Letter From Chile

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Mike Stanton reports on Chile's explosive student movement following the two day general strike

There was much talk last month of the anniversary and legacy of the 11 September terror attacks. In Chile, the other 9/11 anniversary, of the coup by General Pinochet on 11 September 1973, took place in a changed atmosphere this year.

At face value the events of the day were largely the same as every year. In Santiago, the capital of Chile, there was a march of five or ten thousand people and the police occupied estates during the night to "stop trouble".
Yet unlike in previous years these demonstrations took place following some of the largest marches that Chile has ever seen for free education and a two-day general strike in August.

The right wing government of President Sebastian Pinera is led by millionaires, ex-multinational executives and technocrats. They believe - to quote President Pinera - that education is a "consumer good". In their perverse world, free education is actually "undemocratic". The student movement is rallying against all of these principles.

The protests began after the former education minister Joaquin Lavin proposed an increase in the funding of for-profit universities. Many universities were occupied and the national student federation linked up with school students to protest. The school students are demanding central control over primary and secondary schools to replace the current system of municipal control which leads to gross inequalities.

An increase in funds for profit-making universities would worsen this disparity. Likewise no new public universities have been built since the end of the Pinochet era, even though the number of students has swollen massively.

The struggle escalated in recent months. School students marched with strikers from the El Teniente copper mine and on 14 July there was one of the largest protests since the downfall of Pinochet. Four days later Lavin was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle as Pinera tried to stop the protests.

Again on 1 August Pinera tried to placate the movement with a new 21-point proposal that included ending local authority control over public education. The proposal was rejected and protests on 4 August were the most confrontational yet with police using thousands of tear gas canisters on the crowds.

A third government proposal was rejected on 18 August and on 24 and 25 August there was a nationwide general strike against the government involving 600,000 people. Until the general strike there wasn't much integration between workers and students. The strike gave workers the chance to say that those protesting are our children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. They did so in huge numbers. Hundreds of thousands of teachers and health and council workers walked alongside students of all ages.

The ideas of the movement are becoming commonplace. I recently overheard five students discussing the protests in a technical college in Santiago. One of them turned to another and asked, "Why do they call us communists when we say they should take money from the mining companies for education?"

Trust in the government is at an all-time low. The last time students occupied their schools was in 2006 during the government of Michelle Bachelet. In the end Bachelet made a deal with the right wing opposition and agreed to sit round a table to discuss a solution. Nothing changed, so the movement now trusts the politicians even less. Pinera now has the lowest approval rating of any president since Pinochet's dictatorship, while the student protests have the support of 80 percent of the public.

A new politics is forming. The apathy, the feeling that Chileans can't change the status quo, is being dissolved by months of marches, of student stunts, of happiness and victories that we can all see on television and on the streets. It will be interesting to see if this leads to any new political grouping in the year to come. If it does it will not be by chance, but will be the fruit of conversations, organisation and arguments.

But after seeing hundreds of students dancing in front of the President's palace to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" condemning the zombie-like state of the education system, anything is possible.

Mike Stanton is a revolutionary socialist living in Chile