400,000 on strike and occupying schools
Youth take to the streets demanding decent education.
“Welcome-President-Jacques-Chirac” hoardings greeted the French President in the new twenty-first century metro stations of the Chilean capital, Santiago, as he arrived last week. He was on a visit to strengthen trade links between the two countries. Chirac must have felt as if it was ‘home from home’ as he witnessed a growing movement of secondary school students throughout Chile.
As the week has progressed, tens of thousands of secondary school students have taken to the streets in protests and organised occupations of the schools demanding more resources for education. At the last count, over 400,000 were either on strike or occupying schools in all the main Chilean cities – Santiago, Concepcion, Valpariso, Puerto Monte and others. At one school in Santiago, students have hung a massive banner quoting Che Guevara: “We are realists; we demand the impossible!”. Over 100 000 students were involved in action in the build up to the one day strike.
Other slogans, plastered on posters and placards hanging on the walls of the occupied schools, clearly spelt out what the students are demanding. “We are the future and we demand a decent education!”, “Decent education – not for the market!” and “Education of the market – the other side of La Moneda!” (La Moneda is the Presidential Palace which also means coin) are amongst the banners hung from the schools around Santiago. Most common of all, “A decent and free education!”.
Others are directed at the new Chilean President, Socialist Party member, Michelle Bachelet. Having taken office less than three months ago, her coalition government is already confronted with a series of conflicts and crises. During her election campaign her main slogan was “Estoy contigo” (I am with you). Banners have now been hung on many schools asking: “Bachelet – ¿estas con nosotros?” (“Bachelet – are you with us?”).
These youth protests, involving students as young as 13 to 16 years of age, represent a significant change in the political situation. Chile has lagged behind other countries in Latin America in terms of the struggles of workers and youth. At the time of the “democratic transition” sixteen years ago most were not even born. This is the first major struggle of a new generation that is free of the heavy burden of the Pinochet dictatorship. It is these youth who will become workers in the next few years and will surely take the initiative and combative spirit they are demonstrating in this battle into the work places.
Although other struggles have broken out amongst secondary students in previous years, this battle has revealed a significant development in the political consciousness of these very young fighters. Although confused on many issues and very suspicious of organisations and of anybody from the outside, this movement represents a significant development. In the last few years, protests have demanded free bus passes, an increase of 10 pesos in travel allowances and other changes. This year, as one young person put it outside a school in central Santiago, “That was no good. Now we must change the entire education system”.
One of the central demands of the movement is an end of the hated LOCE (Organic Constitutional Education Law) which was incorporated into the constitution. This was introduced under the Pinochet dictatorship and has been used to hand over education to local councils with few resources and to encourage the privatisation of schools. In demanding that this law is repealed, the students are well aware that they are fighting for the withdrawal of one of the main props of the neo-liberal policies of the capitalist coalition of the Christian Democrats and Socialist Party – Concertacion. To defeat it, a change to the constitution will be needed and a change in the policy by a majority of the parliamentarians. To achieve such a reverse in the policy of the Chilean ruling class will require an even more powerful movement involving the working class.
However, the government has been taken aback by the scale and speed with which this movement has developed. It has responded with brutal repression. In this they have over-stepped the mark and only produced overwhelming opposition to the police repression. While groups of young students roam the streets with placards demanding a decent education, they are beaten, tear-gassed and drenched with water cannon in the same way that the generation of young people were under the hated Pinochet regime.
There is no vandalism or hooliganism by any of the youth involved in the struggle. Yet the riot police have shown no restraint in clubbing down thirteen and fourteen year olds who are marching to demand teachers, smaller classes, canteens to be fed in, books and other resources.
While the Chilean “economic miracle” has resulted in a significant development of infrastructure in transport and to an extent housing the vast majority of the benefit of this boom has gone to the ruling class. The richest 20% take 62% of national income while the poorest 20% struggle to exist on only 3.3% of national income. Health and education have not been developed at all.
The Bachalet government has already shown that it is intent on continuing the neo-liberal polices of its predecessor headed by President Lagos. The character of this “Socialist” government was revealed in one incident. A young Argentinean activist, Jorge Gonzalez, was traveling on a bus and witnessed the police viciously beating a group of youth. He intervened to ask what right the police had to act in such a way. He was arrested for his trouble along with about 100 students and was immediately deported from the country under the instructions of the Ministry of the Interior. Denied access to his lawyer he was immediately taken to the Argentine border and left with no passport or money. At the same time as such things are happening, the former Peruvian dictator, Fujimori, is permitted to freely walk the streets in Chile and avoid prosecution in Lima.
On Tuesday 30 May a national strike of all education, including the universities was called to support the students who have the support of teachers and parents. The student leaders applied for permission to organise a rally in the Parque O’Higgins which was refused by the police.
Unfortunately, sections of the leadership of the movement and others are doing their best to contain the movement and prevent it from developing. Along with the government, they have tried to divide the students and split those who are occupying the schools from others where the schools have not yet been occupied. On the 30th, once permission for a rally had been refused, the national leadership of the teachers’ federation – Colegio de Profesores – called for a “day of reflection” to support the youth. This was a clear attempt to prevent the movement from developing further. In Santiago, the local Metropolitan Teachers’ Union called a rally in the Plaza de Las Armas. Thousands of teachers and students attended and attempted to march into the city centre. Across the city groups of students from different school marched around the streets chanting, “Students and teachers forward together”. Tear gas floated through the city as it did under the Pinochet dictatorship. Police fired tear gas into schools occupied by students in the city centre. By the evening groups of students and supporters were chanting “¿Donde esta Bachelet?” (“Where is Bachelet?”).
The brutal violence has even provoked protests from journalists who also found themselves on the receiving end of the batons of the riot police and has hardened support for the students.
It is urgent if the movement is to be victorious that it is organised more effectively and extended to all sections of the working class. In the schools occupied some are only allowing a limited number of students to join the occupation. Although in the schools occupied the students are well organised there is not a democratic structure for the conducting of the struggle. In one school visited by members of Socialismo Revolucionario (Chilean section of the CWI) the students have organised commissions for food, security and even getting daily newspapers.
Action committees need to be elected in all schools and linked up on a district, citywide and national basis to organise the strike and work out strategy and tactics. But if the movement is to be sustained and developed the struggle must be broadened to involve other sections of workers. The youth must not be left to fight alone.
This is the lesson of the recent victory of the movement in France that members of SR in Chile are explaining in leaflets and meetings. The calling of a 24 hour general strike by the trade unions of all workers is essential to mobilize more support for the secondary students and force the government to withdraw the hated LOCE. This struggle of the secondary school students opens a new phase in the struggle of the Chilean youth and working class.
Since the strike widespread outrage has developed as a result of the riot police’s brutality. On Wednesday 31 May there were running battles between student and police from one o’clock until seven in the evening. Police made over 700 arrests.
Many journalists were beaten up and their equipment destroyed. Even more affluent sections of Chilean society complained about the violence. The public condemnation caused the sacking of the head of the riot police. This is the first victory of this character against the regime by a movement of workers and youth in a long time.