Monday, October 09, 2006
Yet another example of how direct action through mass mobilization can lead to a more democratic process took place in Latin America this year. This time it was in Chile. The honeymoon for the "first-ever woman elected president" Michelle Bachelet ended in April of 2006 as Chileans "organiz[ed] against market-based education" (International Socialist Review, Sept. 2006), which Bachelet showed no signs of ending. It's odd that Bachelet was reluctant to reform the educational system that her once arch-enemy, Pinochet, established as means for providing huge profits to private industry. However, where Bachelet seemed complacent, the students seemed more than willing to motivate Bachelet to action!
Not too long ago, I remember being struck by many progressives' enthusiasm for Bachelet despite her unabashed support for neoliberal economics through free trade agreements. Sure, she was knowingly elected as a "social democrat" that promised that in Chile "la Alegria ya viene" ("happiness is on the way"). While several improvements may have taken place, including the end of "senator-for-life" appoinments, the immense wealth generated by Chile's copper is still not reaching its poor. One of the notable area's of Chilean society not receiving any benefit from Chile's copper wealth was education. The reaction should therefore not be surprising.
What has ensued is a mass mobilization unwitnessed in Chile since Pinochet. Most of the protests and marches have been led by student/parent/teacher groups. Some have actually led to takeovers of school buildings. There has been repression and arrests of students, but this has only lended itself to the continued rise in numbers protesting the government's repressive actions. "Among the students' short term demands were free bus fare and the waiving of the university admissions test (PSU) fee, while the longer term demands included: the abolition of the Organic Constitutional Law on Teaching (LOCE), the end to municipalization of subsidized education, a reform to the Full-time School Day policy (JEC) and a quality education for all" (Wikipedia: "2006 student protests in Chile").
Since April, 2006 nation-wide mobilization and protest had grown. Students were joined by parents, teachers, administrators as well as other trade unions. As the movement grew so did the police repression. The Minister of Education, Martin Zilic, continually refused to meet with the students further provoking their protestations. President Bachelet had to take notice of the growing protests. Finally, in response to school-takeovers, Bachelet began to sound like a man that was once responsible for her own capture and torture: Pinochet. Bachelet said: "Let me be crystal clear. What we have witnessed over recent weeks is unacceptable. I will not tolerate acts of vandalism or intimidation. I will apply the full force of the law."
On June 5, 2006 an estimated 900,000 students assembled for a national strike. This was the largest mobilization since 1972! The students are not buying Bachelet's bill of goods who has told the students there is no money. A student was quick to point out that for the "price of just one of the seventeen F-16 jets she bought for the armed forces this year is enough to cover all or our demands."
The movement forced the president to concede to create an advisory committee. While the students pointed out that the committee should consist of "students, teachers, school administrators, education experts and other social stakeholders...[and that] half of them should be determined by the student assembly," the government explained that the president was free to decide who would be included. Six of the 73 members of the committee are high school students. With the formation of this committee, the students agreed to end the strike, return to school and continue negotiating for the end of the LOCE, a notorious legacy of Pinochet and neoliberal economics.
To me, the most important lesson learned from our Chilean brothers and sisters is the effect of direct action as a means for achieving change when the representative deomcratic system seems to represent/favor mostly the interests of the polictical and economic elite. Watching the changes in Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, et. al. is inspiring. As long as the U.S. is tied up in Iraq, it seems that there may be too many fires for our government to put out. Recent events in Oaxaca, Mexico are yet another example of popular resistance led by teachers. Que viva los maestros y los estudiantes!