Chile is the world’s latest success story, with a booming economy, thriving post-dictatorship democracy and rave reviews in the global media. But recent education protests–and an increasingly unpopular government–reveal the deep inequality still plaguing Chilean society.
Protesters with police in Valparaíso, Chile. Photo by Valerie Schenkman Sanjines/Santiago Times
From the outside it might seem that Chile’s never had it better. When the New York Times chose Santiago as its number one place to visit in 2011, international media such as Der Spiegel and El País raced to follow suit. Barack Obama visited in March, mega-music festival Lollapalooza touched down in April, and the country has been named “most transparent,” “lowest-risk,” “most connected,” “most innovative” . . . the list goes on.
Most importantly, Chile’s economy is on the up and up, posting record growth in March 2011 and named “Latin America’s most successful economy” by the World Bank.
So you’d be forgiven for feeling confused by the two months of protests that have been raging around Chile, resulting in arrests, violence and tear gas. And also by President Sebastián Piñera (whose approval rating is at an all-time low), giving an impromptu address to the nation and announcing a radical cabinet reshuffle.
Why all the mixed messages from the world’s southernmost nation? Yes, there is a range of issues at stake, from a controversial hydroelectric project planned for pristine Patagonia to labor disputes in Chile’s lucrative copper mines. But by far the largest and loudest protests have come from one of the oldest political debates around: education.
The Chilean educational system came to a standstill in June as students revived an age-old protest tactic of “taking over” their schools. Classrooms were occupied; chairs slung over school railings; classes abandoned; signs posted declaring “EN TOMA” or “TAKEN OVER.”
And the protests have followed, with numbers reaching more than 100,000 on the streets to demand change in increasingly creative ways. President Piñera responded by offering US$4 billion in extra state funds for education, as well as more scholarships, more transparency and help with debt. He also appointed a new education minister, replacing the beleaguered Joaquin Lavín. But critics and students are not satisfied, claiming that deeper change is needed.
Among the Thriller dances, collective suicides and, most recently, hunger strikes, one thing is clear. This is not–as commentators in the U.S. and the U.K. have suggested–simply a newly-empowered middle class testing the boundaries of its freedom after a recent, painful history of military rule. It’s a reaction to deeply ingrained socio-economic segregation in Chilean society–and it’s a problem that won’t just go away.
“In Chile today, public education is a ghetto of poverty,” says Marcel Claude, radical Chilean economist and professor at Universidad de Chile, in an interview with The Santiago Times. Indeed, Chile has the second most segregated education system in the world, where “the rich study with the rich and the poor with the poor,” according to lobbying group Educación 2020.
The loaded word “apartheid” has been used, notably by the outspoken head of Educación 2020, Chilean academic and businessman Mario Waissbluth, who tweeted in June: “The level of ‘class apartheid’ in Chilean education is similar to the ‘racial apartheid’ in pre-Mandela South Africa.”
“It is apartheid, in the strictest sense,” says Claude. Students from the poorest 60 percent of society make up 85 to 90 percent of Chile’s primary and secondary public education system, he notes, while students from the richest 20 percent fill up 60 percent of private institutions. And private education in Chile is far more than a luxury for the few: Claude adds that 50 percent of primary and secondary schools in Chile are now private. This is up from 10 percent in the 1980s, when new constitutional legislation from the Pinochet dictatorship opened the door for a vastly more privatized system.
Paying for private school, on the other hand, is far from easy. A 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that Chile has the highest level of income inequality among the 34 OECD nations. It has the third highest relative poverty rate, the third lowest employment rate, and 38 percent of Chileans find it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current income, well above the OECD average of 24 percent.
“The educational system has become a mechanism to deepen and reinforce inequality,” says Claude. According to a 2009 OECD report, the number of Chilean students from poor backgrounds who go on to university is “low”, and “this gap is due to the differing quality in secondary education.” Chile scores well below OECD average on the PISA, an internationally-used marker of secondary educational quality.
The story only gets worse in higher education. Chilean tertiary education costs, relative to per capita income, are some of the highest in the world, almost three times higher than the U.S., Japan and Australia, according to the OECD 2009 figures. And, with only 13.8 percent of those students receiving scholarships, costs fall almost entirely on the heads of families: 71 percent of all money spent on education in Chile comes directly from the families, compared to just 24 percent in the U.S. and 34 percent in Korea.
And so what happens?
“Education is an everyday problem, and every month you have to keep paying the fees and the debt,” says Claude. “Today’s students see this. They see their parents working the 14-hour days, the average working day in this country. They see that seven out of 10 jobs in Chile are indecent–that is to say, they have no contract, or they work unpaid overtime, or they can be fired whenever their employers want. The students see the abuses against the working class in Chile. And so what happens? The situation explodes.”
Claude’s solution is a thorough reform of the tax system, with some of the wealth from Chile’s huge copper reserves diverted away from multinational companies and into the state, to fund better public education for all. “We could pay for it four times over,” he says.
But there are no simple solutions to the education debate, and Chile is, in fact, doing some things right. According to the OECD, higher education spending as a proportion of GDP is higher in Chile than the OECD average. So, says the OECD in its 2009 report, “It’s a complex scenario. Increased state spending may not be the answer.” Another option may be increased private funding from sources other than family income, they suggest.
Whatever the outcome of this tumultuous period for Chile, the statistics and ongoing public pressure signal that some form of political change must come if Chile wants to reach its goal of being Latin America’s first developed nation by 2020. “This is not going to stop,” says Claude. “The people want a complete political transformation. Piñera and the politicians of this country must put their powers at the disposition of those who gave them their mandate: the Chilean people.”
Published in The Santiago Times, July 28 2011.
Copyright: Clare Bevis/The Santiago Times 2011.