DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN: Chile has been rocked by widespread mobilizations led by the country's students, who are demanding that the state do more to ensure that all Chileans have access to free and quality education to the university level. The protests began in May and have since gained momentum and widespread popular backing, with up to 80 percent of the Chilean public in support of the students. Thousands have participated in the demonstrations, and on August 24, the Workers' United Center, the country's largest labor union, declared a two-day national strike in support of the students' demands. Many protests have been violently repressed by Chile's national police, the Carabineros, and there are reports of at least two deaths, with one 16-year-old shot by police and another high school student leader assassinated. The government of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has put forth several proposals in an attempt to quell the unrest. But students have thus far rejected each response as inadequate. Pinera, a wealthy businessman, is the country's first democratically elected right-wing president in over 50 years, and his approval ratings have plummeted to just 26 percent since the students movement has heated up.SEBASTIAN PINERA, CHILEAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We would all like for education, health, and many other things to be free for everyone. But we must remember, at the end of the day, nothing in life is free; someone has to pay.DOUGHERTY: For the top 10 percent of Chileans, who controlled 42 percent of the nation's wealth in 2009, paying for such vital services as health and education, both of which are largely privatized, is not as burdensome a task as for the country's large population of lower, middle, and working-class poor. Following years of steady economic growth, Chile has often been touted as a success story of the neoliberal model, seeking to cut back on the capacity and role of the state in providing social services, while opening up markets to foreign investment through privatization and deregulation. While Chile is considered one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America, it also has some of the highest levels of inequality and a poverty rate of 18.9 percent. According to Cristobal Lagos, secretary general of the student group leading the mobilizations, the Federation of Students of the University of Chile, capitalist restructuring has created an education system that reinforces inequality and poverty while restricting upward mobility.CRISTOBAL LAGOS, SECRETARY GENERAL, FECH (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The neoliberal system that has been built in Chile has created a tremendous inequality that has made us one of the most unequal countries in the world. The market system in Chile has functioned well for a few of the richest people in the country and has made some families very wealthy, but it has not worked for the majority of Chileans, because it has generated inequity, inequality, and caused many people to fall into debt. . . . What our education system has done is augment that inequality and prolong it throughout the process of one's development from an early age through the primary, secondary, and higher levels of the education system, greatly extending existing social differences. Those who are born poor probably have few opportunities to stop being poor, and at the same time those who are born rich probably have a few possibilities to stop being rich. So what we have now is a system that augments and perpetuates inequality.DOUGHERTY: The roots of the modern Chilean education system date back to the neoliberal reforms introduced during the country's period of military rule under dictator Augusto Pinochet. General Pinochet came to power in a bloody US-backed military coup in 1973 that overthrew Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist president in Latin America. Dr. Ricardo Trumper, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, was a graduate of the Chilean public education system who fled the country in 1974 following the coup. He explains how the harsh repression that saw thousands of Chileans arrested, tortured, and disappeared resulted in a political climate with little room for dissent, enabling leaders to impose unpopular economic reforms imported by the Chicago school students of free-market economist Milton Friedman that would become a blueprint for countries around the world.TRUMPER: Privatize health, privatize education, privatize pensions. The idea of privatizing education did not come direct from Chile. It came from the Chicago school. It was developed at an inter-American level and so on. So it started in Chile and in the early '80s, and actually began to be developed in the '70s, but with ideas that are certainly not Chilean, that are neoliberal. It's the development of neoliberalism and the hegemony of neoliberalism around the world.DOUGHERTY: The 1981 privatization of the education system under the Pinochet regime weakened public universities and decentralized control of public education, dividing schools into three categories: private schools subsidized by state vouchers on a per student basis; public schools transferred to the municipal level, and also funded by individual vouchers; and private schools paid for entirely by the clients. The market model was maintained and strengthened under subsequent governments following Chile's 1990 transition to democratic elections. While access to higher education was expanded, a lack of government funding and oversight fostered the creation of a class-tiered educational system, where students with fewer resources are tracked into lower performing private schools with diminished career prospects, accumulating massive debts in the process through the high-interest loans they are forced to take with private banks.LAGOS: What is seen today is that the higher education system is full of universities with profiles that specifically target poorer students, depending on the composition of the university, which has led to what we refer to as segmentation. So you could say that there is an element of class within the university system. Still, I don't think this is the only element that exists. One of the main elements we have today that might be what triggered the mobilization is indebtedness. Today in Chile there are very high interest rates. We have to take out loans with the banks that leave us with very large debts that directly affect our families.TRUMPER: So what happens then is that poorer students go to the worst primary schools, the worst secondary schools, the worst universities, and they pay or their families pay for their education. And they get out, and they don't have--if they finish--and they don't get a job, so they are quite unable to pay. I think that's more or less how the neoliberal system works, right? It works on the one hand segregating, and on the other hand disciplining, and on the third hand making money out of the people.DOUGHERTY: One of the students' demands is an end to profiteering in what has become a lucrative private education market that further funnels money into Chile's corporate elite. While the original legislation established that universities are not to be run on a for-profit basis, there are a number of loopholes that allow some families and firms to reap massive profits off the education of Chile's youth. At the center of the Chilean student struggle is the question over whether education should be a guaranteed social right or a service to be purchased on the market.LAGOS: We consider higher education to be a right, a social investment that must be guaranteed and provided by the state. On the other hand, what the government has said is that education is an individual investment, a personal investment that each person has to take care of for themselves and figure out how to pay on their own. This is the big fight behind everything we are doing with this mobilization.DOUGHERTY: Chile has a history of strong student-led movements. And in 2006, high school students led a number of protests demanding various changes to the education system. The government of then-president Michelle Bachelet agreed to address a number of the students' concerns, but many found the response to be too slowly implemented and, ultimately, insufficient. This has contributed to a feeling of frustration and mistrust in government negotiations among the university students currently leading the mobilizations, many of whom were of high school age during the 2006 protests. Students have put forth a 12-point proposal of their demands and have agreed to meet with Presidents Pinera tomorrow, on Saturday, September 3, after having rejected several previous offers for talks. There is skepticism over whether the embattled president will seriously consider the demands of the students, who have vowed to continue to take to the streets if their proposals are not adequately addressed. This is David Dougherty with The Real News Network.
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