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Behind the Education Conflict in Chile

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By Pía Figueroa*
IDN-InDepth NewsInterview | Pressenza

SANTIAGO DE CHILE (IDN) - A series of student-led protests across Chile from May to December of 2011, which have come to be known as Chilean Education Conflict, drew worldwide attention. Protesters had multifaceted goals, to begin with broadly related to lowering the costs and strengthening the role of the state in secondary and higher education – against the backdrop that only 45 percent of high school students in Chile study in traditional public schools and the education system is largely in private hands. Pressenza's Pía Figueroa interviewed the humanist national leader of the Teachers' Association in "Umbral”, in the neighbourhood of Bellavista

Extracts of the interview follow:

PF: The Education conflict was, no doubt, one of most remarkable national events during the year that just ended. How do you explain it?

MA: In Chile there are 30 years of application of a market model to education, a savage market model. That has meant a brutal commodification at all levels, from pre-school to higher education. In doing so, education instead of being a vehicle for social mobility (which should be one of its purposes) in Chile has been a factor of increasing segregation and inequality. The question then is not how could this conflict erupt this year, but how come it took so long to explode?

PF: The education conflict ended up mobilising a huge percentage of the country's population: high school students, college students, teachers, parents and school governors, in addition to other supporters of the cause. What would you say united them so powerfully as to bring people to the streets every week?

MA: . . . There arose a generation of young people who lost their fear, who reached a level of understanding that the problem was structural and not about a few more resources and some additional scholarships. In fact, the movement began with very specific demands, but quickly escalated in a few weeks to a surprisingly massive demand for structural reforms. And soon began to add more people, teachers first, then other organizations, all citizens . . . The marches reached hundreds of thousands of people with a moving creativity and beauty, they were not rallies, rather real popular carnivals with all types of artistic expression, with humour, with great joy. [. . . ] The government responded in the worst way: lots of and harsh repression; there are many videos of outrageous police abuse against peaceful demonstrators, authorities disqualifying the process with a bellicose language, etc. . . .

Uniquely neo-liberal policies

PF: What other social conflicts have weight for the Chilean population and how are they experienced?

MA: Chilean society is the society of extreme abuse and manipulation of power to the detriment of the citizens. No other country in the world has applied neoliberal policies to such depths; this has led to the commodification of almost all activities of this society, including those most sensitive; for those who have governed Chile in the last 35 years everything could be made into a business and they have done so. Not only education has been commercialized but also health, welfare, security, freedom of movement, and so on. And what has happened is that after several years of intoxication in which people bought and believed the propaganda of the model, today they have become increasingly aware of the false promises of happiness based on the small and vulgar premise that filling oneself of "consumer goods" leads to happiness, or the idea that the mere fact of increasing per capita income will make us a developed society. People, especially young people, are calling today for a true humanisation of society.

You could say that the dream promoted by the model is wearing out, not yet in a widespread and massive way, but the symptoms are expressed in those who, while still a minority, are very active in proclaiming their dissatisfaction. People, for many years, endured abuse and manipulation, for that there was supposed to come a prize in the form of "development" that would be achieved. Well, this development has never reached 90% of the people and now they do not seem ready to continue tolerating silently and passively this arbitrary situation. There is much potential conflict that could erupt at any time, as it happened with education in 2011.

PF: We know that while demands were expressed primarily through popular street marches in 2011, there were also a huge number of events that appeared to have a high dose of imagination calling to nonviolent participation. We refer to the pots and pans-banging, the "beach" against Lavin, 1800 hours of running around La Moneda, the "kissathon", the performances, etc. Do you think that Chile is deepening a culture of nonviolence, or see these forms of protest simply as skirmishes when confronted with police repression?

Non-violence as a form of political and social struggle

MA: That question is very interesting because it points to an issue of great depth and scope. Of course one of the features that attracted much attention of the movement was its creativity, joy of the marchers and especially the non-violent 99% of the demonstrators. It clearly showed a growing awareness of the futility of violence; nonviolence was the actively aware position of the vast majority. This has been very encouraging for those who profess a humanist philosophy of life; what a few years ago seemed a romantic utopia with little acceptance, today is taken as the form of struggle by millions of people. This of course became a problem for the government and the powerful who watched with some despair a growing sympathy and public support for young people and their demands. Then the powerful began the exacerbation of the negligible outbreaks of violence that arose. The police began to act in a very provocative way, with harsh and unjustified repression of peaceful demonstrators at the same time with a clear intention to let loose the tiny actions of violent groups that were very functional for them. The police was then attacking harshly tens or hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators and hardly paid any attention to 200 hooded violent ones. . . .

We cannot deny that there are still groups that promote violence as a form of political and social struggle, but they are a small minority and less supported by the population, and that's a good sign. Of course, we know that the first source of violence is in a system that is violent in nature. We are not only talking about the physical violence of repression, we speak of the many forms of violence that this system uses to sustain its power structure and domination. In my opinion what they fear most is the growth of a NONVIOLENT consciousness, they sense that this may be an unquestionable force and so their efforts to extinguish those sparks of ACTIVE NONVIOLENCE expressed in this movement. It remains to be seen if in the near future that force will develop and expand among citizens and manage to isolate the violent ones in power and those protesters who mistakenly assume that a violent methodology can achieve anything.

PF: How do you assess the first cabinet change in the portfolio of Education and this second change occurring now?

MA: None of these changes has meant that the government is moving an inch from its economist policies in education. Changes hitherto have been no more than apparent, leaving the core of its philosophy untouched. It has shown a very extreme ideological rigidity; defending the business of education has become almost a "holy war" and it is unfortunate because of its refusal to listen to the clamour that represents 80% of people in Chile.

PF: Do you think the 2012 political year will be different about this conflict? What course is expected of the new minister?

MA: The new Minister of Education is one of the ideologues of the current educational market model. For him education is just another business . . .I may be wrong, but I think we cannot expect major changes with this minister in what we have seen before. He may be less brutal than Minister Bulnes who was quite aggressive and rude to the movement, but in substance the sign he has given by appointing Harald Beyer is that the government is committed to further deepening the educational model that has generated so much public rejection.

2012 unpredictable

PF: In the new setting there will be also a change in student policies, since after their elections they have replaced their public faces. What do you think will vary with the new leadership? How do you expect the student movement will behave during 2012?

MA: It's not easy to predict what will happen with young people, especially because they have shown they operate with a very different logic from what we have known before. One of the characteristics of the movement was not being based so much on personal leadership as on a collective and horizontal action. That would confound any analyst or political actor formed in the landscape of decades ago. I do not think that changes in policies will affect them, precisely because their movement is not based on "personalities". In fact I think the word "leadership" used in the question does not apply to these movements, they act together, generating and working agreements, refusing to be "led" by those illuminated from above who tell them "how we do things."

In fact, some traditional political actors tried to operate on the movement with their logic and simply bounced off; the results of some elections that were a surprise for traditional analysts reveal that the new generations do not accept the old ways of doing politics where manipulation is the way. I am not able to answer categorically the question about what will happen in 2012 as one of the characteristics of this movement and this generation is that they act in an unpredictable way, especially if you look at the phenomenon with ancient and worn out eyes. I have tried to place myself more humbly before what is going on, rather trying to learn, understand and avoiding the "pontificating" to which my generation is so accustomed.

PF: Which direction do you expect the conflict to take in 2012?

MA: Although it may seem incredible to those who do not live in Chile, despite putting more than 500,000 people in the street and having 80% of public support for rather basic and indispensable demands, the government has given away virtually nothing. With great sadness, I have to say, it shows that in Chile we do not live in a true democracy. In my country there are de facto forces that have much influence and political power to manage things in their own way, with total disregard for the feelings of citizen. But also the strength and conviction of this movement showed that these illegitimate powers are weakening because the new generations no longer accept their abusive domination. I see young people very determined and confident; let’s see if the older generations also join strongly this democratizing crusade.

*This interview first appeared in Pressenza on January 26, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews - January 27, 2012]

Picture: Pressenza Archive

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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