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Chile’s Student Movement Leads the Way

by BENJAMIN DANGL

“I want to pay special homage to my father and to all those who gave their lives in the fight to recover democracy,” an emotional Isabel Allende said upon taking office as the Senate President this Tuesday. Allende is the daughter of Salvador Allende, the former socialist president of Chile who died during a US-backed military coup in 1973. “I know he’d be proud to see his daughter in this role.”

Later that day, Allende, (different from the novelist with the same, who is a distant relative), passed the presidential sash to left-leaning President Michelle Bachelet as she entered her second term in office. The two embraced warmly; it was the first time in Chilean history the sash had been passed between two women.

This historic event marks a crack in the legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet, an event he and his allies probably believed would never be possible when they oversaw the bombing of Allende’s presidential palace, the systematic torture and murdering of thousands of people, and the application of a disastrous neoliberal economy.

Bachelet’s return to the presidency, and her promise for structural changes to Chile’s educational and political system, is the result of a decades-long struggle to move out of the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship, and is one of the fruits of the more recent student movement for a better society.

The success of Bachelet’s second term will depend on how well she can move forward with progressive plans to benefit a population besieged by one of the most stratified income inequalities in the world, and how well she meets the demands of the hundreds of thousands of students who have taken to the streets in recent years.

Bachelet’s Progressive Plans

Bachelet herself was a victim of the dictatorship; she was tortured under the regime, and her father was tortured and died in jail because of his support for Allende. After escaping the dictatorship, Bachelet returned to Chile from exile in 1979 to work as a pediatrician and human rights activist. She later entered politics and was elected president of Chile for her first term from 2006-2010. Though she enjoyed an 80% approval rating at the end of this time in office, the constitution bars a president from seeking a consecutive term.

During the elections in December of last year, she defeated right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei with a record 62% of the vote. On March 11th, 2014 she took over the presidency from the unpopular neoliberal Sebastian Piñera, one of the richest people in the country and a staunch enemy of the country’s student movement.

Though a major economic powerhouse, Chile suffers from a high level of income inequality. On the campaign trail, Bachelet pledged to tackle such inequality with sweeping structural reforms in the social, economic and political sphere. In her inauguration speech, Bachelet said, “Chile has but one great enemy, and its name is inequality. Only together can we take it on.”

Bachelet has promised to make quality higher education free for all, end state funding for elitist private educational institutions, and raise taxes to pay for the educational reforms. She also plans to try and form a national assembly or plebiscite to rewrite the country’s constitution. Chile’s current constitution was imposed under military rule in 1980, and re-writing it has been seen by many as a crucial step toward deepening democracy.

Standing on the balcony of the presidential palace where Allende died during the 1973 coup, Bachelet spoke to the crowd gathered in the Constitution Plaza: “My promise is that this plaza becomes the plaza of a constitution that was born in democracy.”

In bringing about a new constitution, Bachelet would be joining her counterparts in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, three nations which have also re-written their constitutions in recent years. With a majority in both houses of congress, she may be able to make the constitutional changes a reality, along with pushing through the other promised reforms.

Her plans for the coming years also include raising corporate taxes by 5%, expanding funding for healthcare, and opening a debate in congress on legalizing gay marriage. Bachelet also seeks to legalize abortion in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s or child’s health; according to a study by the University of Diego Portales in Santiago, 70,000 clandestine abortions take place in Chile each year.

While Bachelet’s right-wing predecessor Piñera didn’t have the support he needed in congress to proceed with many of his administration’s plans, Bachelet’s prospects are good; she has a considerable amount of support inside and outside the government as she moves forward.

Student Movement: In the Streets and in the Government

In 2011, students organized the largest protests the country had seen since the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990. Central demands from the student movement have long included free access to quality education and an overhaul of Pinochet’s constitution, a constitution many activists believe keeps neoliberalism and unequal education thriving in the country. The student movement’s pressure for change helped pave the way to Bachelet’s re-election and formed the backbone of what became key promises on her campaign trail.

After winning the elections in December, Bachelet thanked the student movement, saying that her victory at the ballot box was due in part to “the citizens who have marched through the streets in recent years.”

Many students growing up over the past decade in post-dictatorship Chile have demanded more from democracy than their parents, and pushed for changes that expanded the discourse about the type of country people wanted to build and how they could build it – in the classroom, the street and the government. Some student activists directed their energy toward building social movement alternatives to traditional political institutions. Others set their sights on changing the political system from the inside out.

Student movement leader Camila Vallejo supported Bachelet in her second bid for the presidency, and was elected to congress during the December 2013 elections. At a press conference following the December vote, Vallejo told reporters, “Given the result of the elections, we have a majority that allows us to make structural changes. Social movements are pressuring many sectors that were not in favor of change before and that have now changed their mind.” She said, “We were elected because Chile changed.”

Vallejo joined three other student leaders in their twenties in congress; at 25, she is the youngest member of congress. When she entered office on Tuesday, she brought her baby daughter Adela with her. Vallejo said, “I want to be able to tell her when she’s older that she was there with me for the handover of power.”

Some sectors of the student movement do not support the electoral route to change that Vallejo and her colleagues have taken up, and have oriented their momentum into social movements outside the government sphere. Others have pledged to maintain mobilizations to ensure that elected officials carry out reforms.

Allende’s dream for a truly democratic Chile may have been postponed by a US-backed dictatorship, but over the past decade the youth have been marching out of the nightmare of Pinochet, against the empty promises of a neoliberal democracy and toward a better society. Inside and outside the halls of power, the students are leading the way. After taking office, Camila Vallejo said she would keep “one foot in the government and the other in the street.”

Benjamin Dangl’s latest book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press) is on contemporary Latin American social movements and their relationships with the region’s new leftist governments. He is editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

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