Bad Education

Girl holding banner during Chile student protest

It seems that the nippy Chilean winter sent a chill down youngsters’ backs, shaking them out of a stupor in which the whole country had been imbedded since the fall of Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1989. Students filled the city streets throughout Chile in early April this year, demanding free quality education for all and using innovative forms of protest such as relay races, “kissathons” and street dances.

The demonstrations continued until August 4th, when students confronted unprecedented levels of government repression. The government rejected a planned demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, revealing the brittle sutures over an authoritarian past. High school pupils, university students, professors, and supporters gathered downtown only to be met by teargas embroiling any groups of more than three people, blocked subway access, and police lines closing streets and preventing mobilization toward any collective civil action taking place downtown.

Tensions rose even higher after August 26, when a policeman shot and killed a 16-year-old boy during demonstrations. Still, authorities continued to clamp down on civil protest. The dearth of political participation of recent years was shed by the student movement, but it also revealed the legacy of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet – an incomplete democracy that, contrary to global opinion, reigns with fetters of iron.

The Penguins Grow Up

Educational reform had been on the forefront of the student consciousness since 2006. In that year, an action took place where secondary school students blockaded school entrances with piles of desks and demanded that the government repaired the crumbling education system. These pinguinos (or “penguins”, dubbed as such because of their black and white school uniforms) placed the country in a deadlock as they passionately marched down the streets and butted heads with authorities. This unpredicted uproar sent a shudder across the capitol, but to no avail. In the face of harsh aggression from the Chilean police forces, the ”penguins” settled for minimal reforms and receded back to their overcrowded classrooms.

Right-wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera took the presidential seat in 2010. It was then believed that the polarization that had once plagued the country, along with the ghastly ghost of Pinochet, was to have finally disappeared. Still the education crisis continued to deepen as more and more students silently fell victim to skyrocketing student loans. 

Many students who had been forced to drop out of school started to push the question: Why is the Latin American country with the highest GDP also the same Latin American country with the lowest GDP percent allocation toward education? Other South American countries contribute approximately 7% on average, but in Chile, the region’s emblem of economic progress, only 4 % is contributed. This percentage  places Chilean education funding on par with countries where higher education is viewed as a luxury- such as United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.

The ”penguins” have now grown up and call themselves ‘los mal educados’ (“the ill mannered”) and draw mass support from university students, teachers and workers unions.

Victims of a Failed Neo-Liberal Experiment

This crisis generated due to the sweeping privatization and restructuring of the educational system by Pinochet’s regime. Pre-Pinochet Chile had nine private universities, whereas post-Pinochet Chile saw the exponential development of thirty-six new private universities – encompassing 92 % of the higher education sector. Public education institutions receive a meager 20 % of government subsidies, and families provide most of the funding through tuition fees.

Education in Chile is currently governed by the General Law of Education, which states that educational institutions are officially non-profit (this law was passed after years of pressure to change a previous law, which endowed educational institutions the de facto right to run as business enterprises). Over time, university owners have wriggled their way around the system, and found various ways to render educational institutions into money-making instruments.

In Chile, access to information, knowledge and books outside of the university system is highly taxed. An unbelievable 19% tax exists on books, gravely superseding those tax-levels of highly industrialized countries such as France (5.5%), Canada (7%), the United States (7%), Switzerland (2%), and Japan (5%). The tax (which includes textbooks) makes books virtually inaccessible to people of lower socioeconomic echelons, and thus creates an enormous economic barrier to knowledge. Still countries with much fewer resources, namely Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, and Mexico, place absolutely no taxes on books. 

Fed up with a system that leaves no room for social mobility, students are now demanding complete, free access to education at all levels. This includes free transport for all high school students, the repeal of Constitutional articles prohibiting student participation in school administrative institutions, and re-nationalization of the cooper industry, Chile’s largest export product and source of revenue, to fund the new educational system. Finally, the students’ long-term objective is to regulate profit-making educational institutions.

Innovative Mass Protests

The movement has been pioneered by 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, President of the Federation of University Students in Chile (FECH) and member of the Communist Youth. Vallejo mobilized students on April 4th to topple schools and engendered a wave of debate and awareness concerning the issue of education. In light of a past that scarred the country with fear, these protests have embodied an innovative, artistic and peaceful style aimed at the counteraction of  scare propaganda distributed by President Piñera. 

Through displays of love, laughter and music the movement has garnered more supporters and increased awareness. Manifestations include mass dances of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with thousands dressed as walking ‘zombies’ towards the education system; two minutes of a national lip lock – el Besatón or ‘Kissathon’ – exuding to the love and passion inherent in the youth movement; theatrical and symbolic suicides in the presidential plaza; and art installations and exhibitions with teargas used by authorities called the ‘Museum of Repression’. Another creative outcry was the 1,800 Hours for Education – a relay race for 1,800 hours around the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, to reiterate the urgency of the matter. The sum 1,800 symbolizes the amount of money necessary to finance education in Chile for one year – less than one-third of military spending. The Internet has also been used creatively to mobilize and inform. One website, (, unfortunately both now closed, once allowed students to post their debts online. The last total posted was $56,157,142,867.00.

The movement has escalated to untenable heights. The protests began with 15,000 students, and reached a pinnacle on the 21st of August, when 700,000 students and supporters gathered in Santiago for a general strike called by the students and the trade union federation

Students currently occupy 500 high schools and 22 universities in Santiago alone. According to Mayor Pablo Zalaquett these sieges have resulted in $750 million pesos in financial loss to the city. Initially, the government saw these demonstrations as merely empty acts of juvenile mutiny. Alcohol and drug consumption at the student-controlled schools have compelled the government to call the movement, “yet another form of delinquency that has plagued the country”. UDI (Chilean right-wing party) deputy Gustavo Hasbún has labeled schools under student occupation "dens for delinquents". 

However, masked demonstrators and rioters represent only a small percentage of the movement and many of these individuals have been identified as undercover policemen trying to incite more uproar. “I feel that a large percentage of masked demonstrators are undercover cops. This is historic. There are many people who they [the government] pays to not attend protests or to create havoc,” said Camila Vallejo adding that “[these people] do not represent the spirit of the majority. There have even been situations where students themselves raise their hands against this kind of action, but it is not our role. It is the policemen who should prevent this from happening.”

Fear Mongering from Political Elites

Amid debilitating accusations, students in the movement sought to engage in discussion with the Minister of Education, Joaquín Lavín. The Minister however have himself made a lot of money from investments in the construction of a university. Hence, the students refused to undergo a dialogue with a politician with a clear conflict of interest. Reaching his political nadir he spitefully called the students ‘criminals’ and moved winter vacation forward so that students could skip holidays but not valuable ‘classroom time’ – a clear maneuver to tame the movement. 

After a massive demonstration on July 7th with a glimpse of international coverage, and a drastic drop in President Piñera’s popularity rating, the government offered a $4 billion education fund geared towards more scholarship, extra loans, and subsidies for low-income families. Still, he remained adamant that students would not receive what they are asking for. “Nothing is free in life. Somebody always needs to pay,” he said, alluding to tax increases that would presumably be allocated toward education. By late September, approximately 70,000 students had lost an entire school year and thousands more were ousted by the government from their campuses. What at first seemed to be a successful repression  of the student movement only provoked more violence and re-occupation of school campuses that were ousted.

Yet, Chile’s economic growth endows it with the privilege to fund education without tax increases. “I have clearly stated that we don’t require tax increases to finance our reforms,” says Chilean Minister of Finance Felipe Larrain. Although meetings have convened, students continue to be apprehensive about open dialogue with a government that outright disregards full public funding of education as an option.

The Polarization and Repression of the 1970’s Reemerges

The student persistence and government hesitance has brought other pressing issues to the surface – most importantly the ongoing ideological polarization and authoritarian zeal. Chile has the resources to fund education and assuage civil unrest, but still they refuse to consider full free education  for purely ideological reasons. Political elites continually show their true colors – in the forms of tear gas showering through the crowds, high-pressure fire hoses blasting crowds, and multiple arrests attempting to stop peaceful demonstrations. Policemen have injured innumerable students, leaving concussions, fractures, third-degree burns and cuts. The city of Concepción itself lays stifled by a toxic cloud due to the  excessive abuse of tear gas.

On August 26th, these kinds of violent repression culminated with the death of a young teenager, Manuel Gutiérrez, who was killed by  a bullet from a policemen’s rifle. Even still, conservative government officials have encouraged use of the military and threatened to penalize all demonstrators covering their faces (whether fully masked or only partially). Members of the Renovación Nacional (Chile’s liberal-conservative party) have called for the use of rubber bullets during demonstrations because, as Mario Desbordes claim, “Water and gas just aren't enough."

Students stormed a Congressional meeting on October 20th, demanding  an immediate referendum on education. Outsiders watched as education Minister Felipe Bulnes fled the student intervention and tensions continued to rise, signaling more violence and discontent to come.

The already unequal Chile is evidently dividing into two camps. Each new incident renders the authorities more and more reminiscent of the military dictatorship, widening and amplifying tthe gap and antagonism. The voice of young Chileans, previously muffled by the influx of consumerism, is now reaching out and is louder than ever—with a creative flare unheard of in previous movements. The generation that did not partake in the party system rupture of the 1960’s now feels like the guinea pigs of an economic experiment they never took part in. “We were, and are, a Neoliberal experiment” speakes volumes for disenfranchised youth around the world amid the global economic crisis’ of capitalism.