Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chilean students and democratic education

Chile's Student Rebels: Views From the Trenches

by Eloy Fisher, Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

Sunday 14 August 2011

Protesters outside the University of Chiless main
building, August 8. (Photo: Fernando Mandujano)

Radio Toma, loosely translated as "Occupation Radio,"
broadcasts non-stop information about the protests
being staged in front of the University of Chile's main
building - literally a stone's throw away from the
Presidential Palace of La Moneda. Since June 10,
students have occupied the beautiful neoclassical 19th
Century campus as the protests have continued to
intensify around their one demand - to dismantle the
market-based approach of the Chilean educational
system, something they have scornfully come to label
"Pinochet's education."

"We just distrust the political class," one of the
students in front of Radio Toma told me. But even when
the political establishment tried to discredit their
protests, students' responses turned out to be
well-organized. They are fully cognizant of their role
in trying to overhaul not only the educational system,
but the tense democratic framework put in place by the
Pinochet regime as well.

The media so far has been complacent in its coverage.
Except for the same international agencies which tend
to cover the protests from the political trenches,
Chilean media seemed very cozy inside the tall steel
gates of the Club Hipico, where flustered cameramen and
news commentators took pictures, argued about
attendance and whether the march would take a turn for
the worse. Unlike the conventional narrative, these
protests are not limited to the wayward acts of
"subversive vagrants" (as the gaffe-prone Senator
Carlos Larrain publicly derided), or even worse, a
lighthearted, middle-class uprising - a view implicit
in the New York Times and in a recent interview with
neoliberal pundit Moises Naim.

All of these fractures are also being seen in Chile's
Winter of Discontent. Eerily reminiscent of previous
shifts, today they pit the demands of a growing (as
well as younger) cohort of citizens against a
traditional elite who are desperately trying to buy
themselves legitimacy and time, all the while being
cognizant of the fact that this year's campus activist
is likely the next decade's presidential candidate.

When I asked about the endgame at Radio Toma, the two
students there nodded - "look, honestly we don't know
where this is going to end. We do not own society's
demands. This movement is dynamic in nature... but in the
end it all boils down to a conflict in legality." As he
said this, we heard the sound of hundreds of sneakers
treading across the sidewalk. He looked at me, excused
himself very politely and ran into the building, all as
the police quickly moved in and sprayed everyone with
fast speed, heavy volume water cannons.

A few hours before, as the march departed from the
Universidad de Santiago station, the mood was jovial -
under the loud and constant tapping of police
helicopters, people drummed, danced, chanted and waved
banners against what they deemed as Pinera's tone-deaf
attempt to save, at all costs and against their wishes,
the educational compact dating back from the Pinochet

Two veterans of these protests, Manuel and Carlos,
watched the march from one of the more festive corners
of the protest. At the Avenida Espana and Claudio Gay
intersection, people in the balconies were throwing
sacks of water and confetti on top of the students and
singing along with their tunes taken from other songs,
in an attempt to freshen-up the protesters as a
surprisingly beautiful spring day was made more pungent
by the multitude. "I have not seen so much people since
the No Protests," Manuel said, while Carlos nodded
along. Both had been tortured during those violent
episodes that rocked Chile for months during the heady
days of the Pinochet regime after the economy plummeted
in 1982. But as the thousands of teenagers and
twenty-somethings streamed into the street, they could
not help smiling - "we have to give it to them. These
kids have extraordinary courage. I can only hope they
can change what we failed to do, because we were

Yet, students are surprisingly modest in their demands.
Cristobal Lagos, Secretary General of the Universidad
de Chile's Student Federation, one of the biggest
student unions spearheading the effort, recognized the
matter plainly as we walked down the street into
Almagro Park, where the march would ultimately
congregate - "we don't like Pinera, but we don't want
to break the institutional framework. However, if after
this movement others [movements] are born, that's
better. Because of what we are doing, people will come
out and demand real change in Chile."

But despite the appeals for calm, I spoke with one of
the up-to-no-gooders in full combat paraphernalia as he
taunted the police in one of the side streets near the
area - he said that they were allowed to go past La
, but he was lying - the area was clearly
off-limits. As more and more people flooded the park's
bounds, tensions started to flare despite desperate
efforts to keep calm on both sides. As the march turned
around down the streets of Manuel Matta and Nathaniel
Cox, I witnessed the frantic efforts of one parent (as
he called himself while he herded the students into the
designated route) who stood between the students and
the police, as some anonymous rocks fell dud, short
from the heavily armored police.

As the hundred thousand-strong march flowed through the
decently sized park, it didn't take long for the
protest to trickle beyond the strictly defined
"designated" area by the government, and towards the
menacing police barricades. While the author ran across
the side streets around the park, it was clear that
both protesters and police were uncomfortable near each
other's inherently dangerous presence. One can be
excused for being slightly subjective on such subjects
of several germane subjects since when one comes from
Panama, where until very recently and despite some
particularly morose circumstances, police and students
were prone to negotiate, interact and even, jokingly,
defuse tensions during policy oriented protests. These
antics could have just as well been carried out on the
sidelines of a World Cup soccer match same as could be
carried out in one of Pinochet's or his Panamanian
counterpart's torture chambers. Panama has changed,
much like Chile has taken on an unattractive cast, even
while bearing a democratic garb. In a new world of
austerity and economic crises, a fractured society
where Chilean carabineros are once again being restored
to power while Chilean students are once again losing
their innocence, the police think nothing of fiercely
answering the taunts of the kids with their kaffiye
covered faces, to be followed without much provocation,
later, experienced, and now camped-in at Radio Toma,
and where students are emboldened enough to retaliate
the scorn with rocks that they harvested from potholes
in the street.

It is very difficult to see where this will end
politically - divisions seem to be growing as we speak.
Once again, there are some scattered references to UNAM
protests in Mexico, where students unsuccessfully, if
bitterly, occupied the university for almost a year to
protest against tuition increases. These students now
have recognized, they cannot alienate society without
creating channels to carry away the angst that pervades
Chilean society. "Those protesting today, we are the
same pinguinos (colloquial forstudents in Chile) who
protested in 2006, and who were cajoled by the
Concertacion's roundtables and big plans that amounted
to nothing..." the students at Radio Toma said, as they
explained their distrust towards the government's
appeals for negotiation. Feeling no love for the
Concertacion, who they see as the same elites with
different stripes, they view themselves as a movement
that is hurriedly coagulating different political
aspirations, producing water instead of blood.

"We've held out for three months... if we get something
now, it has to be big."


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