A few months back, when I first heard about the student movement in Chile, Olivera’s movie The Night of the Pencils came to mind. The movie takes place in neighboring Argentina and tells the story of seven students who were captured, tortured, and killed by the regime for demanding lower bus fares. Fortunately, that kind of dictatorship is a thing of the past in both Argentina and Chile, but the struggle for a better educational system, and broader access to it, continues. Today, Chile is in its second day of a 48-hour general strike; just yesterday more than 100 people were injured in clashes.
Over the course of this year, uprisings among people longing for better living conditions and systemic transformation have seemed unstoppable. Yet despite the simultaneity, continuity, and frequency of these events around the world, each one has its own particular history and context that have to be taken into account.
As is well-known in South America, Chile’s student movement took the lead in resistance against the dictatorial regime of Pinochet’s military junta, beginning in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it was Pinochet who laid the groundwork for the privatization and decentralization of secondary and university education. Once the transition actually began in 1990, the students made themselves heard, but the eventual reform didn’t take account of their demands. The streets of Santiago have often been packed with protesting students, crossing lines of age, status, and origin. In 2006 around 100,000 high school students clamored for a series of changes, including access to the Pase Escolar, a student pass with transportation and food benefits. On May 30th of that year, the protest peaked with more than 600,000 students. Then, their demands were at least heard, forcing former president Michelle Bachelet to address the students publicly and directly, promising a reform that never actually came about.
It isn’t just the students who take to the streets in Chile, though. The Mapuches, the local indigenous group, have protested as well. Last year there was also an environmentalist movement opposing the construction of enormous reservoirs in the Chilean Patagonia, and social networking has been used to advocate internationally for the protection of natural diversity and reservoirs across the country. Chilean civil society is habitually active. Since the return of democracy in the late 1990s, Chileans have treated their citizenship not just as a right to be taken for granted, but as a responsibility.
Five years after the last mass student uprising, Chileans are now taking part in one of the biggest social movements in their history. While students took the lead, it now includes diverse sectors of society, from all around the country, calling for a broad range of demands including reforms in the political system, taxation, education, and health care.
In their homes and offices, as well as in the streets, demonstrators are banging pots and pans, and using music and art as their weapons. The CUT (Workers United Center) is supporting the student protest with an effort to temporarily paralyze the country. Both students and workers have agreed on the independency and autonomy of the movement, despite the accusations of right-wingers who claim that it is being orchestrated by communist parties.
Recently Raúl de La Puente, president of the ANEF (National Society of Public Officials), said that the protest is bringing people together around an ideal that goes further than mere education reform. More and more, people are angry about how the private sector profits from the economy as a whole while things grow worse for the general public. Also, the movement has shed light on the government’s inability to deal with and respond to people’s demands, since the president and much of his cabinet are businessmen who have little sympathy for collective action and social movements, and who lack the capacity to negotiate or build consensus.
Chile has been a democracy for more than 20 years, but merely instituting democracy as a political system doesn’t ensure the democratization of education and health care, or the redistribution of wealth. This is what the student movement stands for. So far the government has failed to regulate profits and costs in the country’s education system; even public schools are among the most expensive in Latin America, and for many students the only way to afford an education is resorting to loans. Most undergraduates come out of college with debt between $40,000 and $60,000, plus high interest rates that condemn their entire working lives to the service of debt.
An education-reform bill was issued by the recently-elected President Sebastian Piñera in July, but it was rejected by the movement for failing to satisfy the students’ demands. At this point, however, neither the students nor the workers seem prepared to give up.
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Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
First of all I wanted to thank you for your entry. I’m from Chile and I found your analysis very interesting and accurate. With that said, I would encourage you to take a look at what newspapers are saying at home. While the student and labor unions that called for the 48-hour strike, was non-violent in nature and everythin was coordinated to keep the movement away from any violence, the strike sadly did not end up being so. The core of the people marching did remain non-violent and joyfully joined in the cultural activities taking place all over the country but there still was a small group that branched off.
As early as Monday morning, this gruop of “encapuchados” (people who conceal the faces as they destroy public and private property during a march) quickly set up a barricade around on the the main roundabout in Santiago, using burning tired. As the hours progressed, the police struggled to control the group that grew larger in number and destroyed bus stops, ransacked stores and burnt buses. 153 people were injured, several shot, including police men, and one teenager was killed.
I’m not very knowledgeable in the specifics of what is defined as a successfully non-violent strike. Perhaps, since this youth branched off the core group, who had explicitly called for a non-violent march, then one could assess the strike as successful by just focusing on that core group. But the fact still remains that the call for a strike caused violence on a massive scale. In Chile we do expect violence every time there is a strike (for example, people who live around the areas commonly allocated for the marches, leave their homes the day before), but this time, due to the nature of this big movement, it was much more than we are accustomed to.
You can find more details in http://www.emol.com or http://www.latercera.cl
Thank you so much for this update, Monse. Please keep us posted on developments, if you don’t mind.
Monse, thank you very much for your comments. Being in Colombia you can imagine how much information we are being exposed to concerning the situation in Chile. Nevertheless I believe that the local perception is the key to perceive the nonviolent spirit of the movement. Although this mobilization surpasses our expectations, from the Penguin Revolution on 2006, the youth have used creativity as battle weapon; it is an empowerment that exceeds the stagnant strategies of repression. That is right what I am observing and I hope to follow close in the present movement. I believe that Chile is being a great example for Latin America, speaking from Colombia.
Thank you so much for your response. I’ve been thinking about this movement and non-violence a lot so I decided to ask several people at home what they think about it and whether they consider to be non-violent.
Everyone I spoke with who is not involved in the movement itself, said that no matter what the intentions of the leaders of the movements are, it’s a fact that it has turned violent. On the other hand, the many students I know who are active in the “marches and performances for education” (as we call them,) they are convinced that non-violence is the way to go about it.
However – and this is something everyone I spoke to agreed on – they admitted that, for some reason, every single time a movement starts gaining momentum, there’s violence. One student even said that the marches go on “until the time we know the violence will start… until around 5pm.”
You said that “the local perception is the key to perceive the nonviolent spirit of the movement”. I think the perception in Chile is that this is a creative non-violent movement that comes with a parasitical violence attached to it. You are right to say that you are observing creativity, and indeed their complains against our education system are right: it is unjust, it is broken and it needs to be fixed. But, is a non-violent movement to be called non-violent because it is creative, because it demands justice and equality, and because it has the momentum to move masses? I thought the core value of non-violence was… well, precisely that, no violence.
I do apologize if I seem to be the “devil’s advocate”. I am honest in my concerns and have only expressed them in a desire to learn from this experience. I sincerely I hope you are not offended by my entries.
Me quedo con la última pregunta de la entrada anterior “¿Ha de llamarse no-violento a un movimiento violento porque es creativo, porque demanda justicia e igualdad y porque está en el momentum para mover a las masas?” a lo que Monse ha respondido que ella cree que el centro de la no-vioencia está más bien en no cometer violencia.
Qué pregunta difícil. Pero también qué pregunta engañosa. Hablo desde mi experiencia en Colombia y en México, y desde la cercanía con algunxs chilenxs que han pasado por estos dos países.
Creo que el caracter noviolento de un movimiento radica en su propuesta de transformación de las prácticas cotidianas y de las estructuras que las enmarcan, en la construcción de un mundo más justo, diverso, posible. Un mundo, en otras palabras, que se haga cargo tanto la violencia directa como la estructural y cultural.
Propuesta que atraviesa por el cuestionamiento de formas de poder derivadas del patriarcado, del sistema de mercado y de la estructura misma del estado, de las que el uso de la violencia en general, y la violencia organizada en específico son una expresión. Es por ello que en muchos países abogamos por la desaparición del servicio militar y del reclutamiento forzado, por ejemplo.
Como parte de la construcción buscamos que nuestras prácticas no hagan uso de la violencia directa; aun así, al participar dentro de movilizaciones masivas y dentro de espacios de convergencia es difícil poder asegurar como movimiento que todos van a actuar bajo los mismos principios que nosotros. Esta imposibilidad práctica no debilita el carácter noviolento del movimiento, sino que se constituye como reto a transformar.
Por otra parte, es importante tener en cuenta que en ocasiones -aunque esto no sea ley- quienes hacen uso de la violencia en las manifestaciones son esquiroles que pretenden deslegitimar la acción y demanda de quienes participan en las movilizaciones, por lo que es importante no caer en provocaciones, así como evitar replicar estigmatizaciones generalizadas sobre lxs participantes.
Sin más por el momento y agradecido con el espacio de discusión, me disculpo por escribir en español, aunque creo que de algún modo puede abrir un poco más la discusión.
Felicitaciones por el espacio.