Demanding the Right to Education: Student Voices From Chile and Puerto Rico

Michael Fox

In January 2009, the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly passed Public Law 7, which declared a fiscal emergency, authorized the dismissal of about 17,000 public employees, and cut funds to the public university system. Faced with a nearly $300 million annual budget deficit in April 2010, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) announced that tuition waivers for select students would be eliminated. The students responded. Their strike lasted 10 weeks and paralyzed the 11-campus 65,000-student UPR system.

The right-wing Puerto Rico governor, Luis Fortuño, denounced the students, took steps to criminalize protests, and stacked the UPR Board of Trustees with loyal conservatives. By the end of the year, the new board had ratified a $800 tuition fee, and the students were back in action for their second major strike in less than a year. The police responded with brutality, indiscriminately using rubber bullets and tear gas. Nevertheless, the students garnered widespread community support, both on and off the island.

Faced with the world financial crisis, budget cuts, and tuition hikes, students across the hemisphere are increasingly standing up for their right to education. In Chile, students have been in the streets since May, calling for an end to Pinochet-era policies that prioritize private profit over education.

The following interview with José Ancalao Gavilán, spokesperson for the Chilean Mapuche Federation of Students (FEMAE), and Giovanni Roberto, spokesperson for the UPR students’ National Negotiation Committee during the 2010 strikes, took place on November 3.

 

How is the Puerto Rican student movement at this moment?

Roberto: I call this a period of reorganization and rebuilding. In Puerto Rico, the issue over college education began in 2009 mainly as a result of certain governmental decisions—specifically economic decisions, economic adjustments, budget cuts to the university and to other governmental agencies—and laws that resulted in a mass dismissal of government employees. This reality generated the student and university organizing that after a year of work would manifest itself in a strike on college campuses in opposition to all those policies. All of these things are important expressions of dissatisfaction with the system and the root of the problem in the banks, and with the wealthy. In Puerto Rico the university student strike started in 2010–11. It seems to me that each national context creates its own way of expressing its frustration.

In the United States and parts of Europe, it has been called Occupy or los indignados. In the case of Puerto Rico it did not have a specific name but we did the same thing. The strike was really popular for a year and a half. And that popularity was a sign of the people’s overall frustration. People on the streets told us things like “you’re the ones representing this country,” “you’re the only ones that are doing something,” and “you’re protesting this evil government.” Their messages showed that we could mobilize a wider group than just students. This is what the Chilean students are doing. They are becoming a catalyst for other groups that are taking to the streets. People are overall frustrated throughout the world, and this is manifesting itself in very diverse and interesting ways. In Egypt, it is resulted in a revolution that overthrew a dictator. In the United States it is beginning to generate occupations and strikes.

In Puerto Rico, right now, we, the students, are concentrating our efforts on developing new levels of organization than what we had previously. The Puerto Rican government is also preparing to impose a new university law that would completely transform university education into a market commodity—education as a commodity for corporations, businesses, and in the case of Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. colony, at the service of North American companies, especially pharmaceutical ones.

 

José, isn’t this what Pinochet did 20–30 years ago, and what you in Chile are fighting against now?

Ancalao: Yes, definitely. That was the plan of the Chilean ultra right wing, to transform education into a market commodity at the service of businessmen. It is one of the things that the military dictatorship was able to achieve, supported by the United States during the 1980s in Chile. The constitutional education law authorized the creation of private universities that made a profit from education for many years. After Pinochet, the center-left Concertación governments ruled Chile for more than 20 years, and did nothing to change the educational system. We in the student movement believe that education is a social, political, and cultural right; a right for everyone, a human right. Can you imagine? They charge you for your right to educate yourself. That’s why we’ve carried out this struggle for more than six months—to put an end to this. Today we want education to be public, free, and of high quality. It also must be equal and intercultural, because in this country there are about nine indigenous peoples who are not recognized and that have been neglected by the state for more than 100 years. This is why we emphasize teaching our indigenous history and culture in our schools, so that people become aware of it. In Chile we’re not all Chilean. There are Mapuches, Aymaras, Rapa Nuis, and Chile’s indigenous peoples are a pillar of the student struggle in Chile.

We demand that the businessmen stop filling their pockets with the education money of all the Chileans, and that education be free, guaranteeing equal access to everyone. That is why we have been mobilizing for months. We have confronted a completely harsh government, with an ultra right wing that has prioritized finances over the social good of the country.

 

How is the Chilean student movement now after months of mobilizing?

Ancalao: The student movement is stronger than ever. We’re taking 500,000, even 1 million people to the streets, to marches and protests. It’s a solid movement, but we’re facing a government that’s very violent, that doesn’t care about what happens in the streets, and that is detached from the social reality. The student movement is in a process of self-construction, solidifying. It wants concrete things, structural change in education. When we ask for public education, the government tells us that they’ll give us scholarships, which is totally illogical. We’re looking for a structural change, and that is only achieved through political changes in education. This is why we have spent so much time mobilizing.

 

How are things currently with police brutality against your movements?

Ancalao: We’re really disappointed that government wants to solve a 30-year-long political problem in Chile with more police on the streets. We believe that a political problem has to be dealt with politically. Many of us student leaders have been threatened. The police violate human rights. There was a 13-year-old child who died at the hands of the Carabineros [the Chilean police]. They shot him in the head with a submachine gun at a peaceful demonstration. There are students who have lost eyes from rubber bullets. Tear gas is being fired at people’s bodies. There are students awaiting imprisonment.

We seek a political solution. We know that this problem will not be solved with more police on the streets. The problem with education in Chile will be solved through political will. Eighty percent of Chileans support this movement versus the 20% who support the president. It’s clear that we are right, not the president. We call on the government to stop the violence. The problem of education will not be solved with beatings, rubber bullets, or tear gas, but through conversation and dialogue.

Roberto: We carried out two student strikes. One in the summer of 2010, and one in the winter of 2010–11. This second strike was especially very similar to what my Chilean friend has mentioned. It’s a political and educational problem. The solution is in legislative policy. The previous law should have been written to benefit universities, and give more money to them, because ultimately that’s what was being disputed—who pays for education? The government responded with brutal violence. One hundred and forty students were arrested after practicing civil disobedience. There was an important event in December 2010, when five students who were handing out flyers at the university were beaten and arrested.

I could give you so many examples of how the state has increasingly used physical repression. In Puerto Rico, there are other details as well. The Puerto Rican police at the moment are being trained by the New York Police Department. This has led the Puerto Rican police to assume more drastic measures against protesters, some that could even be considered torture—arresting people or breaking the line of civil disobedience by putting activists in choke holds or poking their eyes. The NYPD also arrested those in Occupy Wall Street about a month ago—more than 700 people were detained in a demonstration. I see a direct relation between the movements and struggles in this case. The dynamic is almost the same. What is surprising is that in response to the repression there has been a greater level of mobilization. In the case of the United States, every time the police hit someone or arrest someone in Oakland, they generate a higher level of response. That is very important because the state will have to consider that if it crushes the demonstrations violently, it could face an even greater radicalization.

 

Are you seeing greater solidarity between the movements, including in the United States?

Roberto: Yes, definitely. I feel that I no longer belong only to a national movement or a movement dedicated only to the struggle for education in Puerto Rico. For some time I have felt that the youth are part of an international movement. This is more than an internationalist slogan. For me, it’s a profound and overwhelming reality. Trying to confine our aspirations to a national level would be too narrow at this moment of history. The reality is that what happens in Oakland, in Occupy Wall Street, or in Egypt is helping us to form another way of thinking about the root of problems.

 

What do you expect for the coming months and the next year?

Ancalao: We don’t know how long this movement will last. We can’t give an estimate of when this will end. But what I can tell you is that we’re more alive than ever, and this movement is stronger than ever. If it’s not this year, it will be next year, but we will make that government give in and deliver what the majority of the civilians want. It’s clear that we are not going to achieve our objectives tomorrow, we are going to get them progressively. On the November 24, we are calling for a binational march in Colombia and Chile—both countries are going to mobilize on the same day and time with each other’s flags. This will give the movement a Latin American cohesion. Latin Americans have always been active in the struggle for social, civil, cultural, and political rights, and we know that the fight continues. Perhaps these movements manifest themselves differently in each country. In Chile we are speaking about student rights. We hope to accomplish big things, but the challenge is still very great.

Roberto: In our case, I believe that there is a mix of hope and hopelessness in the country. Without a doubt, this has an impact on the youth, but the effect is not demoralizing. I think it’s interesting that a series of small processes are starting to mold the identity of a new generation in the fight. I refer of course to the mobilizations that have erupted suddenly at universities and high schools. We don’t have a long tradition of student mobilizing like this in Puerto Rico. The fact that in the last year, there have been two-month-long protests, high school student organizing, and specific organizing in community schools shows us that a relatively new generation is emerging, made up of people who are awakening into politics with the fight for education. The strength of the future relies on whether we can identify our problems. They aren’t solved by just resolving the issues of the university or in my community alone. We have to address the broader social phenomenon and offer solution to the country as a whole.

From my point of view, this stage of reorganization of the Puerto Rican student movement should mature six to seven months from now, when we will again take to the streets. Right now, there are many meetings and discussions, which are always necessary before one pushes into battle against the state. In preparation for the strike last year, we had to organize for two years, but I am convinced that this new process won’t take that long.

 

Do you have advice to other movements or comments about the protests that are occurring in the United States?

Roberto: I participated in OWS for a few hours at an activity with University of Puerto Rico students, and the impression I walked away with was really positive. What you find there is a representation of the whole world. I think that is difficult to bring together, but very inspiring and a good model to follow. It is also significant that the protests have been surging globally for many years, not only last year. They have emerged as a mass movement, or at least something that has the potential to become a mass movement. And finally that is happening in the United States. In my opinion that is an example of the huge international crisis that is no longer located outside of the borders of the empire, but in the heart of the most powerful country. The fact that the first general strike in the United States since 1946 has occurred in Oakland is significant, but the processes have to continue. What is happening across the world shows us the great potential. We are living in a time of revolutions, uprisings, and great social transformations. And I think even bigger moments are coming.

Ancalao: We see that the majority of the people around the world are indignado. We can see it in every country. The truth is that we, the alienated and the forgotten, who are neglected by the system, have never received any help. Now we are standing up in the streets, in different places around the world, to defy the political power that the oligarchy and aristocracy has controlled for centuries. In Chile, for instance, we are taking back our education system. The indignados of the United States are a challenge to the country’s not very representative two-centuries-old system. This shows that there is a clear majority that wants to change the system, and we believe that it is possible.

Great change is possible, as long as we are united in the struggle, which will not end today nor tomorrow. The struggle will endure, and perhaps we won’t even see the results of our failures or successes. I think a new powerful generation is emerging, and we cannot leave this responsibility to our children. That is the challenge that many of us have, and the message that we share with people in countries around the world.

 


 

Michael Fox is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas and the director of a new documentary on the financial crisis, Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse to Action (PM Press, 2011). His work can be found at his blog, blendingthelines.com.This interview was translated for NACLA by Jesenia Dolmus.

 

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

 

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