Chilean Students Challenge Pinochet’s Legacy

December 8, 2011

“It will fall, it will fall! The education of Pinochet, now it will fall!” That chant has reverberated in the streets of Chile since May, as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand free, quality, universal public education from the primary and secondary school levels to the university. The chant was echoed by drivers who honked their horns to the beat—and both the chant and the honking were forms of protest that first emerged in demonstrations against the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s.

The massive student movement has called for a referendum, increasingly supported by some political opposition leaders, to let the citizens determine the future of the education system. Gradually the struggle has merged with others and broadened to encompass demands for structural change—such as nationalizing privately held natural resources, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and reforming the 1980 constitution imposed by Pinochet that was carefully designed to limit basic freedoms, circumscribe political opposition, and preserve the dictatorship’s institutional legacies. In short, the student-led mass movement is demanding the democratization of the Chilean state and the transformation of the inherited political and economic model bequeathed by Pinochet. The people of Chile have suddenly arisen once again as forceful protagonists and advocates for social change and democratization, after years of silence and underlying trauma that were a legacy of the state terror of the Pinochet years.

The protests are part of a larger global phenomenon, a growing questioning of neoliberal policies that have plunged millions of people into economic distress. In recent months tens of thousands of people marched in Madrid in defense of public education, similar protests have taken place in Costa Rica and Colombia, and demonstrations were planned for the United Kingdom to protest the government’s plans to slash funding for higher education. Huge protests are taking place to defend long-held gains in social democracies such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in neoliberal societies, such as Puerto Rico and cities in the United States. All these movements evoke the Arab spring that swept Tunisia, Egypt, and other areas of the Arab world earlier this year.

Even before the student protests in Chile erupted in May, there were others by diverse sectors of society, from the Mapuche people demanding rights and land to masses of people opposing energy megaprojects in pristine wilderness areas. In August, newly active unions of the United Federation of Workers (CUT) staged a two-day general strike—the longest since the dictatorship—demanding a new labor code, a public pension system, and support for the students. Gays and lesbians have called for diversity and respect, and women for equality and an end to domestic violence. Then, in June, about half a million people, 200,000 of them in Santiago, mobilized throughout Chile to demand a new model of public education guaranteed by the state. The demonstrations in favor of public education have evolved into a widespread rejection of neoliberalism in a country where it has been presented as a success story.

The students insist that education is a universal right and an obligation of the state. They demand an end to for-profit universities; free, quality education for all guaranteed by the state; a shift from municipal to federal control of primary and secondary schools, many of which are mired in inequality and neglect; and a sweeping change in the market model of education. The young people of Chile represent the country’s first generation born after the dictatorship, and in contrast to those who endured the savagery of state-sponsored terror, they are not afraid of government threats and repression. One student flyer that circulated in August sent a message “to those with uniforms”: “You do not have power. It is not important if you are in the army. . . Your uniform is what has power. . . . You were only contracted to bring to life this uniform, which is an extension of the state, but you are replaceable. Why have you sold your soul? Why have you sold your mind?”

On a weekly basis, hundreds of thousands of young people kept up the momentum, engaging in occupations, or tomas, of schools and universities, sleeping in their classrooms, and organizing dozens of demonstrations. They used original and creative forms of protest, such as syncopated dances in traditional Chilean costumes, mass kiss-ins, fake suicides and “die-ins,” dressing as superheroes, performing the zombie dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, creating and carrying huge puppets, drumming and playing music, and initiating public cacerolazos—the mass banging of pots, another form of protest not seen in Chile since the years of the dictatorship. On August 21, close to 1 million people gathered for a day-long cultural event in Santiago’s O’Higgins Park to keep up the pressure. Colorful flags and banners in all the demonstrations reflected the historical memory of Chileans, who have not forgotten the heroes and martyrs of 40 years ago: Salvador Allende, the socialist president who died in the 1973 coup; Víctor Jara, the folk singer killed in the stadium after the coup; Violeta Parra, the singer and songwriter of the 1960s. Different generations of Chile’s most beloved musicians—from Inti-Illimani (both Histórico and Nuevo) and Quilapayún (the generation of the Allende years) to new hip-hop and cumbia groups—played for enormous crowds supporting the protests, for students occupying schools, and for hunger strikers.


Beyond the growing popular rejection of the neoliberal model implanted by Pinochet, Chile is experiencing a crisis of the political system, which appears unable to respond to, or even hear, the demands of the people. The market-based education system reproduces the stark class divisions in Chilean society by providing education according to ability to pay. Indeed, on July 19, months into the mass mobilizations in favor of public education, billionaire president Sebastián Piñera said that “nothing is free in this life” and that education was “a consumer good.” The right-wing mayor of Santiago, Pablo Zalaquett, threatened to call the military into the streets if the protests continued, and Providencia mayor Cristián Labbé—former army officer and member of the notorious Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), Pinochet’s Gestapo-like secret police, and later a minister under Pinochet—made inflammatory and insulting comments about student leaders and their faculty supporters. After another enormous march on September 22, Labbé announced that he would expel striking students from schools in Providencia, eject students who lived in other sectors of Santiago, and close occupied schools. He ordered a raid against two such schools, and the militarized police, the Carabineros, violently evicted students and parents. Labbé also said that unless students joined the government program Let’s Save the Year, they would lose the entire academic year.1 That federal measure, if enacted, would mean that some 70,000 students would need to repeat the year, lose whatever financing they might have had, and be forced to pay for missed classes.

Such actions and threats were attempts to reinstate fear in the population by reviving memories of Pinochet’s brutal military repression during the 17-year dictatorship. To appreciate how transcendental today’s social movement is requires a look at its historical roots. After Allende’s inauguration in 1970, Chile entered a profound political, social, and economic transformation, with the support of almost half the population. That transformation—gradually building socialism under democratic rule—was terminated by the CIA-supported 1973 military coup. After overthrowing Allende, Pinochet presided over a total reversal of Allende’s reforms and a Chicago Boys–inspired privatization of the economy. To destroy the social base of Allende’s constitutional socialism, the military used cruel repression while truncating state involvement in economic enterprises and social policy. Thousands of government workers were fired and government functionaries detained or killed. State-owned enterprises, including copper mines and smelting, utilities, the health system and the pension system, were privatized, as well as education.2 Piñera’s brother José conceived and directed the privatization of the pension system. Pinochet also shut down the many regional campuses of the public universities throughout Chile, which had served as organizing centers for pro-Allende forces. Pinochet issued an edict just one day before stepping down from government that deepened the privatization of the educational system.

The dictatorship seemed to succeed in erasing the vision held by millions of Chileans who had supported Allende: the construction of social justice and socialism under constitutional democracy. The Concertación, the center-left coalition that replaced Pinochet in government and won the presidency for 20 years, basically continued the neoliberal model, while also dedicating funds to improve living conditions of the poor. It is only now, in 2011, that the Chilean people have awakened and begun to demand structural change in the political system and the economic model.

During the 20th century Chileans built an excellent public education system at the primary and secondary school levels, and there were three major universities (among others): the University of Chile, the State Technical University, and the Catholic University (run by the Catholic Church). Since the Pinochet years numerous private universities have been founded, many of which charge exorbitant fees while providing mediocre to poor education. They also compete with public universities for government funding. Poor and middle class students and their families are saddled with massive debts for years because university fees and charges are higher than the national minimum wage of $350 a month.3 There are no free public universities now; all charge tuition and other fees because state funding is practically nonexistent.

A study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released in August stated that Chile’s universities were the most expensive in Latin America, three times as expensive as those of Italy, four times as those of Spain, five times as those of Belgium, and 19 times as those of France.4 The OECD noted that households bore 39% of the cost of all education spending in Chile, higher than all 33 members of the organization and almost double the U.S. rate, and Chile ranked 87th in terms of education worldwide.5 Chile devotes only 0.4% of its gross national product to education, while dedicating some 15% to the military. Some 80% of university students never earn a degree.6

Meanwhile, Chile’s economy has shown healthy levels of growth in recent years, as the price of copper has soared and free trade agreements have been established, making the country a model for neoliberal advocates. But behind the macroeconomic numbers, inequality and poverty remain stark. One study by a professor at Diego Portales University, Andrés Zahler Torres, showed that some 60% of the population lives with an income worse than that of Angolans, while 20% receives incomes equal to or greater than persons from rich countries such as the United States or Norway.7 In fact, according to the OECD study, Chile has the highest level of income inequality among all its members, and the third highest poverty rate.8 The distribution of wealth remains unjust because “the Constitution of 1980 essentially erased the state,” Chilean political analyst Monserrat Nicolás told the BBC. “Each time a reform has been proposed in the economic structure it has been considered unconstitutional because it augments the presence of the state.”9

Some of Pinochet’s functionaries invested in, or opened themselves, new for-profit universities. After the transition from military rule, the Concertación changed Pinochet’s law but did not substantially reform the system or provide new state financing for schools in poverty-stricken areas. In fact, the Concertación allowed private schools to charge new fees to families for their children’s education (called “shared financing”). The first large student demonstrations protesting the education system, known as the “rebellion of the penguins,” took place in 2006 under socialist president Michelle Bachelet, who did little to resolve the underlying issues of privatization and inequality. The result was that many students are alienated from the political parties of Chile and from the political system itself. Many of the pingüinos (or penguins, a nickname for students based on their high school uniforms) are now university students, and they are very wary of government promises. Piñera had only a 26% favorable rating in August, and the Concertación’s popularity was even lower.


The multitudinous demonstrations have suddenly ignited the latent discontent in Chilean society. They have invigorated and incorporated unionists, the CUT, social organizations, parents, teachers and professors, administrators, artists and musicians, and many others, and broadened the struggle’s demands. Many Chileans comment that there have not been such enormous protests since the 1980s or even the 1960s, a time of political mobilization when students also demanded, and won, university reform. The popular movements also pushed for the election of Allende in the late 1960s, and he was elected in 1970. As the current massive marches, tomas, and hunger strikes spread, the students began calling for Chile’s copper to be renationalized in order to pay for quality education and other structural transformations. The students presented a clear set of political demands and a salient critique of Chile’s political system as a heritage of the military dictatorship. There was a growing realization among Chileans that their needs were not being met by the rigid and elitist political system or by the neoliberal economy.

“The students are not demanding the sky and the moon,” commented Pablo Policzer, a political scientist from the University of Calgary doing research in the country, via e-mail. “They’re asking for sensible reforms to an undoubtedly inequitable system: to make education a truly public good, to which all Chileans have equal access regardless of income. If the electoral system better represented Chileans’ political preferences and if the constitution were not so difficult to change, these changes would have been implemented a long time ago.” Some 250 historians and other social scientists from Chile, other Latin American countries, and other parts of the world wrote in August that the movement was “of an anti-neoliberal revolutionary nature” and that a transformation of education “demands a systemic change of the neoliberal model, which makes the ‘inequality principle’ the key organizer of social relations and the social compact.” They argued that Chile was undergoing “a moment in a historical process already in motion, whose main product will doubtless be the permanent installment of the demand for structural reforms to neoliberalism.”10 Polls in August showed that some 80% of the population supported the students’ demands.

The leaders of the mobilizations occupy top positions as elected officers in the student organizations of 25 universities, supported by representatives of university professors. They meet together and plan strategy under the umbrella organizations Confederation of Students of Chile (CONFECH) and the Guild of Professors. Student leader Camila Vallejo, in particular, has captured public attention with her charisma and leadership skills. The 23-year-old president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECH), CONFECH spokesperson, and member of the Juventud Comunista assumed her presidency in November 2010. At that time, she stated: “I could have never accomplished this by myself. My hands have been joined by the hands of a collective called Students of the Left; we feel the ethical responsibility to act in politics . . . because we cannot allow a handful of privileged people to forever define the limits of our country in order to protect their petty interests.”11

Vallejo has received death threats and was granted special protection by the judicial system. The Communist Party of Chile—which so alarmed Washington in the Cold War years—has had a long history in Chile’s pluralist political system, with many members participating in the National Congress and various government ministries, and deep roots in the unionized working class and the cultural life of the country. The party was a strong supporter of Allende’s vision of a constitutional and democratic road to socialism. But the social movement in Chile today does not belong to the Communist Party or any party—it is a mass uprising of the citizenry that has taken everyone by surprise.

Vallejo has appeared in media worldwide since becoming the most articulate spokesperson for the student movement. After a huge march on June 16, she declared, “There are those who have said that the people don’t want demonstrations, that they don’t want the country paralyzed, and today more than 100,000 persons have told us that yes we want to demonstrate, yes we want to participate to recover public education, and that the state must put itself in charge of guaranteeing the right to education for all in a truly democratic system.”12 At the huge cultural gathering in August, she said: “Now it doesn’t serve us, this neoliberal model, which has as its final end profiteering and a business for the few. We believe it is necessary to advance toward a system that is more egalitarian, more inclusive, in which all of us are part of the construction of an education project in order to think of a new country. . . . The demand for education points toward the construction of a country with a different north, a different south: a free country, a just country, more democratic, more equal. And for this we need a quality education for all.”13

The conservative Piñera government has responded with a dual approach that some analyze as reflecting tensions within his right-wing constituency. Representatives of the most conservative, pinochetista sectors have come out with threats, and the Carabineros have used repression against both peaceful demonstrators and small violent groups that have started fires on the street or thrown rocks at police. For months the government offered promises of more credit and bigger scholarships for students, as well as better funding for the universities, but the students rejected these as half-measures designed to divide them and quell the mobilizations while preserving the system. They insist on the concept of free, quality public education.

Meanwhile, the Carabineros were out in force at every demonstration, with tanks, water cannons, and abundant tear gas. As we witnessed, they would attack the crowds for no discernable reason, shooting torrents of water at demonstrators and dispersing clouds of tear gas in downtown Santiago. Hundreds of people were arrested at many demonstrations. Police infiltrators also mixed into the crowds, sometimes acting as provocateurs. When a car was burned after one march by a small group of masked youths, student leaders made clear that they did not support violence and raised money to replace the car.14 One 16-year-old youth in Macul, a sector of Santiago, was shot dead as he watched a demonstration with his brother, who accused the Carabineros of the attack. First the Carabineros denied responsibility. Then, after the bullet was traced to a police submachine gun, a policeman was arrested. The case was taken by a military prosecutor—another authoritarian legacy of the Pinochet years.

Realizing that the political system was closed and unresponsive, the students in August demanded that Piñera meet with them personally. They already had called for the resignation of Education Minister Joaquín Lavín, a right-wing member of Opus Dei who, it turned out, was a founder and major investor in a for-profit university himself, La Universidad del Desarrollo. The statutes of that university were approved by the dictatorship’s last minister of education, and the university functioned as a source of income and wealth for a number of former Pinochet appointees.15 Lavín had studied economics at the University of Chicago and ran for president twice with the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party after the transition from military rule. Piñera did oust Lavín from his post, along with seven other ministers in a cabinet shake-up (Lavín, still in the cabinet, received a less visible ministry).

The government resisted the demands of the social movement because Piñera and his ministers were completely committed to the ideology of free markets and neoliberalism. One element of the governmental strategy was to stall, hoping that the movement would lose strength. A defining moment came when Piñera offered to significantly increase funding for the universities. The scale of the new funding was significant—$4 billion—but the university movement decided to reject it. What was in question was not the funding, but the for-profit system itself. Piñera did not welcome the idea of direct dialogue with the students. He tried first to delegate it to others in his administration, which the students rejected, and then suggested members of Congress, which the students accepted, although they were clear that the solution would not come from Congress at this stage. After the two-day general strike by the CUT and the gathering of 1 million in Santiago, the president finally agreed to meet with student leaders.

The students announced that they would attend the talks without halting their mobilizations. A first meeting occurred September 3, an important accomplishment in itself. But both parties emerged from the meeting without making statements. Piñera exhorted the students to go back to class, but agreed to a series of talks to be led by the Minister of Education. Then, however, a tragic event changed the dynamic. A plane crashed in bad weather off the coast of the island Juan Fernández on September 2. The air force announced on September 3, the same day as the meeting, that 21 people had been killed, including several beloved public figures. In solidarity with those who died, the student leaders canceled one march and postponed further negotiations. Several marches occurred in September, but they were noticeably smaller. When pundits began declaring an end to the movement, the students called for a major march on September 22.

Thus the mobilization that day was extremely important. The movement showed its continuing presence when some 180,000 people gathered to march in Santiago and 300,000 in all the country. The same day these massive marches were taking place, Piñera spoke at the United Nations in New York. Surprisingly, he said that “the government is in favor of this cause that is noble, great, and beautiful, which is to give quality education to all the young people.”16 Student leaders accused him of doubletalk and inconsistency. Another huge march took place September 29.

In late September the students announced that after a long meeting of CONFECH, they had decided to return to talks with the government, while continuing their massive protests. The Minister of Education sent a letter to CONFECH offering four concessions to the students, including the postponing of bills on education financing that the administration had sent to Congress without student input.17 On September 27 a new poll put Piñera’s popularity at a new low of 22%. The poll found that 89% supported the students and 71% agreed that there should be a referendum on the question of education. Some 67% said they “believed little, if anything,” the president said.18 Clearly the government, as well as the political parties, was facing a crisis of legitimacy. In early October the government took a harder line, submitting a bill to increase criminal penalties for “public disorder,” including school occupations or takeovers; one legislator called the bill an attempt “to criminalize the student movement.”19 An unauthorized demonstration on October 6 was immediately attacked by the Carabineros in an escalation of the repression.


It is clear that around the world people are demanding a larger voice in decisions that affect their lives and deeper democracy, more accountable government, and an end to the marketization of education, health, and other social needs. The Chilean students have incorporated the demands of high school students and teachers; these include federal control over primary and secondary public schools (ending the system of municipal control); public funding only for nonprofit schools; a significant increase in state spending for education; funding for transportation, vocational high schools, and the reconstruction of damaged schools; and higher pay and social status for teachers. Meanwhile, the university sector through CONFECH’s proposal, called the “Social Agreement for Chilean Education,” calls for increased state support for public universities; more equitable admissions process to prestigious universities; a new system of scholarships instead of loans to provide free education to poor and working-class students; reduction of interest rates from their current 5.8%; elimination, under the supervision of a state agency, of profit in higher education; cultural studies for the Mapuche students; improving the quality of university education; and repealing laws that forbid student participation in university government.

These demands make clear that the student movement wants to replace Chile’s educational model, which can only be done by adopting a new constitution. In the meantime, senators and representatives of the Concertación in Congress have advanced a proposal for a referendum—strongly opposed by members of UDI—although the Concertación has not established strong links with the students. The movement has taken up the demands of other sectors of Chilean society, including the Mapuche people, miners, workers, professionals, and young people, and they insist that the political system be democratized, and the country’s resources more fairly distributed. In essence, they are continuing the struggle of earlier years for social justice, which was brutally cut short by the coup of 1973. The Chilean mobilizations against neoliberalism have much to teach the rest of the world, as the young people of Chile lead the struggle to gain a seat at the table where national decisions are made.



J. Patrice McSherry is Professor of Political Science and founding director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Long Island University. Raúl Molina Mejía is Adjunct Professor of History at LIU and director of the Model UN Program. They spent three months in Chile in 2011 while McSherry carried out research under a Fulbright grant.



1. La Nación (Santiago), “Labbé cierra liceos tomados de Providencia y deja fuera a alumnos de otras comunas,” September 23, 2011.

2. For background, see Andrea Arango, “The Failings of Chile’s Education System: Institutionalized Inequality and a Preference for the Affluent,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 30, 2008.

3. Pamela Sepúlveda, “Protests Demand Deeper Reforms of Unequal System,” Inter Press Service, August 9, 2011.

4. El Mostrador (Santiago), “Aranceles universitarios chilenos son los más caros del mundo después de Estados Unidos,” August 21, 2011.

5. Randy Woods, “Protesters Push Chile to End 30 Years of Fiscal Austerity,” Bloomberg News, September 16, 2011.

6. Róger Rodríguez, “Primavera estudiantil y otoño de impunidad,”, September 20, 2011; Federico Quilodran and Eva Vergara, “Chile Prepares for Huge Protests Over Education and Other Reforms,” Associated Press, August 24, 2011.

7. Vladimir Hernández, “Lo que oculta la riqueza de Chile,” BBC Mundo, June 24, 2011.

8. Randy Woods and Matt Craze, “Thousands of Chileans Protest for Education, Labor Reforms,” Bloomberg, August 25, 2011.

9. Vladimir Hernández, “El malestar de los chilenos,” BBC Mundo, July 14, 2011.

10. “Manifiesto de Historiadores: Revolución anti-neoliberal social/estudiantil en Chile,” August 2011, available at

11. Transcript, November 11, 2010, available at

12. La Nación,“Confech calificó como ‘gloriosa’ la gran marcha en Santiago,” June 16, 2011.

13. La Nación,“Camila Vallejo: “Queremos que nos escuchen, no queremos víctimas inocentes,” August 21, 2011.

14. Santiago O’Donnell, “Nada es gratis,” Página/12 (Buenos Aires), August 14, 2011.

15. Mauricio Becerra R., “Los vínculos de Joaquín Lavín con la Universidad de Desarrollo,” El Ciudadano (Santiago), June 24, 2011.

16. Christian Palma, “Una demostración de fuerza de los estudiantes,” Página/12, September 23, 2011.

17. Joe Hinchliffe, “Thousands of Students Protest School Closures in Chile’s Capital,” Santiago Times, September 26, 2011.

18. Christian Palma, “Un diálogo con movilización,” Página/12, September 28, 2011; Steve Anderson, “Piñera’s Popularity Continues to Plummet, CERC Poll Finds,” Santiago Times, September 28, 2011.

19. Joe Hinchliffe, “Chilean Government to Criminalize School Seizures,” Santiago Times, October 3, 2011; Renato V., “Demencia hinzpeteriana: ¿La nueva ley maldita?” El Ciudadano, October 4, 2011.



Read the rest of NACLA’s November/December 2011 issue: “Latino Student Movements.”


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.