Chile: Mass Protests Demand Free Education

Protesters demand an end to the private education system. (kompas.com)

Spartacist League

Chile has been convulsed for months now by mass protests that began with a struggle for free higher education. Since May, hundreds of thousands of high school and university students have been waging a strike, occupying schools and campuses around the country, while huge demonstrations have taken place in the capital Santiago and nationwide. Longstanding anger over entrenched inequalities in the education system and a lack of funding has come to a head. An article on the BBC News Web site (11 August) noted: “At the heart of the students’ anger is a perception that Chile’s education system is grossly unfair—that it gives rich students access to some of the best schooling in Latin America while dumping poor pupils in shabby, under-funded state schools.”

The right-wing government, headed by billionaire Sebastián Piñera of the National Renewal party, has responded to the protests with vicious state repression. Demonstrators have been routinely tear-gassed, attacked with water cannon and beaten. Thousands have been arrested and brutalized by the militarized police force, the carabineros. On August 25, 16-year-old Manuel Gutierrez was killed by police gunfire while passing by a protest in Santiago.

The student struggle has served as a lightning rod for the broader discontent of working people in Chile. Families, many of whom have been saddled with enormous debt in order to finance education for their children, have poured into the streets in solidarity with the students, protesting with cacerolazos (the banging of pots and pans). Trade unionists from the Central Confederation of Workers (CUT) have mobilized in support of the students, holding two-day work stoppages in August and October and joining rallies of hundreds of thousands. The workers have raised demands for better public health care, pensions and union rights.

In Chile, over half of the schools and most universities are privately run. As reported by the Nation (18 August), the average monthly minimum wage is $385, college tuition averages $485 per month and the average student debt following graduation is $40,000. According to a comparison of educational standards internationally conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile ranked 64th out of 65 countries in terms of segregation according to social class in schools and colleges. Private secondary schools, including those run by the Catholic church, receive state subsidies in the form of a voucher system. Since fees are charged on top of the voucher, the scheme has predominantly benefited wealthier families. A central demand of the student strikers is for an end to “education for profit” and to state financing of private schools.

Pinochet, Concertación and Education

The privatization of large sections of the education system dates back to the “free market” starvation policies implemented under the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The Pinochet regime came to power in 1973 in a military coup that overthrew the Unidad Popular (UP) government headed by Socialist Party (SP) leader Salvador Allende. The UP was a classic popular front, an alliance of reformist workers parties, chiefly the SP and Communist Party (CP), with bourgeois forces—the small Radical Party as well as some Christian Democrats. The Allende government was not, as maintained by reformists around the world, a “people’s government” gradually introducing socialism. It was a government committed to the maintenance of capitalism. The presence of bourgeois parties in the UP coalition was a guarantee to the capitalists that the workers parties would not take any steps to threaten the profit system.

Even before assuming office, Allende signed an agreement pledging not to permit the formation of “private” armed forces—i.e., workers militias. The Allende government disarmed the workers by seizing their weapons and by sowing illusions in a “peaceful road to socialism.” This cleared the way for the bourgeoisie to crush the working class. With the support of U.S. imperialism, the Pinochet junta killed at least 30,000 leftists, workers and peasants, sending untold thousands more into concentration camps and exile.

This bloody state terror, aimed at breaking the back of the militant Chilean proletariat, allowed the bourgeoisie to proceed with a “shock therapy” program of economic austerity devised by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Viewing the large state universities as breeding grounds for radicalism and protest, Pinochet cut their funding and later promoted a proliferation of private universities.

The end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 was followed by the 20-year rule of the “center left” Concertación (pact) coalition, which claimed to be restoring democracy to Chile. This latter-day popular front of the SP with Christian Democrats and others was charged by the bourgeoisie with bringing “stability” and economic growth to Chile. But what the capitalist governments of Concertación and, more recently, Piñera have meant for workers, the rural and urban poor and oppressed indigenous minorities such as the Mapuche is continued widespread inequality and poverty. Chile has the highest per capita income of any country in Latin America. It also is rated by a 2010 UN development report as one of the 15 most unequal countries in the world.

For Free, Quality Education for All!

The bourgeois rulers maintain elite schools to ensure quality education for their children and to train the managers and technicians needed to administer the capitalist system. When it comes to the working class and the poor, the capitalists seek to spend on education only what they calculate they can get back in profit.

A reference point for student protesters in Chile today is the massive strike at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 1999-2000. For nine and a half months, students shut down UNAM in a hard-fought battle against attacks on access to the university for working-class and poor youth. Our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México intervened actively into the strike, pointing to the necessity for students to ally with the social power of the working class and combating illusions in the bourgeois-populist Party of the Democratic Revolution. The strike gained support among key sectors of the working class, intersecting broad discontent with capitalist austerity. But the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy was largely responsible for demobilizing the workers and the student strike was left isolated. While the strike succeeded in stopping the imposition of tuition fees—an important gain—it was ultimately broken through brutal state repression.

In an article assessing the lessons of the UNAM strike, the GEM demanded the abolition of the bourgeois university administration and called for student, teacher and worker control of the university (“A Marxist Analysis of the UNAM Student Strike, 1999-2000,” Espartaco No. 31 [Spring 2009], reprinted in WV No. 958, 7 May 2010). The article continued: “These slogans, together with our main call for free, quality education for all, point toward the need for socialist revolution, the only way to put both education and culture not only within reach, but also at the service of the masses.”

In order for education to be truly accessible to all, we fight not only for abolishing fees and for nationalization of the private universities, but also for open admissions—all who want to study should be able to do so—and for a state-paid living stipend for students. Securing the right of all to quality education, health care, decent jobs and housing will become possible when the working class has seized the mines, factories and banks and placed them in the service of meeting the needs of the working people instead of the tiny handful of capitalist exploiters. That requires socialist revolution to sweep away the capitalist state and expropriate the bourgeoisie.

Workers Power Is Key

Coinciding with the Chilean students’ protests, the miners—the most powerful and strategic section of the proletariat—have waged a series of strikes in recent months. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, and the Chilean bourgeoisie and its imperialist patrons have raked in massive profits from the rise in copper prices in recent years. In July, miners at the state-owned Codelco mines, which produce more than 10 percent of the world’s copper, struck for 24 hours against steps toward privatization. Later that month, over 2,000 striking miners shut down the world’s biggest copper mine, La Escondida, for two weeks demanding higher wages and benefits. The strike cost BHP Billiton and its partners $30 million a day.

In late October, workers at the world’s third-largest copper mine, Collahuasi, went on strike over bonus payments. This followed their strike last year—the longest ever at a private mine in Chile—when they held out for 32 days against the Xstrata and Anglo American bosses. During the recent action, mineworkers union leader Cristian Arancibia said: “In addition to our demands as workers at a multinational as powerful as Collahuasi, this mobilization is also a way of expressing our support to the demands of the student movement in our capacity as parents and guardians of thousands of youth who are setting an example in the struggle for social demands” (www.radio.uchile.cl, 29 October).

It is the social power of such workers, who can stop the flow of profit, that must be brought to bear in the struggle for free, quality education for all. Students are a petty-bourgeois layer in society, with no direct relationship to the means of production and hence little social power in their own right. However, their struggles can be a catalyst for broader class and social struggle. Such was the case in France in May 1968 when student protests were the immediate precursor to a millions-strong general strike by workers, leading to a prerevolutionary situation. The workers were subsequently sold out by the reformist misleaders of the French Communist Party (see “France, May 1968” WV Nos. 972, 974 and 976, 21 January, 18 February, 18 March). The point for radical students is to view the working class not simply as allies in their struggle but as the only class that, because of its unique position in capitalist production, has the power to overthrow the profit system.

The main student organizations are led by members of the CP and SP, as is the CUT union federation. These reformist misleaders constitute a major obstacle to mobilizing the social power of the working class, continuing to promote the same popular-frontist politics that led to bloody defeat in 1973. The CP and SP preach the treacherous notion that the interests of the workers and oppressed can be served through the democratic reform of Chilean capitalism. An example is the student leaders’ call on the Piñera government to fund free education by increasing taxes on mining profits, renationalizing more of the copper industry and cutting the defense budget, as if the problem were that the bourgeoisie doesn’t know where to find the money for education! While the student protests have prompted Piñera to make a show of throwing some more government money into education, his real response was the legislation he recently sent to Congress as he sat down for “negotiations” with student leaders. The proposed law mandates five-year prison sentences for students occupying schools or blocking traffic, along with a host of other repressive measures.

Illusions in Bourgeois Democracy

As reported on the London Guardian Web site (7 October), CP youth leader Camila Vallejo “said the students will prepare now to make the government pay in the next elections.” With municipal elections next year and presidential elections in 2013, Vallejo’s comrades in Congress have been discussing a potential electoral alliance with leaders of the Party for Democracy, an integral part of the Concertación coalition. For all the CP’s rhetoric against Piñera and Concertación, it is clear that the CP is looking to channel the discontent in the streets into a new electoral alliance of the left.

The CP and many on the left are also calling for a new constitution and a plebiscite on education reform. The current constitution originated in 1980, when Pinochet was in power, and retains many Pinochet-era restrictions on democratic freedoms while also specifically targeting workers, prohibiting strikes by public employees and forbidding union leaders from membership in political parties. While Trotskyists oppose such reactionary provisions and support workers struggles against them, the reformist SP and CP misleaders seek to channel workers’ just hatred of the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship into illusions in bourgeois democracy.

The protection of capitalist property rights against threats from the proletariat is enshrined in all bourgeois constitutions. So long as the mines, factories and banks remain in the hands of the capitalist class, Chile remains a dictatorship of capital. This dictatorship is defended by the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state: the army, cops, courts and prison system. The democratic trappings of parliament, referenda and constitutions are used by the bourgeoisie to obscure that the capitalist state is a machine for the violent suppression of the proletariat. As V.I. Lenin, leader of the 1917 October Revolution, explained: “The bourgeoisie are compelled to be hypocritical and to describe as ‘popular government’ or democracy in general, or pure democracy, the (bourgeois) democratic republic which is, in practice, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the dictatorship of the exploiters over the working people” (“‘Democracy’ and Dictatorship,” December 1918).

The bloody defeat of Allende’s “peaceful road to socialism” provides an all-too-vivid confirmation of Karl Marx’s teaching that the “working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (The Civil War in France, 1871). Marx’s conclusion was that the capitalist state cannot be reformed but must be smashed through workers revolution. In keeping with their worship of bourgeois democracy, the CP and SP leaders have distanced themselves from the so-called encapuchados (masked youth) in the student protests, who have been denounced by the blood-drenched Chilean bourgeoisie as “violent.” It is necessary for the workers movement to come to the defense of all the protesters, demanding the release of all those being held and the immediate dropping of charges.

Lessons of the Popular Front

Workers and youth in Chile need to understand that undoing the “heritage of Pinochet,” which many leftists call for, requires undoing the heritage of Allende also. The UP popular front came to power in 1970 as Chile was being swept by a wave of strikes by workers and occupations of landed estates by agricultural laborers and landless peasants. Far from representing a step toward socialism, the modest reforms of the Allende government were aimed at heading off this wave of struggle.

The nationalizations of mines and some foreign-owned light industry in 1971 sparked a further wave of working-class struggle. In response, the UP turned to repression and austerity, increasingly seeking to appease rightist opponents of the popular front. Bowing to a reactionary mobilization of sections of the petty bourgeoisie, in 1972 Allende invited military leaders into the government. He named Pinochet, who had butchered striking copper miners in the town of El Salvador in 1966, commander-in-chief of the army.

Allende preached faith in the supposed “neutrality” of the “democratic” military and promised not to touch the bourgeois officer corps. He pushed through a law allowing military raids in search of arms, ostensibly aimed against “extremists” of both the right and the left. Predictably, it was used exclusively against unions, factory workers and workers parties, while fascist groups built stockpiles of arms. In 1973, Allende took away the sliding scale of wages for workers at the state-owned El Teniente copper mine, prompting a strike that was repressed by riot cops. He also placed two mining provinces under military control.

Toward the end of the Allende regime, rejection of his anti-working-class policies had led workers in the industrial areas around Santiago to form cordones industriales (district coordinating bodies of factory committees). These embryonic formations of working-class power indicated that Chile had entered a prerevolutionary situation, with the class-collaborationist coalition in power increasingly unable to control the working class. This situation was similar to that in Russia in 1917. The different outcomes—victory for the proletariat in Russia, defeat in Chile—came down to the absence in the latter case of a Bolshevik-type party committed to leading the workers to power.

To conceal that their policy of class collaboration was what led to the defeat, the SP and CP continue to paint the Pinochet coup as the work of fascists and reactionaries in league with the CIA. While there is no doubt that such forces led and fomented the coup, every important sector of the Chilean capitalist class, including the “moderate” Christian Democrats and the “constitutionalist” officers of the UP regime, was involved in the coup in some form. Thus, responsibility for the physical annihilation of an entire section of the working class rests squarely upon the shoulders of the SP and CP misleaders, and those so-called Marxist parties in Chile and around the world that gave even the most critical support to the UP, such as the Chilean Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). Responsibility also lies with the Stalinist regime in Cuba, whose program of “socialism in one country” meant endorsing the UP and opposing calls to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Fidel Castro went so far as to lecture striking El Teniente miners to “sacrifice more” for the good of the fatherland.

The Spartacist tendency was unique on the left internationally in opposing any political support to the UP from the beginning. As we wrote in “Chilean Popular Front,” (Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970):

“It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready.”

Writing of the 1930s Spanish Popular Front, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky explained that the subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie assures defeat, noting that this represented “the entire experience of history, beginning at least with 1848. The modern history of bourgeois society is filled with all sorts of Popular Fronts, i.e., the most diverse political combinations for the deception of the toilers” (“The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning,” 17 December 1937).

Militant workers and youth in Chile must be won to the fight to forge a revolutionary workers party in opposition to all wings of the bourgeoisie. Such a party must act, in Lenin’s words, as a “tribune of the people,” championing the rights of all the oppressed layers of society—women, gays, youth, the Mapuche, etc. A vanguard party will be forged only through hard struggle against nationalism—the predominant false consciousness, reinforced by imperialist domination, that ties the exploited and the oppressed to the Chilean bourgeoisie. The fight for proletarian power in Chile must be based on the perspective of socialist revolution throughout Latin America and in the U.S. imperialist center, where the world economic crisis has hit the multiracial proletariat hard. What is necessary is to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. 

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