A New Politics for a New Chile

Joshua Frens-String


Had the issue not involved two figures as prominent as Joaquín Lavín and Camila Vallejo, a brief exchange in early July 2011 would probably have been ignored. In Santiago and around the country a half million students had just taken to the streets demanding free, quality public education, when Lavín, then Chile’s Minister of Education and co-founder of one its most prominent private universities, suggested disparagingly that Chile’s student movement had transformed into a “political movement,” disingenuous about its real motives, a front that was not to be trusted. “When you talk about renationalizing basic industries, about a constituent assembly, about changing the Constitution,” Lavín was quoted as saying, “one has to ask what this all has to do with a student movement that is genuinely interested in the quality of education.”1

His reference was to some new but fairly isolated discussions about scrapping Augusto Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, and the feasibility of renationalizing the country’s copper industry. Vallejo, president of Chile’s largest student federation, the Chilean Federation of Students (FECH), in 2011, shot back that, yes, the movement was clearly political. Her definition of politics, however, was one Lavín believed had been expunged from Chile. “We are struggling to create a better educational system and we are thinking about the development of the country. Whenever the interests of the general public and not private interests are being defended, it’s always a political move.”2

Behind the tables and charts detailing how Chile’s students are the most indebted in the world or how the Chilean state has become a delinquent guarantor of public education, what is sometimes lost in discussions about the Chilean student movement is this: over the last two years, a widely held belief in Chilean politics, stretching from Augusto Pinochet through the Concertación has been turned on its head: that politics, if discussed at all, is best left to technocrats and party bosses, far away from the messiness of the street.

In many ways, Vallejo’s response was a rejection of the claim that politics produces polarization and would lead to the breakdown of institutional democracy. For over four decades, proponents of this position used the example of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) government to illustrate their point; but the actions of Chile’s students now suggest another lesson, also traceable to the Allende years, may be more relevant: that structural change in Chile can best be obtained by embracing a politics that does not sideline social movements from political decision making but rather works with and through the organization of such movements to build a truly “popular” electoral front—while challenging “Politics.”

As national elections approach, the fact that those same issues Joaquín Lavín disparaged as unrelated to education now sit squarely atop November’s electoral agenda—tax reform, the renationalization of the country’s copper deposits, and a rewrite of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, among them—is proof that support for a new, more democratic popular front is growing. In addition, for the first time in over forty years, movement politics is serving as an important crucible through which new alliances are being formed to one day carry out this agenda.




2005Photo by Brittany Peterson

That Chilean students have been the driving force in reclaiming politics is not particularly surprising given the long history of student federations on the frontlines of some of Chile’s most important social struggles since early in the twentieth century. The country’s oldest federation, the FECH, was formed in 1906 to protect the rights of university students. It quickly became a vehicle through which students supported labor struggles and the causes of Chile’s nascent organized left. In the early 1930s, the FECH was at the center of the movement that ousted military strongman, General Carlos Ibáñez, in 1931. A young medical student named Salvador Allende cut his political teeth in those struggles and, as Vice President of the FECH, was even imprisoned. Shortly thereafter he was elected to Congress. He would also help form the first Popular Front government to be elected in the Americas.

During the economic crisis of the mid-1950s, students once more led the protests against the rising costs of urban living. When bus fares shot up in 1957, students were the first to take to the streets; they would be met by police repression that left nearly two dozen dead and hundreds more injured. The bloody “Battle of Santiago,” or Santiagazo, as the events were dubbed, set in motion the reemergence of the Chilean left, which had been repressed in the transition out of the Second World War. In the late 1960s, many of these same forces formed the backbone of the left-wing political parties that composed Allende’s UP coalition. Some would serve as young ministers in Allende’s revolutionary government. Others joined new parties, including the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), which challenged the UP from the left.

This history continued under the Pinochet dictatorship. Student organizations were attacked but, remarkably, retained their militancy, even as the space for their political action was greatly restricted. Pinochet successfully gutted labor and the various parties of the organized left through a combination of state terror, deregulation, and privatization, but Chile’s student federations were among the few forms of popular organization that survived the nearly two-decade long dictatorship, their structures still relatively intact. As evidence, students successfully carried out a strike in 1987 that swept through the university system, anticipating a return to procedural democracy in 1990.




It is because of this long history that student leaders often qualify or reject the comparison of their movement to other global protest movements that erupted almost simultaneously with the Chilean Winter, including the Spanish indignados movement, the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and the Occupy encampments. In an interview with an Occupy organizer during their visit to New York City in 2012, Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman, the 2012 president of the Catholic University’s student federation (FEUC), were both reticent to apply the notion of “horizontalism,” popularized first in mobilizations in neighboring Argentina in the early 2000s and later embraced by the indignados and Occupiers, to the system of decision-making utilized by Chile’s students. According to Vallejo, the Chilean student movement has “consistently worked to protect spaces for debate, like the assembly, which are horizontal spaces.” However, Vallejo added that the movement also has to maintain its “existing organizational forms” that are “more structured and perhaps hierarchical,” achieving a synthesis in which representative democracy is not necessarily replaced but rather “complemented by” new spaces of direct democracy. Titelman was more blunt: structured organization, he argued, has allowed the Chilean student movement to avoid being a “beautiful, noble, but ultimately naïve movement.”3

Since the federations possess their own structure and history, student mobilizations and other initiatives have rarely started from scratch in Chile. Many students, for example, draw a straight line from the new cycle of protests that emerged in 2011 to the so-called “Penguin Revolution” of 2006, an earlier cycle of student protests led by high school students who called for the abolition of Pinochet’s education law, the Organic Constitutional Law on Teaching (LOCE). The law, approved in the dictator’s final days in office, provided new incentives for Chile’s private education system and greatly diminished the state’s ability to guarantee the social right to education. The 2006 movement ended poorly, however. Students believed their movement had been coopted by the Concertación. New educational reforms were approved in 2009, though almost none of the students’ substantive concerns had been addressed. The Concertación blamed the Chilean right for watering down their proposals; students argued the Concertación never had their best interests at heart, citing the fact that it was the supposedly progressive coalition that had, for almost two decades, administered and expanded Pinochet’s educational model.




Despite the bitter conclusion to the Penguin Revolution, the disciplined organization of Chile’s students has allowed the movement to continue to open up new spaces to movement politics. In 2011, the street was reclaimed not only with marches but also performance: a choreographed reproduction of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that went viral, an 1800-second long kiss-in for education, and an 1800-hour-long relay around Chile’s presidential palace. The chosen figures were to represent the roughly 2.2% of Chile’s GDP that it would take to fully fund free public education for all of Chile’s youth.

In 2012 and early 2013, the movement’s leadership pursued a less glamorous, though no less important, agenda. When it was revealed that the agency charged with accrediting Chile’s universities, the CNA, was accepting bribes from owners of private universities to guarantee a positive result, movement leaders were the driving force behind an investigation into top education officials, including Piñera’s new Minister of Education, Harald Beyer. The investigation ended with a congressional vote that relieved Beyer of his post in April 2013 for failing to carry out his oversight duties. Beyer was the third minister forced out by the protests, another example, according to Chile’s popular online news site, El Mostrador, that “the street had won.”4




Few student leaders are willing to make any bold claims about “victory” just yet, preferring to talk about how much work is left to be accomplished. With both presidential and parliamentary elections on the horizon in November, much of this work has involved finding a proper relationship between their movement and electoral politics.

The municipal elections of November 2012, in which Camila Vallejo and other student leaders played a visible role, was a first attempt to strike some sort of synthesis between broadening support for a demand-specific movement and building a larger political coalition. In one important race, Josefa Errázuriz, a progressive candidate, defeated long time mayor and former Pinochet confidant, Cristián Labbé, in the well-to-do Santiago district of Providencia. Among the issues that defined her candidacy was her denunciation of Labbé’s authoritarianism, embodied by his decision to violently dislodge high school students from their occupied classrooms in September 2011. Her victory in a community that had long been a stronghold of Chilean conservatism was a sign to many of how the students, through alliances with the community, had the capacity to change political attitudes that seemed frozen in time for two decades.

In another race, in downtown Santiago, the mayoral vote ended with Carolina Tohá, a former aide to Michelle Bachelet and daughter of Allende’s Minister of the Interior and Defense, defeating the young and charismatic right wing mayor, Pablo Zalaquett. The two elections were similar at first glance; both were a victory for the broad-front left. But there was a one difference. Errázurriz won by building a movement that was independent of the Concertacíon; Tohá, on the other hand, was widely seen as an integral part of the Concertación government.

In some ways, this distinction has defined the current electoral landscape on the Chilean left. The student movement set the stage for a new era of popular front-style politics, but where did the Concertación fit into the story?

Vallejo, Camilo Ballesteros, a former president of the University of Santiago’s student federation, and Karol Cariola are part of a handful of former student leaders who will be vying for congressional seats in November. As members of Chile’s Communist Party, they are poised to bring their party into the Concertación, for the first time since the coalition’s formation. With more forces from the organized left in power, they believe they will have the capacity to pull the Concertación to the left from the inside. The coalition has been rebranded as Chile’s “New Majority,” and the Communist Party has been active on the campaign trail with Michelle Bachelet, who returned to Chile in early 2013, and, in June, became the coalition’s presidential candidate with a resounding primary victory.

Others who rose to prominence in 2011 have taken a different approach. Giorgio Jackson, president of the Catholic University’s student federation in 2011 and currently a congressional candidate in the downtown district of Santiago, has been among those advocating for the creation of new alliances, independent of the traditional Concertacionista left. His Revolución Democrática movement has railed against Chile’s “binomial” electoral system, through which Chile’s two coalitions, the Concertación and the Alianza, share power in Congress , keeping a stranglehold on legislative debate. In addition, Revolución Democrática is demanding an end to the privatized model of not just education, but other public goods as well, such as healthcare and housing. As this article went to press, the movement was expected to decide whether or not it would actively support the candidacy of Bachelet or cast its lot with a third party candidate, even if that candidate has little chance of winning.

Another bloc led by a group of student leaders who have controlled the top posts in the FECH for the last two years has argued for a strategy similar to that of Jackson’s, though perhaps even more critical of Bachelet and the Concertación. Running a handful of independent candidates for Congress, the so-called “autonomist” movement, includes the FECH’s 2012 president, Gabriel Boric. As Boric told Spain’s El País in June, “the system has to be changed from the inside and from the outside,” a signal that even those most skeptical about electoral politics have a new popular front strategy in mind.5




The fact that the formation and eventual election of the Popular Unity government in 1970 represented the culmination of a historical cycle that began three decades prior is a reminder that we may not know which strategy wins out for many years. Partly, this will depend on how effectively traditional parties and elites are able to coopt issues raised by the movement. A consensus is already emerging on both right and left, for example, that Chile’s binomial electoral system must go. Other reports suggest that Bachelet’s team of constitutional lawyers is working hard to have a new constitution drafted by the time she takes office, short-circuiting what they fear could be a truly democratic constituent assembly. Whether or not the decision by the major electoral coalitions to embrace these ideas, the product of social movements in general and Chile’s students in particular, will chip away at the base of support for Chile’s students is difficult to predict.

One thing does seem clear: Michelle Bachelet’s path to victory in November will likely be a smooth one. In late July, the governing Alianza coalition of outgoing President Sebastián Piñera, saw its presidential candidate, Pablo Longueira, unexpectedly drop out of the race for personal reasons. He was quickly replaced by Piñera’s labor minister, Evelyn Matthei, a candidate few believe has any chance of winning. This may make it possible for Bachelet to sidestep the old guard of the Concertación, a hardly beloved group in Chilean politics, so as to embrace a more radical agenda that would include a new constitution and an overhaul of the educational system, among other reforms. The near-certainty of a Bachelet victory will raise the expectations for change, but it will also make the political cost of failing to deliver that much higher.

On the street, waiting for any misstep, will undoubtedly be Chile’s students. 2013 has already witnessed a return of student-led building occupations—and a wave of violent police raids in response. The fact that those currently attending Chile’s high schools—the future leadership of Chile’s university federations—have taken the lead in many of these actions, provides a taste of what the future might hold for a second Bachelet government. If presidential candidates, including Michelle Bachelet, are still looking for ideas about their respective political programs, Moisés Paredes, a leader of one of Chile’s high school student unions, says he and other student leaders stand willing to help. “The best political program around,” Paredes contended during a late July meeting with Chile’s presidential contenders, “is that of Chile’s social movements.”6

Chile’s current political class will have to be willing to move though. As an oft-repeated slogan of Chile’s students goes: “El nuevo Chile está en movimiento” (“The new Chile is on the move.”) Two and a half years on, it’s hard to imagine that movement slowing down.



1. Javier M. González, “Masiva marcha estudiantil en Chile desafía al Gobierno de Piñera,” Nueva Tribuna, July 1, 2011, http://www.nuevatribuna.es/articulo/mundo/estudiantes-chilenos-desafan-a....

2. González, “Masiva marcha estudiantil.”

3. Zoltan Gluck, “Indignation is Only the First Step: A Discussion with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman,” The GC Advocate, January 14, 2013, http://opencuny.org/gcadvocate/2013/01/14/indignation-is-only-the-first-....

4. “Editorial: Ganó la calle,” El Mostrador, April 5, 2013, http://www.elmostrador.cl/opinion/2013/04/05/gano-la-calle/.

5. Rodrigo Cea, “Los líderes de la revuelta estudiantil chilena buscan escaños en el Congreso,” El País, June 5, 2013, http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/06/05/actualidad/1370....

6. “Vocero Cones: ‘El mejor programa de gobierno lo tienen los movimientos sociales,’” CNN Chile, July 29, 2013, http://cnnchile.com/noticia/2013/07/29/vocero-cones-el-mejor-programa-de-gobierno-lo-tienen-los-movimientos-sociales.



Joshua Frens-String is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University. 



Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2013 issue: "Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics"



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