The tune of the protest song is familiar. “It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall,” chant students in the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities, using the same lyrics used in marches against military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s. But this time, they don’t say the government will fall, but rather the country’s education system that hails back to the Pinochet era.
Before the dictatorship, Chilean higher education was free, just as it remains in much of South America. But Mr. Pinochet created a system of private universities and voucher-type subsidies for private schools. Today, low-income Chileans generally go to public schools or voucher schools and end up in expensive, often low-performing private universities. After waiting in vain through decades of center-left government, students have found their voice in the face of the country’s first elected conservative government in more than 50 years.
“I’m a child of the dictatorship,” said Marcela Salas, a telecommunications manager taking part in a continuous 75-day student protest relay run around the presidential palace in Santiago. “There was no access to information. The kids who have grown up since then, they are better informed, and better trained to express themselves. And not just through political parties, not just left or right. Now it has come to a breaking point.”
Chilean cities have witnessed near continuous rallies for two months that have torpedoed support for President Sebastian Piñera, leaving him with the lowest approval rating among Chilean leaders since the dictatorship ended in 1990. The rallies show growing frustration with a political system that has failed to provide a route to a better life.
For years, Chileans have waited to reap the fruits of a growing economy. Similar student protests five years ago ended when the center-left Concertación government offered a dialogue, but there were no lasting changes. Burned by that experience, today’s students are refusing to back down. Though the government has offered new educational policies, the student response has been to expand their list of demands – including nationalization of the country’s copper mines to pay for education.
Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of the students’ basic goals, even as the general public has dealt with bombardments of tear gas and the looting and vandalism that have accompanied some marches. The non-partisan Centro de Estudios Publicos found that 80 percent of the public opposed for-profit education. Support for the government has fallen to an all-time low of 26 percent, according to polling late last month.
But there are signs that support for the students may be waning. Student leader Camila Vallejo recently had her home address and other personal details revealed on Twitter and a Facebook group formed online threatening to stone her house. Last night, a group of about 20 civilians attacked a high school that is under student occupation, while police forced their way into another high school and evicted the students, according to local newspaper La Tercera.
The movement has drawn hundreds of thousands of marchers into the streets and given rise to street theater such as a mass kiss-in and hundreds of people dancing to the music of Lady Gaga. It marks a change for Chilean youth, who have long been alienated from politics.
“Chile spends its money making weapons and strengthening the army for a war that never arrives,” said Daniela Moder, an architecture student at the University of Chile. “Chile also gives away its resources to other countries. It says, the copper, come and get it. With the copper, we could subsidize the education for all.”
These wider demands have increased the appeal of the marches. Chile’s political system is designed to keep the legislature divided between two blocs, making big legislative changes difficult. Some students are now demanding a change in the political system, as well as the educational system, giving their demands a more revolutionary tone.
While some placards at the marches name Mr. Piñera and his education ministers as culprits, others spread the blame among Pinochet, the Concertación coalition of left-leaning parties, and Piñera. Indeed, support for the Concertación is now even lower than it is for the government, with only 17 percent of respondents telling the Centro de Estudios Publicos that they “support” the performance of the coalition.
The protesters swelling political demands are unlikely to be met, says Dante Contreras, an economics professor at the University of Chile who specializes in education. He says neither the government nor the opposition recognize the seriousness of the demands.
“They don’t see the magnitude of the problem,” he said.
For now, the marches continue. Continuous rallies are ongoing in plazas across the country, and the relay run around the presidential palace will continue until Aug. 27, organizers say.