Chili: Student Movement Marks Radical Shift in Chilean Politics

We are here in the capital city of Santiago to find out where the student movement currently finds itself, and in what direction it is heading. This past year has seen a visible decrease in the number of street protests and school occupations; has the Chilean student movement run out of steam, or passed into a new phase in its ongoing efforts to develop a cohesive social movement as it gears up for the 2013 school year, and upcoming presidential elections next November?


The students of Chile grabbed the world’s attention in 2011 following massive mobilizations across the South American country demanding access to free and quality public education. Both secondary and university level students organized general assemblies, school occupations and sit-ins, and took to the streets in the largest numbers seen since the country’s transition to democracy more than 20 years ago. The students frequently found themselves confronted with a national police force, called the Caribineros of Chile, that seemed to show little reluctance in violently suppressing the largely peaceful movement, with one student confirmed killed by a police officer in August 2011 during the height of the protests. It’s been more than a year since The Real News first covered the Chilean student movement, where we traced the historical roots of Chile’s education system, among the most heavily privatized in the world, to the period of neoliberal reforms introduced under the brutally repressive dictatorship of General Agosto Pinochet, who came to power in a bloody US-orchestrated military coup in 1973.

David Dougherty, Santiago, Chile: We are here in the capital city of Santiago to find out where the student movement currently finds itself, and in what direction it is heading. This past year has seen a visible decrease in the number of street protests and school occupations; has the Chilean student movement run out of steam, or passed into a new phase in its ongoing efforts to develop a cohesive social movement as it gears up for the 2013 school year, and upcoming presidential elections next November?

Gabriel Salazar is a renowned Chilean historian and professor at the University of Chile who specializes in the study of social movements. He says that while the students may not have maintained the same presence in the streets over the past year, they have since pushed to further develop autonomous forms of organizing in an effort to operate more independently of the traditional party politics that according to him had attempted to influence and steer the movement during the 2011 protests.

Gabriel Salazar, Professor of History, University of Chile: The student movement and social movements in general are not constituted solely by massive marches in the street, because another more important aspect is the process of reflection being realized by the students, the process of generating their own thought in regards to educational policy… the student movement nurtures itself with its own capacity to propose and decide, without being driven by political parties, as an exercise of the natural sovereignty of the students without being driven by the political parties, they are internal processes, and so with the social movement it’s not just about how many times it does or doesn’t appear in the streets, it is consisted more fundamentally of the ways in which the students go about forming their political position internally and in phases.

The secondary and university level student movements have had distinct and sometimes diverging strategies and experiences during the mobilizations, which at times have created tensions within the movement. While many of the secondary level students ended up having to repeat a grade after missing much of the 2011 academic year following the occupations staged in a number of schools, the university level students eventually returned to classes to finish the year, after the government said they could either choose to accept a proposal including slight increases in student financial aid programs, or face losing the aid altogether for those students who were not attending courses in protest. Isabella Bolvarar is a secondary level student who participated in the mobilizations and the occupation of her high school in 2011. She says that while herself and the other students returned to class in 2012 in order to avoid missing another year, the issue is far from over.

Isabella Bolvarar, Secondary student, Santiago, Chile: I think the student movement is going to be reborn because it’s still an unresolved issue, it still hasn’t been taken care of and so we can’t wait for it to die just like that, right now I think it’s in a stage or lapse of tranquility because the majority of us are finishing up the year and people are concentrating on their studies and their future, but the truth is that the question of the mobilizations is always going to be present because the education system is still bad, they still are not granting us genuine rights, they still don’t respect us as students or people, so either way it’s going to come back, I think next year it will be back just as strong if not more so

A number of commentators have posited that the student movement, which at one point enjoyed the support of an estimated 80% of the Chilean public, has transformed into something larger than an immediate demand for free and quality public education, raising fundamental questions about Chile’s political and economic model. Fabian Araneda was recently elected as Vice President of the University of Chile Student Federation, or FECH, a key player in the 2011 mobilizations. He replaces former FECH president and later vice president Camila Vallejo, the young geography student who became one of the most internationally recognized voices of the movement. We met with Araneda at the FECH headquarters in downtown Santiago, where he explains how a key development in the students’ strategy has focused on strengthening ties with other popular sectors affected by Chile’s neoliberal model.

Fabian Araneda, Vice President, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH): A diagnosis we made as students was that in 2011, one of the things we were lacking was connections with other sectors in struggle, we were lacking strong links with workers, with housing activists, regional movements, ethnic movements. So in 2012 we began to make inroads, particularly with the housing and workers movements, this was a positive advancement we made this year, but we still have a lot of work to do. Above all because within the student movements and the popular movements, we still haven’t made these connections programmatic, so that the demands of the distinct sectors form a common demand against the system that is currently trampling all over us.

Differences in opinion have arisen within the student movements over the degree to which they should participate in official political processes and attempts at dialogue with the government. So far, the rightwing administration of President Sebastian Piñera, a wealthy businessman who became Chile’s first billionaire president upon taking office in March of 2010, has made no significant changes to the educational system. Some students feel that as a social movement, direct action tactics and sustained mobilizations like those seen in 2011 can be the most effective ways to bring about changes in Chile’s post-dictatorship political landscape, which they say is characterized by an entrenched institutionality reinforced by the country’s constitution, enacted in 1980 during Pinochet’s 17-year rule. Others call for varying degrees of participation, warning that the students could alienate themselves as a movement should they become too isolated and removed from the official political process. Hugo Jofre is a student at the University of Chile and a leader in the center-right oriented student group called University Center Right, which has advocated student engagement in public policy proposals in order to address the problems facing the national education system.

Hugo Jofre, Student Leader, University Center-Right (CDU): It’s necessary that we enter a new stage, a new period where the students, whether it be secondary or university level, are capable of articulating proposals on a larger scale and thinking of ways to overcome these problems by generating public policy proposals and generating solutions to problems that aren’t solely based on taking over spaces, or staging more marches or convening more people to come out.

Jofre and some other students have lamented the 60 percent abstention rate in the country’s recent October municipal elections, which were the first with voluntary rather than obligatory voting since Chile’s 1990 transition to democracy. Although turnout was extremely low among the general population, which some commentators have attributed to a general lack of public confidence in the country’s political system, several newly established political parties formed in part by former student leaders from the 2011 mobilizations made significant gains, including a victory in one of Santiago’s municipalities. Camila Vallejo, herself expected to be a potential congressional candidate for the Communist Party in the upcoming 2013 elections, urges students and social movements to maintain a sense of unity and to participate in the electoral front in tandem with other organizational strategies.

Camila Vallejo, former President, Vice President, FECH: The social movement must be the principal actor that propels the transformations forward with an eye towards 2013, which is an election year, the movement cannot stay at home, the social movement cannot lose heart, instead it should assert itself with strength, through the mobilization, but also at the organizational crossroads, with respect to the transcendental issues in our country which I believe are being tackled in distinct spheres, because this is not just a debate about the education we want, it has to do with the country we want to build.

University of Chile sociologist Alberto Mayol has studied the student movement extensively. He says that while they have not achieved their goal of free quality public education, the political advances they have made mark a radical shift in Chilean politics.

Alberto Mayol, Sociologist, University of Chile: The great irony with the student movement is that it did not achieve substantial changes to the education system, at least not yet, and yet it radically changed the country. One could perceive that now because of the student movement, there is a new thematic opening of space that implies the end of a political transition, which includes a greater demand for a much more intensive democratic process in Chile, and an approach to issues of inequality that is radical and that implies a necessary public policy shift in order to address inequality, and so while the student movement has not achieved administrative success, it has achieved political success.

While some students are looking towards 2013 with aspirations for a return to the massive street protests that shook the country in 2011, others are mobilizing ahead of the electoral season, hoping to ride on the momentum of the social movement that has changed the political and social face of Chile. Reporting from Santiago, Chile, this is David Dougherty with The Real News Network.