Chile protest winds down, at least for now

Chile's protesters are back in school.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chilean students have little to show for their seven-month protest to demand major education reform.

But unlike the Occupy movement that sprang up this summer in the US, the Chilean movement eked out a few concessions from their government.

High-school and university students flooded the streets of Santiago, the capital, and cities across the country, and staged demonstrations on campuses that kept classes out-of-session. They demanded free, and improved education.

The movement was the largest since leftist demonstrations under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled for nearly two decades beginning in 1973.

The seven-month standoff had commenters comparing President President Sebastian Pinera with hardliner Pinochet. His popularity plummeted as he refused a compromise.

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Then in November, the Chilean Congress approved a modest increase in the federal education budget, a nod to the protesters’ demands. But it was hardly a victory, leaving students with an academic semester in shambles and little changed.

Still, it was a striking example of how widespread protests, even without powerful leaders, can effect change if they focus on a narrow agenda.

The Chilean protest has it roots in a smaller high-school student movement aimed at reforming the education system. At the time, then President Michelle Bachelet promised some changes, but only a few were enacted.

Five years later, those teenagers are in college, and now they have even more demands.

They took to the streets this year with often lighthearted demonstrations. There was a coordinated performance of “Thriller,” at least one kiss-a-thon, and students running laps in plazas with protest signs in tow.

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Most protests were authorized by the police, although some students threw up smoldering roadblocks on various occasions, actions that were condemned by the national student leaders. And young people, not all of them students, clashed with police.

National student leaders, including the charismatic Camila Vallejo, appeared on all the popular TV talk shows. To achieve anything, the students knew they needed widespread support.

By July, they had it.

On August 4, people took to the streets banging pots and pans — an echo of protests during difficult economic times under former socialist President Salvador Allende — to protest widespread police repression of students during unauthorized marches earlier in the day.

But by October, the protests began to die down, worn down by police crackdowns and students anxious not to lose their whole semester to the cause. Students went back to class to take exams they had stopped studying for months ago.

Still, after months of pressure, the Senate approved a 7.2 percent increase in education spending for a total of $11 billion in next year’s national budget.

It’s a concession, but a minor one. Student leaders say the new funding will only cover some students’ first year of studies. Then, they’ll be paying out-of-pocket or taking out massive loans.

The Pinera administration says education is a privilege, not a right. The president, himself a billionaire, supports for-profit, and in many cases government-subsidized, educational institutions.

In addition to the budget increase, student leaders also claimed some broader victories. First among them: putting education on the top of the government’s agenda. Chile's most prestigious professors, economists and journalists now publicly discuss what’s become considered an imperative need to change the education system.

They even analyze the students’ own proposals for doing so.

Student leaders also say they’ve galvanized the public, along with their fellow students.

"We have awakened a whole country to question the most important pillars of the current economic system, that without a doubt does not respond to the reality of human-rights issues, particularly education," said Isabella Pérez, a spokeswoman for the University of Antofagasta's student federation.

Andrés Alegre, a geology student at the Northern Catholic University in Antofagasta, said the demonstrations had given him "the political consciousness I have today.”

Now, they are looking ahead to next year.

Student federations hold open meetings for any university students interested in helping to direct the movement’s future.

At a recent meeting at the University of Antofagasta, students discussed the need to unify student federations, and how to mobilize while remaining in classes next semester.

One student, Jennifer Mundak, encouraged students to get involved in the political process: "We are the ones who have to save education in Chile. How? By participating."