The mobilization of 70,000 students in the streets of Chile is more than just a protest for free higher education, concluded two Chilean senators at an event held at the Inter-American Dialogue on September 8.
Senator Juan Pablo Letelier of the Socialist Party addressed two historic events that may have set the stage for the recent wave of protests. The first was the transition period in 1989, which gave Chileans high expectations and brought about an implicit pact on where the country was heading. The second was the “wearing out” of this pact due to an emerging “crisis of institutional legitimacy,” which seemed to evolve as institutions lost Chileans’ trust. Letelier cited examples of pedophilia within the Church, the inability of the government to communicate plans and strategies, and the La Polar scandal, which provoked a government investigation after the retailer changed the credit terms of 400,000 consumers without their consent.
As to the reasons why the student movement has gathered force, Senator Letelier stated that “this new generation knows that repression is no longer a threat and is not afraid of speaking up.” He also mentioned that social media and technology have helped engage students from diverse backgrounds and that the emerging middle class sees education as a public good and questions its quality. “Protestors are not demanding free education,” Leteleir noted, “they are demanding an institutional change that starts in pre-school and goes all the way to tertiary education.”
Chile is the top performer in the region in international student assessments. Its education system is one of the few in Latin America that includes publicly funded but privately run schools, and charges significant tuition in public universities. In the case of higher education, students pay by self-financing, autofinanciamiento, which means they can receive credit and loans and pay their tuition after graduation.
Senator Hernán Larraín from the governing conservative UDI Party (Independent Democratic Union) reflected on some promising aspects of the protests, remarking that “Chile’s youth has made a leap forward in democracy and maturity by demanding an education system of higher quality, rather than focusing on previous economic issues within education.”
He also noted that Chile has seen the rise of a “consumer credit revolution” that has given Chileans a growing sense of material well-being, but has not been accompanied by a decrease in inequality. This paradox has increased restlessness among youth in particular, who have not shared in the economic progress they see around them.
Clearly, Chileans’ high expectations have not been met. Larraín also reflected on how Chile has coped with these mobilizations, stating that Piñera’s government has been unable to handle the protests because he treated them as an issue of public disorder rather than structural change. “Calling upon the leaders of the movement for a conversation was wrong,” Larraín stated, “[Piñera] had nothing to negotiate.” The difficulty of addressing students’ demands is compounded by the lack of trust in institutions, which has pushed students to insist on a plebiscite, a measure that does not exist in Chile. Both senators agreed that the government is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Protecting Latin America’s Poor During Economic Crises
History tells us that economic crises cause large increases in poverty. The most recent economic crisis will cause Latin America’s GDP to contract around 2 percent in 2009.
The goal of education is to promote learning. Sitting in classrooms is a weak proxy for knowing how to read, do math, and apply science. Latin America needs to worry less about schooling and more about learning.
Throughout Latin America, a digital divide has emerged.