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Chilean students and workers struggle together

By: 
Carter Vance

November 20, 2011

Months before the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York, a protest movement with similar motivations and goals was already active and growing in the South American country of Chile.

Tens of thousands of students began protesting earlier this year the right-wing government of millionaire Sebastián Piñera, demanding publicly-funded, high-quality education, and have continued despite several conciliatory moves on the part of the government. At the end of October, protests involved 100,000 students.

Cabinet shuffles and vague promises of additional funding have been met with suspicion and calls for greater detail by the protesters and opposition politicians, who have pledged to force a popular referendum on the question of education funding. Were such a referendum to be held, it is highly likely it would pass; an informal poll put support at 89 per cent of Chileans, while Pinera’s approval ratings have cratered to around 20 per cent.

Inspired by the students, workers have begun protesting Piñera’s government, demanding a greater redistribution of wealth from a recent boom in the price of copper, Chile’s largest natural resource export. The CUT, the largest trade union umbrella group in Chile, organized a two-day national strike at the end of August, the first since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

Like the student protests, the workers’ strikes were largely peaceful, apart from brief clashes with police, with many clanging pots and pans together in a traditional form of Latin American protest. The demands arise both from the specific context of Chile and the wider move towards “market-based” educational and labour “reforms” the world over.

Neoliberalism

Since the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile has been among the most neoliberal countries in terms of its educational approach, with a voucher funding scheme, similar to that now pushed by right-wing politicians in the United States, which favours the rich for primary education. At the same time, tuition rates for universities are out of the reach of most people. Although Chile is one of the more prosperous countries in the region, its wealth is heavily weighted towards the top, no more clearly represented than by Mr. Piñera.

This isn’t a problem specific to just Chile. Recent protests in Colombia protesting similar educational reforms/cuts have drawn tens of thousands into the streets, and in many ways the protests mirror those in the United Kingdom protesting tuition fee hikes last year. These few among many examples point out the similarity of the struggle for good-quality, affordable education the world over.

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