The Chile Winter

Some of the snapshots from Chile’s ongoing student movement depict a lighthearted mobilization. Led by the charismatic Camila Vallejo, the students have used Twitter and Facebook to stage kiss-a-thons and superhero-themed costume protests. But other images have been more violent. Protesters have taken to the streets and set fire to government buildings and private businesses. In return, they have been bombarded with water cannons and tear gas. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has even threatened to invoke national security laws to declare the protests illegal. This heavy-handed response has triggered red flags in a country leery of a return to authoritarianism.

These inconsistent faces of the Chilean movement speak to its complex, multifaceted nature and to the source of its strength. Now in its sixth consecutive month, this student-led movement has forged a delicate balance that has allowed the movement to survive while others have faded. Its successes and looming difficulties could serve as an illuminating example for other global movements.

These protests focus on the quality of education in Chile, which has surprised some observers, since at first glance Chile’s education system seems impressive. In 2009, Chile outscored all Latin American countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Since 1990, university attendance has tripled, and Chilean students often attain higher test scores than their Latin American neighbors.

But in reality, education in Chile is flawed and disturbingly unequal. While Chilean universities legally may not be run for profit, private university authorities successfully utilize loopholes to accrue windfall profits. Many private universities take advantage of lax standards monitoring to cut costs and set salaries too low to attract effective teachers. Public schools, meanwhile, have been largely abandoned; public administrators typically receive only 20 percent of their operational budgets from the government and have long been calling for increased support.

The balance between public and private has been upended, with privatization winning out. In Chile, roughly three-quarters of universities are privately owned, and only 16 percent of higher education spending comes from public sources, compared with the OECD average of nearly 70 percent. This phenomenon extends beyond universities; 55 percent of Chilean high school students are obliged to attend private schools because of a lack of state provision.

As a result, Chile has developed one of the world’s most unequal education systems. Of the 65 OECD countries, Chile ranks 64th in segregation across social classes in its schools. Due to the increasingly disproportionate distribution of educational resources, many low-income students are left behind. The Chilean system has been described, realistically if sensationally, as “educational apartheid” – the rich attend the finest private institutions while a majority of students are relegated to under-funded, stagnant schools.

Furthermore, the cost burden of this inequality falls on the shoulders of average Chileans. In the Western Hemisphere, only the United States has higher education costs than Chile. The average household contribution to education spending is around 40 percent, the highest in the OECD. At the university level, this burden is more extreme: the average student’s family must contribute 85 percent of university expenses, again the OECD’s highest.

Effectively, only the wealthy in Chile can shoulder the financial burden necessary to make it through school. In stark contrast to the rising number of students in higher education, Chile’s shocking 52 percent college dropout rate is at least partially motivated by crushing debt burdens. In fact, this rising class inequality is not unique to education. Chile, long described as the Latin American success story, has a Gini coefficient — a standard measure for income inequality — of over 0.5, the highest among developed countries and nearly twice the OECD average.

In response to this inequality, protests have emerged in Chile as a challenge to the free-market education model. Students claim that the private sector has turned education into a commodity governed by market forces; they insist it is a universal right that must be provided on an equal basis. As Vallejo declared in August, the movement seeks “a more inclusive, truly diverse, democratic, and just system that has a vision of the development of the country at its heart.” To remedy the unequal system, they seek greater government provision of education and across-the-board spending increases in public schools and universities.

These protests have enjoyed the most sustained mobilization since the demise of the Pinochet dictatorship. The movement has organized a constant stream of activities, with some marches drawing over 100,000 participants. As the news outlets have shown, the protests have seen inevitable violent clashes. But thanks to Vallejo’s eloquent insistence on non-violence, the movement has largely avoided violent escalation.

Virtually all measures of public opinion have demonstrated that three-quarters of Chilean citizens support the students and their demands. Chileans of all ages have taken to the streets to stage cacerolazos – informal demonstrations with protestors banging pots and pans – not seen since the advent of Chilean democracy. Support for the movement has been coupled with an increasing rejection of President Piñera. Roughly a year ago, when he led the rescue mission of the trapped coal miners, his approval rating stood at 65 percent. Now, that figure has dropped to around 25 percent, and only 10 percent think his administration has handled education policy effectively.

The movement’s focus is education, but it has tapped into broader discontent throughout Chile to develop domestic allies. These include environmentalists, copper miners, gay rights campaigners, farmers, and transportation workers. Most importantly, the student movement has forged a loose alliance with the Workers’ United Center of Chile (CUT), the largest labor union in the country.

Similarly, the movement has reached through solidarity networks around the globe. In Latin America, student protests against rising education costs have taken place in Venezuela, Brazil, and most recently in Colombia and Argentina, where protesters have been spotted carrying Chilean flags. Worldwide, student protests have been seen in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, and other developed countries. The European Parliament even sent President Piñera a letter declaring its support for the students’ demands. Dubbed the “Chilean Winter” in reference to the Arab Spring, the movement has found an ideological home among the indignados, the diverse global protests against the economic-political establishment that seek to recast national issues in the light of development and equality.

But even as the Chilean Winter has expanded within and beyond its borders, it has never lost its specificity. As important as the intra-Chilean expressions of solidarity have been for maintaining public legitimacy, strong leadership and tightly defined goals have kept the movement in line. Why is this delineation important? Consider Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which has come under fire for its complex, multiple-issue nature and lack of concrete demands. Regardless of the validity of such criticisms and of the differences between OWS and Chile, the takeaway is clear: A well-defined, singular issue allows a movement to campaign in targeted, coherent ways. The Chilean winter draws strength from domestic allies, but it has not allowed other issues to dilute its focus.

The movement has been similarly careful to keep its rhetoric on the international stage constrained to Chile, and with good reason. Unlike in developed Europe, where the financial crisis has been devastating, Chile has been fortunate of late. Over the last decade, Chile has seen steady annual GDP growth of around 4 percent; this year, growth is forecast at over 6 percent, and unemployment is falling. Chile finds itself well-positioned to invest in education.

After years of strict financial orthodoxy in exchange for economic growth, Chileans want some of this growth to be channeled into development policies similar to those of many of their neighbors. Chile’s student-led movement is unique in both its bases of public support and the plausibility of its demands. Recognizing the fragility of such support, it has done well to keep its focus limited to the national arena.

Indeed, the movement’s greatest strength has been this delicate balance between pragmatic specificity and ideological breadth. The Chilean Winter is both focused on the singular issue of education and substantially connected with broader issues of social equality. It has been capable of utilizing international discontent without losing its status as a national movement. It is young and relevant, but far-reaching in its popularity. And its forceful demonstrations have been moderated by an insistence on non-violence. Whereas other movements have suffered from imbalances in organization and focus, the Chilean Winter has been able to survive well into the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season.

Despite its progress, Chile is not yet a success story. In the upcoming months, the movement will face considerable challenges. The end of the Southern Hemisphere’s school year is likely to force the leadership’s hand; students will face losing two semesters’ worth of credits, making the decision to continue protesting more difficult. Student leaders will likely be forced to choose between extending the protests – risking a decline in popularity – and accepting a deal less than what they envisioned.

Recently, observers have described both sides’ positions as “hardening.” This would be troubling for the movement’s survival. Granted, none of Piñera’s offers – which have included reducing the interest rate for student loans and increasing the number of scholarships for poor students – have been more than band-aids for a bullet wound. But recent polls have shown a decrease in public approval for the increasingly intransigent movement. Especially in light of these trends, an open line of negotiation must be maintained with the government in order for discontent to be funneled toward policy change.

The student movement must understand what it has achieved: education reform will unquestionably be a central issue in the next Chilean elections. Its leaders can afford to take a longer, more flexible view of reform. A compromise in 2011 would constitute neither a failure nor a betrayal of its principles, but rather a temporary measure enabling the movement to look forward without leaving its students in limbo.

Such a compromise between the protesters’ demands and the government’s meager reform packages is certainly possible. Piñera’s most common defense is that his government cannot afford to provide education on a broader basis. Yet by cracking down on widespread tax evasion and cutting public funding to low-standards, for-profit private schools, the government would see increased revenue to finance its efforts. Furthermore, even a small adjustment of Chile’s extremely regressive tax structure would greatly increase available government revenue.

Another interesting idea, mentioned in the Economist, would be to eliminate fixed-schedule loan repayment plans in favor of plans that condition repayment on a given income threshold. This would allow students in Chile to pursue university education without the immediate and unfeasible burden of debt repayment. Along with reductions in the household contribution to pre-university education costs, this scheme could provide the conditions for upward mobility without incurring the too-common criticism of poorer citizens’ “free-riding.”

Most fundamentally, the Chilean government must reform its conception of education as a private commodity. Public provision of high-quality education can be a long-term investment that recognizes the multiple benefits of education on a national, and not just a personal, level. For an ascendant Chile, copper is not the sole comparative advantage; a well-educated citizenry must be recognized as equally valuable for the nation.

Ultimately, the successes of the Chilean Winter demonstrate the value of a well-balanced, well-defined, and carefully led movement, as well as the ways in which such movements can mobilize a diverse populace. The broad feelings of discontent captured by the indignados do not guarantee success for these movements; they face diverse political conditions, and they will fail at turns. But with effective leadership, coherent goals, broad public support, and realistic demands, popular movements can set the stage for significant political achievement and policy change.