The revolt of the penguins in ChileJune 16, 2006 | Page 9
FEDERICO MORENO reports from Chile on a student rebellion that is shaking the country. CHILE HAS been overrun by high school students whose mass protests have forced the government to drop planned cuts in education spending. Called “penguins” because of their suit-and-tie uniforms, the students have shaken the foundations of the rigid Chilean social structure, inherited from the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Now, the government of President Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party, which took office earlier this year, has been forced to retreat.
The last six weeks in Chile have been marked by a strike of over 1 million students; the occupation of up to 1,000 high schools and most of the country’s universities; and weekly, sometimes daily, marches.
The movement has also persevered in street battles against Chile’s sophisticated repression machine–complete with carabineros (the national police) clad in riot gear and tanks firing water cannons that shoot a mixture of water and tear acid. Students, some as young as 13, fought back with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails.
The struggle began as a defensive fight–stopping the Bachelet government proposals last March for an increase in the cost of the University Entry Exam (PSU) and a restriction on student transportation passes to two trips per day.
But it has since snowballed into an offensive struggle. The movement now demands free transportation and an end to all fees for the PSU, as well as the elimination of a law (known by its initials LOCE) implementing the privatization of Chile’s education system–the last law that Pinochet approved before stepping down.
“The average cost of college is $4,000 a year,” explained Rodrigo Olivares, president of the Federation of Students in Solidarity (FESOL), and a member of the committee of 34 students that negotiates with the government. “Only 30 percent of high school students make it to college, and working-class families can’t afford their kids’ meals and transportation fares. Bachelet says there’s no money, but the price of just one of the 17 F-16 jets she bought for the armed forces this year is enough to cover all our demands.”
The movement has been organized by the Coordinating Assembly of High School Students (ACES), which formed this year through the merger of the youth organizations of the Communist Party (JC) and Socialist Party (JS) with the independent FESOL.
The ACES is composed of two delegates from each school, and it elects a committee of 34 representatives to negotiate with the government. The democratic character of the ACES has meant active participation of students at the occupations–and made the movement difficult to derail, despite the youth organization of Bachelet’s own party being one of the main forces leading it.
The march of the penguins has brought behind it broad layers of Chilean society, including university students, various sections of the working class and most parents. According to opinion polls, 87 percent of the population supports the students.
Weekly marches against Bachelet’s initial proposals were met in April with repression and thousands of arrests, which generated anger and sparked an increasingly militant response from students. Under pressure from escalating mobilizations, Bachelet gave up on her proposals but refused to consider the students’ further demands.
In May, students at 13 Santiago high schools occupied their schools, waiting for Bachelet to address the issue in her May 21 address to the nation. When Bachelet finished her speech without so much as mentioning it, the occupations spread like wildfire.
On May 29, the Minister of Education, Martín Zilic, called for a meeting with representatives from the high schools. When hundreds showed up, only a select few were allowed into the ministry, and Zilic sent a secretary in his place.
“This caused a fury in the movement,” said Olivera. “We said we wouldn’t sit down until the minister came himself. Now we imposed the conditions, not the government. Plus, all the students that came from across Chile joined the ACES, which became a truly national assembly.”
The next two weeks saw the paralysis of Chile’s educational system. With close to 1,000 high schools occupied nationwide, university students occupied their own campuses in solidarity with the penguins, and presented their own demands.
There were important marches for three days each week in various regions, which included confrontations with the police and thousands of arrests. In these conditions, the government began negotiations with the ACES’ 34-student committee, and found itself in constant retreat, conceding on almost all of the students’ demands.
The climax of the penguins’ revolt came June 5 with a national strike call by the ACES, which various social and political organizations and unions–most remarkably, the workers of the Ministry of Education–honored. Santiago woke up to street barricades, and thousands of students confronted the police throughout the day and well into the night.
The 15-, 16- and 17-year-old students who lead this movement have become a phenomenon in Chile, embarrassing senators on live televised debates, infuriating news anchors and treating government ministers like kids who don’t get it.
Olivares explained how in negotiations with Zilic, “If the minister walked out for a smoke or to go consult with Bachelet, we would stop the meeting. If he wasn’t there himself, we wouldn’t dialogue. That’s how we had the guy those days, from 5 p.m. until midnight. He was entrenched. If we didn’t like what he was saying, we would interrupt him: ‘Mr. Minister, you can’t say that, that is an insult to us, that is not what we are asking for.’”
According to Olivares, “Bachelet’s latest offer to the students, while undoubtedly a victory–especially in the radicalization and organization of thousands–is a trick. She gives the PSU and transportation pass free to the poorest four-fifths of students, but privatizes the administration of both services.
“As far as the LOCE, she offers a commission to reform it, with 10 percent student participation, but it’s only advisory. The Congress can just ignore whatever it says. The JC and JS leaders are ready to accept this offer if Bachelet gives students 50 percent plus one representation in the commission.
“I think this is a bad maneuver on their part at the behest of their parent parties, because we have the forces on our side and could win the whole of our demands.
“For now, the ACES has decided to end the occupations, but maintain the mobilizations to pressure the government. This is fine because the kids were tired and strained. I know the JC and JS want to negotiate and demobilize, but it’s going to be hard to quiet all the students who thought they were fighting to eliminate the LOCE.”
The struggle of the penguins is far from over, but they have already taught the world a mighty lesson–it’s possible to win against repression by organizing democratically, uniting with other sectors of the working class and mobilizing in the streets.
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