In a nation thousands of miles away, one that has, along with its neighbors, a history of despotic rulers, brutal coups, and ground-shaking political conflicts, a youth-led uprising is taking place against perceived injustices. The protests have been taking place for months now, and are beginning to spread to neighboring countries. The leader of these rebels against authority has given the federal government an ultimatum: he only has one chance to address their cause, at a meeting this Saturday.
That nation isn’t Libya, Syria, or Bahrain—it’s Chile. The charismatic leader is 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, president of the student government of the University of Chile, and the issue is nationalizing education. Her nemesis is Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, notable for being a right-of-center leader in a Latin America that is increasingly swinging to the left. Ms. Vallejo’s group demands nothing less than education [through post-secondary] that is “free, public, and of [high] quality”.
Camila Vallejo in German newspaper Die Zeit. CC-BY: Germán Póo-Camaño
And their protests prove they are serious. Over the last two months, students have converged on public squares in the capital, supported the Chilean labor movement’s strike, and visited neighboring Brazil to spark protests there and meet with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. (Interestingly, Brazil does have public universities, but the protesters are demanding that the government double their investment in education.)
The group’s seriousness is matched only by its savvy. Ms. Vallejo, like so many revolutionaries these days, has a strong online presence. Her Twitter feed updates at least a few times every day, posts which have recently been accompanied by a black square where a profile picture should be—a show of solidarity with the loved ones of 16-year-old Manuel Gutiérrez, who was killed during the protests that accompanied the labor strike. Vallejo has over 200,000 followers.
Along with the support, of course, comes the resistance. Piñera for his part has repeatedly denounced the nationalization of education, indicating that he will never support it, which should no doubt make Saturday’s meeting very interesting. And Vallejo has informed authorities that her life has been threatened via Twitter, including one tweet that said, roughly translated, “We’re going to kill you like the bitch you are.”
Not everyone who opposes the student movement is quite that severe. La Tercera, a newspaper with wide circulation, published an opinion that the privatization of universities in Chile serves a purpose: to facilitate the explosive growth university attendance in the country, which currently sits atop the Latin American list for percentage of college-aged student currently engaging in studies. The free market, says the editorial, is the only engine that could have supported that growth.
Free-market solutions have been the hallmark of Piñera’s administration, and while they seemed popular at the time of his election, Mr. Piñera’s popularity has waned severely since taking office in March of last year. Popular or not, though, he is still in charge, which means something different in Chile, when has been largely stable and democratic since the strangely peaceful removal of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990, than it would in Syria or Egypt.
The Arab Spring, in fact, may be an unfortunate backdrop for the educational protests, as Chile’s situation does not, in fact, involve widespread oppression, religious infighting, nor oil interests. A better comparison might be the anti-corruption movement in India, led by Anna Hazare, a man who has been called (admittedly in hyperbole) “a second Gandhi”. Hazare’s followers protested, non-violently, and when their leader was jailed, they watched with rapt attention as he began a hunger fast.
It may seem that these tactics of protest, normally reserved for the brutally oppressed, are unlikely to be useful for a movement like the one in Chile, over something as distant from life and liberty as free college tuition. It should be noted, then, that after a few days of Hazare’s hunger fast, India’s Parliament acquiesced, and have been working on meeting his demand: simply to close the loopholes on an already existing anti-corruption bill.