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Issue #1893      November 6, 2019

Student debt and neoliberal discontent in the Chilean Spring

On 1 October 2019, the Chilean government under President Sebastián Piñera announced an increase of 30 pesos (US$0.04) during peak hours in the Metro de Santiago. What began on 6 October as a simple high school fare evasion, known by the slogan “evade y lucha” (dodge the fare and struggle), quickly spread across Chile, with the largest protests, 1.2 million, on the streets, putting to flame the image of Chile as the poster child of the success of Neoliberal economic policies. As the protests began underground train stations, supermarkets, pharmacies, and petrol stations were set afire. News cameras showed the carabineros, national police force, on the streets viciously attacking teenagers. On October 18, unable to quell the riots, Piñera called a state of emergency and deployed the military, and invoked the Ley de Seguridad del Estado (State Security Law), for the first time since 1990. The following day Santiago fell under a 10 pm curfew.

The memory of the horrific years under the brutal military rule of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) were brought back as 11,000 soldiers and carabineros attacked people on the streets of Chile. As violence grew dockworkers and miners called for a national strike. Workers at the Escondida copper mine, owned by Australia’s BHP Ltd, held a 10-hour strike in sympathy with the students, which the trade unions called a “warning stoppage.” On October 21, the Communist Party of Chile released a proclamation stating that “the false expectations irresponsibly created by Piñera and the right are the cause of accumulated anger and the social explosion.” An estimated 5 percent of Chile’s population were demanding “que se vayan los milicos” (“Let the Soldiers Leave”) and banging pots and pans, a tradition known as cacerolazo, showing their frustration at the poor economic conditions in a country that has the greatest economic inequality in South America. The uprising has now been described as the “Chilean Spring.” On October 28, Piñera reshuffled the Cabinet, replacing eight members of his Cabinet, including the Ministers of Interior, Finance and Labor, and the Secretariat of the Presidency.

On October 25, Piñera announced reforms in education, healthcare, and pension systems. Pensions would rise by 20 percent to US$150 per month. It was an attempt to stop the protests before the now-cancelled international Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to have been held in Santiago on 16-17 November. Piñera had taken office in March 2018 but had also previously served as president between 2010 and 2014. Given his political record, he will show little real sympathy towards the poor unless he is forced to by popular unrest. In May 2018, three Mapuche (Indigenous group of southern Chile) activists were sentenced to prison under the counter-terrorism law. Their former acquittal in October 2017 was later annulled. However, In July 2018, the Supreme Court granted conditional release to seven former police and military officers serving sentences for human rights violations. Both incidents raised popular condemnation.

After the recent revelations of government corruption, the protesters demanded a reduction in income inequality, starting with pay increases and cheaper basic services. The minimum wage in Chile is 301,000 pesos, with half the workers in Chile earning around 400,000 pesos. While officially, 8.6 percent of the population live in poverty, 36 percent of the urban poor live in extreme poverty. Other demands include: student-debt forgiveness, a reduction in public transport fares, a forty-hour week, the restoration of union rights and collective bargaining, the nationalisation of public services and energy sectors, the end of the private-sector pension fund, the cancellation of the “water codes” introduced by Pinochet in 1981, progressive tax reform, and a new migration policy. In 2018, 27,000 Chileans died while waiting for urgent health care in the nations poorly-funded public hospital system.

By October 26, according to the National Institute of Human Rights (NIDH), over 20 people had been killed, 3,162 people had been arrested, and 997 injured, including 470 people shot by the military. Many had been shot in the face with pellets, losing their sight, while others had been shot in the limbs. If this tactic of creating a large number of injuries seems similar to that used by Israel against Palestinian protestors, it is because in 2018 Chile and Israel had signed an agreement encouraging further “cooperation in military education, training and doctrine.” Chile NIDH has filed fifty-five criminal cases, including homicide, torture, sexual assault, and even of someone being crucified. The United Nations Commissioner, and former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, announced a team would be sent to Chile to investigate human rights abuses against demonstrators. Bachelet said: “I am deeply disturbed and saddened to see violence, destruction, deaths and injuries in Chile.”

It is of interest to see how the international media has viewed the Chilean crisis, in marked contrast to the way it has portrayed demonstrations in Venezuela. News outlets such as CNN, New York Times, and NPR describe the protests in terms such as “riots,” “violent unrest,” and “chaos.” The major media corporations described the brutal repression by the military as a “crackdown,” and failed to mention the major human rights violations that happen daily. The Piñera government is described as “inept” by media organisations like the Reuters, but not authoritarian. Nor have the media disclosed the president’s close connections to the Pinochet regime, under which he made a fortune. The Guardian, for example, sees the government as “centre-right,” rather than as a reactionary right-wing government strongly supporting Neoliberal policies.

The return to democracy under the Concertación coalition governments (1990 to 2010) built upon the Neoliberal higher education, but failed to address the financial factors behind student discontent. Since 1990, citizen mobilisations rarely accompanied the democratisation process, such that Chilean youth were seen as the “No estoy ni ahí” (“Whatever”) generation. Yet there have been several exceptions. In the early 1980s post-secondary education was left to demand-and-supply economic factors with minimal requirements to set up new institutions and for receiving public funding. Secondary schools are compulsory and not free, with subsidised private primary schools. In 2003, the Chilean government spent US$62 per student in private universities, while private sources spent US$2,174 per student. In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that 85 percent of higher education funding came from households. The Economist concluded that relatively, Chile’s education system was “the most expensive in the world.”

The cost of education in Chile lies at the heart of the social factors arising from the highly unequal Neoliberal economic model and the lack of participatory institutional factors, followed since the Pinochet era. The World Bank, IMF, UNESCO, and OECD and multinational corporations have influenced policy-making agencies and public authorities to adopt market-oriented regulations, as part of the Globalisation process operating in Latin America. The financial burden was too high for most students, having to pay for student housing, meals, books, and transport. Increased ease of access for working-class, first-generation students led to large student debts and were, therefore, more likely to mobilise. Higher education was free until 1981 when the military replaced it with a fee system.

In 2006, high school students brought about the Revolución Pingüina (Penguin Revolution), so called because of their black-and-white school uniforms, after the imposition of a state-endorsed private loan programme. Student demands included: free education, defence of public education system, the end of for-profit education providers, and the elimination of the schools’ discriminatory practices. It was a rejection of the Neoliberal education model in Chile. President Michelle Bachelet set up an Advisory Presidential Council for Quality in Education to improve the education system. The findings of the Council included modifying the funding system, but it was not made free.

In 2011, the “Chilean Winter,” began with a strike at Universidad Central de Chile (Central University), and soon led to demonstrations by 8,000 university students who marched in numerous cities across Chile. The movement lasted for seven months, in which time the Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile, Confech (Chilean Student Confederation) organised thirty-six marches involving over 100,000 people in Santiago, making it the largest demonstration since 1990, the end of the Pinochet era. It led to the resignation of two and the impeachment of one of the education ministers. The Piñera administration rejected the student demands for free education, the re-nationalisation of the copper-mining industry, and constitutional reforms. In 2012, automatic registration and voluntary voting was established. President Bachelet, in 2014, undertook a comprehensive reform of the education system. The liberalisation of higher education created financial grievances by increasing the number of students at universities while increasing educational costs. The inability to cope with increasing student debt had led to student mobilisation, and until now had not been correctly addressed.

The ruling parties had little presence in the universities, except the Communist Party of Chile, which maintained strong links with students. The Communist Party, SurDA, which is a play on sur (south) and zurda (lefty) a slang term for Leftist, Nueva Izquierda Universitaria (New University Left), and the Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous left) which organised student mobilisations. By the time Piñera was elected president the government had lost all connections with the student organisations, thereby having no way of curtailing student protests. At the Pontificia Universidad Católica Chile (Catholic University) the centre-leftist organisation Nueva Acción Universitaria (New University Action) played a key role in the 2011 protests.

What is important in the present political and social situation in Chile is that Australia, especially the Liberal National Party (LNP), has also been travelling along the parallel path of the Neoliberal economic model. Also, Australian students have mobilised with street protests against government inaction tackling Climate Change. In recent years, Australian students have marched against the increasing costs of student debt and the high cost of living. Although the APEC summit is now cancelled, the protests in Chile should serve as a warning to the Morrison government, as to what could happen in Australia if the many issues being faced here are not addressed.

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