1 April 2008

Penguins Rise Up Against Latin 'Jaguar'

By Marco Coscione

Chile’s image, skilfully sold abroad, is that of “the Jaguar of Latin America”, now living one of its best times thanks to the strong demand of copper from China. What the media, academics and politicians who tell this entertaining tale forget to mention is the Chile with children at risk, entire families eating at soup kitchens, the homeless labourers, people in the slums, the family of the disappeared still awaiting justice, the Mapuches, the conscientious objectors in what is still a highly militarised society. Chile is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Aaccording the 2007 Human Development Report it ranks 13th in the world in terms of inequality.

There have been popular movements and gains before. But perhaps the most impressive has been the student movements. In May 2006, the secondary students returned with their demands for educational reforms. In the Eighties the students demanded the right to have their own democratically elected unions. There were arrests and deaths but the students still took to the streets. Shortly before the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship, the military regime imposed an education law, LOCE, which privatised education and left it at the mercy of the laws of the market.

In the Eighties 80% of the students went to state schools and now it is 50%. Modifying LOCE and replacing a “mercantile” system are at the heart of the student mobilisations from May 2006. Suddenly the streets were filled with drawings of penguins. Why penguins? Because the uniforms of the secondary students make them look like penguins, especially when they are huddled together after school waiting at bus stops.

On May 21, 2006, President Bachelet said she would not tolerate vandalism and damage to property. This provoked a decisive reaction from the students. Students took to the streets, their parents brought food to the children occupying schools, the teachers supported them, as did the university population. The demonstration of May 30 was the biggest student rally in the history of student movements. The police repression was so brutal that the President, watching the images on television, expressed her “indignation” and removed the police colonel in charge.

The penguins put education at the heart of the political agenda. In 2007, the students played a more peripheral role with occasional demonstrations though it was the year in which the issue entered the confines of the palace.

Till then, the young always had been at the margins of the post-dictatorship Chilean society, totally indifferent to politics, thinking the new government would resolve issues from above. The current generation of students worries much more of the future, with public affairs and in this sense the penguins have directed the attention of civil society towards the future rather than living hedonistically in the neo-liberal present.

The penguins have shown up a country of profound inequalities, where the police still seem to behave in a militarist fashion, repressing a not too well identified “enemy within”. The institutions are not yet ready for a “citizens’ government” but it is evident that little by little they have to wake up to this new reality.

Abridged. Source: Vamos a Cambiar El Mundo

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