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Chile: a generation has lost its fear

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Mike Gonzalez looks at the new protest movement and strikes that are sweeping Chile
Issue 2267

The young have taken the streets of Chile, and transformed them into theatres, circuses and platforms for a huge protest movement.

The Chilean Trade Union Congress (CUT) mobilised more than 600,000 workers last week in a 48‑hour general strike that paralysed the country. But the driving force and the inspiration was the struggle of Chile’s secondary school and university students, which began three months ago.

Public education in Chile is limited and of the poorest quality. For working class families who want to offer their kids a future, the sacrifice is enormous. It costs between £220 and £530 a month to attend university; the minimum wage is £270 and the average £700.

The result is that 70 percent of students have taken out loans—and over half of them never finish their courses because the burden of debt is too great. It all sounds very familiar!

But as all the leading student spokespeople say, this is not a movement about student debt alone. It is about class. Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was a laboratory for global neoliberalism. The present education system was established after the military took power in 1973. Somehow it has managed to survive nearly 20 years longer than the dictatorship.

What is extraordinary about these protests is their militancy and their creativity, but also the political clarity of their young leaders.

“They don’t teach you to think. They teach computing but no history, science but no philosophy,” says Carmen Sepúlveda, the president of a Santiago school students union. But they have clearly failed to stop them thinking.


The slogans and demands of the demonstrations bring together students and teachers in the rejection of education as a commodity.

The students have taken up the arguments of others too, such as the movement against the multinationals’ HidroAysen dams. They have welcomed the indigenous Mapuche movement that has fought for years against discrimination, repression and the theft of their ancestral lands. They have marched in solidarity with the still-homeless victims of the 2008 earthquake and the Magallanes protests against the rising price of gas.

The students have consciously drawn all these currents together.

Chile is a boom economy, yet 15 percent of its population lives in abject poverty. “Pay for it with copper,” the students say. Copper is Chile’s main export, now mostly in private hands. Mining it raises huge profits at the expense of its workers—as the fate of 33 miners trapped underground for two months showed.

The Chilean movement knows exactly who the enemy is: neoliberalism. That includes not just the present right wing coalition led by Sebastian Piñera, but also the previous centre-left Concertación government led by the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet.

And the protest movement is fearless. A generation of the Chilean left lived out its defeat by the military regime in exile or in silence. The new generation has lost its fear and rediscovered protest.

One of the most exhilarating demonstrations was what was called “Thriller for the Constitution”—a mass imitation of Michael Jackson’s zombie dance. They called for an elected Constituent Assembly to write a new democratic constitution, a lesson they learned from Bolivia and Venezuela. This would dismantle the remnants of the old regime. One banner announced that they were building “A people united without parties”.

The suspicion of politics may be as understandable here, as in the indignados movements in Spain. Yet the history of Chile shows how disastrous the effects of the absence of politics can be.

Real democracy is not a choice between compromises, but a way of shaping a collective future. The arrest of nearly 2,000 protesters and the death 14 year old Manuel Gutierrez is a stark reminder that the ruling class will stop at nothing to protect its interests. The alternative is solidarity across movements and across frontiers.

As graffiti at one Santiago high school put it, “Revolt is contagious”.

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