Chile’s Long Winter Of Discontent
By Nick OlleApril 17, 2012
A year on from the start of the “Chilean Winter” student movement, there’s been a changing of the guard within both the movement and the government.
This time last year the "Chilean Winter" was just kicking off.
The biggest — and most violent — of student protests that would shock the nation were still to come. The Piñera administration was still on its first education minister (it is now on its third). And we hadn't yet heard of The Guardian readers' person of the year — 23-year-old student leader Camila Vallejo, voted after Time magazine declared it the "Year of the protestor".
The charismatic, nose-ringed, communist Vallejo would become the face of the Chilean students' struggle for better-funded, state-run, free education.
She was the president of the University of Chile student federation (FECH) and — along with other leaders, notably Giorgio Jackson, her counterpart at Chile's Catholic University — mobilised the largest demonstrations since Chile returned to democracy after General Augusto Pinochet's military rule in 1990.
Students also "occupied" hundreds of schools around the country in sit-ins known as tomas.
"In the beginning, the movement was all about really practical issues like the cost of higher education, about how middle class families were having a hard time paying for it," saysGregory Elacqua, director of the Public Policy Institute at the Universidad Diego Portales.
Elacqua, who has worked as an advisor to two education ministers, says the average middle-class family in Chile spends 40 to 60 per cent of its income on expenses related to higher education, "the highest in the OECD".
"Tuition prices have gone up by about 60 per cent in real terms over the last 10 years, and graduates pay about two or three times more than their peers in OECD countries just in paying back their student loans."
As well as demanding free education and an end to for-profit schools, students called for the state to take control of public education, which is currently managed at the municipal level - a legacy of the Pinochet era.
If it all sounds vaguely familiar, that is because Chile has been down this road before — six years ago in fact, in 2006, during President Michelle Bachelet's administration. The so-called "Penguin Revolution" protests (a reference to school uniforms) were led by secondary students demanding much the same reforms as the university-led movement is demanding now.
Last October, Bachelet said her government wanted to meet student demands — including free education and a constitutional guarantee of quality education — but had been hamstrung by the right-wing opposition. Now, she said, was the time to get it done.
Whether or not we believe her history of the Penguin Revolution, Bachelet's handling of the 2006 crisis provides lessons for the Chilean Winter players.
She formed a presidential committee to look at the quality of education in Chile and included all of the stakeholders, including the students.
As Elacqua puts it: "Her message was, 'Okay, let's get everybody's opinion on the table, let's debate all of the issues in a constructive way, we'll put them together in a document that shows the things that we agree on and disagree on, and then we'll give it to the politicians and they'll negotiate a bill.'"
Despite failing to meet the students' demands, the process brought an end to the protests. The key, according to Elacqua, was giving the students some ownership. "One of the main problems now is that the students don't feel like they are part of the process," he says.
From July 2011, a raft of government proposals designed to mollify the students were rejected as not far-reaching enough, and the demonstrations grew bigger and nastier. In one protest, on August 4, 2011, police arrested 874 people.
Bur far from blaming the students for the violence, Chileans were — and are — overwhelming supportive of them. By September 2011, President Sebastian Piñera's approval rating had plummeted to just above 20 per cent, while polls showed almost 90 per cent of the population supported the student's demands; "We are the 90 per cent," they'd shout.
"Comandante Camila" was their darling. She hadn't reached just the students and their families, she'd put the movement on the world stage.
But a year is a long time not just in national politics, it seems, but also in the student variety.
On December 7, 2011, despite the student movement still having 70 per cent public approval, Camila Vallejo was ousted as FECH president in elections.
A month earlier, the president of Chilean polling company Adimark, Roberto Mendez, warned of "wear and fatigue in public opinion over the student movement".
He said the fall in support for the student movement — to be fair, from 90 per cent approval there was not much margin to increase support — that the time for "disorder in the street" and tomas was over .
Enter Gabriel Boric.
The bearded, 26-year-old law student who wrested the FECH presidential mantle from Vallejo lacks her magnetism and is seen by most commentators as more radical than his predecessor.
"We have our differences, but they are minor," Boric says. "We have a very good relationship, we're working side by side. There is no problem.
"I am from the left but I don't belong to any traditional political party so I have an independence when it comes to dealing with the Chilean political system — we don't answer to anybody, only the students."
It's subtle, but there is a significant distinction here. Boric is contrasting his "independence" with Vallejo's political party membership.
As a member of the Communist Party, Vallejo was obliged to toe the party line and, to a degree, play politics. Indeed, despite the firmness of the students' reform agenda, she did show some willingness to negotiate with the government.
Contrast that with Boric's representation of the government as an "adversary" and his talk of the need to change political institutions rather than work with them: "It is necessary to generate alliances with other social sectors… to achieve structural changes in the country." Suddenly the differences start to become clear.
Whereas at the end of her reign, Vallejo spoke of dialogue with the government and of working with the centre-left opposition Concertación alliance, Boric, during his campaign, repeatedly rejected all traditional political parties as non-representative of the students.
In a radio interview on December 12, 2011, a matter of days after losing the FECH presidency, Vallejo couldn't resist a cheeky dig at Boric.
Saying that her successor was off to a good start in "political terms", she then offered some curt advice about his gung-ho style.
Asked what she might give Boric for Christmas, she said: "I'd give him a little more humility.
"It is important to lose some arrogance to better reach people," she said, adding: "It's okay to be sharp, but people also expect humility and proximity from their leaders."
Boric's rhetoric since the December poll has been much the same.
"In reality, there is an abyss between the political class and the people," he says.
And on the possibility of compromise with the government he is sceptical.
"It is difficult, but I think we can start to advance in the right direction. Without a doubt we won't achieve everything we are asking for, but yes, certain measures can be taken to change the course of the commercial education model we have today in Chile.
"This all depends on the political will of the government — but the political class, and this government in particular, has been very intransigent."
You won't hear Boric or Vallejo say it, but in reality, the student movement scored a number of significant victories in 2011.
The government remains unwilling to budge on free education, but interest rates on subsidised loans are to be lowered from six per cent to two per cent, more scholarships are being made available, and there is more money set aside for direct funding of public education — the 2012 budget proposal earmarks a higher education spending increase of nearly $350 million.
And the two Cabinet reshuffles that saw first Joaquín Lavín and then Felipe Bulnes replaced as education minister (the incumbent minister is Harald Beyer) were a clear sign that the students had rattled the government.
Both Boric and Vallejo now speak of a united front, insisting that the movement is bigger than any of its personalities, but it is hard to escape the sense that the 2011 FECH election was a decisive moment in the student movement.
Gregory Elacqua, for one, thinks the Chilean government will look back at Vallejo's reign as a missed opportunity.
"The government made a big mistake, I think, in not negotiating with her because effectively she is moderate, she's a politician," he says.
"She belongs to a political party, which I think is a good thing for the government because she's going to be loyal to her institution; even though it is the Communist Party, it is a disciplined political party and she belongs to it.
"The government made a big mistake by not taking advantage of that."
With students barely a month into the academic year, it is too early to judge Boric.
There has been just one protest so far, in Santiago on March 16. The turnout was modest — organisers say upwards of 5,000 turned out, police put the number at 2,000 — and police used water cannons and tear gas to break up the march when protestors crossed a police barrier to get to the education ministry.
"If we're going to evaluate his performance based on negotiating with the government or mobilising students, he hasn't got a very good grade so far," Elacqua says. "But of course it has only been one month.
"I was very impressed the last time I saw him, which was at an Education Committee meeting in the Senate. He had a whole team of lawyers who understand the complexities of the bills and they went in and they gave their comments and they were very technical. I was very surprised by their ability to understand the complexities of the law."
And what of the government's new blood, Minister Beyer?
A technocrat, Beyer is well respected in academia and since taking over the education portfolio in December he's talked a conciliatory game.
It remains to be seen if the minister can both negotiate with students and move reforms through Congress. Elacqua says he could do worse than adopting the Bachelet round table model.
"The ideal way forward is for the minister to create a discussion table with the students and let them feel like they are participating — and hopefully they would be participating," he says.
"It is more likely, though, that they won't have much success negotiating with the students. But I think they'll pass some bills that will make at least some citizens happy."