International Opinion

History of the current Chilean student movement

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — December 02, 2011 3 min read
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The 2011 student protests in Chile began gradually this past May, and can be traced back to earlier student protests in 2006. According to Juan Leyton, “The student movement emerged in response to a bad education system, but the protestors soon realized that in order change the quality of education, they had to challenge and change the entire economic system.”

Students marched, during their winter, on July 14 in one of the largest protests since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. Two months later, on July 18, the Chilean Minister of Education was replaced, but the root of the problems remained the same. On July 19, 148 high schools were still occupied by students, while some universities such as the Universidad de Santiago de Chile were ending their occupations. On August 1, the government introduced a new 21-point proposal to reorganize Chilean education from preschool to higher education and thus reach an agreement with the student movement.

The proposal included many of the students’ demands, including: a constitutional guarantee to a quality education, allowing student participation in university governance, an increase in university scholarships, and help for people with college debt. However, student leaders did not accept the proposal and signaled that the student mobilizations would continue with a national strike in August. They argued that the proposal did not stop corporate profiteering in education, did not seek to provide free and equitable access to higher education, and was not specific enough to ensure the agreement would be enforced.

Using the same language that was used to describe the government’s July proposal, students called the August proposal “a band-aid solution”.

That month more than 100,000 Chilean youths marched through central Santiago to demand free, high-quality public education.

The president of the Student’s Federation at the University of Chile called on all citizens to come out and support the students. “Our demands are backed by the law,” she said. “Chile is a signee of the international agreement on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that includes the guarantee of a free education system and to progressively advance in higher education with the goal to put in place free education for all.”

The August student demonstrations were the largest mass protests of any kind since Chile returned to democracy in 1990 (after 17 years under the U.S. military-backed Pinochet dictatorship, whose regime cut public spending in education by more than half and promoted the privatization that current protests intend to undo). The Chilean student federation insists that it will continue its occupations and other mobilizations while also attempting to broaden the movement into other political areas such as workers’ rights and economic democracy.

From Egypt to New York to Puerto Rico, London, and Greece, youth-led struggles and student activism throughout the world are giving hope and confidence that we can once again provide a fully funded opportunity for all children to succeed in public education, from preschool to college. In New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there is renewed hope that we can move beyond the band-aids being offered by state and federal governments and put in place a free high-quality education for all.


In the spirit of building popular power to improve education for all, I’ll be attending next week’s 2011 National Opportunity to Learn Education Summit in Washington, DC. The OTL Summit will be an exciting gathering of grassroots advocates, philanthropic partners, policymakers, youth organizers, national organizations and researchers committed to closing the opportunity gap. Thought leaders and organizers from across the spectrum will be speaking, from education historian Diane Ravitch to civil rights organizing legend Bernard Lafayette. I invite you to join me in sharing advocacy and policy strategies - and strengthen networks to build state and national movements for change! Click here to learn more and register.

As the kickoff to the Summit, there will be a free Education Town Hall next Thursday evening at 7:00 pm, featuring leading figures in the faith and education movement, from Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, to Rev. Jesse Jackson, to AFT President Randi Weingarten.

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