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Student Movement Rocks Chile

Students campaign against a privatized educational system and demand education as a right.
 
 
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DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN: Chile has been rocked by widespread mobilizations led by the country's students, who are demanding that the state do more to ensure that all Chileans have access to free and quality education to the university level. The protests began in May and have since gained momentum and widespread popular backing, with up to 80 percent of the Chilean public in support of the students. Thousands have participated in the demonstrations, and on August 24, the Workers' United Center, the country's largest labor union, declared a two-day national strike in support of the students' demands. Many protests have been violently repressed by Chile's national police, the Carabineros, and there are reports of at least two deaths, with one 16-year-old shot by police and another high school student leader assassinated. The government of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has put forth several proposals in an attempt to quell the unrest. But students have thus far rejected each response as inadequate. Pinera, a wealthy businessman, is the country's first democratically elected right-wing president in over 50 years, and his approval ratings have plummeted to just 26 percent since the students movement has heated up.

SEBASTIAN PINERA, CHILEAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We would all like for education, health, and many other things to be free for everyone. But we must remember, at the end of the day, nothing in life is free; someone has to pay.

DOUGHERTY: For the top 10 percent of Chileans, who controlled 42 percent of the nation's wealth in 2009, paying for such vital services as health and education, both of which are largely privatized, is not as burdensome a task as for the country's large population of lower, middle, and working-class poor. Following years of steady economic growth, Chile has often been touted as a success story of the neoliberal model, seeking to cut back on the capacity and role of the state in providing social services, while opening up markets to foreign investment through privatization and deregulation. While Chile is considered one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America, it also has some of the highest levels of inequality and a poverty rate of 18.9 percent. According to Cristobal Lagos, secretary general of the student group leading the mobilizations, the Federation of Students of the University of Chile, capitalist restructuring has created an education system that reinforces inequality and poverty while restricting upward mobility.

CRISTOBAL LAGOS, SECRETARY GENERAL, FECH (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The neoliberal system that has been built in Chile has created a tremendous inequality that has made us one of the most unequal countries in the world. The market system in Chile has functioned well for a few of the richest people in the country and has made some families very wealthy, but it has not worked for the majority of Chileans, because it has generated inequity, inequality, and caused many people to fall into debt. . . . What our education system has done is augment that inequality and prolong it throughout the process of one's development from an early age through the primary, secondary, and higher levels of the education system, greatly extending existing social differences. Those who are born poor probably have few opportunities to stop being poor, and at the same time those who are born rich probably have a few possibilities to stop being rich. So what we have now is a system that augments and perpetuates inequality.

DOUGHERTY: The roots of the modern Chilean education system date back to the neoliberal reforms introduced during the country's period of military rule under dictator Augusto Pinochet. General Pinochet came to power in a bloody US-backed military coup in 1973 that overthrew Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist president in Latin America. Dr. Ricardo Trumper, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, was a graduate of the Chilean public education system who fled the country in 1974 following the coup. He explains how the harsh repression that saw thousands of Chileans arrested, tortured, and disappeared resulted in a political climate with little room for dissent, enabling leaders to impose unpopular economic reforms imported by the Chicago school students of free-market economist Milton Friedman that would become a blueprint for countries around the world.

 
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