LIMA, Peru — Chile's right wing government is locked in a seven month, asymetrical battle with student protesters demanding a radical overhaul of the country's for-profit university system. No one could have predicted that the struggle would go on for so long.
In one corner is a 23-year-old Marxist student with a pierced nose, a poetic line in anti-consumerist idealism and a penchant for placards, sit-ins and marches.
In the other is the billionaire businessman-turned-president — pumped up by his recent hands-on role in the triumphant rescue of 33 trapped miners as the world looked on — championing the all-conquering creed of economic globalization.
Yet as the protests that have convulsed this South American country from Patagonia to the tropics drag into their seventh month, President Sebastian Piñera might be forgiven for secretly wishing for the final knock-out blow that will put him out of his misery.
During that time, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and the country has been so consumed by the confrontation that the Occupy protests that sprang up in Santiago, the capital, last month barely caused a ripple.
“They arrived very late in Chile,” said political scientist Bernardo Naverrete. "It is just one more grain of sand in the protests that are already taking place.”
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Against all the odds, Camila Vallejo, the photogenic young leader of the University of Chile’s student union, known as FECH, its Spanish initials, has given Piñera the kind of drubbing that could herald the end of his political career.
“It is extremely one-sided. The president has been completely outmaneuvered,” said Professor Navarrete, of the University of Santiago. “It is partly his lack of political skills, but the electorate is also realizing they are not comfortable with a right-wing government.”
Piñera’s use of riot police, water cannons and teargas against street demonstrations that most regard as a democratic right, show just how “lost” the president has become, says FECH General Secretary Cristobal Lagos.
“We are still very far from a solution,” he told GlobalPost. “Unfortunately, the government is continuing with its privatizing agenda and does not appear interested in even listening to us. We know we have huge support among the citizenry and we are going to keep going.”
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The numbers say it all. Piñera’s personal approval ratings now hover around 22 percent, an almost unprecedented low for an elected head-of-state in Chile or most other democracies. The fall is even starker given that just a year ago, after the rescue of the miners trapped below the Atacama desert, the president was hitting highs ofalmost 60 percent.
Meanwhile, the students led by Vallejo, and their demands for free university education, have around 70 percent backing among the public, according to recent polls. Critically, they have now been joined by a host of other sectors in Chile, including unions and social activists, with what Navarrete, the professor, calls a “primal soup” of demands stretching from the nationalization of Chile’s huge mining industry to higher wages.
Part of Piñera’s problem has been the perception of him as aloof and unwilling to listen that has taken shape during the crisis, and the sense that as the country’s richest man he does not understand the daily challenges faced by ordinary Chileans. Navarrete called it “political autism.”
A string of gaffes by the president have also embarrassed and enraged many Chileans. Typical was the blunder last month during a visit to Germany when, in a misguided attempt to please his hosts, Piñera signed the German presidency’s visitors book with the words “Deutschland Uber Alles” — Germany Above All — presumably without realizing the Nazi connotations of the phrase, taken from a disused stanza of Germany’s national anthem.
Yet the charisma and eloquent charm of Vallejo, arguably Latin America’s hippest rebel with a cause since Che Guevara, have also played a role despite her self-deprecating calls for the media to avoid “personalizing” the student protests.
And behind the personalities, the dispute has unearthed a deep divide in Chilean society. Although Chileans have largely moved beyond former dictator Augusto Pinochet's brutal repression — 2,279 people were killed for political reasons during that time, according to the country’s official Truth and Reconciliation Report — they remain divided by the free-market economic reforms his regime introduced and which Piñera now defends.
According to Navarrete, many Chileans both object to the reforms themselves and the undemocratic way in which they were introduced.
Adds Lagos: “Pinera has a double discourse. One for an international audience, when he is at the UN or abroad, talking about human rights, and another when he is here in Chile. He has a credibility problem.”
Yet as Piñera likes to point out, the center-left Concertación coalition that governed Chile from 1990 to 2010 is faring even worse in the polls.
Now, with neither the government nor the students showing any sign of ceding, the only certainty on the country’s political horizon is more strife to come.