SANTIAGO, Chile—This year’s protests in the Middle East and North Africa seem to have sparked protests throughout the world, while U.S. protests are keeping protesters motivated in other countries, namely Chile.
Though, not blatantly about democratic freedom in the political or financial sense, activists in Chile have taken to the streets since April 2011, passionately demanding free education from the government in power.
According to Chilean political scientist and Professor Patricio Navia, half Chile’s elementary and secondary school students attend voucher schools. Such schools are privately operated and receive vouchers from the government for every student who attends.
However, there are copayments involved, meaning that students go to different voucher schools depending on how much money their parents make.
“That has simply reproduced the very high inequalities that exist in Chile,” Professor Navia told Democracy Now! on 4 August 2011, a week after high school students initiated a hunger strike.
He continued, saying college student protesters are demanding that the government provide them with better quality of education as well as student loans, so they can pay for their education without having too much debt.
“About 70 percent of all the students are first-generation college students,” Professor Navia said. “They represent the dream, the Chilean dream, the dream of moving up on the social ladder.”
Chilean history in brief
Chile is located in South America, along the Pacific Ocean. Its Native American Mapuche and Inca people inhabited the land before Spanish colonization in the 16th century.
Chile declared its freedom from Spain on 12 February 1818, though its freedom was not recognized until 1844.
The country is currently considered to be democratic and economically developed, however there is a high level of income inequality among its over 17 million inhabitants.
In 1973, a U.S. backed coup against former President Salvador Allende established a military dictatorship in Chile until 1990. Former President Allende had set a socialist agenda in Chile, seizing privatized institutions and making them public.
Under Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, thousands of people were murdered and tens of thousands tortured. Revolutionaries fled the country, though there were protests and uprisings as people demanded democracy.
Privatization of education was among the largest transformation General Pinochet made during his dictatorship.
In the late 1980’s, Chile began transitioning into a free-market economy and is now considered one of South America’s most prosperous countries.
Though, the prosperity is coming at a price as protesters claim inequality in education, access to knowledge.
Knowledge is power.
Power through protests
The Chilean protests have turned violent as mainly college and high school students throughout Chile face attack from riot police, while protesting without government authorization.
These passionate protests have inspired teachers, parents, union members and politicians to join them.
On 5 October 2011, the Chilean government met with protesters for discussion and negotiations. However, the talks were not to the protesters’ liking, as the government proposed giving more scholarships to poor Chileans.
Student leader Ms. Camila Vallejo told the Huffington Post that the government’s proposal would be inadequate, as taxpayer dollars would still go to private institutions.
Since the talks, riot police have used tear gas and water canisters to disrupt the protests.
As most of the protests are said to be peaceful marches, there have been more radical protesters, who wear hoods and throw rocks at police, as well as set up blazing blockades in the streets.
People have been arrested, including journalists, and civilians as well as officers have been injured.
At least one teenager has died.
According to polls, 89 percent of Chileans support the protesters, while 22 percent support the government, which is considering giving protesters three years in prison for occupying schools or other public places.
In order to have education reform, the protesters feel the government needs to spend more on education and increase taxes on the wealthy, similar to calls heard from the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States.
Occupy Wall Street related to Chile?
Ms. Naomi Klein, journalist and author, told Democracy Now! on 6 October 2011 that the Occupy Wall Street protests are clearly related to Chile protests, both protesting the corporate takeover of the world.
Like Chile, students, teachers unions, labor unions, and others have joined the Occupy Wall Street protests, and have experienced violent clashes with the police.
“This is the thing about social change, it just comes when you least expect it,” Ms. Klein said. “The sites of protest have to follow where the money is.”
She continued, saying the issues surrounding the protests are more than financial. They are moral issues as well.
“Elites use times of economic crisis to push through radical restructurings of society in the interests of elite,” she said, adding that the entire world has been waiting for U.S. citizens to join the struggle.
Ms. Klein concluded, saying that the United States is so focused on elections every two years that all the energy that could be used for a protest movement is used up.
People are finally realizing they need to build sustainable social movements, she said.
There are cities nationwide that are holding their own “Occupy” protests in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. On 15 October 2011, Occupy Orange held a protest outside of the Irvine City Hall.
“Banks got bailed, we got nailed,” the crowd of over 300 protesters, who were ranging in age, chanted.
“We’re fed up,” Mr. Ronny Chavez, an unemployed engineer told the Viễn Đông, adding that though he was there to protest the financial sector, some people are only attending protests to create anarchy. “At least they’re standing up, doing something.”
Thought to consider
As Occupy Wall Street protests have expanded to include many cities throughout the United States, would the community join “Occupy” protests held in Orange County?