Chile is often used as an example of economic success, political stability and development by the West, but protests these past months have challenged many of the economic and political foundations on which Chile’s current government is built.
Chile has joined Western developed nations and has recently become the first South American country to join the OECD. As Latin American’s highest ranking nation in human development, freedom of press and economic freedom, Chile has been described as the ultimate success story, a story that developing countries in the South should strive to imitate.
Nevertheless, the protests that have been taking place these past three months are showing international spectators the failings of Chile’s economic model and the toll it has been taking on its citizens. While Chile has demonstrated remarkable growth and development, progress in Chile has been uneven. Chile’s income inequality surpasses many of its neighbouring countries and according to the Gini Index of 2010 beats countries in Latin America with the most infamous divides between the rich and poor such as Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. The growing divide between the rich and poor is especially clear in the country’s education system.
The current education system stems from the Pinochet dictatorship, which transferred the control and management of public schools from the Ministry of Education to the municipal governments. The central government funds both public and private schools, which has created deep regional and class divides in Chile’s education system. This divide is exacerbated in the country’s post secondary education as many middle and low income students are unable to access the country’s best private universities; getting into the right high school has become everything. Chile’s education system from a young age excludes students and significantly limits their opportunities. As Claudia Gilardoni, a researcher for the Chilean National Council for Books and Reading, explains “In the students’ family environment, there are no books, there is no library, there is no conversation, there is no culture, so what are they going to do? They are going to work in a super market, they are going to get minimum salary and they are going to be nobody. The teachers say they can do nothing else and maybe they are right because it’s a system. It’s terrible, but it’s true.”
Student demonstrators demanding education reforms have turned into the largest protest against the Chilean government since the fall of Pinochet. For more than three months Chilean students have staged lively and peaceful demonstrations that give voice to those that have fallen in the cracks of Chile’s economic progress and development. Students have been joined by the country’s workers union, which held a two day national strike in support of the students. What initially began as a protest against the government’s education reforms and has now turned into a full blown call for reforms. Chileans are demanding a change not only in education but also in tax reforms, the social security system, labour legislation, health and education.
The conservative government’s approval ratings are at their ultimate low, as a recent poll reveals that a staggering 76% of Chileans support the student protests and demonstrations. Hence, the student protests by articulating the losses Chileans have experienced with the progress of neo-liberalism resonate not only with students in other parts of the world, but also with other groups in Chilean society. Massive student protests in Italy, Greece and the UK have similarly starting voicing the concerns of other groups in society and represent the different groups that have been hurt through governments’ neo-liberal policies and austerity packages. Protestors are reminding their country’s leaders once again to stop pursuing outdated economic policies- and instead start engaging in debates on how to move forward in a sustainable and equitable manner.