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A Chile Front Sweeps Through Latin America

November 2, 2011

Since May of this year, students have consistently gathered in Santiago’s main square to protest the cost of higher education, demanding more government assistance to afford expensive private universities throughout the country.

Student Protestors in Chile | Source: AP

Chile’s history has been tumultuous, to say the least. However, a fairly stable economy and an established financial sector have developed, allowing Chile to experience remarkable growth compared to other Latin American countries.

Despite this, not everyone in Chile has been reaping the benefits of economic growth. As recently as 2006, during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, high school students demanded “free use of public transport, lower fees for college entrance exams and a voice in government policy.” This caused quite a disruption in Chile’s day-to-day activities and implied that the hands-off, laissez-faire model of earlier economic reforms left something to be desired. While Bachelet attempted to meet their demands, apparently the reforms were not deep enough to overhaul the education system entirely and overcome socioeconomic divides.

This leaves current president, Sebastián Piñera, a former member of the right-wing Renovación Nacional (National Renewal) party, responsible for significant reforms. Under Pinochet and subsequent presidents, the education system in Chile has been gradually privatized, encouraging the creation of for-profit institutions (leading to high student debt). Student protestors’ main stipulation is that the government needs to provide free public education, which Piñera and other opponents say is impossible without raising taxes significantly—making it more difficult for poorer families to afford education. In response, students (who have been missing classes, participating in strikes and blockades, and demonstrating en masse) suggest that the rich should be taxed more to compensate for the funding deficit, which would also allow the schools to be not-for-profit and un-privatized.

In addition to free public education, student protestors are also insisting that the government improve the quality of education and reduce government subsidies for the private, for-profit education institutions. Furthermore, students occupied the Senate building in Santiago last week, pushing for a referendum and legislative measures on education. The students receive widespread support from across Chile, and the movement has expanded to several thousands of participants.

With increasingly violent protests and reactions from law enforcement officials, Piñera’s political power is in jeopardy: approval ratings for Piñera are approximately 26% as of last week. An article in The Economist notes that while the government’s proposals—such as cutting the interest rates on student loans from 6% to 2%, providing grants to the poorest 40% of students, and increasing the education budget by 7.2%—are substantial, they will not do enough to meet students’ demands. The article also maintains that while the “government is surely right to resist a wholly taxpayer-funded, state-run system,” Chile is a long way from achieving an education system that can supply its workforce with enough educated people to continue its economic growth.

"Occupy" protests around the world | Source: ILO; IMF; press reports; The Economist

Chile is not the only Latin American country complaining. Even though Latin America has become both richer and more equal in recent years, people are asking for more public services. With Latin America being controlled mostly by left-leaning parties, the request for increased government participation makes sense. However, citizens are further criticizing already high tax rates as incongruent with the amount/extent of services that they receive in return. This is, in large part, due to claims of corruption, bribery, and general misuse of funds. In Latin America, people want their governments to take responsibility, and use their money to continually build upon the progress already achieved. One of the main difficulties with their demands is that governments have several areas that they could invest in—education, healthcare, and crime prevention being the key sectors according to Latinobarómetro. With so many options, it is no wonder that every demand cannot be met. At the very least, short-term solutions should allow protests to wind down and students to return to classes in Chile until more extensive reforms can be agreed upon.

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