Chile: The student return to politics | by Carlos Torres

by Mar 15, 2012Magazine

chile2011 will be remembered as the year of the Arab spring, Spain’s indignados and Occupy Wall Street and the thousands of other social mobilisations which coalesced around the dissatisfaction with the multiple crises of capitalism. A social model that incessantly and brutally expanded the limits of capital began to face signs of exhaustion. Accumulated and converging cataclysms simultaneously appeared at its core, as a result of neoliberal policies implemented over the last several decades.
In Latin America, neoliberalism was advanced during the post–Cold War era. In Chile it was through authoritarian means whilst in other countries it was advanced under regimes of liberal democracy. For Chile the process of neoliberalism got under way during the Pinochet regime and became more extensive during the post-dictatorship period. Neoliberalism firmly established itself through the existing institutional system in Chile. Although it functions through repression, it developed within the context of liberal democracy.
These political and economic processes continue to unfold in several countries of the region. Neoliberal’s obstinacy however produces the social, economic and political conditions that, because of their reach, provoke social resistance. Coincidentally, creating the conditions for an equally profound questioning of the system. If we return to the 1 January 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas against NAFTA, we realise that the indigenous movement shook Mexican society and also transformed it into a source of inspiration for struggles for change in other regions of the world.
A new approach to politics is sweeping Latin America
The aforementioned inspiration has been expressed in movements that have both renewed politics and the ways it is practised. It is different from the anti-capitalist, socialist oriented movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As social mobilisation develops and challenges the established power, it also dares to break open the sacred territories of formal power. It does so by participating in legal and institutional spaces, in practice transforming constitutions and thereby integrating sectors usually excluded from public and institutional life.
What has developed in some sectors and regions of Latin America is a new way of understanding and approaching politics. This proposal implies a new culture of participation that questions the right and left. Political categories are being redefined in a region subjugated by a neoliberal ideology that has become the dominant paradigm, hence transforming the political culture of contemporary societies.
Practical convergences of reformist struggle with revolutionary and democratic content are visible. This makes possible the implementation of significant changes in the Andean countries of the continent. Resistance to the economic and political designs of the US is due to the strength and creativity of broad social movements promoting an agenda that represents the needs and interests of the people – thus creating a favourable context for transformative struggles.
Neoliberal state or state neoliberalism
In Chile, neoliberal politics were imposed under a military-business dictatorship and until very recently the climate did not appear favourable for challenging the current right-wing government led by Pinochet´s cherubs. The Pinochet government had changed the administration of power and made mere gestures towards the protection of human rights but sought to repress and criminalise social movements and indigenous communities.
The Mapuche Nation is severely subjugated by the state. Several indigenous people were assassinated during the post-dictatorship governments and a high number of Mapuche political prisoners remain in jail. The state protects anti-democratic institutional bodies that benefit the defacto and authoritarian power while it simultaneously employing legal mechanisms to expand capital accumulation.
This state is conceived of and designed to meet the needs of neoliberalism. The cost, however, is paid by the environment, common goods and working men and women. The fallacy of the successful businessmen is based on the double exploitation of the environment and labour.
The dynamics that sparked and fuelled the recent mass mobilisations allow us to extrapolate scenarios regarding the possibilities of change amid and in spite of the capitalist crises, crises that have always been chaotic and tragic for the poorest of Latin America. Social organisation centred in stable and productive work no longer exists, but yields to the informal economy that with time has created a substantial informal sector, alienating the majority of the population from politics and participation.
In Chile, a country controlled by the market and capital, students roused from sleep a society drowsy from the lustful consumption of the neoliberal model. The students’ alert shook off the apathy of millions of people spellbound by advertising and entertainment, prisoners of credit and debt.
Education: caught in the bulldozer of capital
Mobilised students questioning the neoliberal basis of the educational system characterised 2011. They demanded free education and an end to the debt they were forced to assume in order to study. They confronted the government concerning profiteering in educational establishments by businesses that provide services, specifically in the areas of finance and retail. Education operates like any factory, mining, chemical, wood or industrial complex. It is seen as another sector of economic activity developed to expand the frontiers of capital through onerous fees and high interest rates on educational loans. Hence transforming it into a type of double surplus value extraction.
The expansion of social injustices created by the implementation of neoliberalism decades ago was the latent spark that had set off secondary scholars in 2006 who demanded profound reforms to education. After weeks of strikes, occupations of schools and confrontations with repressive forces, a table of dialogue was set up to study the matter and propose reforms to the government of President Michelle Bachelet. The process, however, was drawn out and finally lost in parliamentary manoeuvres and deals between political parties and the state bureaucracy.
With this reference in mind, students knew that this time the mobilisation had to project itself with force and build consistent proposals and alliances. The student movement began in April 2011 demanding changes and reforms. President Sebastian Piñera responded to the students with an ideological defence of the model, stating that, ‘There is nothing free in life and education is a consumer good.’
The Minister of Education, Joaquín Lavín, and all of the official press media responded in the same way and the government’s reluctance to accept some or all of the students’ demands polarised the confrontation. At the same time some saw this as an opportunity for cracking the inflexible neoliberal model. Similarly the petitions were challenges to the economic architecture of the system, offering the possibility of creating an opening for other issues, such as housing, healthcare and pensions. It would be difficult to isolate the demand of free education once it was accepted.
In the middle of the Chilean winter a political spring, unthought-of by national analysts, was in sight. It was a political crisis that the students had never even fathomed the movement for educational reform could unleash and the cold month of July forced a ministerial restructuring that evicted Lavín from the Ministry of Education, relocating him to a cold, low profile ministry.
The students’ own path …
The government’s strategy with the student was to pretend to engage in talks whilst in fact using delaying tactics to divide the movement. Government attempts to stall students was met with a growing student movement which sought to expand and intensify as it garnered more popular allegiance.
Faced with the government’s refusal to capitulate to their demands with excuses of a lack of financial resources by government, students aroused the sympathy of broad social sectors. They called for the implementation of tax reform and the nationalisation of natural resources, specifically the large mining industry. Although government attempted to invalidate the students’ demands as ‘politics’, protests in their favour grew throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of people in Chile’s major cities echoed the students’ demands.
International solidarity strengthened the struggle as well. Colombian students also found themselves confronted with the privatisation of public education and thousands responded by taking to the streets, forcing the government of Juan Manuel Santos, Piñera’s close ally, to withdraw the bill. Spokespeople of the Chilean students were invited to Brazil and Europe to speak about the nature of the movement, resulting in widespread support for their demands.
The student movement persuaded diverse sectors of society to joint them in their demands. They were the children of workers and therefore part of the social fabric of the nation. As such, their problems extended to all parts of society as they did not consider themselves a sector encapsulated by its own imperatives. Nonetheless, the students emphasised their autonomy from political parties, government coalitions and business interests. Moreover, the majority of student federations called for a transformation of society, including the political constitution that impedes the democratic process in matters that affect people´s lives.
At the end of 2011 Minister Bulnes resigned and the third Minister of Education in less than two years was appointed. Expectations are uncertain, although he has responded to none of the legal reforms and material demands. It is clear that the Chilean students succeeded in putting the model against the wall, freeing the conscience of millions of men and women from the straightjacket imposed by neoliberalism.
They declare themselves the generation without fear, ideological ties or burdens to obstruct their path. They are challenging the logic of the system and the principle of capital. The student youth succeeded in mobilising millions of people with the occupation of schools, creativity, breadth, dancing, barricades, pot banging and radicalism. It is an autonomous left that does not accept guardianships or vanguards. The students outlined a new political horizon for the country that they want to reach together with the rest of society today.
Carlos Torres is a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice and an adviser to the World Social Forum.
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