For the last six months, there have been student protests throughout Chile, fueled by dissatisfaction with the high cost and low quality of Chilean education and underlain by the country’s high wealth inequality gap. Many of the protests have been centered in Santiago, but Valparaíso also sees its fair share of activity, since both the Universidad de Valparaíso and the National Congress of Chile are located here.
The protestors call for educación pública, gratuita, y de calidad — public, free, quality education. Thus far, the government has offered better student loan interest rates and is in the process of voting to increase education spending. However, the students say that these actions are insufficient, equivalent to putting duct tape over the gaping holes in the hull of a sinking ship, rather than building a new ship. They maintain that education should be free, not just better-funded, and so the protests continue. Here’s an article; googling will find you many more.
Is it viable to demand a fully-free, quality public educational system, especially as a direct transition from a privatized, lopsided system? Maybe not. But one certainly won’t get anything done by assuming that it can’t be done. Whether the Chilean student movement will result in an unrivaled free educational system, will fizzle out and leave the current system unchanged, or will eventually find a compromise between the two extremes — only time will tell.
Now that I’ve summarized the background, here are a handful of observations and ramblings from today’s student march. Overall, it felt more like a parade than a protest: a moving crowd of people interspersed with dancers, performers, and marching bands. There were almost as many onlookers as marchers: in Plaza Sotomayor, people settled down with sandwiches on the steps of adjacent buildings, and in many parts of the street, people were lined up three-deep to watch the procession. The protestors were intent on their purpose, but were also lighthearted: chanting, joking, cheering, and enjoying the spring afternoon (and perhaps the sense of community).
An array of street vendors orbited the march, offering everything from food and beverages to banners printed with communist mottos and portraits of Salvador Allende. There was even a young man selling paper meme-face masks (as seen in one of the photos in this post. Can you spot it?). From the tall buildings overlooking the street, supporters tossed fistfuls of flyers, which fluttered down and lined the pavement.
While tear-gas and riot police seem to be a regular part of the protests here, the part of the march that I encountered today was tenacious, but peaceful and amiable. I imagine that things may get rougher as the protestors approach their destination (which is usually Congress). Nonetheless, today’s protest did not seem like a pack of bored hooligans, but instead felt like a community of concerned citizens coming together to voice their discontent — as indeed is happening all over the world right now.