Chile: tens of thousands march for education reform and social justice

As many as 250,000 students took to the streets in Santiago and other Chilean cities on April 11, renewing their demands for education reform.

After two years of student marches that have paralyzed Chile’s major cities and generated expectations of change to a troubled system, the crisis over education reform remains a key electoral issue ahead of November’s presidential election.

Police responded to the marches with tear gas and water cannons. At least 109 people were arrested and eight police officers were reported injured.

The size and militancy of the protests showed the strength of the student movement, said student leader Camila Vallejo. “This symbolizes that the student and social movement didn’t go home and that the movement is here to stay,” Vallejo told local ADN radio. (AP, April 12)

The protests began during the 2006-2010 government of Michelle Bachelet and grew into strikes and school takeovers that forced her to shuffle her cabinet. Bachelet tried unsuccessfully to calm the movement by naming a committee to discuss student demands. But the protests grew and became an even greater crisis for President Sebastián Piñera, whose only “solution” was to increase the availability of student loans.

Students say that the system fails them with poor public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and unaffordable loans.

Chile’s higher education financial burden on the backs of students’ families is one the most oppressive of nearly any nation surveyed by the multination Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. While families in Scandinavian families pay less than 5 percent of higher education costs and U.S. families pay more than 40 percent, Chilean households must pay more than 75 percent from their own pockets.

Student leaders want to change the tax system so the rich pay more. They also want the state back in control of the mostly privatized public universities to ensure quality. They say change will come when the private sector is regulated and education is no longer a for-profit business.

Bachelet, 62, returned last month to Chile following a two-year absence. She has announced her presidential bid and says that if she wins a second term in office, she will try to end for-profit education. Bachelet said, “Chile is one of the most segregating countries when it comes to education.” (AP, April 12)

Chile’s schools were free before the bloody and brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately run high schools. Many Chilean families bore these burdens for years before student activists gave them a voice.

Although Bachelet’s poll ratings are high against potential opponents, students remain skeptical of her promises after being disappointed when she failed to achieve deep reforms during her earlier term. The students so far have withheld support from all of the candidates for president.

Mine workers strike

The students and their allies have been bolstered by support from organized labor. In addition to the student protests, the Piñera government has faced resistance from both organized and unorganized workers.

On March 1, contract workers at the largest copper mine in the world, Escondida, took over their labor camp seeking higher wages and improved benefits. Although the unionized workers had approved a contract in January, the owners of Escondida, like many big business magnates around the world, have increasingly turned to “contract” workers who are not included in union contracts.

The majority owner of the Escondida mine is BHP Billiton, a multinational corporation capitalized at over $39 billion. Copper, Chile’s main export, has been touted as a financial buffer against the world economic crisis. The importance of Escondida and its workers was pounded home in 2011 when a two-week work stoppage by the workers put the entire world copper market in disarray.

The students and workers of Chile share a common oppression with people all over the world at the the hands of international finance capitalism and imperialism. They deserve the support of progressive people everywhere.