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17th October 2011

Turning up the heat: tensions rise during Chilean winter

Oliver Johnstone explores parallels between student protests in Chile and here in the UK

This time last year, Britain witnessed some of its’ largest ever student protests against the rising cost of a university education. Hundreds of thousands of students and union leaders took to the streets in direct action against the decision to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 per year, as advised in the Brown Report.

We saw numerous and appalling scenes of violence from a small but not-insignificant group of rioters – though nothing compared to the truly shocking situation currently unfolding in Chile. With 874 arrests already made, a department store burned to the ground and a television station seized; what started as a peaceful, carnival-like series of demonstrations has taken a more sinister turn.

Initially, the reasonable and moderate majority of Chilean students took to the streets to take part in kiss-ins, fancy dress street carnivals and to run laps around the Presidential Palace in Santiago in order to campaign for reforms to Chile’s university education system, which does not include the privileges of student grants and loans that we enjoy here in the UK.

In fairness to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, he embraced this to a generous extent and has pledged limited reforms to university education, promising an extra £2.6 billion in state funding. A pleasing and inspiring democratic compromise reached in a civilised manner to put the disagreement to bed, you might think?

Not for everyone. To some this is about more than moderate reform – it is about a complete revolution of Chilean society. Amidst the violence and tension of recent weeks, one voice has sought to radicalise the student protests and has succeeded in her attempt so far. Camila Vallejo, a hot-headed 23-year-old radical and student leader heavily immersed in the youth of the Chilean Communist Party, has taken centre-stage and allied the student movement with trade unions in calling for the complete destruction of the current education system.

Miss Vallejo and her colleagues have called for a completely state-funded system, free at the point of use and paid for via tough taxes on the rich and business. They are prepared to take drastic measures to achieve their aims, with two national ‘shutdown days’ planned for 18th and 19th October which will undoubtedly cause chaos and upset for the vast majority of hard-working Chileans.

Surely then, the Chilean student protests and those that occurred in the UK last year are totally incomparable? If anything, the argument is almost entirely the same. As the latest QS University Rankings show, Chile has only one university in the top ten of all Latin American universities.

Yes, reform is necessary, but the notion that the government should remove private investment and return university tuition to the state sector – and all the inefficiencies it brings with it – is simply ludicrous. Why should Chile drive investment and businesses out of the country, by piling on taxes to fund the grand Marxist projects of the far-left ringleaders of the violent protests such Miss Vallejo and her union cronies?

President Pinera, however, remains defiant. As government spokesman Andres Chadwick has proclaimed, “our hand won’t tremble and we won’t show any weakness in seeking to control situations of public order.”

With that in my mind, it can only be hoped that the ordinary people of Chile have the good sense to back the moderate reforms pledged by their President, and not the revolutionary fantasies of the deluded Marxist left.

Oliver Johnstone

Oliver Johnstone

Political Editor at The Mancunion 2011-12

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