Chile: Student politicians graduate from the streets to government

One of the more interesting sub-plots of Chile’s recent legislative elections is the success of former student leaders who have taken their protest from the streets of Santiago into Congress.

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In May 2011, while the rest of the world had its eye on the Arab Spring or the indignados in Spain, a wave of protest, demonstrations and occupations broke out in Chile that would come to have a significant impact on the social and political fabric of what is arguably Latin America’s richest country. The protests were led by students of both secondary school and university age, and were sparked by anger at extortionate tuition fees and profit-making in the education system, one of the most expensive in the world. They have continued to this day, with demonstrations and levels of public approval for the students’ cause just as widespread in 2013 as they were in 2011.

Student protests in Santiago

Their demands were simple but implied a seismic shift in the way education is run in Chile, as well as the role it plays in society: making education free for everyone, as a means to giving everyone a decent shot at enjoying Chile’s undoubted economic prosperity. Chile is one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, with the top 5% of the population earning a staggering 250 times more than the poorest 5%, and the education system as it is only serves to lock in social stratification: if you are from a well-off background, you are gifted with efficient and good-quality private education; if your family circumstances are not so fortunate, however, you have to deal with shoddy and cash-starved state provision that limits your chances of a decent career, the gateway to this country’s expanding urban and consumerist middle class.

A series of highly effective protests and campus occupations saw hundreds of thousands of students and sympathisers take to the streets of Santiago and other cities, bringing the education issue right into the political spotlight and forcing the centre-right Alianza government of President Sebastián Piñera into a series of policy U-turns and concessions, not least a significant reduction in the interest rates charged on loans taken out by students to cover their tuition fees, and a hike in the central government budget assigned to education. Now, though some of the movement’s most emblematic leaders are looking to carry their demands and message from the streets and lecture halls into parliament, with the added aim of doing away with the alienation of Chile’s political elite from its citizens, and instilling a more participatory democracy that is open and responsive to its electors.

With this in mind, several former leaders have successfully run for office in Chile’s Lower House, either as independent candidates or as members of the Partido Comunista de Chile (PCCh – Communist Party), which for this year’s elections has chosen to join the centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition led by former President Michelle Bachelet and now has the opportunity to form a part of her new government, in the likely event that she wins next month’s run-off election against Alianza candidate Evelyn Matthei. Bachelet is promising to carry out educational and tax reforms, facilitated by a new constitution to replace the current one imposed during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). This has put Bachelet’s agenda more in line with the demands of the student movement, or at least more in line than the current Alianza government or the 20 years of Concertación (Nueva Mayoría’s former incarnation, before the adhesion of the PCCh) administrations that preceded it.

The four former leaders to be elected to the Lower House are Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric, and Karol Cariola. Vallejo and Cariola both ran under the PCCh-Nueva Mayoría ticket, while Jackson ran as an independent backed by his Revolución Democrática movement (Democratic Revolution) and Boric ran representing the minority party Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left). Boric was alone in contesting a seat in the Magallanes region of Chile’s far south, with the other three fighting for seats in the capital Santiago.

Camila Vallejo (C) and Gabriel Boric (R) at a student rally in Santiago

Vallejo, who gained both national and international fame through her role in the student mobilisations, has in particular come in for some criticism from the movement for “selling out”, having previously stated that she would never support or work for Bachelet, under whose first government (2006-2010) an initial wave of student protests broke out and whom many in the movement criticise for not having done enough to solve the education system’s problems and inequities during her four years in charge. However, Vallejo has defended her position and that of the Communists, stating that the most effective way to ensure that student demands are implemented is through democratic procedure and working in government with Bachelet. She has insisted, furthermore, that the next government will not be another Concertación one: “Our goal isn’t just to replace the Right in government, but we also that we don’t want there to be another Concertación government in our country; this means that the new government will need to take a different approach, because Chile has changed, and we in Nueva Mayoría understand that we cannot repeat the same practices nor keep certain aspects of the [economic and social] model, instead we have to start changing it”.

This adhesion of the student movement to the Bachelet camp is something backed up by Cariola, who is currently the president of the youth wing of the PCCh. She says that her and Vallejo feel they identify with the proposals in Bachelet’s manifesto, and that in being elected she and her fellow former student leaders have passed “from the sidelines onto the playing field”, and have been able to “break and in a way open doors that once upon a time we felt were shut off to us”. She added that “that was one of the key incentives which made us students want to go from being passive actors to being active players in decision-making”.

Karol Cariola (L) and Gabriel Boric (R)
Karol Cariola (L) and Gabriel Boric (R)

If Vallejo had earned herself an almost rockstar-like fame over the course of the student mobilisations, then Giorgio Jackson certainly had a claim for being the most charismatic of the movement’s leaders. Having succeeded several years ago in being elected as President of the student union at Universidad Católica de Chile, one of the most traditional and conservative universities in the country, he repeated the trick in winning almost 50% of the vote in his Central Santiago district. While officially he will sit in Congress as an independent, his candidacy for the recent elections has been implicitly backed by Nueva Mayoría, who abstained from presenting a candidate to stand against him in the district.

“We decided to enter into Congress to stop delegating to others the changes that we want and need. We want to say to people that their lives can be changed through politics”, Jackson told the BBC in a clear demonstration of the student leaders’ goal of not just bringing about the changes in education but also in the way the entire political class acts in Chile. He highlighted the fact that two thirds of the votes in the presidential elections had gone to candidates who had presented “programmes which spoke of great changes, (…) which spoke of a new Constitution, which spoke of free and quality educations…”, and said that “those who defend a society that is completely and unconditionally driven by a blind faith in the market, have been left behind. These ideas have been left behind by those which are in favour of protecting the rights which in this day and age we are not prepared to allow to be sold off”.

He added that “today we can aspire more than ever to say with conviction that we want to do away with those enclaves in our democracy and Constitution that prevent those changes which are supported by a majority of the population from showing themselves in a change of the rules of the game”. To this end, he asserted that Bachelet represented the best chance for these changes to be brought about, stating that “in the second round [of the presidential election, to be held on 15th December] I see in the candidacy of Nueva Mayoría an opportunity for change. (…) The option that allows us to open doors and not find ourselves up against a wall is that of Bachelet, and my preference would be for that candidate”.

Giorgio Jackson celebrates his victory in the district of Santiago Central

Beyond the success of these former student leaders in being elected, nevertheless, lies the challenge of actually making good on their promise to bring about changes for the better in Chile’s education system. Bachelet has promised to implement free education over the next five to six years, to be funded by her proposed reform to income and corporation tax regimes. However, it is not going to be easy, as both the elected leaders and their successors within the student movement accept and warn. “We have an institutional lock-out which makes changes from within very difficult; they are almost impossible”, said Melissa Sepúlveda, the current President of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Fech – Federation of Students of the University of Chile), the student body that was run by Vallejo (2010-2011) at the time of the outbreak of protests, and by Boric the following year.

Sepúlveda also affirmed that “the result of the elections and the nomination of the former leaders is the result of mobilisation, and these mobilisations and demands are going to continue, because we need changes that resolve the demands that we have laid out, and not just through cosmetic changes”. This view is backed up by the President of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad Católica de Chile (Feuc – Federation of Students of the Pontifical University of Chile), Naschla Aburman, who stated that “in no way are our aims going to change just because they have made it into Congress. Our convictions are out on the streets and we intend on continuing with this, under no circumstance are we going to stop mobilising”. However, she did congratulate the four who have been elected, and while she insisted that “in no way as a social movement do we have our confidence delegated in candidates and political parties”, she said that “more than former student leaders, [those elected] are young people who are on the frontline of change”.

The stance of the successors of Vallejo, Jackson et al. suggests that the massive student protests and mobilisations that Chile has seen for over two and a half years are not going to stop until the changes that they want to see have been delivered. However, what is also apparent is that with the scale of the transformations that are being sought by the student movement, and the notorious difficulty in getting such major legislation through Chile’s often-gridlocked Congress, is that it may be a while before the student movement, their leaders, and their former-leaders-cum-politicians, are satisfied. The election of Vallejo, Jackson, Cariola, and Boric, far from represents the end of the student movement’s efforts to force Chile’s political elite to listen to their demands and deliver the changes that are needed; it is only the beginning.

The newly-elected Cariola (L) and Vallejo (R) give their support to former President and leading candidate Michelle Bachelet, at a campaign rally in Santiago after the first round of voting on 17th November. Photo courtesy of AP