1058 Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue. 2pm. Hundreds of young people on the sidewalk, hanging signs, sitting in groups, chatting, writing, painting. And dogs, a lot of stray dogs by their side. That was one of the first scenes I saw when I got to Santiago, Chile in July 2011 and walked by Universidad de Chile. On that huge, impressive yellow building, there was a sign unfurled from the windows proclaiming “La Lucha de la Sociedad entera. Todxs por la Educación Gratuita” (The struggle belongs to the whole society. All in favor of free education)
This is just a snapshot of what is going on in Chile for the last few months. High school and college students have been taking over universities and colleges all over the country and declaring strikes since July 2011 in order to obtain free education. Education in Chile has followed the neoliberal rules since Pinochet took over in 1973, privatizing all universities in order to let the “invisible hand of the market” guide the education industry and generate competition for “quality”.
Students in Chile are currently engaged in a struggle to have more access to state-sponsored education, instead of going into major student debt that requires decades to be paid off. Many of the student slogans are graffitied onto building, “No + Lucro” (No More Profits”, “No + Miseria, La Revuelta es Ahora” *No more misery, the revolution is now!” And they also believe that deprivatizing Chile’s natural resources would provide funding for free education: “destruyamos la educacion de mercado, nationalizamos el cobre” (Let’s destroy market-based education, renationalize copper.”
What is happening in Chile points toward the same elitist dynamic that has been happening all around the world, including U$A: the wealthy people have the money to keep studying (in the best universities) and the poor people can’t afford to study at all, or they struggle like hell to pay college tuition. It’s absurd to restrict knowledge only to the ones who can afford it, this is nothing more than a kind of of caste system, if you can pay you can improve your skills and develop a critical mind, if not, you’re condemned. Besides that, not having a college degree in underdeveloped countries means getting only shitty jobs where people are treated as shit, working thousands of hours and barely making enough money to pay the bills.
The demonstrations in the capital of the country has involved more than 600.000 people on the streets and have had support not only from all students in the country but also from their teachers, professors, education workers and family. The most amazing thing is that it’s common now to see elderly and even children taken by their parents to the demonstrations; all oppressed people seem to have understood this struggle belongs to everyone. Elderly people watched and suffered through all the atrocities committed by Augusto Pinochet and now see a chance to try to claim the rights they’ve once lost. And parents want their children go to university in a few years, so they see a chance to guarantee their future. There’s a picture that can be found online of a 7-year-old boy in a demonstration, wearing a bandana and holding a sign that says “Con mi papá aprendo a luchar. Después aprenderán mis hijos” (With my dad I learn to fight. So will my children in the future).
Another element that has been getting people’s attention and even attracting more people to the demonstrations are the creative forms these students have been using to express themselves. Costumes, choreographed dancing, performing and acting. A kiss-in was held for more than 100 students in front of a university. Some students have taken turns jogging around Santiago, always holding a black flag that says “Free education now”. A die-in was also held, with people holding signs saying “Morí esperando una educación de calidad” (I died waiting for a good education). A hunger strike has also been held by some students.
One interesting aspect of the student revolution is that some students have identified with the Mapuche indigenous struggle. For centuries, the Mapuche people in Chile have been fighting against government repression, land seizures and attacks on their communities. Many pro-Mapuche posters and slogans can be seen among the student slogans, which shows the respect and solidarity students have for the Mapuches, who have long been discriminated against by Chilean society. The violence against the Mapuche people is also symptomatic of repressive regime seeking to stifle minorities and promote profit-driven industries.
Students have also occupied universities, creating an open space with free lectures and classes given by the some students and professors for the whole population. They have taken over many buildings and have been doing what needs to be done: spreading knowledge for those who are interested in free education, regardless of their socio-economic standing.
The government reaction to these actions has been violent as usual, the “Carabineros” national Chilean police has been suppressing all demonstrations with heavy tear gas, water cannons, and many arrests. Unfortunately, one adolescent has died so far during the riots, 14-year-old Manuel Gutierrez was shot in the chest by a Carabinero. But all this repression has further fueled the movement, and it has been said that more than 70% of the Chilean population supports the strike. Nobody likes seeing their own children be beaten up by the police, and the whole situation has stirred up more anger and frustration against Chilean government.
And now it’s not just a struggle for education, many other workers have been going on strike and participating on the demonstrations, especially hospital and emergency services workers, taxi and truck drivers and copper miners. In late August there was a 48-hour general strike called by an alliance of 80 unions.
So it’s definitely not only a student struggle anymore, they have reached that point of no return that sometimes can be seen in history, when something huge is about to happen. These moments, when a whole society is unsatisfied and decides to go out into the streets and speak out – this is something to be celebrated and praised! As it all started because of educational issues, it’s definitely an incentive to make us think about the educational system in US and around the world under the neoliberal rules: why should we leave knowledge and education under the free market’s control? What effects will it generate in the future? What will children being educated under this regime become?