Standoff between diversifying movement and unyielding government prompts growing criticism.
After a dramatic month of student demonstrations, this week saw the end of various school occupations throughout Santiago, most notably at Universidad de Chile, a campus that stood as a symbol of the “Chilean Winter” the year before. While the demonstrators and occupiers claimed to be continuing last year’s fight, the most widespread protest since Chile’s return to democracy, it now appears to have petered out comparatively anticlimactically.
“We are obviously in a different stage this year,” former president of the Confederation of University Students of Chile (Confech), Camila Vallejo, told La Tercera. “I would be wrong to say that the movement has the ability to mobilize that it did last year, because that isn’t so.”
In 2011, students staged street protests and school occupations across the country for up to seven months, winning the support of 76 percent of the public, according to an August 2011 poll by La Tercera. This year, school occupations ended out after about a month. According to the most recent Center of Public Studies (CEP) report, confidence in the movement is currently at 30 percent and waning.
Over the past two decades, Chile has experienced strong economic growth, political stability and educational improvements, but these advancements were based on rules established by a 17-year dictatorship. The spontaneous outbreak of the student movement in 2011 showed that these successes have masked growing public discontent with Chile’s disconnected political elite, economic inequalities and unfair educational system.
The Chilean public widely identified with the movement’s demands for universal free higher education and abolition of for-profit universities, with up to 90 percent polling in favor.
While the movement brought these issues to light on a national scale, it failed to achieve compromise with President Sebastián Piñera’s center-right government, ending months of protest without seeing the sweeping reforms it had asked for. The government did increase its investment in education, but the adjustments were cosmetic, far from the systemic change sought by the movement. The student movement subsided at the end of 2011 without achieving political victory, but the popular discontent it embodied was still unresolved.A different stage
As secondary school and university students re-mobilized in 2012, they looked to maintain the momentum of the previous year, keeping educational reform the preeminent political issue in Chile. Unlike 2011, this year has seen minimal negotiations between the student movement and the Chilean government.
“The movement has realized that it is not enough to appeal to institutions, that when Congress discusses the issues behind closed doors, it always ends in defeat for the students and a victory for the politicians and businessmen,” Esteban Miranda, student spokesperson of the history department at Universidad de Chile, told The Santiago Times.
President Sebastián Piñera appeared equally dismissive while addressing student takeovers of secondary schools in late August.
“In our country there are 11,000 schools,” he said. “I understand that there are currently 9 schools in ‘tomas.’ That’s less than 0.1 percent of all of Chile’s schools. If we listen to that 0.1 percent well, how much of a reason do we have to listen to the other 99.9 percent?” Beyond politics
The Piñera administration has tried to address student demands by making changes at the margins, but its proposals have thus far been widely panned by student leaders, who have called for a more deep-down reform. Failure to achieve systemic change by negotiating with the Chilean government after more than a year of protest has led the student movement to question the legitimacy of the political system itself.
“The student movement doesn’t conform to the corrections that (the government) makes,” Gabriel Boric said earlier in the year. “We want to transform everything and we aren’t going to let up until this system changes.”
History professor at la Universidad de Chile, Sergio Grez Toso, said he sees the student movement’s use of action outside of conventional politics as a sign of maturity.
“The problems have not been solved,” Toso told The Santiago Times. “The only way to be heard is to hit and speak with greater force or else the demands will be forgotten. It is evident that meaningful change will take a few years. It is necessary for a new Constitution by popular assembly .... In Chile the Constitution has always been imposed by force, never created by the citizenry.”
The current Constitution was created in 1980 by the military dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Despite more than two decades of democracy, the Constitution has maintained many of Chile’s institutions from the Pinochet era, including the educational system.
“The system imposed by the dictatorship is illegitimate,” Toso said.The lost generation
While the student movement’s proposals are changing, many are criticizing the continued use of student strikes, takeovers and marches. In 2011, striking secondary and university students missed much of the academic year due to school occupations. To receive credit for classes, many students had to take abridged classes that took most of their summer break. Professors, parents and politicians fear that the student movement will force a similar result in 2012, which brought the tomas to an earlier than expected close.
Despite the recent end to the occupations, some classes have already been compromised. Universidad de Chile history professor Isabel Torres Dujisin said the monthlong student strike in the Philosophy and Humanities Department at Universidad de Chile forced to abridge her syllabus.
“Undoubtedly the movement will detract from the quality of education just like last year,” Torres told The Santiago Times. “The occupations are a mistake, they are going to detract from their education and divide the movement.”
Professor Leonardo León, professor of colonial history at Universidad de Chile and former political prisoner during the Pinochet regime, was more critical. Like Torres, students have been missing his classes for the last month.
“I can’t see the students this year achieving more objectives than they did in 2011,” León told The Santiago Times. “Faced with this failure, I believe it is better that the students return to their studies before making themselves a lost generation.”Future Prospects
Apart from education, much of the current debate is centered around Minister of the Interior and Public Security Rodrigo Hinzpeter’s proposed Public Order Control Law. Otherwise known as the “Hinzpeter Law,” it would create harsher penalties for anyone occupying public institutions, including up to three years in jail.
The law is currently being debated in Congress. The prospect that peaceful protest could be punishable with jail time has caused an uproar among participants of the student movement, as well as human rights agencies like Amnesty International.
Even those critical of the student movement’s methods are questioning the logic of this law.
“The Hinzpeter Law will only throw fuel on the fire, leading to more demonstrations, clashes, arrests and confrontation between the government and students,” Torres told The Santiago Times.
Despite the government’s controversial proposal, the student movement has yet to achieve its goals after more than a year of mobilization. Free education is far from a reality and for-profit universities still exist. Unable to achieve its fundamental goals, its loftier aspirations such as constitutional change seem much less likely.
This conflict is wearing on both the government and the student movement. Since compromise is a distant hope, conventional protest and legislation continue the conflict and new proposals only radicalize, both sides are running out of options. Pending a radical change in circumstance, or an unlikely detente in hostilities, this looks to be just the beginning of a long standoff.
By Aaron Walck (email@example.com)
Copyright 2012 - The Santiago Times