Conflict & Justice

What Chile's Student Movement Did Next

On June 28, thousands of students will take to the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago.

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They'll demand reform of the way Chile's education system is funded. It's one of the most privatized in the world, and perhaps the most expensive relative to income. Fewer than half of all Chilean children get a free high school education.

Students, and their families, are saddled with crippling debts for decades.

We've been here before: scores of protests last year formed what became known as the Chilean Winter.

Students on college and high school campuses across the country organized strikes and boycotted their classes. Huge marches made news around the world, and made a international star of 24-year-old Camila Vallejo.

The then-president of the University of Chile student federation was dubbed, by one newspaper, The World's Most Glamorous Revolutionary.

Vallejo remains the biggest star in Chile's student movement: so big that her trademark silver nose-ring now crops up in the noses of many of her peers.

Still, she doesn't have much to show for last year's protests, except for some reductions in interest rates on student loans.

"If you look at the bills that the government has sent to Congress," Vallejo said, "they're only small cosmetic changes, or tweaks to the market-based system. They're not the big structural changes to the education system that we were looking for."

Marta Lagos, a pollster and political analyst based in Santiago, said, "The student movement hasn't attained much."

But, asked why the profile of student leaders like Camilla Vallejo remains so high if the Chilean Winter didn't deliver results, Lagos said you have to remember Chile's history.

September 11th, 1973: General Augusto Pinochet seized control in Chile in a bloody military coup. Nearly two decades of dictatorship followed with thousands of people executed, tortured and disappeared.

When Pinochet gave up the presidency in 1990, a left-leaning coalition government took power. But something else remained, said Lagos.

"I think the dictatorship left Chile with a high level of self-censorship."

There was a sense that democracy wasn't cemented in Chile, that it might not be safe to say what you really thought.

But Lagos said that in 2010, when Chileans elected their first right-wing president since Pinochet, that fear of speaking your mind dissipated; democracy didn't come crashing down.

With last year's student protests, said Lagos, the fear was finally banished.

"Now it's legitimate to say this is wrong, I need this, I don't want to go through this process anymore, I'm not tolerating this anymore. And it was the student movement that opened this door."

Generational differences probably came into play too: young Chilean students didn't grow up under Pinochet. They're not cowed by memories of the dictatorship. Still, the students were after education reform, not just a shift in public attitudes.

A year later, they face a big question: now what?

Gabriel Boric, a 26-year-old law student with an scraggly beard, has now replaced Camila Vallejo as president of the University of Chile student federation.

"Last year it was the new thing," he said, "The student movement was, like, 'look at these guys, they're going to the streets and saying everything's wrong'. Now we have to project this movement in the long-term."

One thing is certain, said Boric: the street protests will continue—it's the source of the students' power.

"If we don't go to the streets, if we don't protest we are not going to be listened [to]."

But another student leader, Noam Titelman, argued that there is only so much marching and striking they can do. Titelman leads the student union at Catholic University in Santiago.

He says students have to, you know, study too.

"We are entering a new phase which is less [about] demonstrations of strength and more [about] political and social discussion. For example one of the newest things that is being discussed is reform to our tax system," said Titelman.

Taxation; healthcare; immigration. The list of grievances goes on. Chile's student leaders have argued that inequities are everywhere in Chilean society—and that they're all rooted in political atrophy.

They say that Chile's constitution and the political system are frozen in time, still based on what Pinochet bequeathed the country more than 20 years ago.

So, how does a student-led social movement move from the streets of Santiago to the corridors of power?

"That step, it's complicated," said FECH president, Gabriel Boric, especially because he and his fellow student leaders don't all hold the same views.

Boric himself is a kind of Occupy Wall St economic reformer. Camilla Vallejo is a member of Chile's Communist Party. And Noam Titelman is a work-within-the-system pragmatist.

That diversity is a strength, Boric says—the movement can't be dismissed as the product of a single ideology—but it makes the shift to formal politics tricky.

"It's not like we say, 'Okay tomorrow the student movement's going to be a political party'. But we understand that a social movement is not enough to change reality," he said.

Fernando Paulsen hosts a political call-in show on Chilean radio.

He said that if the students want to remain influential, they can't be tempted by issues beyond their signature topic: the funding of education.

"Every time they try to change the focus from their own problem to some huge country problem, it didn't work," said Paulsen. "But every time they focus on education, it worked."

Indeed, focusing on education can have far-reaching effects, says Noam Titelman.

"Education is in the basis of our society. And changing our education is also changing our society."

If that's true, then the student movement doesn't need to turn itself into a political party, even if that were possible.

Instead, Titelman said, they're preparing for the next batch of elections in Chile, using their hard-won influence to force current politicians to take positions on their demands.

It'll be less glamorous than the high-wattage protests of last year.

"Maybe it seems a little bit less sexy but it's a lot more realistic," he added.

  • camila_vallejo2.jpg

    Camila Vallejo has emerged as a leader of the student movement in Chile. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)

  • small_protest620.jpg

    Alongside the huge marches, small groups of students hold smaller protests on specific issues. Here a group former students demonstrate against a change in the terms of their student loans. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)