<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Student Mobilizations Produce Chile’s Largest Protests Since the Fall of Pinochet

While President Bachelet Cracks Down on Demonstrators, Chilean People Reject Neoliberal Education Policies Created By U.S.-Backed Dictatorship

By Liz Munsell
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

June 9, 2006

VALPARAÍSO, CHILE: 800,000 high school and college students persist in a fourth week of strikes throughout Chile while student leaders attempt to reach an agreement with the Ministry of Education over their complex set of demands. What began in May as set of requests for free id cards, public transportation and more accessible prices for Chile’s college entrance exam has since grown into the largest mobilization the country has seen since the protests that ended military rule in the late eighties. Secondary school students on strike were joined by university students last week as both an act of solidarity and a way to push their own demands. While university student are participating in strikes and marches the face of the movement and the force behind it are los secudarios – secondary school students, age 13–18. A poll taken following Monday’s general nation-wide strike shows that the secondary school movement enjoys an 87 percent approval rating from their compatriots, while only 16 percent of Chileans support the presidency’s response to the mobilization. With this political leverage in hand, the generation that was born into a democratic, post-Pinochet Chile is demanding a reform of education policies created by the dictatorship that remain in place today.

One of the many occupied high schools
Photo: D.R. 2006 Liz Munsell
Student and worker mobilizations typically develop every May in response to the president’s annual address on the 21st. This year, however, the price of copper (one of the few state industries not privatized under Augusto Pinochet, now accounting for about half the country’s exports) prices hit record levels, producing a large trade and budget surplus for the government. This raised Chileans’ expectations for what the newly elected executive government can and should provide in response to their demands. Workers in the health field also went on strike last week, inquiring about resources owed to them by government. In Valparaíso, employees of LIDER, Chile’s largest department store, marched alongside students during Monday’s general strike. Also present were several indigenous Mapuches bearing their nation’s flag, who were thanked for their presence and offered solidarity with their political prisoners in a speech by student leaders.

Following the non-violent march of 14,000 in the streets of Valparaíso, one of various new stencils spray-painted around the city reads loud and clear, “Bachelet — give up the money for free education.” Beyond street art, the strategies that the current secondary school movement is employing are forms of protest that have a history in Chile. During the dictatorship of 1973-1990, schools and universities were the only spaces that enjoyed any kind of legal protection from police and military intervention. Only a school or university’s rector can grant permission to police to enter school premises; for this reason, during Pinochet’s rule, rectors were often appointed by the dictatorship. School tomas, or take-overs, in the eighties typically lasted for a matter of hours before rectors authorized police to enter the building, often resulting in on-site violence and the imprisonment and torture of students as young as 14 years old. According to one participant in the first school toma that took place during the dictatorship, this strategy of protest “was transmitted orally, through documentaries, through the memories of the youth of the eighties who are the parents of the youth today.” With this political consciousness present, students have occupied 46.7 percent of secondary schools throughout the country in the last two weeks.

“Bachelet — give up the money for free education”
Photo: D.R. 2006 Liz Munsell
Although inside their schools student have received more petty threats from neo-nazi groups than they have from police, on the streets of Santiago the “special armed forces,” or riot cops, have reacted harshly to student protests. Over 1,000 students have been arrested in Santiago in the past two weeks and police have used their traditional tactics of tear gas and tanks equipped with contaminated water to force protestors away from a march or action. Despite president Michelle Bachelet’s dismissal of the chief of police responsible for ordering acts of police brutality that occurred on May 30th, violence has persisted in the capital. An Indymedia Santiago post reported that even police who have been “sanctioned” by the government continue to repress marched in the center of Santiago. On June 5th Indymedia collaborating journalist Jorge Zúñiga San Martín was hit in the head by police and draged to shelter in the Universidad de Chile by students participating in the demonstration. While student leaders in Santiago requested that students remain in their schools for the Monday’s national strike in order to avoid potential police conflicts, 20,000 took to the streets downtown.

Behind the locked the gates of their schools, students have been organizing both the practical aspects of living on campus and caring for each others’ needs, as well as the future of their movement. In Valparaíso’s municipal school Liceo B-30, students take turns occupying their building, ensuring that at least 30 students are inside during day. The 10 students with the most understanding parents sleep over at night. They take turns shopping, cooking and soliciting donations for food. They’ve even dragged a stereo system into school premises, ensuring that sound waves of reggaetón fill the space of the nearly empty halls. A vast majority of the youths’ time is spent in discussion of the movement’s course and in the basic maintenance of cleaning and caring for their school.

Since the strike began on the 27th many secondary school students have embarked on the process of understanding the law that structures education in Chile. The students of Liceo B-30 and many other have been able to do so with the help of university students who have provided them with materials and given them brief lectures about the politics that effect the quality of education in Chile. Student organizer of Liceo B-30, Paloma, recounts that “in three days, really, really quickly,” she and her classmates began to have an understanding of the politics in the background of their education, a realization that in effect changed the objectives of the secondary school movement from simple demands for lower student costs to a complete upheaval of the politics of education in Chile.

The Organic Constitutional Education Law (LOCE) of 1990 was dictator Augusto Pinochet’s last stab at reforming Chile’s social institutions. LOCE officially makes the management of primary and secondary schools the business of whoever has the money to purchase and run a school. Miguel Paz of La Nación Domingo reports, “it should not come as a surprise, then, that the most prestigious and successful schools are linked to the big businesses of the right, to Opus Dei, to the Legions of Christ, and to other ex-authorities of the dictatorship.” According to Article Two of LOCE, even while the government is not charged with providing education to its citizens, it is still has the responsibility of “protecting the exercise of the right [to education].” As a result, the owners of many schools, whether they be wealthy individuals or companies, are paid government subsidies per student in attendance at their school.

While the government offers monetary incentives to the owners of schools for disadvantaged children, it does not have a concrete system of regulating how such money is spent in the actual education of each student. The Minister of Education recognizes that approximately 4% of its funding for education, or USD $160 million is lost to fraud committed by schools’ owners annually.

With this massive mobilization, secondary school students have produced the most powerful voice in favor of reforming leftover dictatorial policies in Chile in sixteen years. The Student Federation of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (FEPUCV) is among four university groups in Valparaíso that have mobilized to both support the movement and further its causes to address legal reforms of education. FEPUCV spokesperson Andres Cortés comments, “It is important to recognize that… of these 30 thousand students [organizing in the fifth region], I don’t believe that more than a third know what LOCE is. Because of this, we as an executive board have made a commission that goes to various schools and informs them.”

While many students may not have been familiar with the policies that shape their education before the movement began, Universidad del Mar law student Iván Lara Lara insists, “beyond the recent external influences [of the university students], this movement developed because [secondary school students] have lived the last stage of the prejudices that the educational system of the free market can have…

Even in the industrialized city of Valparaíso, students are confronted with basic problems such as leaky roofs and underpaid teachers. While LOCE requires students to be in school two extra hours a day, a policy referred to as the Jornada Completa, or whole school day, professors are not paid extra and as a consequence students report that they are not learning anything during this time. At Liceo B-30, student leader Claudia exclaims, “Chile imitated the jornada completa stupidly, because other countries have the resources to do it, like Spain, United States — but Chile, how can we? …We leave high school and chao… there’s nothing that says that ‘these girls specialized in computation, they studied the human body or knitting,’ some knowledge of something. We leave high school like this, with bare hands.”

Photo: D.R. 2006 Liz Munsell
A survey completed last year in Chile found that only 2.1 percent of high school students from municipal schools earned the minimum score required to enter a university on the country’s college entrance exam. Even while Liceo B-30 is on the second-highest of four tiers of classifying the quality of a school in Chile, not one of its graduated students went directly to college last December. Within this context, the Ministry of Education’s offer to grant the poorest fifth of the population a free entrance exam seems irrelevant; students from lower tier schools don’t just lack the $45 dollars required to take the exam, they lack the preparation required to stand a chance at entering a university.

This year in Chile, students who live the effects of these policies daily have consolidated their frustrations in the secondary school mobilization. Although the more concrete demands of student activists have been resolved through negotiations with the Ministry of Education, the strike persists due to the complexity of students’ demands. Major constitutional reforms will have to precede any type of reform or repeal of LOCE. Through the experience of a mass mobilization, students have come to understand both the politics that structure education in Chile and the incapacity that Bachelet’s center-left coalition has in addressing these issues. Professor Alejandra Briones at la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso explains, “This forth government of La Concentración (Chile’s ruling center-left coalition) doesn’t have the real freedom of making drastic decisions because they are a post-dictatorial government; they’re bound to a totally right-wing constitution.”

While Bachelet’s major claim throughout her run for the presidency was her desire to augment the participatory side of democracy, her current challenge is how to convince her electorate that their say matters, when Chile’s constitution is based in a profound mistrust of the people’s ability to positively effect the future of their country.

In an open letter to the student activists of today’s movement, Lawerence Maxwell, Chilean novelist, sociologist and student activist of the eighties, reflects “What you all have done, the marches, the long days of striking and tomas, has shaken a national consciousness that had been sleeping and this already is important. Hopefully this with result is a process of democratizing education, and in the search of a less exclusive model, but this is, from my point of view, secondary, only an effect of something much more transcendant, which is an act of recuporating dignity, something that occurs in the movement of protesting, taking the streets, oppossing injustice, of letting out your voice and saying no.”

In a press release on Wednesday, Spokesperson of the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (Aces) Karina Delfino announced that students will continue to strike until the government agrees to give half of the seats on a committee that will look into reforming education in Chile to student participants. With the strength of 800,000 behind her, the 18-year-old told the country, “We are not disposed to accept this commission as it is proposed by the President.”

Liz Munsell is an independent journalist and photographer from the U.S., currently working and doing research in Valparaíso, Chile.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America