Earlier this year, after the body of Salvador Allende was exhumed and independent investigators confirmed that he committed suicide during the military coup in 1973, his family were not surprised. Visiting the modest house in Santiago where he lived until his election, I was told by his granddaughter Marcia, who is currently making a film about him, that they always believed the accounts of close colleagues who were in the presidential palace, La Moneda, at the time, as well as his own statements, public and private, that should the military move against him, he was not prepared to leave La Moneda alive. This is not the only film about Allende currently in preparation. Veteran director Miguel Littin has a fictionalised version of 11th September 1973, with a mise-en-scène set entirely inside La Moneda, which starts shooting in March. He attributes Allende’s place in Chilean history and memory to the fact that he did not, like so many other overthrown presidents in Latin America and elsewhere, abandon his people and fly off to some safe haven. Today Allende’s photo can be seen displayed on market stalls in popular neighbourhoods alongside posters of film stars and popular singers, whereas the only images to be seen of General Pinochet are satirical drawings on posters for student protests.
The students have been protesting for more than six months, in marches, demonstrations and occupations of schools and universities, against one of the legacies of the neoliberal regime introduced under Pinochet during the 1980s, which since the return to democracy has produced the most heavily privatised education system in the world. Even in the case of public universities, the state provides only fifteen per cent of the funding, and most students—or their families—must pay their own way, which for most of them means taking out crippling debts. Bursaries of various kinds are available for those with high grades, and the present government, in a half-hearted response to the student movement, has just increased the funding available for this purpose in a highly contested education budget. However, most of the 35% increase in the number of higher education scholarships is earmarked for the private universities—a ‘slight of hand to deceive the poorest’ in the words of one student leader. It is true that the growth of private universities has led to a massive increase in student numbers, from two hundred thousand twenty years ago to around 1.1m today, but this expansion has been funded by an economic policy of easy credit. Just as in other places, people got caught up in the credit system without realising what they were letting themselves in for, and since the economy was strong, the effects remained for long invisible.
The teenagers have been sleeping in their schools, university classes have been suspended because students have gone on strike, websites have been set up, videos posted in the usual places. Demonstrations are peaceful and often involve symbolic actions, like hundreds of students dressed as zombies performing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ in front of La Moneda, or students running relays round La Moneda for 1,800 hours. But marches have sometimes ended in violent attacks by the police using water cannon and tear gas. According to Leonardo Durán, an activist film student at the University of Chile, the violence is deliberately provoked by masked infiltrators. These clashes have eroded some of the massive popular support which they protests began by enjoying, but not a lot. Amazed at the students’ boldness, older generations who remember the brutal repression of protests against the dictatorship in the 1980s, ascribe their readiness to face down the carabineros on the streets to their growing up after the return to democracy. But this year’s student mobilisations also have a precedent in the protests of 2005 by the school kids known from the design of their uniforms as los penguins (penguins). Back then the protests were short-lived, although they forced the resignation of the education minister and resulted in a few concessions from President Bachelet. Today many of those on the streets are the same generation. They already know the limits of constitutional politics. And now there’s a new generation coming up behind them, because this year school kids were again at the forefront of the occupations which began last May.
Bachelet was the last in a run of Presidents belonging to the centre-left coalition known as the Concertación that took office in 1990 under the skewed Constitution imposed by Pinochet, which ensures that legislation can be blocked by a right-wing minority. Carlos Ossa of the University of Chile ascribes the election of her successor, the right-wing multimillionaire Sebastian Piñera, to the accommodation by the left to the Concertación, which he describes as a transition from dictatorship not to democracy but to the market, which finally left the Concertación in a weak position. Piñera, whose cabinet is made up of what The Economist recently described as ‘wealthy former businessmen’, is a billionaire ‘who sold his stakes in LAN, Chile’s leading airline, and Chilevisión, a television broadcaster, early in his term’, not to mention a holding company that controls Colo Colo, Chile’s most successful football club. But his electoral success was also due to an electoral system that leaves an estimated five million Chileans—mostly the poorest and the young—disenfranchised, with result that disaffection with the Concertación by a relatively small sector of the middle classes was enough to swing the vote away from them.
Sociologist Manuel Antonio Garretón refutes apologists who argued that although Pinochet was a bloody dictator who violated human rights, he succeeded in modernising the country. In fact, he says, every economic indicator, for employment, inflation, growth, income distribution, or what-have-you, was worse after seventeen years of dictatorship than under Allende. Chile’s recent economic growth, the highest in Latin America, only came with the Concertación, along with improved social mobility, educational opportunity—and private universities, which found ways around the prohibition on profit-making in education. National prosperity was financed by increasing foreign investment, private debt and growing inequality, which has now come home to roost. Income differences, Ossa tells me, which in the seventies were in the order of 47 to 1, have now increased to 830 to 1. Only ten per cent of the population earn more than US$5,000, while 60% earn US$600 or less. Some 80% of families have insufficient income to pay their children’s university fees without taking out loans.
It is readily assumed in the UK that educational model proposed by the Coalition Government is that of the USA, but we really ought to take note of the Chilean example, because it shows what can happen when you privatise a fully public system, not only reducing students to consumers but also diminishing the role of their teachers, and eliminating disinterested scholarship and intellectual inquiry. Keith Thomas writes in the LRB of our numerous concerns about the future of British universities. They include ‘the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening staff-student ratio’. In Chile they talk of the ‘blackboard lecturers’ who provide the backbone of the teaching in the private universities, are paid per class and have no job security. I’m also told that private universities (with a few exceptions) offer only a reduced range of low-cost courses and support no research
The students remain defiant. They don’t want to improve the system but change it, which Garretón points out is impossible without a change in the political system. Elections at the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) have just handed victory to Gabriel Boric, candidate of a new left grouping, Creando Izquierda (Creating Left), while the current President, the charismatic Camila Vallejo, a member of the Communist Party, moves to Vice-President. Boric told a radio interviewer he wanted to disengage the student movement from Chile’s political institutions and instead seek to change the institutions themselves. ‘We don’t want to answer to the traditional political parties, but rather to create new sectors that represent the discontent of the people who no longer feel represented by the right or by the Concertación,’ he said, ‘because the current institutional framework in Chile doesn’t have the ability to deliver on the demands of the student movement’.
In short, even if the students now begin to return to their classes with no resolution of their demands, this doesn’t necessarily mean their defeat. The student movement has irrevocably demonstrated the ideological bankruptcy of a reactionary government with no project of its own to offer the country. They have set the agenda for the next electoral battle, and the question is whether the parties of the Concertación can rise to the challenge—the repeal and replacement of Pinochet’s Constitution.
Protest Chile was filmed on a visit to Chile in November 2011, where I was a visiting professor in the University of Chile’s ICEI (Institute for Film and Journalism). I am super-grateful to Tiziana Panizza, course leader for the Masters in Documentary, who invited me, and especially to a group of students who very generously provided me with footage they’ve been shooting for the last few months and looked after my education by taking me around.