Protests In Chile: President Piñera Must Start Taking The Student Demands Seriously
Analysis: A year ago President Piñera enjoyed international ‘hero’ status thanks to Chile’s widely-covered mine rescue. Major student protests now have him on the rocks. By continuing to ignore their demands, Piñera may be digging himself a deeper hole st
SANTIAGO -- History has a way of repeating itself. In 2006, then President Michelle Bachelet faced massive protests by students demanding major reforms to Chile's economically segregated and low-quality education system. She responded by forming a so-called Committee of Experts. The result? After two years of useless discussions, Chile's Organic Constitutional Education Law (LOCE) – the education framework law in place since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) – was replaced with something called the General Education Law (LGE).
Except for the acronym, however, nothing really changed. Holding hands and locking arms, the politicians – on both the right and left – celebrated passage of the LGE as a major victory. But it was a trick, one that served to reinforce the education system that was invented by Pinochet's economists and kept intact by the four governments of the center-left Concertación coalition (1990-2010) that succeeded him. For 90% of Chilean families, Bachelet's Committee of Experts was more bad news for their children.
Five years later, it's now Piñera's turn. President Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman, is Chile's first conservative leader since Pinochet. Like his more left-leaning predecessor, Piñera faces massive student demonstrations. Only this time around they're even bigger, and have lasted much longer – five months and counting. The student reform movement has pushed his administration into a corner. It has also mounted a serious challenge to the education model that's held sway for the past 30 years.
The protestors and their supporters say only a shift in paradigm will ensure a more just and democratic society. First, they want Chile to do away with for-profit elementary schools, which segregate students economically and end up reinforcing inequalities by providing wealthier students with a better education. Instead, children from different social backgrounds should have a chance to integrate and thus assimilate the same values and language.
Second, the traditional "public" universities should receive direct financing from the state. Relative to average family income, Chile's universities are the most expensive in the world and, unlike public universities in most of the other OECD countries of the developed world, they receive the bulk of their financing (80%) from tuition paid by students and their families.
Third, the state should stop paying both direct and indirect subsidies – such as scholarships – to private schools, universities and other companies that make money in the education business without reinvesting those profits back into the education process.
The student protestors are rebelling against a system that has ended in disaster. The children of poor families end up suffering the same fate as their parents thanks to the useless municipal schools they must attend. Middle-class students able to attend partially- subsidized private schools aren't much better off. The schools teach little yet still enrich the unscrupulous business people that run them. And the children of the wealthiest families live enclosed in a fantasy world where they learn to look down on everyone else. In the end, the segregation doesn't benefit anyone, which is why the protestors want to do away with it.
A comic interlude
How has Piñera responded? By refusing to budge on the issue of for-profit schooling and by deciding, along with his education minister, Felipe Bulnes, to cut off talks with student leaders. "Everything in life costs money," the president said. In addition, he has directly provoked the protestors by stiffening public order laws, prison sentences included, so that students cannot express their demands by occupying universities and elementary schools. Finally, like Bachelet before him, President Piñera called together a Committee of Experts – in order to draw out the decision process and hopefully exhaust the student movement.
Bachelet's committee perpetuated a longstanding tragedy. Piñera's is just a downright farce. The Committee of Experts involves 12 people. With a few exceptions, most of the committee members know little or nothing about education. They do know about business and profit – and they all agree that it has a place in the education system. The president of the committee, Ricardo Paredes, an economist, has said as much.
Pardedes' committee colleagues are also economists. For the most part they attended private schools in Santiago's wealthy neighborhoods, went on to study at private universities and later earned post-graduate degrees in the United States. They're also all men. Inexplicably, the committee does not include teachers, school deans, students or even people chosen to represent those groups.
The government's Committee of Experts is simply absurd. It's a farce, a comic interlude in what is otherwise a serious drama. It is nowhere close to being a reasonable response to the students' demands. This decision, like the government's decision to stiffen public order laws, is unjustifiable. And it's one that will come with a steep social and political cost, not just for the government, but for the country as a whole.
Read the original article in Spanish
Pizarro, a regular columnist with AmericaEconomia, teaches economics at the Universidad de Chile