Students Lead the Way as Change Comes to Chile

If socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet’s success in last Sunday’s Chilean elections symbolises a break with Chile’s recent conservative past, then Camilla Vallejo is surely a key symbol of the election itself. A radical student leader now turned elected member of congress, Vallejo rose to fame in 2011 during the country’s outbreak of student protests demanding free higher education. (Despite Chile’s economic strength, university education there- as in the US and UK- remains heavily financed by private student debt).

Against this established order, ‘Commander Camila’ became the terror of President Piñera’s right-wing government during the flashpoints of the protests two years ago; leading marches that shut down entire neighbourhoods of the capital Santiago or speaking to thousands outside the Presidential palace, a location steeped in history, where Salvador Allende, former President and socialist martyr, was bombed and killed by Pinochet’s fascists during the 1973 coup.

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(Vallejo making a peace sign from used tear gas cannisters during the 2011 protests. Image by Roberto Candia).

Vallejo was for many the icon of the Chilean Student movement and its incredible achievements since the 2011 protests, dubbed by some commentators ‘the Chilean Winter’.  Winter for billionaire Piñera’s government, presumably, which quaked and re-shuffled all the way since then to Sunday’s elections, its hopeful quasi-fascist successor Evelyn Matthei gaining just 25% of votes to Bachalet’s 47%. The example of students taking to the streets to demand deeper equality and democracy preceded this shift in mentality, and has galvanized politics in the Andean country. Progressive social movements have emerged and gained confidence and numbers since 2011. Environmentalists marching against construction projects in Patagonia, copper miners going out on strike, gay rights campaigners demanding full equality and other movements besides have all assembled following the anti-establishment actions of Chile’s student vanguards.

Student politics and action has clearly provided the catalyst for change in Chile, and, in the basest sense, this was achieved through the simple message that the status quo and established way of doing things is not untouchable. A humble idea, all too rare these days. Believing that no matter what you do, nothing will genuinely change is tacitly accepted by many in today’s disaffected democratic countries, and Chileans should have every reason to conform to this, if we consider their constricting political structure. Before relinquishing his iron-grip on power, General Pinochet, whose regime tortured thousands of Chilean citizens after 1973, embedded a series of operational laws in the 1980 constitution to cement Chilean politics in the form he wanted: pro-market and authoritarian.

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Under the dictatorship it became the neoliberal state par-excellence, watched over by teams of US economists still celebrated by the Right today, the so-called ‘Chicago Boys’. Maggie Thatcher was also a vocal admirer of the dictator’s free-market/repression of dissent combo. She openly, disgracefully demanded his release when UK and International authorities eventually arrested him for human rights abuses in 1998. This incident is worth recalling as it highlights how neoliberalism became a global game. Many countries in the West and beyond are still run under the model pioneered by Pinochet, Thatcher, Reagan et al during the 80s. It is the model of the unchecked market that collapsed in 2008 but still crawls onwards.

In Chile, the Pinochet dictatorship’s legacy of torture, repression and privatization haunts political life. Camila Vallejo and the Student Movement managed to gain ground by raising this ghost and openly condemning its remaining influence: the neoliberal state where public services are kept in private hands and run for profit, rather than as free communal services funded by taxes that all have access to. Explicitly attacking neoliberalism in this way stoked a fire among the wider population that has witnessed the neoliberal Right’s collapse at last Sunday’s elections. What’s more, the students’ central demand in 2011 for free university education is now a flagship policy of Bachalet’s all-but-victorious Centre-Left coalition, and is likely to become reality soon. The lesson that peaceful mass popular action with a clear message can affect genuine change has been demonstrated in Chile, with the student movement at the very heart of proceedings.

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