Reform in Chile: Between Popular Power and the Political Elite

(By: Nicholas García)

Earlier this month Michelle Bachelet, newly re-elected President of Chile, launched a campaign towards long awaited political reforms; implementing a new progressive tax policy, setting a plan for “free and universal higher education”, and finally the dismantling the “binominal” electoral system, left over from the Pinochet dictatorship, which under represents and disenfranchises minority political parties.

While Bachelet has been applauded for her rapid efforts to implement reforms, it is important to understand the greater political and social climate of the massive popular movements that has made these political reforms a political necessity.

The Legacy of Pinochet

September 11th, 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup. In 1973 The CIA-backed general and his army stormed the presidential palace, and overthrew the elected socialist president Salvador Allende. During its 17-year regime, the Pinochet dictatorship brutally repressed political dissidents while imposing a broad array of free-market policies and an authoritarian political apparatus, which his regime cemented in the 1981 constitution. While the dictatorship ended and Chile transitioned to a democratic system in 1990, the constitution from 1981 remains and preserves many policies and political frameworks of the Pinochet dictatorship. Among these political frameworks are the system of higher education and the binominal electoral system.

The constitution outlined a higher education system that cut funding and dismantled previous student power in administrative decision-making. The government allowed hundreds of low quality, private universities to set up shop in the new education market as state funding for public universities waned and student enrollment in higher education skyrocketed. This system of education keeps students, workers, and educators out of the decision-making of universities. Prior to the coup, the Frei and Allende administrations from 1964-1973 reformed the Chilean education system, not only creating low cost higher education, but also democratized the system, giving representation in decision-making power to students and faculty. Pinochet’s higher education system dismantled this plan, with the deregulation of private higher education allowing privtae interests (like former minister of education Joaquín Lavín), to run universities like businesses, focusing on profit rather than the interests of students. The end of higher education as democratic institutions limits those whose have the most invested in education, students, teachers, and workers, from insuring that the universities ran in their best interests. While the stagnant number of public universities, the best in Chile, only admit the top students, the growing number of students, are forced to pay exorbitant tuition for the growing number of lower quality for-profit private schools.

As the old regime was voted out of office in a referendum 1989, Pinochet changed the electoral system to limit the Left’s representation and power in congress. This electoral system established two seats per district, and required a supermajority of votes to win both. In practice, this electoral system ensured that 60% of congress remains in the control of the right-wing or the moderates, while leftist votes are underrepresented. In this context, substantial political reform through electoral politics, such as dismantling the policies left-over from the dictatorship, could not be achieved. At least until the student movement and growing popular movement created a powerful enough social climate to force these changes through direct action and mass mobilization.

The Student movement and the Neoliberal Project

Chilean social movements in the past decade have illustrated that while dominant electoral politics are unable or unwilling to create necessary institutional changes, sustained organizing and mobilizing in the streets can achieve these goals. The Chilean student movement, gaining widespread media coverage and critical mass in 2011, demanded an end to the political and economic legacies of the Dictatorship. They argued that the system of higher education maintained and increased class inequality, while the electoral system disenfranchised the working class and minorities to prevent the development of a real democratic system. Due to right wing over-representation the electoral system prevents major structural changes. With an electoral framework that stops meaningful political reform from within, the students popular resistance through street demonstrations and grassroot power challenged the government from without. This movement grew to demand the end of the dictatorship’s legacy and its neoliberal policies. They mobilized a million people in the streets in 2011 to demand education as a social right, and the creation of public education that is free, universal, intercultural, and high quality.

The student movement expanded to include workers from all over Chile, most recently organizing in solidarity with a month-long port workers strike. At this strike, Melissa Sepulvéda, the current president of the Universidad de Chile Student Government (FECH), declared, “the problems that port workers and the rest of society face have the same common origin of the neoliberal model installed in Chile.” By organizing with the port workers, the movement has expanded its attack to the greater Chilean society, helping create a political climate that requires any politician who wants to get elected to adopt the student’s demands into their own. Sebastian Piñera, then president of Chile from the conservative party National Renewal, had the lowest approval ratings in office since the end of the dictatorshp. Meanwhile, la Nueva Mayoría, the center left party including politicians like Michelle Bachelet, and former Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo, adopted the student’s demands and rhetoric and gained a majority of seats in the legislator, despite lacking the supermajority needed to create broader constitutional reform.

Reforming the whole system? Bachelet versus the Students

The problem is that Bachelet’s idea of “universal and free education” is not what the students demand. The media attention towards her commitment to “reforming the whole system”, does not look at what her goals lack in comparison to the student movement’s demands. The students demand free, universal, public education with student and faculty decision making that supports interculturalism and diversity. Bachelet’s education reform, while providing substantial improvements to the existing system, does not meet all these demands. In her reform plan, stricter regulations for universities will be in place, free preschool for all children, central government funding for public schools, and free education guaranteed for 70% of Chilean students. In 6 years, all Chilean students will receive free education, financed by Bachelet’s new Tax reforms by 3% GDP on corporations and the wealthy.

This plan only focuses on the finance of higher education, and not the broader systemic goals of the movement, such as the democratic changes in the universities that students require. Students still have minimal say in the functioning and allocations of this money in the University. A privatized model, like in the University of California, shows clearly, how problematic the excluion of the students can be. In one of California’s biggest universities, the power of the administration has led to mismanagment, using new monies to bolster administrative salaries, while cutting the quality of education. Michelle Bachelet in her campaign has adopted many of the rhetorical devices of the student movement, such as calling for “free and universal health care”, demanding that education is a social right and not a consumer good, and that the legacy of the dictatorship must end. However one must be critical of politicians appropriating the rallying calls of social movements. Bachelet uses the rhetoric of the students without the same meaning and goals. This causes two problems: it allows Bachelet the public approval of appearing to meet organizers demands while pursuing her own agenda, and uses the official discourse to change the meaning of this rhetoric that originated in the popular movement.

Electoral reform

Michele Bachelet’s electoral reform likewise poses significant steps in the right direction. Firstly it will end the binominal system, and will require no more than 60% of party candidates be men. This project works to end systemic gender inequality in Chile. However, the credit for these processes should not be solely due to Bachelet. Growing popular movements in Chile have made these reforms a political necessity for the state. In March 2014 rallies not related, organized, or endorsed by the student leaders demanded that Bachelet carry through with her campaign promises of reform.

During this rally, called the “March of all marches” tens of thousands of Chileans surged through Santiago, demanding that the new government deliver on its campaign promises. As one organizer said, “This is not a protest against Ms Bachelet or for her, it’s just an alert for the political class so they know people have demands.” A combination of 40 activist groups, ranging from Indigenous rights groups, LGBT groups, to student organizations mounted the rally, using popular power not towards electoral politics, which is designed to limit popular representation, but towards popular mobilization. Mobilization as part of an autonomous student movement has been able to sustain pressure to not only make politicians adopt important reforms, but to also follows through with them.

Direct action gets the goods: successes of a long term popular movement

The new tax, education, and electoral reforms in Chile illustrate the success that direct action and mass mobilization has in influencing electoral politics outside of a limited democratic framework. Instead of devoting efforts to work within this democratic structure that is inherently disenfranchising, inherently against reform or change, the direct action of the popular mobilizations in Chile have shown returned democracy to the streets.

The long-term process in achieving and working towards these goals must also be underscored. In an interview with two Chilean student organizers on a US speaking tour: Struggling to Win, the students talked in depth of the importance of the messaging and long term organizing in the social movement. This student movement has been organizing since 2001, with the penguin revolution in 2006 attaining mainstream media coverage towards issues of secondary education, and the 2011 till present movement growing popular demand for institutionalizing these changes and overthrowing these neoliberal policies.

One of the speakers, Melissa, form the student group FEL and La Alzada, highlighted how this long-term process has changed the rhetoric of education. When the student movement first started, she said “ “a revolution” of demands was made, departing from the reform goals of 2006 to the goal of free education for all. At the beginning, she says people saw this as impossible and would tell the students, “how come you are talking about free education; you are being ridiculous and must be an idealist or something, that will never happen”. However, because of the 2011 moment in the Chilean student movement, the views of education changed dramatically, and by the end, the majority of Chileans agreed that the country needed free education because “It is a social right. It is a right for all people” (Melissa 2014, March 4th). Melissa’s account shows the importance of this rhetoric and meaning in education reform in Chile.

While Bachelet’s campaign promises are a step of reform amidst a process of social and political contestation, it is necessary to understand the process that led to Bachelet’s decision, and the popular movement’s requirements. Bachelet’s rhetoric is based on organizers long term development of their own goals, and this must be reflected in the political changes that are implemented. This moment in Chile sets an example of not only the long term process that popular organizing is, but also an example of the successes this avenue of politics presents.

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