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Marching Out Of a Dictator's Nightmare: Student Movement Paves Way For Chilean President

The left-leaning leader Michelle Bachelet has pledged to tackle income inequality and make quality higher education free.
 
 
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Students call for changes in Chilean education policy.
Photo Credit: Simenon/Flickr

 
 
 
 

“I want to pay special homage to my father and to all those who gave their lives in the fight to recover democracy,” an emotional Isabel Allende said upon taking office as the Senate President this Tuesday. Allende is the daughter of Salvador Allende, the former socialist president of Chile who died during a US-backed military coup in 1973. “I know he’d be proud to see his daughter in this role.”

Later that day, Allende passed the presidential sash to left-leaning President Michelle Bachelet as she entered her second term in office. The two embraced warmly; it was the first time in Chilean history the sash had been passed between two women.

This historic event marks a crack in the legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet, an event he and his allies probably believed would never be possible when they oversaw the bombing of Allende’s presidential palace, the systematic torture and murdering of thousands of people, and the application of a disastrous neoliberal economy.

Bachelet’s return to the presidency, and her promise for structural changes to Chile’s educational and political system, is the result of a decades-long struggle to move out of the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship, and is one of the fruits of the more recent student movement for a better society.

The success of Bachelet’s second term will depend on how well she can move forward with progressive plans to benefit a population besieged by one of the most stratified income inequalities in the world, and how well she meets the demands of the hundreds of thousands of students who have taken to the streets in recent years.

Bachelet’s Progressive Plans

Bachelet herself was a victim of the dictatorship; she was tortured under the regime, and her father was tortured and died in jail because of his support for Allende. After escaping the dictatorship, Bachelet returned to Chile from exile in 1979 to work as a pediatrician and human rights activist. She later entered politics and was elected president of Chile for her first term from 2006-2010. Though she enjoyed an 80% approval rating at the end of this time in office, the constitution bars a president from seeking a consecutive term.

During the elections in December of last year, she defeated right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei with a record 62% of the vote. On March 11th, 2014 she took over the presidency from the unpopular neoliberal Sebastian Piñera, one of the richest people in the country and a staunch enemy of the country’s student movement.

Though a major economic powerhouse, Chile suffers from a high level of income inequality. On the campaign trail, Bachelet pledged to tackle such inequality with sweeping structural reforms in the social, economic and political sphere. In her inauguration speech, Bachelet said, "Chile has but one great enemy, and its name is inequality. Only together can we take it on.”

Bachelet has promised to make quality higher education free for all, end state funding for elitist private educational institutions, and raise taxes to pay for the educational reforms. She also plans to try and form a national assembly or plebiscite to rewrite the country’s constitution. Chile’s current constitution was imposed under military rule in 1980, and re-writing it has been seen by many as a crucial step toward deepening democracy.

Standing on the balcony of the presidential palace where Allende died during the 1973 coup, Bachelet spoke to the crowd gathered in the Constitution Plaza: “My promise is that this plaza becomes the plaza of a constitution that was born in democracy.”

In bringing about a new constitution, Bachelet would be joining her counterparts in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, three nations which have also re-written their constitutions in recent years. With a majority in both houses of congress, she may be able to make the constitutional changes a reality, along with pushing through the other promised reforms.

 
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