Over the past 20 years, Chile earned a reputation as a case of successful transition to democracy and market economy; the very image of a prosperous, orderly country in which institutions channel and contain conflict. Political leaders decoupled their parties from social organizations, foreswore mass mobilization as a political instrument, and, where the public is concerned, primarily used parties to get voters to the election booth. In the Chilean collective psyche, pundits assert, mass demonstrations are overwhelmingly associated with political destabilization and the breakdown of democracy – chaos. To be sure, diminished labor unions, environmental activists, indigenous peoples, and students occasionally mounted protests. But these were usually small, isolated, easily controlled, occasionally channeled back into institutionalized politics, and soon forgotten. In this context, the cycle of massive student demonstrations that gripped Chile from June to December 2011 marked a distinctive change in the characteristics and relative importance of student protests in that country.[i]
What were the students protesting? Chile’s military dictatorship (1973 – 1989) imposed a neoconservative economic and social development model that privatized the education system in 1980. In the ensuing decades, the market-driven education system significantly increased access to university but it was very expensive and of uneven quality. Students and their families incurred substantial debt (which many had difficulty paying) for a degree that might leave them uncompetitive in job markets because of inferior training. Hence, students protested for affordable, high quality education, which they argued, required eliminating the profit motive by re-nationalizing the education system (bringing it back under state funding and control).
The 2011 demonstrations were the third cycle of student protests for reform of the education system. What distinguished this cycle in terms of its characteristics and importance? Before answering, it should be noted that this third cycle was not very different in terms of underlying grievances and demands; these were relatively constant over all three cycles. Why? Because democratization in 1989 – 1990 raised unfulfilled expectations of reforms to the market-driven socioeconomic order implanted by the military and its legacy of high levels of inequality. To be sure, the long-lived center-left governing coalition (1990 – 2010) – the Concertación – undertook incremental reforms in a number of areas, but not in education. Hence, the constancy of students’ underlying motivation for protest.
What was different? Plenty. In this third cycle the student movement was a greater catalyst for change in Chilean politics than had previously been the case. There were several reasons for this. For starters, university students led this cycle instead of high school students who had been the protagonists in 2006 and their resource base for mobilization was stronger than ever before. They had built their student federation into a much more effective autonomous instrument of representation and mobilization and, moreover, they allied with the coordinating organization for high school students that had been created during the previous cycle.
It was their innovative framing, however, that gave them their greatest strength. Students held the inequalities of Chile’s market-driven education system up as a mirror for the inequalities of Chilean market society in general. They claimed that successive Concertación governments had failed to reduce high levels of inequality inherited from the military government because their tepid reforms emphasized the primacy of the market tempered only by paltry palliative social safety nets. Students argued that education, like everything else in Chile, had become a commodity in a predominately private system that reflected the broader inequalities of Chilean market society. The current market-driven education system could not fulfill the function assigned to it by neoconservative ideology: to be the means by which citizens universally might aspire to social mobility. This effectively challenged the official legitimating discourse. The market itself, the students suggested, could not solve market-generated problems.
Because everyone had experience with the education system it offered a perfect frame for the larger problem. It resonated with people in diverse social situations and drew them in. This explains the consistently high approval rating of 70 percent and over that the student movement achieved in public opinion surveys, despite the significant disruption the protests caused over six months. More importantly, this frame extended to other issues, such as labor rights, environmental justice, identity politics, and indigenous peoples. These movements joined in the protests swelling their numbers and boosting their staying power far beyond anything witnessed since the redemocratization movement of 1980s. They too felt threatened by the arrival of a conservative government in which the governing coalitions’ dominant party was the creation of the military government (where they had been the architects of the neoconservative experiment) and who professed profoundly conservative Catholic social values. The students were the catalyst of this concatenation of social forces that mobilized against this conservative government – the first elected one in 50 years. It was the largest sustained cycle of mass protest since the democratization movement of the late 1980s, a milestone in contemporary democratic Chilean politics.
In sum, what was different and more important about this third cycle of student protests in democratic Chile? With respect to differences, university students consolidated an autonomous identity unconnected to political parties and developed a strong mobilization resource base. Innovative framing linked inequality within the market-driven education system to larger problems of inequality in Chilean market society. That framing turned students into the fulcrum for a broader process of coalition-building that sustained mass demonstrations. This feeds into the question of their importance. In this third cycle of contention, the student movement was a catalyst for an unfolding process of broader political change. It put inequality front and center on the Chilean political agenda. It successfully called into question what it perceived as a sclerotic institutionalized party system. Labor, environmentalists, and identity groups had tried, but never with the agglutinative power and echo chamber to their framing as the student movement did. It was this cycle of student protest that brought contentious politics back into the Chilean political scene as a force to be dealt with.
I don’t wish to overstate the case. The Chilean student movement and the various regional and environmental issue-driven protests that have erupted along with it are only one expression of the erosion of the political accommodations forged during Chile’s transition to democracy, a complex process to be sure. That said, it is nevertheless the students who, for the moment, have organized the most important autonomous social movement; one that is all the more challenging for the establishment because it operates entirely outside of the comfortable accommodations of institutionalized politics that had become the norm in Chile.
In closing, I’d like to point out that the student movement in Chile today is significantly different from the one before the breakdown of democracy in 1973. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the student movement was penetrated by political parties and mobilized on behalf of the socioeconomic development models and political projects they espoused. The contemporary student movement is more autonomous and represents student concerns more directly, but, crucially, links them to larger social issues from this more autonomous posture. It acts in its own name in solidarity with other social forces. This is what gave it the power to extract some favorable concessions from the conservative government, more than any of the previous cycles. The 2012 budget increased funds for education significantly, mandated new merit- and income-based scholarship programs for the bottom 60 percent of the population, and enlarged funds for student loans beyond all initial proposals at preferential interest rates, making education more accessible and affordable. A separate bill created a new state oversight agency whose purpose is to ensure quality education and strict adherence to not-for-profit rules.
[i] This essay draws from Nora Lustig, Alejandra Mizala, and G. Eduardo Silva, “¡Basta YA! Chilean Students Say “Enough,” in Janet Byrne, ed. The Occupy Handbook, New York: Back Bay Books, 2012 and Melissa Cotignola, “Pinochet, Penguins, and Kiss-Ins: Education Policy and Student Mobilization in Chile,” Honors Thesis in Political Science, Tulane University, April, 2012.