Some 800,000 school students struck in Chile on Wednesday of last week. Over 100 schools have been occupied and demonstrators have clashed with the police. Universities are on strike in solidarity and news programmes interview the school students’ leaders every day.
As in the French student protests earlier this year, the Chilean movement is fighting against the impact of neo-liberalism.
But in Chile the movement, which has been building up since mid-May, is not engaged in a defensive struggle against a new government policy. The students are raising their own demands for a different kind of education system.
Education in Chile was privatised in 1990, during the dying days of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The state system was destroyed, and some schools put in the hands of companies which ran them as businesses. Other schools were put under the control of local councils, but the councils were starved of money. Private schools now spend five times more per pupil than those run by councils.
The students are demanding free travel to school and the scrapping of college entrance exam fees. And they want the education system restructured to meet the needs of students rather than the corporations.
The movement is very much in evidence on the streets of the capital Santiago. On my way to work I drive down three or four streets near a shopping centre. In one, my two kids are occupying their school.
Two blocks away another school is occupied. The “pinguinos” – school students are called “penguins” because of their white shirts and blue ties – have piled chairs over the school gates as a sign of occupation.
As I continue down the street I pass a small private school that has a banner outside, which reads, “We support the council students.” On Thursday of last week, private students showed their support by marching through the poshest area of the capital.
The wind that is blowing in the Americas has changed the way people think. The new mood is fuelled by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez saying on TV that George Bush is an idiot and a terrorist, and by the elections in neighbouring Bolivia that brought a radical president, Evo Morales, to power.
Further afield, we all saw the French student protests against new youth labour laws earlier this year – another example of not accepting the “inevitable”.
In Chile a new centre left president, Michelle Bachelet, was elected earlier this year. She constantly says that “people must participate”. This gave a green light to the students.
One great thing about this movement is that the students’ leaders talk straight. For example, last Thursday the president went on national television to offer concessions, including an extra £70 million a year for education.
The reporters tried to get the school student leaders to “informally” accept the proposals. Their reply was, “We are not authorised to talk until the students’ national assembly discusses the proposal tomorrow.”
The reporter asked, “But what is your personal opinion?” The reply was, “My personal opinion is that the assembly has to discuss it first.” It’s the first time in many years that we can hear, see and feel this kind of democracy.
Last weekend the students’ assembly rejected the governments’ offer and called for a solidarity strike for this Monday. Not all agreed because some students feel that when teachers’ and health workers’ unions get involved in a conflict it becomes too “political”.
But the strike on Monday of this week was for a new education system, and that is obviously “political”, but, as one of the students said on the radio, not “party political”.
The new generation distrusts politicians, but also people who talk “politics”, even if they are trying to help.
It’s best not to exaggerate, because massive movements can turn into nothing pretty quickly.
But real change is in the air, and building organisations that talk “politics” in the best sense, and also know how to intervene, is now a real possibility and not just a dream.