Chile’s Student Protest Movement: Lessons for all

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On 25 April, police in Chile again used a water cannon to disperse protesters in Santiago and made several arrests.

According to news reports, the demonstration was led by private university students with the backing of other student groups and was also joined by secondary students, workers groups and others backing the students’ calls for deep education reforms.

My attention was first grabbed by Chile protests in 2010, when I saw a wonderful flash mob protest video.

The sight of dozens of students stopping traffic in the capital while they danced the “Waka Waka” was a powerful and positive example of peaceful non-violent protest.  I felt sure it would inspire more creativity among protest groups around the world. The following year, 2011, there were indeed protests worldwide, though flash mobs were not a major feature. Chilean students protests increased, and they excelled themselves when hundreds performed another flash mob to Michael Jackson’s legendary “Thriller” track.

However, demands for greater government support for student fees and reforms in the education sector in Chile were largely ignored. As the student protest movement grew, and they began to occupy colleges, there were violent clashes with police. The scenes are all too familiar.

Fast forward to 2013 and a new education minister, Carolina Schmit, has recently been appointed – the fourth since 2011 – but students are unhappy that repeatedly changing the government scapegoat is a useless delaying tactic, the reforms promised in 2011 have not emerged, and the protests continue.

Camila Vallejo

Camila Vallejo

Upwards of a quarter of a million students were said to have taken part in a march on 11 April. In a now-familiar pattern, 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 (Twitter: @camila_vallejo) who is now a political candidate and happily married mum-to-be. “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. As a student leader, Vallejo helped inspire the wave of protests with up to 200,000 students marching through Santiago every week, which brought education in Chile to a standstill, causing entire academic years to be cancelled.

Over the past 20 years Chile has made significant strides in expanding access to higher education. However, much of this expansion has been achieved through for-profit private universities of uneven quality. Overall, the state pays only 15 percent of higher education costs, leaving families to come up with the rest, often by taking on heavy debt.

Giorgio Jackson

Giorgio Jackson

I learned from listening to a video of a talk by another former Chilean student union leader, Giorgio Jackson, that the protest movement began some years ago, and has gone through several iterations and renewals, adapting and learning how to rise above the government’s repression and clumsy attempts at infiltration and division, and despite apparent conflicts of interest at the group level, to create a unified movement of civil society activists with a common purpose. I was encouraged to learn there was something far more organised and structured behind that joyful Waka Waka dance video than I realised. My research for this post led me to believe that the ideas and effort are entirely home-grown, but the Center for Latin American Studies and the Berkeley Law School described the Chilean and similar movements throughout the Americas as evidence of a “Chilean Winter”. I assume they chose that phrase as a counterpoint to the “Arab Spring” tag so gratuitously bestowed by think tanks and pundits on uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. I wonder why they like to show off that way: such patronage inevitably invites speculation that the US or whoever is fomenting unrest, and threatens to dilute the power and credibility of the protest movements themselves.

Without assigning a “media conspiracy” label, I do feel that the relatively low coverage of the thinking and planning behind the protests in Chile is a pity, because there is much to learn from their experiences. I hope this post helps point anyone who is interested to know more in the right direction. Please post additional links or observations in the comments.

 

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