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Education is a Basic Right, Not a Consumer Good

Teenagers vs. Billionaires

by JONATHAN FRANKLIN

Santiago, Chile.

“What day is it, Wednesday? Thursday?” asked Moises Paredes as his eyes drooped nearly shut.  Paredes, 18-years old, the national spokesman for a collective of Chilean high school students, is exhausted. On Wednesday Paredes helped organize a march of 100,000 Chilean students. Then he addressed a press conference to explain why the students had seized dozens of public high schools as part of their campaign for free university education.  The following morning Paredes and his classmates were roused and ousted at dawn as Chilean national police raided their school, which they had occupied.
“It is typical of this government, and especially Chadwick [Minister of the Interior] who think they can end this conflict with violence and instead are just adding more fuel to the fire,” said Paredes, “They are making the student movement more radical, leading to students seizing more schools and more universities.”

When the police arrived, Paredes hurriedly stuffed his change of clothes and a toothbrush into a white plastic shopping bag, which he now carries as he moves from one student organizing committee meeting to another. Along the way he continued to joust via Twitter with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Paredes described Pinera – who is ranked by Forbes as the world’s 589th richest person with a net worth of $2.5 billion — as an “intransigent businessman” who has sold Chile to the economic interests of a tiny elite. “It is abysmal that someone like him can have so much, so much money and others do not have a roof or even basic needs like public education,” said Paredes. “The state has forgotten their duties and let the market intervene across the board, privileging profits and you see this in healthcare, natural resources, education.”

Asked about his personal net worth, Paredes whips out his wallet, opens it to show no bills, no coins only a student bus pass. “If I don’t have enough for the bus fare I can ask the driver to let me ride for free.” For his phone calls, Paredes depends on fellow students to chip in. “One friend really helped me, he put a lot of money on my [cell] phone all at once,” said Paredes who described a gift of 5,000 Chilean pesos – a little over 6 GBP.

“I have not slept in 36 hours,” says Paredes, his face weary even for an 18-year-old. “And yes, I’m hungry,” he says, devouring a hamburger and fries while taking a flurry of phone calls from fellow student leaders, journalists and his mom.

“She tells me to be careful. At first she didn’t want me to be involved in the protests, she thought it would be too dangerous. You know she is from the other generation of the [Pinochet] dictatorship and they still have the fear that people who become politically involved will then be found [dead] under a bridge or disappeared,” said Paredes who expressed no fear of deadly reprisal from Chilean authorities.

As student leader for both his high school and the national coordinating committee known as Cones, Paredes is part of a new generation of Chilean political leadership. These are young men and woman who are still not old enough to order a beer or obtain a driver’s license, yet they are steering Chilean politics in a new direction. “I was never involved in politics until two years ago. No one from my family is politically active, these protests have been my training,” said Paredes referring to the Chilean student uprising that began in 2011 and which has ignited a profound nationwide debate over the role of public education in a democracy.

The students have consistently argued that education is a basic right, while the government led by President Pinera has defined education as “a consumer good” and the gulf between those two positions has changed little during the course of the now two year old protest movement.

While the student’s primary demand — free university education for all – has yet to be achieved, education reform has been catapulted to the top of the Chilean political agenda. Several university directors have been jailed for running illegal, for-profit institutions and Universidad del Mar, a private university that had more than 15,000 students was stripped of government accreditation and essentially shut down by government regulators.

As Chile goes to the polls on Sunday for presidential primary elections, public education is now a key issue that is addressed at every debate and at length by candidates across the political spectrum. Leading Presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet recently outlined a multi-year transition plan that would faze-in a system of higher taxes to pay for universal, free university education.

For Paredes, the education protests has completely changed his outlook on life. Before the student uprising, Paredes spent his free time taking singing classes, honing his tenor voice in school chorus and at public concerts. “Now with all the protests I have to dedicate my time to interviews,” said Paredes. “Now my voice is used to communicate other things.”

Jonathan Franklin writes for the Guardian, where this article originally appeared.