On Strike

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, June 2, 2006

Every kid who writes a travel blog loves to cite these letters. Reluctantly, I'm allowing myself to fall into that same vein:

American citizens living in or visiting Chile are advised of the continuing risk of violent confrontations between police and student demonstrators. Demonstrations have occurred in downtown Santiago near the Ministry of Education (near La Moneda), and in provincial cities as well, notably Concepcion. Demonstrators have occupied schools and disrupted traffic. Bystanders have been injured in confrontations between police and protestors. Student leaders have indicated that demonstrations will continue and that they may call for a national strike sometime during the week of June 5. American citizens should keep abreast of developments and avoid locations where protests are expected. American citizens should immediately depart any locations where a demonstration or other protest action is taking place.

The funniest thing about this letter, to me, is how late that it has come. High School students across the country have been protesting for over a month now, and the beginning was the most violent part. I'll admit, though, that the student protests in Chile didn't make the BBC news until yesterday.

The "paros" and "tomas" of high schools here, in which the students basically perform a sit-in, locking the gates and hanging banners from the rooftops-even sleeping at the school- have dominated the news. They have also affected the daily lives of everyone in town and, basically, are all anyone is talking about.

They're a topic that's little understood but widely argued, to put it mildly. I'm not sure the students even know what they're asking for.

Some of the demands make quite a bit of sense: free transportation to school, financial aid for the PSU (Chile's SAT), for example. To an even greater degree than in America, it seems to me, a good education in Chile is a privilege of the wealthy, who can afford to tutor their kids, sending them to private schools and training them for the PSU from elementary school onward. Many poor students can't even afford to take the test that makes them eligible for university study, not that their high schools give them enough of an education to even pass the test-the roofs are caving in, the administrators are corrupt and the students really have little incentive to go to class. Municipal high schools are a dead end, and they only enroll students so that they can receive money from the government-which they may well not even spend on the students' education.

Sadly, though, the students seem to be asking for the same education but cheaper. The education laws in Chile, which have roots in the Pinochet regime, are complicated and difficult to change. So, students have simply asked for "reforms." But it will be decades before the students will see anything like a better education.

Municipalities run high schools, but the students are demanding reform from the ministry of education, and they want action from "la presidenta" as well. She came on TV last night, and gave an unplanned speech. Remember, she's labeled herself as a socialist, though her economic policies are more like Ronald Reagan's than Salvador Allende's. And she admitted that the students are asking for some reasonable things, and said the government would agree to many of them. And, like the wonderful politician she is, Bachelet declared that she would "set up a committee" to "look into the issue." Like the world didn't have enough focus groups already.

She's under pressure, to say the least. The students have taken away the President's ability to control the public debate. The students are in the forefront, and organized, while the executive branch is scrambling for answers and hoping beyond hope that the movement will just get bored and go home.

And our universities have decided to take part, with many "faculties" (students here do not act as a whole, or even as a university, but as a member of the department of the university in which they study) declaring themselves "en paro" as well. But they do it to varying degrees. La Chile reeks of tear gas these days, even more than usual, because many of the students have outright decided to stop going to class, and to protest instead.

At La Catolica, the students don't come from anywhere near the same social background as the protesters, and actually have little to complain about-the existing system got them into the best university in the country, and they sit around all day using wireless internet and sipping Nescafe, running to any one of the numerous ATMs when they run out of cash. But, for the first time in 40-odd years, the UC is in paro.

That doesn't mean students aren't going to classes. Actually, I think they just like making posters. In my theology class, Thursday morning, Padre Pardo spoke about the strike for a moment, and then said, "but, obviously, you all aren't on strike." A row of girls behind me, in unison, whispered, "oh yes, we are." His response, "but you're in class, taking notes..."

Lacking imagination, they simply responded, "We're in paro." At the end of class, they left a few flyers on the floor, the thin sheets outlining the students' demands.

The lack of movement on the issue likely means that, on Monday, there will be a nationwide strike among high school students. And good for them. Maybe someday, they'll get what they want. In my case, it'll just save me from another boring Quechua class at 8:30 a.m. I'm sleeping in.

The most maddening and sad part of the students' strike is that it demonstrates the ends they must go to in order to ask for a good education and to get a response. On the positive side, they've been able to organize in a way I doubt Americans ever could. True, the Internet is a great help, but the conditions in Santiago and in Chile are ripe for this kind of action.

Two thirds of the country lives in cities. One third of the country lives in the Santiago metropolitan area. By organizing one city's students, the student leaders have lit a fire that's spread across the country and shut down the education system. That's a lot of pressure on the president, and maybe it's working.

The only hitch has been the high rate of delinquency among the country's youth. Downtown, on the main street (Alameda), everything made of glass at street level is broken. Small groups of hooded youths inflitrate the larger groups of peaceful protesters and use them as cover, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police, who, daily almost, respond with water hoses, tear gas and riot gear. Tensions have gotten so high that the police started to act with "mano dura," which the news cameras caught. The police wounded 5 reporters. Heads are rolling at the police department as a result.

At home, at the dinner table, it's my family's only topic of discussion. They're old, and they stay inside all day, watching the news-an act that's likely bringing their paranoia to the boiling point. Mario, my host dad, was nearly executed during the Pinochet regime (as he likes to tell). But now, he's demanding that the government restore order and, since all but one of the student leaders is a member of the Communist Party or the Socialist Party, he's accusing the extreme left of cultivating these kids from a young age, and fomenting this uprising. My host mom is just freaking out. Luckily for me, it's one of the few things that has actually led to productive dinner table conversations.

(And that's something I've been hungering for, especially as I see my family growing cheaper and cheaper with me. Last week, my family came home at night, after buying groceries. I was at the computer, with an overhead light on. My host father stared at me, then he stared at the ceiling, then he stared at me again. All he said was "chucha" (translated as: "oh, shit," or "oh, fuck"). He turned away and went into the kitchen. No hello, no explanation ... Alicia, when I asked her, said that he was probably mad that I was using a specific lamp, "because it has lots of light bulbs and uses lots of energy." Why do they own it, then?)

A positive development from a bad situation. I go to classes as usual. This is a Chilean thing. I'm impressed at the students' ability or organize, even if they've been unable to craft concrete proposals to reform the law. Maybe, if Chile can find a way to offer a just education, there's hope for the U.S. Remember: if you're an elementary school student in eastern D.C., you can't drink from the water fountains, for fear of lead poisoning. We could do better, at least.

If you'd like to see pictures, or to read about the protests, in English or Spanish, go to one of these articles. As far as I know, it ain't over yet, even if some of the demands have been met:


For now, though, I'm a little bored. Maybe I'll go out and punch a police officer. I've always wondered what that's like ...
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