Chile: student revolt challenges the Pinochet order

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For over five months now, since the end of April 2011, Chile has been convulsed by huge student protests at the quality and cost of secondary and university education. The Chilean right-wing coalition government led by billionaire President Pinera, a former supporter of General Pinochet, has failed to head off the revolt. Student and teacher unions alike dismissed its offer of talks at the beginning of September as the government rejected central demands such as the abolition of profit-making in schools and universities. Robert Claridge reports.

Since the struggle started, at least 200 secondary schools and universities have been occupied and over 100,000 students have been on strike. At one time there were more than 20 secondary school students on hunger strike. There have been vast demonstrations in the capital Santiago – 100,000 at the beginning of June, 150,000 on 9 August, at least 250,000 on 21 August and 350,000 four days later at the end of a two-day general strike. Tens of thousands have protested in other cities, with up to 70,000 in Valparaiso and Concepcion. The state response has been brutal, the paramilitary carabineros deploying water cannon and firing tear gas and rubber bullets in constant running battles with the students. Yet public support for the youth ranges between 65% and 80%, whilst that for Pinera has slumped to 26%. Student leaders such as Camila Vallejo (a communist), Giorgio Jackson, Sebastian Farfan (the most radical) and Camilo Ballesteros have become national figures, eclipsing government ministers and spokespersons whenever they appear on TV.

The student struggle is the largest of many against the Pinochet order this year. In January, a general strike in the south of the country against proposals to end gas price subsidies forced the government to concede most of the demands of the grassroots Magallanes Citizen’s Assembly. Indigenous Mapuche people continue to fight for land rights and against the use of Pinochet-era martial laws against activists. In June, 50,000 marched to demand the government honour a pledge to legalise gay marriages. In July, Dichato residents were attacked as they demonstrated at the failure of the government to build any promised new houses in the seaside resort, destroyed by the February 2010 earthquake and tsunami. There is massive opposition to the government’s Hydro-Aysen hydroelectric project which would flood 5,000 hectares of a pristine Patagonian environment. Ownership of the country’s copper reserves has become a major political issue. On 11 July 2011, 40,000 workers in the nationalised CODELCO mines went on strike against initial steps to privatise it.

A 2010 survey found that 82% of 20 to 29-year-old Chileans were dissatisfied with a political system that keeps an elite entrenched in power. Approval ratings for the ‘centre-left’ neo-liberal Concertacion alliance, which ruled between 1990 and 2010, were 17% in August, worse than Pinera’s. People see it as part of the elite which has promoted neo-liberalism and tolerated the subsequent inequalities. Students from 17 private schools showed the depth of the political crisis when they declared on the 9 August demonstration that ‘what is ours through privilege should be for all by right’. It is evident that the Pinochet constitution has to be torn up if the Chilean people are to move forward.

Inequality and a dependent economy

The rapid and continued expansion of the Chilean economy since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 has been driven by world demand for copper, the country’s principal export. It was enabled by the dependent, neo-liberal order established in the 1980 constitution which denied the working class any effective rights, throwing it into destitution in the 1980s.

In 1987, 45.1% of the population lived below a poverty line defined by the dictatorship as an income twice the cost of satisfying a person’s nutritional needs. Using this inadequate yard-stick, 13.7% remained in poverty in 2006. Taking into account other costs such as housing, energy, transport and clothing, poverty levels are in reality 25-30% with 5.3% living on less than $2 per day. Although it has the highest per capita income in South America, Chile is also the most unequal country in the OECD. In 2000, the income of the richest fifth of the population was 61% of GDP, while that of the poorest fifth was 3.3%. This is not changing. In 2005, the poorest tenth received 1.2% of GNP (1.4% in 2000) while the richest tenth received 47% (46% in 2000) – a forty-fold difference.

Pinera boasts that he wants Chile to be seen as a first-world nation by the end of the decade. In reality, the country’s export-driven economy will be unable to escape its dependent status as the world enters recession. Copper accounts for 60% of exports by value and over 15% of the economy. A fall in demand and price will have a dramatic impact. As it is, 70% of copper output is looted by multinationals. The world’s largest copper mine is Escondida, owned 57.5% by Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton and 30% by Rio Tinto Zinc. Producing 26% of Chilean copper, the mine’s output of 1.483 million tons in 2007 was worth just over $10bn. With the average copper price then $3.32/lb and direct costs (including smelting) $0.67/lb, gross profits would have been $8bn. Royalty payments are miniscule: $220m for all private mining interests in the first six months of 2010, and $419m in the first six months of 2011.

Education: No + lucro – No to profit

A law Pinochet enacted one day before he stepped down in 1990 passed administration of public schools down to the country’s 345 municipalities and allowed the establishment of state-subsidised private schools. Paying for this privatised system became a family responsibility so that state expenditure on education in Chile at 4.0-4.4% of GDP is the lowest in the OECD.

The inevitable outcome is that schools in poorer municipalities are starved of funds, are in a poor state of repair, lack essential facilities and, because they cannot afford decent pay, get the least experienced or worst teachers. Of 10,500 schools, 5,600 are municipality-run with 1.5 million students. There are 3,200 state-subsidised for-profit schools with 1.0 million students. These tend to be in better-off municipalities, and are part-funded by the state through a voucher system; the family has to pay the rest. These schools can select their students, and can afford better teachers and better facilities. There are also 950 not-for-profit state-subsidised schools, run mainly by Catholic organisations, with 550,000 pupils, and 650 fully private schools for the rich with 230,000 pupils.

This semi-privatised system ensures that 30% of 16-year-olds from the poorest fifth of the population have left school (6% from the richest fifth), and only 64% of 20 to 22-year-olds have completed secondary education (95% from the richest fifth).  Students are clear: nationalising all secondary schools is the precondition for raising standards and reducing inequalities.

Higher education: study today, pay till you die

The story is even worse at university level. 36 out of 61 universities are private, profit-making  institutions which 80% of undergraduates attend. They are scarcely regulated, and many are just diploma factories. They have the biggest budget for marketing after supermarkets and department stores. The only entrance requirement is ability to pay, and a private university course costs between $50,000 and $75,000. Again the burden falls on to families which bear 85% of the cost: state spending on higher education is 0.3% GDP compared to 1.3% across the OECD. The average student debt on graduation is $40,000-45,000.

Only 21% of students from the poorest fifth of the population get to university (55% for those from the richest fifth), but 60% drop out anyway because of the cost. Those students who are able to get to public universities where there are academic entrance requirements face tuition costs of $25,000-35,000; these have risen by 26% over the past six years. Students may take many years to complete their courses because of the long hours they have to work to help pay. The banks make huge profits from loans which shackle students effectively for life. Pinera’s proposals to increase bursaries for the poor and reduce interest rates on student loans have been rejected by the student movement as window-dressing: the problem is the system.

The ‘March of the Penguins’

The 2011 revolt is not the first against education inequalities. In mid-2006, the ‘March of the Penguins’ (so-called because secondary school students would march in their tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands wearing their standard navy blue and white school uniforms) involved widespread school strikes and 250 school occupations before the then Concertation President Bachelet bought it off by with the promise of reform. But the changes which were finally approved in April 2009 were cosmetic: they did not address the structural inequalities. Initial proposals to ban for-profit schools and to end student selection were abandoned following opposition from the right wing and the centre of the ruling Concertacion coalition. Municipalisation remained, and the legislation further diluted the poor quality of teacher training.

‘If the bitch is killed, you get rid of the litter’ – General Pinochet

The response of the ruling class to the re-emergence of the struggle in April this year was a combination of savage police repression, crude denunciation and inept media distortion and mis-reporting. In May, Pinera was saying that it was time for the protests to stop. ‘Education is a consumer good’ he has said and ‘profit is a reward for effort.’ As well as routinely using water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators, the general in charge of the Santiago carabineros freely admitted to using agents provocateurs; one was filmed and chased into the Congress building during an August demonstration in Valparaiso. Over 3,500 people have been arrested: 800 on 4 August in Santiago when Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter repeated that ‘the time for protest is over’ and used a Pinochet-era ordnance to ban a proposed march, and 1,400 during a general strike of 23-24 August when carabineros shot and killed 16-year-old Manuel Gutierrez.

The ‘quality’ dailies El Mercurio and La Tercera constantly minimise the size of protests and claim the movement is in the hands of the ‘encapuchados’ (hoodies), the youth who fight back against the police. La Tercera has reported fictitious splits in the student movement. However, ruling class representatives sound increasingly absurd. In a radio interview, Providencia mayor Cristian Labbe, a former general in Pinochet’s secret police, said of Vallejo ‘Here we have something perverse: an argumentative girl with a daemonic expression who mobilises half the country because she is pretty and somewhat smart, and has the country on its knees. She’s a devil.’ More ominously, the mayor of Santiago, who regards secondary school students as ‘delinquents’, called for the army to be deployed against any student protest on 11 September, anniversary of the Pinochet coup in 1973.

Not that the state is getting its own way. In July, the education minister was shuffled out of the way: Joaquín Lavín had made $20m when he sold his interest in the Universidad del Desarrollo. When in August a senior government official tweeted Pinochet’s infamous phrase in a clear reference to Vallejo, she was sacked. Within four days of Gutierrez’ death, four carabineros had been dismissed and one charged; they were followed by the national commander-in-chief, General Eduardo Gordon, who resigned when he was exposed days later for rigging an investigation into his son’s responsibility for a hit-and-run accident.

As we go to press, the government has closed off negotiations, hoping that the rebellion will run out of steam. On 21 September, on Labbe’s orders, police ended five school occupations in Providencia: there were militant protests, and now the flagship public school for boys in Santiago, Lastarrias, has one carabinero in each classroom to prevent any re-occupation. The next day, 180,000 marched in Santiago, and the student union federation CONFECH has called for another national strike on 29 September. Well might the Pinochetistas of today fear for their future.

FRFI 223 October/November 2011