The Chilean Lesson & Neoliberal Silence

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Public education for sale. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, September 1 — I remember an old article by Marxist historian Perry Anderson in which he affirmed that the greatest virtues of neoliberals were their perseverance and their sense of theater. They retrenched in the Mont Pelerin Society for years, at least until they got the chance to go over the heads of the Keynesians, who were overwhelmed by globalization; and the Marxists, who suffocated in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. They accompanied America’s Francis Fukuyama in his Hegelian frenzy around the “End of the History” as if they had indeed been the big winners of a concluded epoch.

In Latin America they made Chile their public display case. Taking advantage of their extensive network of good pens and greased networks in the media — which hardly ever says big lies but almost always omits big truths — the neoliberals accused the unforgettable Allende of “anarchism” while overlooking Pinochet’s creation of a bloodbath, the sine qua non condition of monetarist adjustment.

In January 2010, they celebrated with adolescent elation the electoral victory of Sebastian Piñera over an exhausted, discredited and divided center-left coalition, the Concertacion. Piñera, along with Ricardo Martinelli, turned out to be a sort of icon of a right that promised to govern the continent just like a company is managed.

Actually Piñera has thus far been an unfortunate leader. His proposal for a managerial efficient government went under due to ill-suited functionaries selected from the worst ranks of the local right wing. Adding to this breakdown was mass social dissatisfaction and several of his own public blunders as the president of Chile – a nation accustomed to leaders with style and one that never forgives.

He reached his height of acceptance when dozens of miners were rescued after being trapped underground, but this hit no more than a 60 percent approval rate – below that of his minister of Mining. His support was minuscule if we recall that former president Michelle Bachelet stepped down with an 85 percent approval rating. Someone told me that Piñera had never done anything particularly poorly, he just never did anything particularly well in the face of an organized society that is experienced in political vicissitudes and tired of hearing those who repeat how Chile is a showcase for the world.
Today that showcase is under siege. The Chilean economic model has exhibited that when a society is subjected to neoliberal therapy — preferably with manu militari — and there exist possibilities for favorable external links (Chile’s bonanza is inexplicable without its relations to the peculiar dynamics of the Pacific Basin), then it’s possible to obtain very high rates of economic growth.
This indicates that re-distributional policies with a “human face” are possible (like those practiced after 1990 by the center-left Concertacion coalition), as they can reduce poverty and generally improve the standard of living.
But it also demonstrates that this is insufficient for a society that still must coexist with disgraceful blemishes of poverty and whose expectations don’t sympathize with social spending compressed by the demands of capitalist accumulation and income inequality so stunning that it locates Chile’s Gini coefficient (measuring inequality) in a sadly high place in relation to Latin America.
This is what seems to be meant by the multiple protests that have begun shaking Chilean society and that have put on the defensive — occasionally on a painful defensive — President Piñera as well as his cabinet and the whole right wing alliance. Successively or simultaneously, the avenues and plazas of Santiago de Chile have been taken over by environmentalists, homosexuals, Mapuche indigenous, workers and finally students – and in all of these cases with tremendous popular support.
The student issue is unquestionably the most well-known. This involves a coalition of secondary school and university students who have exhibited political maturity and a superior capacity to negotiate, evidencing their capacity to push ministers as well as the police to the edge of ridicule.
In Chile, the education model designed under Pinochet’s neoliberal dictatorship still prevails.
Among other elements, this model establishes a peculiar municipalization of teaching that has decentralized functions with few resources. Therefore it penalizes schools in the poorest municipalities and thus continues widening the social gap.
It also establishes a system of particularly attractive subsidies for financial entities that through this channel receive many millions of dollars annually, while putting at a greater disadvantage already poor families who cannot afford the costs of higher education.
Finally, this education model limits social and educational expenses considerably, so that despite the economic bonanza of the “Chilean miracle,” expenditures on education barely surpass only 3 percent of the GDP, and a considerable part of this ends up in the hands of private entities that provide educational services.
The students have consequently developed a list of strategic demands that, while not seeking to change the government, cannot be assumed by the government unless it substantially changes its own profile.
Under slogans of repealing the municipalization of teaching, eliminating the predominant profit centers in educational activity, increasing the budget, and promoting transparency and democracy throughout the entire system, the student leaders have been able to channel all civil dissatisfaction behind them and add to their efforts this backing from the majority of the population.
The spacious plazas and boulevards of Santiago de Chile and other cities have wound up being too small for the marches and meetings of hundreds of thousands of people. The city’s typically quiet nights seem to explode from the heat of endless cacerolazos (the beating of saucepans in protest) and honking.
At the time of this writing, several dozen young students remain on a hunger strike with their lives in serious danger. All of this has still not been enough to force the government to adopt a serious and responsible position in the face of what is now a demand by the overwhelming majority of Chilean society.
As noted, President Piñera continues breaking all un-popularity records. Out of desperation he will sometimes inch toward the left – like he did recently when he established quasi-legal status for same-sex civil unions, an action that cost him support from his most uncompromising allies.
Yet he sometimes moves to the right, like when he brought into his government several “colonels” of Pinochetismo who came from the most conservative and traditional political fringe, an action opposed by the entire liberal wing of society.
In the latest reliable survey, the population granted him a 26 percent acceptance rating. However it’s curious that the center-left political opposition grouped in the Concertacion has been unable to take advantage of this dissatisfaction. In fact, its approval rating skims along as close to the bottom as that of the government’s. A poster brandished in a Sunday march of students and relatives summarized the drama: “Left and right/the same shit.”
I believe that no matter what the fortune of this movement turns out to be, its renovating imprint for a better world has already been guaranteed. It will be part of a same memory that reminds us of the “penguins” (secondary students who confronted Bachelet five years ago), who today are the very same university students who are putting in check the proclaimers of managerial excellence.
The Chilean students have become part of that whole renovation movement that seems to be shaking the world, giving the 21st century a profile superior to consumerist mediocrity and the technocratic principals of the market.
From those unforgettable days in which I was able to experience this piece of history up close, I recall an especially electrifying night. The government had prohibited a march down the high-profile Alameda Boulevard, which the students responded to by demonstrating all over the city, day and night. They made that decision intelligently and with such agility that they ended up controlling the most important arteries in the city, and with the support of the city’s citizens and drivers.
I also remember a police van advancing down Vicuña Mackenna Avenue firing tear-gas canisters. At about 200 yards from it — on a corner of Bustamante Park —a group of several hundred youths had concentrated wielding several banners demanding free education and playing all types of musical instruments, including a brass bell that seemed to me to have come from some neighborhood church.
I don’t know why, but this van that was filled with riot police veered to the right and avoided confronting the youths head on. This filled them with joy and pride as they considered it a victory. This made them ring the bell with all the optimism in the world.
That night, like in John Donne’s poem, the bell tolled for all of us.

One thought on “The Chilean Lesson & Neoliberal Silence

  • All this talk and not a word about the need for, and the struggle for, a Chilean socialist cooperative republic. Haroldo might as well be a pink US journalist talking about Obama.

    A cooperative republican movement should arise among students, workers, farmers and other productive sectors, to keep the efforts and sacrifices of activists from achieving historical note but not fundamental political and social change.

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