“Nevertheless, beyond these demands, the student movement has accomplished something not seen since the return to democracy, something that has given it worldwide relevance: citizen empowerment.”
FOR three months Chile has been changing. Each week there are demonstrations in the streets in which thousands of students stage colourful parades, joined by their professors and even their families. Their goal is ambitious and is continually repeated in the media and during their sit-ins: “free and high quality education.” Nevertheless, beyond these demands, the student movement has accomplished something not seen since the return to democracy, something that has given it worldwide relevance: citizen empowerment.
When Chile regained its democratic system in 1990 after a national referendum, the challenge was to rebuild a country and heal a wound, to recover the citizens’ voice and action that had been silenced over years of repression. The first step was taken in 2006 with the “penguin revolution,” a movement driven by secondary school students; but these days students at the universities have taken the lead role. These leaders represent a new generation, they are younger than 26 years old, and while they are members of diverse political groups, they have managed to combine their demands in calling for a decent educational system.
Today the scene is different than it was thirty years ago. Thanks to economic development, in 2010 Chile joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which unites the principal industrialized economies of the world. Within this organisation, Chile is the third poorest country with almost 20 percent of the population considered “poor.”
In education, the situation is dire. According to the OECD, we are the country in which the State contributes the least to higher education (only 16 percent) and the Chilean university fees are the second highest in the world after the United States. Furthermore, university credit (the main source of state aid for disadvantaged students) has forced 60 percent of students into debt, while 40 percent have permanently abandoned their course of studies, most often for economic reasons.
The student movement not only has stopped classes for the last three months, but also represents a change in mentality, whereby citizens want to be heard and want to say: “We do not agree with this system”. What we are experiencing today in Chile is a reflexion of a society that has grown tired of waiting for answers generated by governmental institutions and political parties. According to the latest poll conducted by CEP (Centro de Estudios Públicos or Center for Public Studies), President Piñera has only a 26 percent rating of approval for his leadership, while the opposition is only approved by 17 percent of Chileans.
After three months of demonstrations, one perceives a clear message when walking among the protesters. The youth are rejecting the current economic model that creates inequality, and petitioning the government for education as a right and not a privilege. Today the citizen has recovered his voice and the courage to demand changes that allow us to live in a Chile that is not only considered an economic power, but also more humane and above all for the average citizen.
Camila González is a journalism student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile.