Why Chile’s Student Movement Won’t be Fooled Again

Chile’s student movement is likely to plow forward on the path to free education once classes resume–whether president-elect Michelle Bachelet likes it or not.

Chilean university students have spent the last ninety days in the steamy haze of a Southern Cone summer. And they’ve got another month and a half to go to lounge on the dreamy playas of Viña del Mar.

But summer vacation is no break for the young activists that have fueled Chile’s massive student movement who have spent the holiday schooling US university organizers on best-practices in building popular power and picketing in solidarity with port workers in Santiago.

The movement, which will celebrate its three-year anniversary in August, was born in 2011 out of a need for more public universities and desire for education reform. But the uprising functioned more broadly as a backlash against the dominance of the neoliberal for-profit education model in one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries, a call for equity that united all sectors of Chilean society against the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Under the watchful gaze of President Sebastián Piñera—the country’s first right-wing leader elected to the Chilean presidency in over 50 years—the students allied themselves with workers and the indigenous Mapuche alike to “paralyze” the nation’s major metropolises, all the while championing their ultimate goal: free education for all.

Fervent organizing goes on, and it would seem summer is only a lull in the student revolution’s activities, though whether students will come back with their former numbers and force still remains to be seen.

But when students return to campus in March, they’ll no longer have Piñera’s to contend with. National elections on December 15 returned former-President Michelle Bachelet, a single mother, torture survivor and agnostic to the La Moneda presidential palace. On paper, she sounds like the perfect ally for the burgeoning student movement. Except the Chilean student movement knows better. And they’re not about to be fooled twice.

For Francisco Vasquez, an author and Valparaíso native, as well as a veteran of Chile’s 2006 student-led Revolución Pingüino, a wave of protests that saw nearly 800,000 secondary and university students striking and marching for education reforms during Bachelet’s first term, she is just another Obama—all hope and no action. But unlike social movements in the US, Vasquez doubts Chilean students will put their tail between their legs in deference to a friendlier presence in the presidential office.

“Bachelet promised many things on the education front during her campaign, as well as during 2006 when she was president,” Vasquez said in a Spanish-language Skype interview with Gozamos. “And those originated with the student movement, but she hasn’t done any of what she promised.”

Part of Latin America’s “pink tide,” Bachelet disillusioned legions of observers in Chile and internationally with her blatant use of violence against Mapuche communities and her unwillingness to work with the students in 2006. And that’s a betrayal young people like Vasquez, who is part of the generation that matured from secondary-school “pingüinos” to university activists in the later uprisings, aren’t apt to forget.

“Piñera made various modifications [to education policy] that assuaged the student movement, but resolved some of the issues the movement had been demanding action on since 2006. For students, this will be a second opportunity to put more pressure for the demands that Bachelet didn’t act on before.”

For the students, the ball is in Bachelet’s court. During November, current student leaders warned Bachelet that if she didn’t keep her campaign promises around education, “there will be new mobilizations,” Vasquez says.

And if the new center-left government hopes to keep students from clogging the arteries of the country’s major cities with marches and strikes by enacting meager reforms—well, let’s hope they’re not holding their breath.

Because as Bachelet reclaims the presidency in March, four fresh-faced, newly elected representatives will be inaugurated into the House of Deputies, Chile’s lower house of congress. And all four are ex-student leaders, including the über high-profile media darling Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson.

Vasquez says these leaders “sold themselves to the political parties to occupy a post of importance. Now, nobody follows them and they’re criticized by the new student leaders.” His claims have merit; Vallejo and Jackson have been lambasted as sellouts across the web.

The movement’s reaction is an obvious sign students aren’t ready to relinquish their strength on the streets in favor of traditional politics. In an interview with Reuters, the new head of the Universidad de Chile’s student body Melissa Sepulveda said, “I wouldn’t vote for [either of them]. The possibility for change isn’t in Congress.”

[PHOTO:  Osmar Valdebenito / Flickr / Creative Commons]

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