The Chilean Winter: Student Revolt

Originally baptised as the Chilean Winter, the student movement in Chile has demonstrated that it is far from being the consequence of a seasonal emancipating spirit. After four months of continuous and massive protests for the establishment of a fair and integrated educational system, the movement has achieved what no political party or political leader could in the last twenty years. It has placed at the centre of discussion the need of structural and profound transformations to an educational system created during the neoliberal experiment of Augusto Pinochet. Furthermore, it has put in serious doubt the legitimacy of the whole institutional apparatus contained in a Constitution drafted during the dictatorship and which is still in force.

There are a number of reasons that explain the strength and perseverance of this movement. Perhaps the most relevant is the fatigue of the institutional system. The 1980 Constitution set the foundations of the Chilean political and economical institutions. From a political perspective the Constitution created a unique binominal electoral system which established the conditions for an uneven distribution of parliamentary seats between the two major political coalitions. Since the recovery of democracy in 1990, this distribution has not reflected the real vote of the people. In practical terms, the system has allowed right wing parties to control half of the seats although their real vote has been little more than third of the electorate.

Furthermore, the Constitution introduced a perverse mechanism that placed incredibly high thresholds to amend the laws which form the core of the neoliberal apparatus. Among these laws is the law of education. The quorum required to modify them can be as high as three fifths of the members of parliament. Considering that the binominal electoral system makes it almost impossible for a political coalition to obtain such numbers in the Parliament, the Constitution has completely suppressed the possibility of amending the system through institutional channels. This includes, of course, the law of education.

In other words, through the institutional deadlock imposed by Pinochet’s Constitution, the neoliberal machinery found a secure refuge. Since 1990 right wing parties have grotesquely benefited from these rules; they have been consistently opposed to structural transformations, not only of the educational system, but of anything which could erode the basis of what they so proudly defend. Through a fake representation in Parliament gained through a deeply flawed system, they have been able to impose their will and maintain the status quo throughout the years.

Experience has taught the student movement that the institutional deadlock cannot be opened through regular institutional channels. Indeed, five years ago a secondary school student movement called ‘the penguins’, after months of marches and protests was invited by the then socialist government to a round of negotiations. These negotiations came to nothing. As soon as the watered down bill came to parliamentary discussion any possibility of reform was completely lost.

Last week the government initiated a round of negotiations with the current student movement. This time, however, students know that the only way these negotiations can find a proper course is by maintaining marches, protests and an adequate use of force throughout the whole process. They know that institutional mechanisms do not offer the guarantees necessary to produce the transformations they are legitimately claiming for, so the pressure should remain in place until the very end. As they have asserted, they won’t stop their demands until they have been accomplished, that is, to change a system which treats education as a commodity, which has created the most expensive higher education in the world (OECD) and which reproduces, from the very beginning, the inequalities of a rotten economic state.

This is why in the last four months millions of Chileans have decided to go on to the streets to express their discontent at a political class unable to provide adequate responses to these problems. This is why nearly 80% of the population supports the movement. This is why marches and protests will continue; schools and universities will maintain their doors shut and many students may lose their academic year. All this will continue until the longed for transformations are achieved.

With the beginning of a new season, the Chilean Winter has entered into a new stage of revolt.

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