CHILE: Student protest movement goes global

The Chilean student protests have grabbed attention across the world, partly because of their unprecedented scale, and partly because of the media fixation on one of their rather attractive leaders, Camila Vallejo. However, while the protest movement itself has grown, and drawn allies from other sectors across Chile, it has also made international alliances and had interesting international repercussions.

For example, on Thursday 24 November students across Latin America joined in protests on World Education Day, for the right to quality and profit-free education. Demonstrators took to the streets in Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay, El Salvador and Colombia. In Europe students in Spain, France and Germany joined in.

This indicates that the Chilean student movement has managed to strike a nerve among students across the world. The question is, how and why?

The Chilean student protest movement has a long pedigree, and understanding this will help to understand why this movement has struck a chord in other parts of the world.

For Chilean students, as for Chileans in general, 1973 marks a watershed point between two different conceptions of what education is for and how it ought to be provided. Beginning in the 1930s state subsidy of education began, the idea being to equip people with the skills needed to ensure national development.

Throughout the following 40 years the role of the state expanded further, providing Chile with a flagship educational system that saw students from across the region flock to the country, and producing many home-grown cultural figures.

Following 1973, the dictatorship and its ideologues had a different vision. Education was no longer to be provided to all, and the state was to hand over funding and management of education to local authorities and business. The rationale was to prevent education from becoming a hotbed of what was perceived as 'radicalism.'

The result was a highly unequal educational system, with richer areas enjoying better schools than poor ones.

It also encouraged vast corruption since the state paid subsidies per student, which encouraged school-operating companies to falsify registration documents, and cut costs as far as possible while still reaping the subsidy. The owners of these businesses were often people linked to the dictatorship, who were those that had the money to set up such businesses in the first place.

Inequality deepened since the state continued to part-fund the better universities which took more and more of their students from the better (wealthier) schools. At school level, the poor lost out, with their taxes subsidising the education of the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the poor were overwhelmingly forced into debt in order to attend private universities of often dubious quality. These again were often owned by those linked to the dictatorship, although some later became linked to the governing coalition that followed.

Military dictator Augusto Pinochet recognised the importance of education in the 'model' that he had brutally established in Chile by locking education into the constitution he had written in 1980.

This constitution was ratified virtually at gunpoint, and until the late 1980s was not accepted as legitimate by any of the political groups in opposition. That is, until the United States threw its weight behind the Chilean 'transition' and encouraged moderate parties heavily influenced by Euro-communism and social democracy to accept it in exchange for a transfer to civilian rule. The 1990 LOCE, Organic Constitutional Law on Education, ensured the continuation of the dictatorship's educational system.

This law has prevented any fundamental changes to the Chilean educational system despite constant student mobilisation throughout the 1990s. Successive centre-left governments after 1990 were either too afraid, or too tied into the system, to change it.

In 2006 up to a million Chileans participated in the 'march of the penguins', which which school children demonstrated to reform the LOCE and have the state provide centrally-funded education again. The then-government negotiated and agreed to superficial reforms, but left the market in education intact, thus seeding the scepticism of government that we witness in the Chilean student movement today.

At the same time the Chilean educational model was only the more extreme version of what right-wing governments across the world tried, and in some cases are still trying, to achieve. The cuts to government funding of education and the introduction of fees and local control of schools all undermine the concept of free and universal access to education, and aim to reduce the state role in this fundamental sphere.

Protests such as those last Thursday show the commonalities of interest of students and education workers in different countries. In the last year, the UK has seen the largest student mobilisations for many years, essentially protesting at a similar set of policies as those being resisted in Latin America.

In Colombia, for example, the government of Juan Manuel Santos has tried to impose reform that would have privatised higher education, and effectively handed control of curricula to 'the market'. The largest marches for a generation were the result, with dozens of students arrested, and severe repression, leaving many injured and killing one student in Cali.

The Colombian government had Chile as an example and has withdrawn the proposals for now, wary of the potential for student protests to spread to other sectors, as they have done in Chile.

At the root of these protests is the contrast between the vast wealth being extracted from these countries (copper and various minerals from Chile; oil, gas, coal and others in Colombia) and the failure of the state to harvest and redistribute it to the people.

Both Chile and Colombia are highly unequal societies with similar education systems. This inequality is most clearly experienced in education since it is the path through which many aspire to overcome poverty.

The internationalisation of the protests is partly the result of these similarities, but also of an acknowledgement by students themselves that they can support each other, and by doing so strengthen each other in their pursuit of free, high quality, state-funded education.

In doing so, they are also challenging an entire socio-economic model and proposing an alternative. What they could be heralding is the end of the neo-liberal ascendancy in the Latin American heartlands of Chile and Colombia.

* Victor Figueroa-Clark is a Latin Americanist at the London School of Economics with a particular interest in left-wing politics across the region. His PhD research looked at the Chilean left during the Pinochet dictatorship, its relations with the socialist countries, and in particular how it participated in the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.