Commandant Camila’s uprising -

Commandant Camila’s uprising

A charismatic student leads a widespread revolt against former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s school reforms

Commandant Camila’s uprising

Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters

If one were to rank the legacies of the Pinochet era in Chile, education reform wouldn’t likely make most lists. The former dictator devastated his country in many ways. Thousands of his opponents were murdered or simply disappeared. Countless more were tortured or forced into exile. But Augusto Pinochet also radically deregulated the education market, pulling funds from the public sector in the early 1980s and spreading them into a parallel private system. Remarkably, it is that decision that has his country roiling today.

For more than six months, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students have filled the streets in Chile’s cities. Their explicit goal: to overturn the education system Pinochet imposed. Under the Pinochet system, private education flourished while the costs for public education, at the university level, soared. Chilean university students today pay upwards of 80 per cent of the costs of their own education in public and private universities, the highest rate in the OECD. To pay that, many take out crippling student loans. Many lower-income students, products of the poorly funded public secondary system, meanwhile, are shut out of the better universities by dint of poor test scores.

Beginning last Chilean fall, the students began to revolt. They shut down classes, stormed ministries and, depending on who you believe, either provoked or suffered through violent clashes with police. The protests, which featured massive street marches as recently as mid-November, are the largest and most sustained since Pinochet’s rule ended more than 20 years ago. Many have been organized by the country’s most prominent student group, whose leader, Camila Vallejo, has become a minor folk hero in the country.

Vallejo, who stepped down from her post recently to run for re-election, has been remarkably effective at spreading her message. She has over 300,000 followers on Twitter and is capable of massing tens of thousands of supporters with little notice. “She’s very bright,” says Philip Oxhorn, a professor of political science at McGill who studies Latin American politics. She is also striking to look at, something she hasn’t been afraid to use to her advantage. “You have to recognize that beauty can be a hook,” Vallejo told the Guardian. “It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas.”

Vallejo and other protest leaders come from the so-called “penguin protest” generation, which took over secondary schools in a wave of demonstrations in 2006. (The “penguin” refers to the school uniforms the protesters wore.)

The penguin protesters were focused on secondary school reform. This time, demonstrators are demanding a fully publicly funded university system. But dramatically lowering university tuitions would likely mean significantly increasing taxes. And while the protests have so far been popular with the public, it’s not clear they’d remain that way if it meant everyone paying more. Conservative President Sebastían Piñera has already promised more money for the system and better rates for student loans. It’s not entirely clear how much further he, and the Chilean budget, are capable of going. One thing is clear: if larger reforms aren’t forthcoming, the students will likely be in the streets for months to come.


Commandant Camila’s uprising

  1. Protests happening in places that doesn’t upset the establishment = good

    Protest happening at home & upsetting the establishment = not good

    Maybe if OWS had gone to protest against Wall St in Venezuela they’d have gotten better press. 

  2. Yeah, education is a real black mark for Chile (see below)… give me a break. Pinochet was not a nice guy, but he made Chile the most successful and well-governed country in Latin America, AND willingly resigned. That is more than can be said for say, Fidel Castro, whom the left treats as some sort of fun uncle. 

    Literacy rates in Latin American countriesChile: 98.6%
    Argentina: 97.7%
    Venezuela: 95.2%
    Paraguay: 94.6%
    Colombia: 93.2%
    Bolivia: 90.7%
    Brazil: 90%
    Peru: 89.6%
    Ecuador: 84.2%


    • So good government to you means torture and murder?

      And check the literacy rate for Cuba – 99.8%.  So by your standard, Cuba under Castro is better governed than any of those countries.

      I would never call Castro a fun uncle but when it comes to education and health care, Cuba is way ahead of other countries of similar wealth.

      • Torture and murder are not good government, but that doesn’t mean everything Pinochet did was bad. I mean you can be pro-“trains running on time” and anti-holocaust, for instance.

        Yes, Cuba has a great education system. The problem is that there are no opportunities to use that education in Chile (GDP per capita 11,888) than in Cuba ($5,565). There is no point in having a great education system, without having a dynamic economy that is able to take advantage of well-educated workers. 

  3. “She is also striking to look at, something she hasn’t been afraid to use to her advantage.”

    You can say that again. Holy hell.
    And there was some other interesting stuff in this article too.