picture of student protester and organizer, Camila Vallejo recently elected to Chilean Congress
As the hoax known as Obama’s 20/20 plan for higher education is barely mentioned in the US press, what is also missing from any discussion is what is going on in other parts of the world when it comes to higher education. This is especially true of S. America where dramatic, positive changes are taking place.
In this two-part article we look at two countries that are going through a remarkable transition in Latin America: Chile and Ecuador. By studying the issues that face the Chilean and Ecuadorian people and how they are uniting to assure free, open access for all students wishing to go to an institution of higher education the US people might begin to learn how to mount a real mobilization to defend and preserve public education. As you will see, this movement must be offensive, defensive and well organized.
We begin with Chile
In 2006, during the first presidential term of President Michelle Bachelet, her government was facing its first main challenge with riots, strikes and a countrywide boycott put together by more than a million students.
A national strike called by the Coordinating Assembly of Grade School Students brought the Chilean education system to its knees back in June of 2006. Teenagers occupied schools, barricading the entrances with desks, while street riots raged for 10 hours in the capital of Chile, Santiago. Police used tear gas and water cannons on marching students. Approximately 370 people were arrested.
As the Guardian newspaper out of England noted at the time:
“The students, who raised their complaints four weeks ago, are demanding free use of public transport, lower fees for college entrance exams and a voice in government policy. At the base of their protest is the demand for a potent upgrade of the public school system.
A full 50% of high school graduates fail the college entrance exam. In private schools, 91% of students pass the exam and have the opportunity to continue studying” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jun/07/chile.schoolsworldwide).
The student protests were the largest in Chilean history. Authorities were stunned by the organization of the protesters, the sage mobilizations and disciplined activity of the politically inspired students.
The so-called ‘leftist’ government of president Bachelet was surely taken by surprise. And so, “the march of the penguins” - in reference to the protesters’ school uniforms, began the initial protests — the organizing and mobilizing among students that continues today.
Back in 2006 the Bachelet government tried to portray the heavily organized student movement as simply the works of crazy communists or student leftists but even the press in Chile dismissed all of this as red baiting, noting:
“Admiration for the students is nearly universal, with some 87% of Chileans polled saying they support the movement. “These are not crazy revolutionaries,” wrote Patricio Fernández, an influential columnist in the Clinic newspaper. “Their parents support them. Their cousins, their neighbours, their old aunts. They are bored that the wealthy schools educate those who will be boss, while their school trains them to be workers. More than combating Chilean authorities, they are convincing them” (ibid).
From 2006 until today, the student led mobilizations in Chile have added millions of support to their efforts and have even been able to expose the corruption of the for-profit colleges, such as the University for Arts, Sciences and Communication (UNIACC). The for-profit diploma mill is owned by Apollo Global (which owns the University of Phoenix) and according to the company website is “a $1bn joint venture formed in 2007 — 80.1% owned by Apollo Group Inc. and 19.9% owned by a private equity firm, the Carlyle Group” (http://www.dailycensored.com/chilean-students-force-profit-colleges-universities-coffin/). It is permeated with corruption and larcenous administrators.
Chilean students were and are demanding an end to what they describe as “diploma mills” such as UNIACC which throw out thousands of students every year, many of whom receive a substandard education.
In a lesson that should be learned here in the US, Chilean students continue to take over schools and city streets in the largest protests the country has seen in decades (http://dailycensored.flignats.com/chilean-students-have-taken-over-schools-and-city-streets-in-the-largest-protests-the-country-has-seen-in-decades-for-free-education/).
The Pinochet Regime
Chile suffered under the neo-liberal economics of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics carried out by the brutal Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet for more to two and one half decades. In fact, they still are.
Everything was privatized and if you wish to see how students in Chile, now facing the same austerity cuts that the neo-liberals are proposing to bail-out the one percent in the US are doing, you can see the following documentaries, for starts: (http://www.facebook.com/marchaYoSoy132) (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/chile-rising/).
Schools in Chile were free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately-run high schools. This is what the US rulers wish. The Chicago Boyz are running US education and like Chile favor a voucher system for private schools.
Today, Chile’s higher education burden is the toughest of nearly any nation surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. While families in Scandinavian countries pay less than 5 per cent of the costs and U.S. families pay more than 40 per cent, Chilean households must pay more than 75 per cent from their own pockets (http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Chiles+Camila+Vallejo+leaves+student+protests+back/9196273/story.html).
Michelle Bachelet elected president again: this time with a promise for positive reforms for education
This time now that she has gained a second term as of December 15, 2013, Bachelet has promised that the state will pay the tuition fees of the poorest 70% of Chile’s higher education students. She is also expected to create more public universities to break the monopoly of private institutions.
To fund its education policies, the new administration aims to steadily raise corporate taxes from 20% to 25%, which would bring Chile closer to the norm among developed nations. This may risk a backlash from international investors, which benefited from the more business-friendly policies of the outgoing president, Sebastián Piñera, but the country seems to be moving in a new direction.
There is little doubt that the student movement in Chile was responsible for Bachelet receiving a second term. Their mobilization, their organization and their efforts not only stopped the Apollo Group’s phony university, but seven years of struggle has produced a more critically literate population and Bachelet knew it. This is why she used education as her platform, along with inequality, to achieve her December 15th, 2013 win.
Following the election, Chilean university student, Ellerman, a former student who voted on December 15, 2013 but preferred not to give his last name stated:
“I left university a year ago and I’m paying off my loan. I think it’s really important that people can study for free. It’s going to be really difficult to make it 100% but little by little it can be done” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/16/chile-president-elect-michelle-bachelet-election-reforms).
Student leaders in Chile elected to Congress
Not only was Bachelet elected again but four, young student leaders were elected to the Chilean Congress this year as well. This almost seems unbelievable if not impossible since students began demonstrating for better quality and more affordable education just a few years ago. Yet students are not only mobilized on the ground they have mobilized within their minds, developing class consciousness and they will be monitoring Bachelet and her policies closely.
One of the new student MPs, Gabriel Boric, told the Guardian newspaper out of England:
“If Michelle Bachelet responds to the expectations she has created on education we are going to support her but we are not so sure that the people around her believe in what we believe, so there will be tension” (ibid).
Tension indeed. The battle has been won but the fight to win the war against the profiteers and Pinochet reactionaries has just begun.
Camila Vallejo was one of the students who had more visibility in the Chilean students staged protests against laws and standards of higher education in their country than most. She is now a Congresswoman. Vallejo went from being the former president and vice president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile to becoming now an elected Congresswoman.
While President of the University of Chile Student Federation, 23-year-old Camila Vallejo led a campaign for better access to education that began in April 2011. She was voted person of the year in a poll of guardian.co.uk readers.
A survey released by the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, in August 2011, at the height of the student demonstrations, positively evaluated the student protest movement, with 77 % approval. And Vallejo was positioned as the main leader, with 68 % approval.
She received overwhelming support in elections December 15, 2013, parallel to the presidential election and she won the support of 43.66 % of voters in the municipality of La Florida in Santiago neighborhood.
Vallejo is clear:
“This was not the fight nor the work nor the triumph of one woman, but of many residents who want to change Chile and that’s what we’re going to start doing from March in Congress” (http://www.semana.com/mundo/articulo/lider-estudiantil-camila-vallejo-diputada-en-chile/365018-3).
Vallejo says she’s confident Bachelet’s coalition will have enough seats in Congress to achieve the educational reform needed. Vallejo told foreign correspondents in a meeting after the election:
“Given the result of the elections, we have a majority that allows us to make structural changes,”
“Social movements are pressuring many sectors that were not in favour of change before and that have now changed their mind.
Many sectors say we won’t be able to makes these changes because we don’t have the votes in Congress but we’ve learned that there’s no limit to what the social movement can achieve. It’s not about using a calculator and seeing how many votes are missing (http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Chiles+Camila+Vallejo+leaves+student+protests+back/9196273/story.html).
No limit indeed. Standing next to her for the interview was Karol Carolia, another student activist elected to Congress.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow back in 2012, Vallejo went on to sum up the difficult struggle for free, universal education in the neo-liberal economy of Pinochet and his followers:
“We never in our dreams imagined it would grow so big so fast. We had plans for protests and for mobilising students, but what happened last year was surprising even to us. Historically, the University of Chile students’ union has had an important political role. Today more than ever. We’ve put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets for months. There have been marches filled with colour, costumes and original music with really funny lyrics. There have been videos, flash mobs and Thriller protests [in which thousands of students re-enacted the Michael Jackson video]. We’re not just disputing the ideological nature of the education system. All the basic services are privatised here and priced to the market. The consequences of this are very violent.
You need collective organisation and action’ Link to video: Chilean protester Camila Vallejo: ‘You need collective organisation and action’
The police tortured many students during the protests and continue to do so. It is systematic repression. I’m not just talking about what happened this past year – just the other day, a march was brutally repressed. The abuse of power is very common among the police and there is no regulation. It is a system of repression that has not disappeared in the post-Pinochet era. There are attacks against all kinds of human rights – the right to gather, the right to protest, the right to organise. They don’t let us walk freely in the streets; they have even attacked our offices, high schools, universities. We are young – we did not live through the dictatorship – but we’re aware of what happened from our parents, from books. We thought that this repression had gone, but by questioning the political order, we discovered that they are willing to use these weapons again.
We still have the legacy of the military dictatorship. Chile has a very weak civil society in terms of social organisations and unions. Our social fabric is shredded. And there is a kind of individualism that we are seeking to overcome. This year the people woke up. Lost their fears. Questioned the model. There is enormous potential to mobilise. Maybe the student protests will not be the same as last year with a march every Thursday, but there is going to be a huge development” (http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2012/10/17/part_two_camila_vallejo_noam_titelman_on_massive_chilean_student_protests_post_pinochet_chile).
It is amazing that a generation of students, many born under the military dictatorship of the brutal Pinochet regime have turned the tides of history. If students in Chile, where repression is worse than the US and where dictatorship stains the economic and social landscape, cannot only mobilize, but can organize and stop the for-profit educational industry from gobbling up the public commons then students in the US and other so-called ‘modern democracies’ have a lesson to learn.
Here in the US students must form a Student Union, for teachers at this juncture are capitulating to the forces of privatization and in doing, so creating the material conditions of a neo-feudal world of concentrated capital (see the new Chicago Teacher Union agreement and its critique as just one example of how poorly the leadership of teacher unions are doing in both not educating their members as to what the issues are under capitalism and how this translates into cuts in funding for schools, but it shows the how they are also laying the groundwork for their own demise as they surrender authority to Rahm Emmanuel and CPS) ((http://www.wsws.org/tools/index.php?page=print&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wsws.org%2Farticles%2F2012%2Faug2012%2Fchic-a01.shtml).
This is just one example; the other horrific fact is that the teacher union pensions are being used to buy for-profit stock in for-profit, predatory colleges (http://www.projectcensored.org/financial-capitalism-and-the-us-teachers-pension-fund-fraud/).
Then there is the recent appointment by privatizer in Chief, Barrack Obama of Ted Mitchell, the Chief Executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund (a privatizing organization), to become the Under Secretary of the Department of Education. This is simply a move by the Obama administration towards greater and greater privatization as part of his 20/20 plan for higher education (http://truth-out.org/news/item/20873-ted-mitchell-education-dept-nominee-has-strong-ties-to-pearson-privatization-movement#.UsGGsz8nn6I.email). He also has strong ties to Pearson LLC. which owns the GED, testing materials and online schools (http://www.thenation.com/blog/177675/ted-mitchell-education-dept-nominee-has-strong-ties-pearson-privatization-movement).
The real difference in Chile, as opposed to the US where student-teacher mobilization and organization is lacking and where Wall Street writes and dictates educational policy, is that students are successfully attempting to escape neo-liberal tyranny; and they are winning.
The students in the country of Chile are demanding free education, and an end to the privatization of their schools and universities; they are not waiting around for lapdog politicians or the ‘adults’ who make insincere promises to break their word and thus the students’ financial legs. Nor are they investing in politicians who claim to represent them. Instead, they are organizing, mobilizing and beginning to take the reins of power.
The question for Americans, teachers, citizens, students and parents is simple: can we also challenge the Obama administration and its rancid privatization of education policies written for and by Wall Street or will we capitulate to the educational policies of the Pinochet style government, which actually is a very good description of what is and has transpired in the US?
In part two we will examine Ecuador’s educational reform policy, for it is one of the greatest currently, in the world.
You can see the amazing interviews with Amy Goodman and Chilean student leaders conducted in 2012 at: