Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seeking Social Justice Through Education in Chile

This article was first published in Upside Down World here.
The ongoing student protests in Chile are an unwavering accomplishment aimed at combating the social injustice riddling the country's education system. What started out as a series of peaceful protests has become a manifestation of unity between students, artists and much of the general population in a stance defying the current government’s position regarding social class, cultural difference and political division with regard to education.

Upon assuming power in a military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, General Augusto Pinochet implemented a series of policies that spelled poverty for the working class. To this day, remnants of the military dictatorship are evident in Chile. Upon Milton Friedman’s advice, Pinochet altered the education system in Chile. Responsibility for public schooling was transferred from the Ministry of Education to public municipalities. Private schools were financed by the voucher system in proportion to student enrolments. The elite families began enrolling their children into schools which charged for enrolment. No effort was made on behalf of the government to improve the curriculum, education quality or management, resulting in a society which, for decades had to contend with social class division within education.

Private universities meant excessive tuition fees, causing students and their families to incur debts whilst education quality was barely improved. Universities were mostly attended by students from the middle class and higher income families. Impoverished areas had no access to quality education, with low income families obliged to send
their children to public schools where no incentives, such as better working conditions for teachers were offered, to promote and enhance student educational performance. Discrepancy in Chile’s education system led to society incurring yet another split. The current system exploits class as well as cultural differences. Low income families have no option but to send their children to public municipal schools. Mapuche people living in rural areas having to contend with an inferior education as well as lack of intercultural awareness.

Students are demanding the state assumes responsibility to provide free education and broader access to education. The students’ proposals include eliminating the business concept of education, ensuring the quality of public education, the creation of an education system which falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and ensuring educational rights for Chile’s indigenous people.

Protests have ranged from sit-ins, to barricades and marches, as well as hunger strikes as a mark of resistance. Hunger strike protestors have read statements holding the government responsible for their plight. Cacerolazo protests (a common form of protest in Latin American countries which involves banging on pots with kitchen utensils) have also gained ground within the movement and Chilean society. This form of protest, which can even be performed from home, has achieved a high level of solidarity with
the student protestors.

Thousands of students in Santiago clashed with the police as force was used in an attempt to restore what the state defines as public order. The students were met with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. In what may be portrayed as another relic of the dictatorship some protests were deemed illegal, citing the lack of a permit allowing students to demonstrate. Camilla Vallejo, spokesperson for the student’s movement described the state repression as a great mistake, adding that the student movement was not intimidated by threats and encouraging the students to persist in their various forms of protest.

President Sebastian Piñera’s attempts to appease the students have been rejected outright. In a televised speech, Piñera’s proposals including a cabinet reshuffle and an annual education fund used to support public education were dismissed as not addressing the students’ concerns and demands. While the students were calling on the government to end private education schemes, Pinera’s declared that nationalising the education system would damage quality and freedom of education.
1The second attempt at reform was the government’s 21 point plan2, which was once again swiftly rejected by the students. The right to a quality education, promoting student involvement, promoting multiculturalism in higher education and an inclusive admission system were listed amongst the proposals being branded as reform.

The discrepancies in Piñera’s proposals highlight Chilean divisions. There is no mention of state takeover of education; hence the right to a free quality education for all society remains debatable. Education administered by the private sector remains the estate of the privileged, enforcing further gaps within Chilean society. Student involvement in education remains a distant objective, as protests continue to be met with force. Multiculturalism awareness and inclusive admission border on illusion when considering the intolerance and abuse of human rights suffered by indigenous people.

As a result of state repression against indigenous people, the Mapuche have been subjected to discrimination. Apart from the anti terror law, which allows the state to prosecute Mapuche in a military court, the community has been subjected to cultural repression. Yonatan Cayulao, leader of the Mapuche Federation of Students has proposed a Mapuche University3, stating that Chilean education has marginalised indigenous people in its quest to create a homogeneous nation. The Mapuche University would allow the community to protect their culture within their own environment.

In the latest turn of events, Camilla Vallejo was reported to have delivered a letter4 to President Piñera, challenging the president to a transparent debate and urging him to acknowledge education as a universal right instead of a consumerism scheme, as he had previously announced. The letter denounced student segregation under the current education system and called for education to be guaranteed constitutionally ‘as a social law’.

Reminiscent of the past is the way nueva canción singers are uniting once again in support of Chileans. In a message broadcast on You Tube5, Inti Illimani’s Jorge Coulon reiterated his support for the students. “We admire and respect tremendously the current student movement in Chile and we are glad to participate in it since they (the students) are not only writing, but rewriting the history of Chile, which is full of episodes in which the students have been fundamental. The present time is one of them, and you – the students, are playing a leading role in this history.”

Pinochet’s influence in Chilean democracy is never far from the people’s consciousness. Each year Chile’s September 11th anniversary is marked with violent incidents and manifestations – a reminder that justice remains a remote illusion for many victims of the military dictatorship. With the protests set to continue, talk emerges regarding the possibility of the army being deployed against the students if the protests continue up to that date.

An issue which portrays the social injustice incited by Pinochet is the attitude of Chileans towards state violence. In a conversation with Julieta, a local anthropology student,  I was told “In Chile, because we are accustomed to police violence, we have naturalised this violence that we receive.” The memory of the military coup is far from being relegated to the confines of history. With a democracy that moulds itself on past legislation, the concept of freedom and dignity for Chileans remains a battle to be fought from many societal aspects and the struggle for free education seems to have ignited the memory of the past to be combated in the contemporary realm.


No comments:

Post a Comment