Comment & Analysis: Ballots or Banners? Chile’s Student Uprising (Pablo Navarrete/Socialist Lawyer)

[Below are extracts of interviews carried out by Roberto Navarrete with former Chilean student leaders Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson in December 2011, sections of which are included in our upcoming documentary 'Chile's Student Uprising'.]

Ballots or Banners? Chile’s Student Uprising

Pablo Navarrete – Socialist Lawyer (October 2013)

In May 2011 Chilean students began a series of mass protests demanding a free and state-funded education system. Some 700 schools were occupied and daily street protests took place during that year. The student protests have continued throughout 2012 and 2013. These protests have been the largest seen in Chile since the end of US Government backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende on 11th September 1973, Chile’s 9/11. Under Pinochet and using State terrorism, a radical programme of neoliberal policies, including mass privatisation, was forced on the population. Thousands were murdered to bring ‘free markets’ to Chile.

In 2011, the students’ initial demands for reform of the education system soon gave way to a more comprehensive critique of the neoliberal economic model, still largely in place more than 23 years since formal democracy returned. A key student demand has been the reform of the undemocratic 1980 constitution, ‘approved’ under the dictatorship and still in place today. The constitution has been a key instrument in ensuring the perpetuation of the neoliberal model.

For the upcoming documentary I am producing on the student protest movement, the film’s director Roberto Navarrete travelled to Chile in 2011 and 2012 to speak to the high profile student leaders such as Camila Vallejo (The Guardian newspaper’s person of the year in 2011) and Giorgio Jackson, but also to ordinary students, to understand why their protests are causing such effect in Chile and inspiring others in Chile and beyond.

Since 2011, a major source of debate within the student movement has centered on how to relate to the formal political process, with one section of the student movement opting not to participate in elections and instead make its demands on Chile’s political class from the streets. Another section that includes Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson have now decided to participate in elections with the aim of creating structural change from within the political system. In the run up to 17th November presidential elections, which are likely to result in Chile’s rightwing coalition losing power and a return to the presidency of former socialist party leader Michelle Bachelet, former student leaders such as Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson are now running for Congress in elections scheduled for the same day as the presidential one. Below are extracts of interviews carried out by Roberto Navarrete with Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson in December 2011, sections of which are included in our upcoming documentary.

Roberto Navarrete: What would you say have been the strengths and weaknesses of the student movement in 2011?

Camila Vallejo: We feel that the mass student mobilisations that took place throughout 2011 served to awaken consciousness, and signalled a new horizon for Chilean society, in the direction of making profound changes to our country. In terms of concrete demands, the student movement, the social movement for education hasn’t achieved very much in terms of new government legislation, in the sense that the vast majority of the laws that are being debated by our politicians do not faithfully represent our demands for free, high quality public education for all so that the access and functioning of education can be democratised. However we believe that there have been many advances in subjective terms. Today, the Chilean population believes that a different future is possible in Chile. They believe that thanks to organising and collective action we can make changes and this put the weaknesses of political institutions that were created to dominate and exclude the great majority into sharper focus.

Therefore, Chilean society, which once had great respect for its institutions, today no longer believes in them and those rulers or those who hold political power cannot find protection behind these institutions because they are totally discredited. The abuse of power, mismanagement of information, misrepresentation of information by the media, the abuse of economic power through economic practices that have no type of regulation in the private sector, all these things have become evident and people now find them intolerable. The discontent that had been brewing in society exploded in 2011. From this discontent, civil society has put forward new proposals. We are not simply a group of indignant people but a movement that had the ability to propose an alternative horizon for construction. I think that's the summary I would make of 2011. It’s been a year in which we could not make much in terms of concrete advances given the moorings of political institutions inherited from the dictatorship. Nevertheless we have made advances on a subjective level, the movement has made a cultural change and Chilean society is now thinking about a re-articulation of our organisations and our organisational work, making them more stable and permanent. Through this we plan to strengthen our proposals for a different society, a different development model.

RN: As a young person, what would you say it is that has motivated you to get involved in the protests?

Giorgio Jackson: The motivation always lies partly in the personal stories that are generated in the collective. In my particular case, it came through a lawyer, Fernando Atria, a well known academic in Chile who writes a newspaper column entitled the ‘The anguish of the privileged.’ I studied in a private school. I am one of the privileged few, although I do not consider that I have much money to spare. In fact I pay for my studies with a private loan. Nevertheless, I am aware that my chances of being in a good school and of having a good career come at the expense of the discrimination of others. And I feel a tremendous sense of injustice about that. I think now there are many of us who have this sort of anxiety, guilt, for being privileged at the expense of the discrimination of others, and those that are discriminated against feel helpless and are very angry. So the time has come where both groups have realised, without us looking at each other with hate, that now is the time to pull in the same direction and the synergy this has produced has been extremely powerful.

RN: How would you sum what the student movement achieved in 2011?
Giorgio Jackson: That question is always complicated because you have to separate things between the quantitative, i.e., the concrete achievements in public policy and the like versus more qualitative things, things that are perhaps somewhat intangible. I think in terms of quantitative changes we did not achieve what we wanted. It is very difficult to make these changes with a right-wing government and the system of political representation that exists today. The country’s institutions close the door to any change very abruptly. But some things were achieved that were unthinkable, that confronted the government's agenda, that pushed the government further than they wanted. It’s true that it never corresponded to the weight of the protests but these things always fall well below expectations. On the other hand, the optimistic part is that in qualitative terms we redefined what was possible, we stopped thinking negotiating to obtain just a little more. This happened through work and pressure. So we’ve put aside the taboo and fears that existed in thinking of a different model and delivered a clear and honest message to the public. The people empathised with this message because it was not an invented one. The reproduction of inequality and privilege exists in Chile and there is a generation that says ‘no more’. The neoliberal model, the model of education as a consumer good has had 30 years to operate without restrictions. And it hasn’t showed the benefits it promised. So now it's time that us Chileans change this model.

Pablo Navarrete is a documentary film maker and editor of the website For more information about the forthcoming documentary ‘Chile’s Student Uprising’, including how you can contribute to its production visit: