Protest Perspective: Student Activism in Chile

June 10, 2019

Student protests have shaped democracy in the United States, notably since the 1960s, when the antiwar and civil rights movements spread across the country and forever changed the country’s political and cultural environments. However, student activism isn’t unique to the U.S. – it appears in many countries and can take many forms.

 

Take Chile, for example.

 

Protesters in South America’s richest country might laugh at American campus activism. “They’d think it’s funny that students protest and then go back to class,” says Ignacio Ulloa, a Chilean English professor at the University of Concepción (UdeC).

 

In Chile, student protests are common, and they often force universities to suspend classes, rearrange their academic calendars, or even close temporarily.  According to Michael Ellsworth, an American English professor at UdeC with nearly a decade of experience working in Chile’s higher education system, both the demonstrations and the reactions to them can seem “more violent and aggressive” than in the U.S. In their quest to create lasting change in society, Chilean students sometimes clash with police, throw rocks, get into fights, or even get blasted by water cannons or tear gas fired from armored vehicles.

 

In this article, Step Up will briefly examine the history of student protests in Chile, the forms those protests take, and how Chilean society has responded to them.

 

Young Democracy, Old Protests

 

According to Mr. Ulloa, “University protests here are not new.” He says Chile’s campus activism movement dates back to the 1970s, following the rise of Agosto Pinochet’s dictatorship, when “many students were attacked, imprisoned, tortured, or even killed by the police or military” in consequence for their actions until the late 80s.

 

After a quiet period in the 1990s following the reinstitution of democracy, Mr. Ulloa found himself in the crucible as Chilean student protests found new life. When he was in high school in the mid-2000s, secondary students began a wave of activism to change the country’s school system, “because it was deepening the social gap between rich and poor,” he says. “We needed a new funding system, we needed to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and we wanted free education, or the closest to it.” The country’s students left protests aside after a devastating earthquake in 2010, but then the game was back on.  

 

“In 2011, things got real,” Mr. Ulloa remembers. Students marched to Chilean congress on May 21st of that year, the day of the country’s State of the Nation speech, where they clashed with riot police. This incident began two years of intense, nationwide activism that culminated in the election of a president running on a platform of deep education reform.

 

Today, Chilean student protests continue to evolve. The student protests of 2011-2013 awakened Chileans to many issues, explains Mr. Ellsworth. To him, this wave of activism helped Chileans “realize that they didn’t just have to be grateful for living in a restored democracy” after the Pinochet era. They “could get on the streets and demand things – not just regarding education, but also land and water use, the water system, and pension issues.”

 

March, Halt, Take

 

As discussed above, both Chilean protests and reactions to them might seem extreme to U.S. students. Why is that so? What makes them so different? One answer is the forms of protest. Three common ones include marcha, paro, and toma.

 

Marcha means “march.” Mr. Ulloa explains that much like protests marches in the U.S., when students in Chile go en marcha, the organizers usually define a protest’s time, geographic meeting point and ending point, then present these to the authorities to define demonstration routes. The difference is that after the peaceful march, some more extreme students often stick around to confront the police.

 

Second comes the paro, which means “stop.” When students go en paro, they go on strike. According to Mr. Ulloa, this usually occurs “as a form of pressure after regular negotiations have failed.” During these actions, protesters refuse to participate in some or all campus activities, forcing schools to cancel classes or rearrange academic schedules, cutting into summer and winter vacations.

 

Third, and finally, there is the ultimate action – the toma, which translates to “the takeover.” In these demonstrations, students commandeer spaces on campus, often removing all non-activists from an academic department’s building. They lock the doors, eject all staff, and force the cessation of classes until their demands are met – or until they’re forced out. Since tomas are not technically legal, Mr. Ulloa notes that they usually end with “the police breaking in and making arrests.”

 

Society’s View:

 

According to both Mr. Ellsworth and Mr. Ulloa, most Chilean citizens have mixed feelings about the country’s student protest movement.

 

To Mr. Ellsworth, the fact that Chile’s activist culture has emerged so powerfully after the restoration of its democracy is great overall. However, he sometimes finds the disruptions frustrating and wonders about “the rights of non-participants to the education they are paying for.”

 

Reflecting on society at large, Mr. Ulloa recognizes that “a huge number of Chileans see the protests just as an excuse for laziness,” but are more open to the idea when it benefits them. He also sees a section of society that supports students because “they think what they do is correct and because they want the best for the educational system.” Even if this group may not completely agree with all the protest forms, such as paros and tomas, they understand that students are doing it for at least what they see as “the greater good.”

 

Alex Moore is a professional writer and editor who is currently teaching communicative English at a private university in Chile. Before moving abroad, he worked as a writer and editor at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). In his free time, you can find him cooking, eating, reading, traveling through Latin America, or playing chess with his fiance.


 

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