left response to conciliatory tendencies among some student leaders, including the CPC.

A move left also occurred in high schools. The National Coordination of High School Students (CONES), which principally organises prestigious schools, is led by members of the Communist Party. CONES was the strongest high school mass organisation in early 2011. This year initiative has clearly passed to radical independent ACES. ACES is also stronger in the outlying districts of Santiago, so its rise also represents a shift in initiative to poorer areas.

The political difference between the two high school organisations is reflected in their organisational structures. As CONES spokesperson Cristofer Saravia told the right-wing newspaper La Tercera, “We function as representatives, they function through [direct] assembly”.

The radical autonomism of the left student leaders was captured in a comment by ACES spokesperson Eloisa Gonzalez. During one recent tirade, education minister Harold Beyer accused student leaders of losing touch, saying “the students are not following you”, to which Gonzalez quipped: “You have a point, minister. Because we are the leaders, we must follow the students.”

The CUT has also taken a left turn. In August 2012 Barbara Figueroa, a member of the Communist Party and leader of the College of Teachers, was elected president, dislodging the Socialist Party. It is unclear if the leadership change will mean a shift to the left in the CUT’s practice, but it certainly represents increased confidence of a section of organised workers.

The Catholic University Student Union (FEUC) election results, however, continued the status quo, electing a member of the Socialist Party.

Negotiations between the government and student organisations broke down in October 2011. Among other government slanders was a campaign falsely claiming the students were not advancing any specific, concrete proposals. Through 2012, both CONFECH and FEUC made a point of emphasising they were making detailed, costed proposals as published on their websites, distributed in dossiers etc. At one joint press conference in September, Catholic University student president Noam Titleman unfurled a large poster-size graphical summary of student demands to ensure nobody could miss the point — students have proposals.

Students have been unable to force the government to respond concretely to demands, or even to offer anything more than the crumbs already rejected in 2011. Government offers from 2011 were this year drafted as legislation. At the same time, every large demonstration was attacked by police and denounced as violent.

In May La Chispa reported on one contingent of the second national march for the year as follows: “There was a group of 70 secondary students on Mc Iver Street. Their banner was eloquent: ‘Enough conciliation, it’s time to struggle’ ... Behind them were hundreds of secondary students filling the streets.”

By July students started to reoccupy schools across Santiago. According to UPI, hundreds of students occupied various political party headquarters to express anger at the new legislation. High school students took over the headquarters of the centre-left Christian Democratic Party, the far-right Independent Democratic Union Party and the liberal Party for Democracy, while the Socialist Party headquarters were occupied by university students. High school students also tried to occupy the Communist Party headquarters.

In response, University of Chile students once again occupied their central administrative building in August, and at least eight other universities were occupied by students. A communique from the University of Chile occupation called for a mass mobilisation, stating: “While we have been comfortable in our classrooms, the high school students have been advancing the struggle”.

Reformism, popular power and municipal elections

The government is in a protracted crisis of legitimacy, largely due to its inability to put down the student and other social movements. Billionaire President Sebastian Pinera has been receiving around 25-30% approval ratings since the student movement exploded in 2011. Education ministers have replaced one another as each is forced out. By contrast, opinion polls demonstrate 70-80% public support for student demands.

Pinera is widely regarded as the most vapid president Chile has had. His September 13 “public” appearance took place on a sparsely populated part of the vast Paseo Bulnes, where he emerged from a fenced-off public plaza to cover less than 100 metres on foot in less than 10 minutes surrounded by a massive posse of minders, undercover police, military police and scores of cameras and microphones from the Chilean capitalist media.

The essential tactic of the government towards the student movement is repression and slander. A new law before parliament calls for 18 months to three years’ jail for individuals found guilty of occupying buildings. It would also punish those deemed to be disrupting traffic — the reason given for banning some Santiago marches.

Repression of a peaceful popular movement by military police has tended to further undermine the government’s legitimacy — at least among working people, who have historically suffered the brunt of state repression. Implementation of such policies has been brutal.

Laura Ortiz, spokesperson for ACES in 2011, was arrested by the military police during an action at the UNESCO office. In detention she and other high school students were forced to strip naked and were sexually molested by police. There are countless other reports and evidence of sexual assault of minors. Gonzalez recently tweeted she was hit in the vagina while under arrest on September 28. Recaredo Galvez was arrested last year at an action and then framed for allegedly importing arms and attempted murder. He was placed in preventive custody, beaten unconscious and hospitalised unconscious before protests forced his release and charges were dropped.

The government and the parliamentary opposition are also trying to re-legitimise themselves, and broaden their social base through an electoral reform first coming into effect for the October 28 municipal elections. In January, Pinera signed legislation mandating automatic enrolment of eligible voters, bringing millions of mostly young new voters onto the electoral roll. In the past most young people had not bothered to enrol. The expectation is that, while many young people will still not vote, the majority of new votes will go to the left parliamentary parties.

Debate is now occurring between the CPC and others with a similar electoral outlook and, on the other hand, those calling for the construction of organisations that could allow people to exercise power directly.

Many new forms of popular power have arisen, such as high school and university committees, local or regional people’s councils, the workers council in Calama, a copper mining town in the Atacama dessert, popular committees against the Aysen hydroelectric projects, Mapuche organisations and more. Left student leaders argue that students and working people need to expand and link these organisations to build a direct democracy capable of completely replacing the hated and elitist parliament; and that these popular forms potentially have the power to overthrow capitalist power.

The clamour to take advantage of the new electoral opening tends to legitimise the parliamentary system and runs counter to the radicalism of the movement.

Municipal elections

Addressing throngs of young people at the June 28 action in Santiago, Eloisa Gonzalez reiterated the ACES demands for de-municipalisation, the end of profit making in education and community control. She warned that if these demands were not met, “We will wreck their municipal elections”.

Speaking to La Chispa, she stated: “Sectors of the student movement are committing fundamental strategic errors ... Those sectors are politically distinct to us, they are pro-Concertacion [the opposition parliamentary alliance] and come from the Progressive Party and the Communist Party ...

“There are two forms of politics: institutional politics and the politics we practice, which is a popular politics much more rooted in the popular social geography of Chilean society.

“Any proposal that would require profound change in the system will not be recognised ... The proposal of ACES is impossible in the conditions of the present system. We can not apply a project for systemic change within that same system.”

Beyond the slogan to create people’s councils, the student movement has so far not generated any slogans or perspectives to explain what specific steps the popular committees can take in order to broaden and consolidate their strength.

The legacy of the dictatorship is not only what it consolidated but also what it destroyed. The military dictatorship ruthlessly suppressed both workers councils and Marxist organisations like the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. Today there is no significant revolutionary party able to synthesise the lessons of Chile’s history and lead working people and students in a struggle to take power.

Direct Action — October 21, 2012