Despite the overwhelming discontent among the general public in Chile, President Sebastian Piñera continues to defend the present education model. Piñera believes that education is a consumer good, not a right. At this time, more than three years after the initial protests were sparked, can we look to the Chilean students for a success story?
The protests in this South American nation began in 2011, when Universidad de Chile students took to the streets to demand change from the tax system created in 1981 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, when most of Chile’s educational system was privatized and government support reduced.
The students’ central demand—for free and equitable access to higher education for all Chileans—has yet to be met. In the last few months of Piñera’s presidency and with presidential elections looming on November 19, 2013, the government is under pressure to draft a new constitution.
“The current constitution we have now doesn’t protect the rights of people at all—it’s completely anti-democratic,” said Hernán Moreno Acuña, a high school teacher and president of the largest teachers union in southern Santiago, the capital.
In the last few years the government has made various concessions to the protesters, such as lowering the student interest rate on loans from 5 percent to 2 percent.
Today students from 24 universities and 35 high schools throughout Chile continue to protest for the fundamental transformation of the educational system.
The movement has also drawn attention to the country’s reliance on copper exports. But it seems unlikely that nationalizing the copper industry so that the profits can be used for education will ever happen. Although the Chilean economy is a shining success story compared to other Latin American neighbors, it is almost completely dependent on its export of one commodity. What happens when copper prices falter? Without an education overhaul that fosters the development of Chile’s young people and provides them with the space and resources to thrive and innovate, the Chilean economy will suffer.
Additionally, the protesters have brought attention to the unequal distribution of resources not only in schools but also in the healthcare system and in rural areas of Chile. They have galvanized Chilean citizens and initiated a necessary conversation with the government.
According to the president of the Student Federation of the Universidad de Chile (FECH), Andres Fielbaum, the announcements made by Piñera in his speech in Santiago on May 21, 2013, were not nearly enough to improve the dire state of education.
“Piñera’s words only “reaffirm that for him education is conceived as a business and not a right,” he said. “The only option left for students is to further strengthen their movement.” Fielbaum later announced the “intensification of the protests until the end.”
The 26-year-old mathematics and engineering graduate student said “politicians should not forget that this is an election year and that students will remain a major player when it comes to discussing the project country.”
Michelle Bachelet, the presidential candidate favored to win the election, supports educational reforms. Fielbaum however reminded students, “it is very easy to make promises in an election year.”
Bachelet served as Chile’s former socialist party president (2006-2010) and later was appointed to a United Nations post. She is running as a member of the communist party for the 2013 presidential elections, with approval ratings at an estimated 50 percent.
• This article was produced with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting