Experiencing History - The Chilean Movement for Education

by Kthorogood on August 9, 2011

Experiencing History - The Chilean Movement for Education

Things have been a bit of a mess lately in Chile. I hope that you have heard about the huge movement for education that is going on all over the country, but I kind of doubt it as many international new sources seem to be overlooking it. Chile has had a history of education movements, including the famed "March of the Penguins" of 2006. However, the current movement is quickly becoming the largest and strongest ever as it involves both high schools and universities.

The situation here has become quite intense. Students from some universities have been on strike since April and are facing a cut-off date of August 26th, when it will be determined whether they lose credit for the whole year. There have been specific days planned for protests, including the one at the end of June that my university participated in. On that day, 80,000 students marched peacefully down the main street in Santiago right in front of Chile's parliament buildings. Once there, some fires were lit and some tear gas were set off but nothing got too out of hand. I remember it was around the same time as the Vancouver riots, and I couldn't believe that 80,000 students with a cause in Chile were a thousand times more peaceful than a public gathering in Canada. Developed world?

As far as I understand, the students are fighting for the government to contribute more money to the education system to increase quality and lower fees. The government has reacted by proposing two separate bills, both of which have been rejected by the students.

The situation really started to blow up on Thursday, August 4th as students took to the streets even though the government didn't sanction the protest. This was a response to the most recent proposal by President Sebastian Piñera, which he gave on August 1st. I had no idea that anything was going to happen and made my way to class as normal. While on the underground metro system in Santiago, the driver made an announcement advising the passengers to shut the windows and explained it was because we were approaching an area where there was gas outside. Unfortunately, this area included my metro station, and I quickly realized what was meant by gas as I stepped out and my eyes started to water.

There were riot police everywhere, and I had to walk through tear gas to get to school. I arrived to discover a mob of people in the main hall and that classes had been cancelled. Last semester, I had had an intense cultural experience that involved running from the police's massively, powerful water trucks, so I was ready to get out of there and go back home to sleep. The students went out the front doors to the street. I followed to catch a bus back to my apartment not knowing that the riot police were waiting. Along with hundreds of my classmates, I quickly found myself running for my life from the armored trucks that shoot water with power equivalent to fire trucks. I managed to make it to the bus and found my way home through clouds of smoke and tons of diverted traffic. The first thing I did was turn on the news. I saw multiple cameras on different places in the city, including my university. It was absolute chaos. Later that day, it was determined that the center of Santiago was in a "state of siege." I attempted to order take-out from a Vietnamese restaurant but they weren't delivering because it was "too dangerous."

That day, it seemed as though a new cloud had overcome the city. The skies were gray, and there was a certain feeling in the air as the city turned into a disaster zone. I have seen protests and whatnot on TV before. I was even observing one in June, but it was completely different to see parks, stores, my school, all of my usual places, being destroyed on TV while I sat in my apartment in the same city. It was so strange to know that all of this was happening around me.

Just as a little reminder, I'm attending the Faculty of Economics and Business (Facultad of Economía y Negocios or FEN) at the Universidad de Chile. My school is famous for having never gone on strike during the past movements. Earlier this week, there was a vote amongst the Chilean students to decide whether to go on strike or not. Not surprisingly, they voted against it. Then Thursday happened. This brought another vote on Friday, August 5th. It was a huge deal. At school, there were large groups of people convening in the main hall simply to have informative discussions about the topic. When it came time to count the votes, the student organization broadcasted the whole thing live over the Internet. I was glued to my screen. The results came back with a vote of over 60% of the student body in favor of a strike. You have to understand how big of a deal this is because it meant that history had been made, and we were part of the biggest educational movement ever. This was serious.

Things learned from this:

1) Chewing on lemons helps lessen the affects of tear gas;

2) Always wear a scarf just in case; and

3) Appreciate Canada's education system.

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