CIVICUS speaks to Camila Rojas, a public administration student and the president of the biggest student federation in Chile, that of the University of Chile (FECh), about the environment for activism and the reasons why protests usually turn violent and are repressed in the country
1. From your experience in the student movement, what do you think are the causes of violence in demonstrations in Chile?
For many years now Chilean society has been mobilised around the social right to education, with milestones in 2006, when high school students mobilised massively, and 2011, when even more massive mobilisation at all levels led to a social movement for public education. This movement managed to maintain its autonomy and prevented its demands from being processed in the neoliberal terms that are typical of the Concertación, the centre-left coalition that has ruled the country for almost the entire post-transition democratic period. However, over the years successive governments have been unable to satisfactorily respond to our demands, since they did not have the political will to jointly work on reforms. All of this happened in the context of a system that daily oppresses us and takes away our sovereignty over our own lives by subjecting everything to the rules of the market and therefore contributing to the build-up of violence.
Although violent protesters are a small minority, they are the ones providing the media with the material they use to undermine our legitimate demands, as it happened in Valparaíso a few days ago. The huge social discontent that is the result of a subsidiary state model ends up expressing itself as violence, which is in turn fuelled by harsh repression by the Special Forces of Carabineros, the military police.
In sum, the police repression we faced in recent weeks is directly linked to the government's inability to respond to our demands. The government’s answer to our mobilisations has been to try and prevent them by deploying police onto the streets. Instead of introducing changes to solve the conflict, they have tried to silence us by way of denying authorisation for several of our marches. It is important to note that our legislation on the regulation and management of public space use is severely lacking. The constitutional right to peaceful protest is restricted by authorisation requirements; we need to go and ask for permission in an office of the municipal government. The State has the power to authorise or not authorise the demonstrations. Unauthorised demonstrations propitiate a much more violent environment, since the Special Forces act with disproportionate force. Given its inability to find a political solution to the conflict, the government denies permission for our demonstrations, deploys more police forces and even mistreats us at police stations just for fighting for a better education for Chileans. In this situation we cannot just sit idly by, so we continue protesting for change.
2. Generally speaking, how would you describe the environment for civil society activists and organisations in the country?
Our country has gone through a process that has left a mark on the entire society, and of course it has reflected on civil society organisations. Neoliberalism has penetrated deep in Chile. We have lived under a system that encourages the development of individuals through competition among them. A “common sense” has been established that life is every man for himself, and that the others are adversaries. This is because all aspects of our lives are intersected by the logic of the market. That is the context in which civil society organisations and activists work: an environment in which the construction of anything collective is counterintuitive.
This goes hand-in-hand with a state model that, while promoting a competitive model of life, fulfils roles that in the best-case scenario lead to the control of private enterprises, that is, a role that is subsidiary to private action. This explains why so many private initiatives have proliferated since the 1990s in the form of NGOs. They respond to some public need and compete for funds provided by the State or private donations. At the same time the old social organisations that existed prior to the 1980s have bureaucratised and acquired a strong union component, and neighbourhood councils have survived as mere remnants of the past. This has hindered the emergence of social movements outside of the logics that I have described; however, in certain cases they have in fact managed to emerge, either in budding form or with high levels of development. Among the latter is the student movement, which despite significant obstacles ─such as the discussion surrounding the “free” fellowships recently offered by the government, which led it to focus on more sectorial issues ─has managed to maintain social and political breadth.
Formally the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful protest are fairly recognised. I say fairly because until 2014 there were bans on top-level student organisations; and many companies have organisational systems that deliberately hinder workers’ unionisation. In addition social organisations face substantial difficulties as already mentioned.
The media also play a key role. Through the stigmatizations and criminalisation of social protest, such as by focusing on the actions of minority groups within social movements such as the hooded men who routinely clash with the Special Forces, they seek to delegitimise the movement as a whole and by extension its demands. This can be clearly observed in the news and on newspapers’ front-pages, which although often help make our protest visible, also delegitimise our cause with those images.
3. What is civil society doing to overcome those obstacles?
Consolidated organisations such as the FECh have sought to promote organisation in various sectors, for example through the establishment of unions and student centres and federations throughout the country. This is hard, hard work, but it has borne fruit. You can tell, for example, through the fact that nowadays the Chilean Students’ Confederation (CONFECH) has a strong participation from private universities, something that was not conceivable before the large 2011 mobilisations.
4. What has the Chilean student movement achieved so far, and what are its pending issues?
Undoubtedly, the student movement has much merit in the fact that major issues such as electoral, constitutional and tax reform (alongside education reform, of course) are now on the table. There were indeed minor parties located outside of the two ruling coalitions ─ the centre-left Concertación, in power between 1990 and 2010 and again in a renewed version starting in 2014; and the centre-right Coalition for Change, in power between 2010 and 2014 ─ that brought up issues such as the need for a new constitution, education reform and tax reform before 2011, even in the late 1990s. The difference is that in 2006 and 2011 these issues were placed on the agenda as a result of massive mobilisation, that is, no longer on the initiative of minority groups but as an expression of widespread discontent among a citizenry that demanded change and understood those issues as the most relevant ones to achieve that change.
What the student mobilisations did was allow for the visualization of discontent with the prevailing social and political model, and demand profound changes. Traditional politics were forced to respond ─in their own way, of course. Therefore, without being the only one, the student movement was among the main drivers of the changes that resulted in reform initiatives such as the above-mentioned.
5. What specific actions should the government take in the short term to safeguard democratic space and ensure citizens’ participation rights?
To safeguard democracy and citizen participation several significant changes are needed. The most urgent one, in my opinion, is a reform based on the understanding of education as a social right of all persons, and allowing citizens themselves to make decisions regarding their own education. In other words, we need to strengthen public education by pulling it out of the market logic and framing it within a development strategy.
What I am saying will sound far-fetched as long as education is understood as a mere certification of qualifications for the labour market, that is, as sectorial issue. However, education is (or should be) way more than that. It should be the space where we develop as persons, as citizens, in order to function in social life according to our abilities and to the service of the larger society. To the extent that education is currently mostly about certification than anything else, it does nothing but reproduce inequalities by forming first-, second- and third-class citizens. That is precisely what makes our society less democratic, directly affecting citizen participation. Guaranteeing education as a social right rather than providing it as a consumer good is therefore essential to safeguard democratic space and citizen participation.
6. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements support Chilean civil society activists and organisations?
One way that external actors or international solidarity movements support our causes is through collaboration in disseminating our ideas and providing visibility to our actions. An example of this kind of support is that of Nodal Universidad, a university news portal for Latin America and the Caribbean that provides coverage of the student movements and disseminates information about them throughout the region. Another example is that of the United Nations’ Education Commission, which conducts talks with different organisations in order to make recommendations to countries on the basis of comparative experience. Thus support for our cause is generated worldwide while also contributing to the development of similar movements in other countries.