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Chile’s Student Protests and the Democratization of a Semi-Democratic Society

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Foreign minister Alejandro Foxley respectfully acquiesced to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s humiliation of his country, when she warned him that Chile would be considered a “loser” if it supported Venezuela’s bid for Latin America’s seat on the UN Security Council; however, the fact that Chile, as putatively suggested by Foxley, would seek a compromise candidate is emblematic of why it should be considered as something less than a fully blown democracy — perhaps more in the order of a guided democracy. That is, except for Chile’s students. On May 30, nearly every one of them over the age of 11 walked out of their classrooms in protest of the country’s patently unequal, Pinochet-era educational system. Their demands were clear: free public transportation, free college entrance exams, and greater involvement by the central government in rehabilitating Chile’s failed public school system. Two weeks later, when the students reached a generous compromise with President Bachelet and returned to their classrooms, it was evident that a very significant milestone in Chile’s young democracy had been passed.

But before that happened, many commentators pointed out that the student toma (takeover) had posed several very serious challenges to Chilean democracy. For one, the protests challenged recently-inaugurated President Bachelet’s ability to maintain control of a country, that in its recent history had been enveloped in severe political strife. Moreover, they noted that the student movement’s strong backing among the general public challenged the President to fulfill her campaign promises of a more equitable “citizen’s democracy” for Chile.

While perhaps relevant, these perceptions overlooked the significance of the massive youth movement as but one symbol of the profound cultural and political change that is not necessarily underway in all Chilean economic and political stratum. The nature of the paro estudiantil (student strike) demonstrates that Chilean citizens are moving away from a political culture defined, in large part, by the legacy of a largely unrepentant military dictatorship which simply would not go away. Pinochet and his brutally autocratic regime, and, in fact, the immediate political environment in which the student strike played out, contained the makings of a longstanding impasse in which change was more a matter of rhetoric than of actuality. Thus, the constructive way in which the Chilean government negotiated with the students may represent the formulation of new, democratic norms of interaction between the state and key groups within society. In the end, the student protests were one of the most compelling signs that Chile is ready to cast off the legacy of its authoritarian past and move toward a fully democratic government, together with a more democratically-responsive society.

Chilean democracy has been bolstered by the student protests for at least three salient reasons: first, the size, longevity, and quality of organization of the strike represented a sizeable shift in Chile’s political culture toward genuine participatory democracy; second, the protests themselves have opened new lines of communication between the state and important interests groups through the reinvigoration of what was Chile’s increasing dormant civil society; and finally, the success of the students could translate into new norms of accountability within Chile’s technocratic, smug and rather listless democracy.

A Generational Shift in Political Culture
Despite more than fifteen years of steady, if often nominal, democratic consolidation after Pinochet began his gradual withdrawal from predominance, his era of protracted military rule still defines the political horizon of a generation of Chileans. Although the dictator is no longer an important direct factor when it comes to the health of the nation’s democratic institutions, the culture of fatalism and fear created by the dictatorship explains, in part, the reticence of many Chileans today to organize politically or to take chances with more open styles of democracy. Meanwhile, Pinochet’s legacy of violence, political repression and autocratic governance at times prove to be too overpowering a historical memory for Chile’s political class to entirely forget.

The students who organized the walkout, however, represent the first modern generation of political actors, who did not grow up under the military junta. They are children of a rather anemic democracy whose closest connection to the dictator are the neoliberal social and economic policies, against which they now are openly fighting. Though they may be familiar with the scars borne by their parents, their own political awareness has been shaped by a somewhat different regime – one that has, from its inception, adhered to the rule of law and maintained a high-minded human rights record (despite its unwillingness to forthrightly prosecute those responsible for the atrocities committed under military rule).

The stark difference in the political characteristics between their and their parents’ generations is evident in the nature of the student protest. Rather than shying away from the collective action and political participation as their parents had, Chilean students have shown not only a willingness to organize and express themselves, but also a special affinity for it. Moreover, the political mobilization, solidarity and social awareness demonstrated throughout the three-weeks of protests vividly contrasts with the political legacy bequeathed by Pinochet to an earlier generation when older political movements, such as Christian Democracy, with its belief in individualism, quietism and apathy and a neutered sense of political pluckiness, was in the ascendancy.

Chile’s youth is more manifestly prepared to place its political affiliation on display and to challenge the most ingrained, illiberal and self-satisfied features of today’s Chilean Democrats. These surprisingly new characteristics of Chilean youth are perhaps even more than generational, suggesting, in fact the rise of a new type of a citizenry that will support and deepen Chile’s substantive democracy and be less interested in relentlessly pursuing free trade agreements around the world, however unworthy the prospective candidate may be, and more concerned with matters of social justice.

The Creation of New Forms of Being “Chilean”
More than simply reflecting changes in Chile’s political culture, the student protests may also help to spur the revitalization of the country’s largely self-serving civil society. Since Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, there has been a dearth of social movements capable of bridging the gap between the conflicting goals of state and society. The ruthless dictator targeted the organized political and economic opposition for special vengeance and control; upon the return of formal (if not always substantive) democracy, the “fear” factor kept these organizations in a timorous frame of mind, while creating an environment where they could be easily ignored.

In contrast, the success of the student movement may project a tangible counter to the prevailing self-centered belief that few personal benefits could be derived from playing a part in some sectoral organization not directly related to one’s standard of living, and that quiescence usually works. While it is unlikely that the student movement will spur grandiose changes in Chilean society in the near future, examples of successful social movements may provide the necessary motivation for individuals to involve themselves, in contrast to their previously inert behavior, and begin playing some form of group representational role.

The above collateral effect of the students’ triumph already has been felt within other sectors. Labor unions, for example, were quick to show their support for the students and, much to the former’s dismay, attempted to broaden the scope of the protests to include their grievances with Pinochet’s other grim bequests, some of which affected them. Though the working class ultimately failed to effectively associate itself with the students’ cause, the youth’s success served to galvanize labor and reinvigorate individuals who had become inactive. Such mobilization can only help to revitalize a participatory culture that has been absent from Chile for over twenty years.

Willingness to Negotiate
In addition to its side effects on Chilean society, the student movement may very well change how the government chooses to interact with the country’s primary interest groups. The students’ success in the early stages of their negotiations with the state demonstrates a newfound willingness on the part of the governing coalition to respond quickly and decisively to the popular demands of some societal actor bearing a credible message. Just as Pinochet’s technocratic indifference to the needs of society became a quasi-permanent lodgment on Chilean democracy, so too can the dialogue between the state and representative institutions become a positive fact of life.

There is, however, an obvious obstacle that stands in the way of the creation of a reciprocal engagement between the government and Chile’s other important interest groups. The popular support and internal cohesion of the students will probably be difficult to replicate in other sectors of Chilean society. Labor unions, for example, are still extraordinarily weak and distrusted by much of the working class at this time. Despite this situation, the dialogue between the government and several of the more institutionalized collective interests, such as the impoverished and those calling for further democratic reforms, does have the potential to have their voices heard. The new Bachelet administration has already expressed its interest in altering several laws and regulations that have served to perpetuate the Pinochet legacy, namely the social security system and the binominal electoral structure. The student movement could provide the necessary propellant for these popular democratic reforms to finally pass, long after a series of Christian Democratic-led coalition governments could arguably have enacted them if the political will had been there to do it.

Although Chilean democracy is still mired in the slow process of consolidation, the student paro demonstrates that there are strong tendencies within both government and civic society that could speed this process along, making up for lost time. Surely the reforms necessary to advance Chilean democracy to its next stage of institutionalization will be difficult to organize without the goad of a pronounced economic factor. Yet, too much of this approach could pose an inhibiting threat to pluralism and social justice in society. If, however, the success of the student movement and the positive responsiveness of the Bachelet government are any indication, Chile, long after the fact, may be headed in the right direction.

For further information see “U.S. Is Aiming to Block Venezuela’s Bid for UN RoleLos Angeles Times. June 19, 2006.