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The Chilean Student Movement: Overcoming a History of Political Repression

by Cassandra S. Stedham
Editorial Intern

There is a certain aura that hangs thick and heavy in the Chilean air. I feel it as soon as I step off the airplane and during my taxi ride through the metropolis of Santiago. It clings to my skin in the hot summer air. It is an atmosphere tinged with equal parts oppression and optimism, as Chileans overcome subjugation and garner justice for the unforgivable mass atrocities committed by Augusto Pinochet and his military regime in the 1970s.

In the cities, no wall is left unpainted. Every once-blank space is used to tell a story, illustrating a history of injustice, subjugation, and resistance. Exploring Santiago and the vibrantly colorful Valparaíso, I am provoked into thought every time I turn a corner.

A woman pushes an empty stroller past a mural in the shantytown of La Victoria on the outskirts of Santiago. Photograph courtesy of the author.
A woman pushes an empty stroller past a mural in the shantytown of La Victoria on the outskirts of Santiago. Photograph courtesy of the author.
When we arrive at Villa Grimaldi, once a torture site and now a memorial, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the idea that so many brutal atrocities were committed in such a beautiful place. I try to imagine how it would have looked back then. Birch trees shading tiny cells, the stifling summer heat. I go inside a cell in a group of five and close the door. The air and the darkness inside are oppressive. Each of us leaves carrying a heavy weight. I am told that the prisoners who were not set free from Villa Grimaldi were transported to the airport, given lethal injections, their bodies bisected and filled with iron bars, then thrown into the ocean.

How does a society come back from this kind of collective tragedy and reclaim its identity from a man who defined Chileans as victims? Though Pinochet died in 2006, Chileans still actively seek justice, not only by prosecuting members of the regime who participated in mass murder during the dictatorship, but also in a broader sense by fighting back against a government that still does not fully acknowledge their rights as citizens.

Despite the country’s commended prosperity and its recent induction to the OECD, Chile has one of the highest rates of socioeconomic inequality in the world, ranking on the Gini index along with countries like Liberia, Zambia, and Lesotho. Rather than being representative of harmony between the government and its constituency, Chilean historical stability represents the capacity of the elites to suppress dissent and maintain power through political violence.

The successful strategy of constitutional entrenchment sought by the military regime seems to be slowly but surely wearing away. Chileans are standing up to their current leader with more bravery and self-assurance than was ever demonstrated during Pinochet’s reign, though they still struggle with the residual insecurity caused by the dictatorship.

According to Professor Jan Black of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, “[Chileans] have not entirely overcome the idea of being suppressed. I think there is still something of the behavior or attitude of ‘the battered wife’ – maybe he won’t do it again, I hope he won’t do it again, I can’t even admit that I think he might do it again, but I better be careful what I say. I heard from a very sophisticated person the fear that [resistance] might come back against them somehow, that the military [is] still strong enough that it might try something like that.”

Professor Black has been traveling to Chile since the 1960s. One of the original Peace Corps volunteers assigned to the country, she is an expert on human rights and has witnessed Chile’s transformations over the decades. She takes students to Chile every January for a three-week program about the history of human rights abuses, dictatorship, and democracy in the country. This January, I was part of the group. We traveled up and down the country, from Carririñe to Valparaíso, meeting influential people like Judge Juan Guzmán, the first judge to prosecute Pinochet, student leaders of Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (FECH), and communities of Mapuche indigenous people.

The current socioeconomically segregated educational system in Chile can be traced back to the reforms instituted by the dictatorship. Before the Pinochet regime, the nation’s schools were free to all students, but the regime pushed a free market-based approach, clearing the way for more private universities and creating a voucher system that directs billions of dollars in public funds to private high schools.

A student movement for free and quality education took to the streets in 2011, and has been the largest demonstration since the country’s transition to democracy more than 20 years ago. But the government’s response to the students’ peaceful protests has not been so democratic. Students have been attacked with tear gas and water cannons. One student was killed by a police officer in August 2011.

Piñera has attempted to pacify the protesters by promising billions in education expenditures, but Chilean students continue to seek more, saying that accepting these concessions would betray the principles of the movement. “I wish American students would learn from them,” says Professor Black. “As long as we keep this program going, we will keep trying to plug in with the students and hope that ours will pick up on the idea.”

Does the movement have the potential to bring about a substantially different education system? “I’m actually quite optimistic about it. I think the way the students have organized and handled their campaign has been brilliant. At times, they have pulled in civil servants and organized labor and various others, and they seem to have much of the media on their side…It is not terribly surprising to me that there would be down time in a campaign like that. That does not mean they cannot come back, and I think they will. They have already gotten some compromise, and I think they will get more. I would be very surprised if they got what they really needed – a serious government buy-in to the process, never mind back to free education, which is what they once had,” Professor Black tells me.

Some of the improvements that have come of the student movement so far are a reduction of interest on university student loans from 6 percent to 2 percent, and a discussion by Congress on refinancing debt for about 110,000 people behind on their payments. Though the students have not yet achieved their goal of free quality public education, the political advances they have made mark a radical shift in Chilean politics. In 2012, the student movement was awarded the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, which is named for a Chilean diplomat and his colleague who were murdered in Washington by agents of the Pinochet regime in 1976.

Camila Vallejo, a 25-year-old Chilean geography student who quickly became one of the faces of the student movement, was president of FECH when the protests began. In her acceptance speech for the Letelier-Moffitt award she told the Institute for Policy Studies, “In our country, there is no justice. Even if we don’t have a dictator anymore, we still haven’t gotten rid of the political model that his regime imposed upon us — a market-driven dictatorship. This neoliberal model has proven to be incompatible with respect for human rights. When the great wealth of the very few is derived from the life and work of the vast majority, it isn’t compatible with democracy.”

The student movement has transformed into something much bigger than an immediate demand for a better education system, raising fundamental questions about Chile’s political and economic model. Fabian Araneda, current President of FECH, told our group that the movement has started to make connections with other movements, such as worker’s rights, housing activists, and regional, and ethnic movements. The lull in action this year does not mean that anyone has given up on trying to change the system. Instead of protesting and missing school, the students are thinking of other ways that they can bring about the change they want to see.

Time will tell how much the government is willing to budge in meeting the demands of the students. With the Chilean presidential election coming up this November, I imagine there is a lot of preparation happening behind the scenes, and the results of the election could be very decisive for the student movement. Of President Sebastián Piñera, Professor Black asks a valid question: “These are the best and the brightest of the future of Chile – why would you want to treat them like the enemy?” This is precisely the sort of repression that Chileans are working to overcome.

About the Author: Cassandra Stedham is The WIP’s editorial intern. She earned her BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle and is currently working on her MA in International Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies. Cassandra’s regional focus of study is Latin America, and she traveled to Chile in January 2013 to study the history of human rights abuses, dictatorship, and democracy in the country. Her passion for language, writing, politics, and culture has led her to pursue a career in international journalism. You can visit her personal blog, Talk to a Stranger.

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