Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Report on Chile's student protests

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by Adrian Wright, Santiago, Chile.

As I walked out of the tercera comiseria (police station based in the centre of Santiago) it hit me what had transpired on this incredible day. All I could hear were the sounds of the cacerolazo, people beating pots and pans in protest, every street corner occupied by protesters who had erected barricades, lit bonfires and the the echo of the updated anti dictatorship song “y va a caer y va a caer, la educación de Pinochet” sounding through the streets. The police who spent most of the day throwing tear gas canisters and beating the shit out of people could only look on as the people took control of the streets. The central store of “La Polar”, a giant chain of department stores implicated in a massive fraud of investors and customers, had been burnt to the ground. Everyone over the age of 40 told me the same thing: “it’s like being back in the eighties”, referring to the epic street battles against the Pinochet dictatorship that took place between 1982 and 1986.

I’ll give you the background to the story.

Since May of this year, the campuses and schools of Chile have been epicenters of revolt and protest. Students are hell bent on overthrowing the neoliberal profit based education system currently in existence in Chile. At one point over 180 schools and university campuses were “en toma” (under occupation by students) and in some cases, students were violently evicted from their tomas by police and security forces only to then go on to reoccupy them. Every Thursday, tens of thousands of schoolchildren as young as 14 and university students have taken to the streets, facing down the pacos (cops) with their guanacos (water cannons), their tear gas and their batons.

The city centre has the semi permanent smell of tear gas and you can’t go far without seeing a school or university campus en toma. If you catch a bus, you are likely to see an “evangelista”, usually a teenager sent by a school en toma, board the bus and explain to the passengers with inspiring eloquence what they are fighting for, a high quality education system for all, free of charge, why it is possible and why it is necessary.

Natalia Alegria, a 14 year old who had been tear gassed, beaten by police and arrested (something that has become very unexceptional during this conflict) told me that “this generation is not like previous generations, a lot of us are vegetarians, we read and we think”. From the end of the anti dictatorship protests in 1986 to the pinguina – school student – revolution of 2006, there was a marked downturn in political struggle in Chile, but that period has been buried for the foreseeable future. The banner outside the Universidad de Chile law faculty says it all “Chile está despertando” – Chile is waking up.

The movement is diverse in its tactics, from a mass kiss-in for education to having the Marea Roja, the supporters of the Chilean National Football team unfurl a huge Chilean flag with “free education” written on it at the recent Copa America to putting up barricades and burning tyres in the middle of Santiago’s major road during morning traffic and fighting with the police. The main unifying factors of the movement are the non negotiable demand for a high standard education for all, free of charge along with a distrust of all political parties, up to and including the Communist Party, the party that traditionally dominates student politics.

The students are up against the government of one of Chile’s richest men, Sebastian Piñera, who last year became the first conservative president of Chile since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1990. The student movement has already claimed the head of education minister Joaquín Lavín, someone who ironically made his fortune as head of the supposedly non-profit Universidad de Desarollo. Ironic because he is precisely the sort of person the movement aims to remove from the education sector.

Prior to the most recent march, the government, sensing an opportunity to crush the movement, banned the march planned for the 4th of August. The Fech (Student Federation of La Universidad de Chile) announced that the march would go ahead regardless and Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter publically threatened the students the day before the march declaring that if anyone died or was injured, it would be the fault of Fech President Camila Vallejo.

The students stood their ground.

Tuesday 4 August will go down in Chilean history. Over 1000 police were deployed to the streets of Santiago with orders to prevent students from gathering around the planned route of the protest, along the Alameda, the main street of Santiago. Police even went as far as preventing anyone who looked like a student from taking the subway at key stations, and preventing them from leaving stations close to the route of the march. Near the Alameda, students were not allowed to pass and in many cases were beaten and arrested. Many onlookers were also beaten and arrested, in some cases modest workers who just wanted to see what was happening.

But the ever resourceful students, in groups of less than 10 managed to gather in great numbers around key points of downtown Santiago to face off with the police.

For 6 hours students and police fought pitched battles in several locations around the city centre. Students armed only with rocks held off the police, known colloquially as the ninja turtles for the green body armour they wear rained blows on students, threw canister after canister of tear gas but by 4pm had no choice but to agree to a ceasefire. Students even managed to occupy the headquarters of the national broadcaster, Chilevision.

The ceasefire lasted until 6.30pm but by that time the police were too demoralised to fight back effectively. By 8pm the police had had to retreat and cede the streets to the students and the large portion of the population that supported them.

It was a day you wait decades to see. The state had thrown everything it had at the students and lost. It is difficult to overestimate the psychological effect this has had on not just the students but the population at large.

No one can really tell what is going to happen from here. The government is in crisis. Only two weeks ago there was a massive reshuffle of the cabinet and Sebastian Piñera’s approval rating is down to 26%. The students are feeling confident and they aren’t the only ones.

For the last month Starbucks baristas have been on strike. For two weeks some of them have been on hunger strike. A week ago a group of commuters, mainly builders and domestic workers, sick and tired of 3 hour commutes to work, a wage as low as 160,000 Chilean pesos (US$320) per month and price hikes by the privately owned but publicly funded public transport network Transantiago, overran important bus stops and commandeered buses.

Only one thing is certain. In Chile, the laboratory of neo liberalism, the supposed land of prosperity and market solutions, the market is no longer welcome.