By FRANCISCO GOLDMAN
Published: April 5, 2012
The hotel had a musty, Pinochet-era atmosphere — dark bar, heavy furniture, bartenders in white shirts and black ties — and drew mostly businessmen. But when the bartenders found out that my friends and I were going to the student march, they cut lemons for us and put them into plastic bags with salt. In case of tear gas, you were supposed to bite into the lemons to lessen the effect. With guarded smiles, they let us know they supported the Chilean student movement and especially its most prominent leader, Camila Vallejo. A bartender said, “La Camila es valiente”; he laughed and added, “Está bien buena la mina” — “She’s hot.”
Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old president of the University of Chile student federation (FECH), a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography, was the most prominent leader of a student protest movement that had paralyzed the country and shattered Chile’s image as Latin America’s greatest political and economic success story. The march that Thursday afternoon in November would be the 42nd since June.
In what became known as the Chilean Winter, students at university campuses and high schools across the country organized strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings. The protests were the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in a 1973 military coup overthrew Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The students’ grievances echoed, somewhat, those of their counterparts across the Mideast or in Zuccotti Park. Chile might have the highest per capita income in the region, but in terms of distribution of wealth, it ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. A university education in Chile is proportionally the world’s most expensive: $3,400 a year in a country where the average annual salary is about $8,500.
Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing government was plunged into perpetual crisis. The Harvard-educated Piñera, founder of Chile’s major credit card, Bancard, and Chile’s first president since Pinochet to come from the right, promised to govern Chile and its economy in a new way — as a businessman whose billions didn’t come from mining or manufacturing but from investments. The student movement exposed the Piñera Way as business as usual — if public education was virtually abolished under Pinochet in the ’80s, his successors had done nothing to bring it back.
Just 40 percent of Chilean children receive a free secondary-school education, in underfinanced public schools; the rest attend partly subsidized charter or private schools. To finance their university educations, most students take out bank loans, which saddle them and their families with years of debt. Piñera defended Chile’s educational system by calling education “a consumer good.” Vallejo countered, saying that education was a fundamental right and that “for more than 30 years,” entrepreneurs had “speculated and grown wealthy off the dreams and expectations of thousands of young people and Chilean families.” By September, Piñera’s popularity ratings, so robust after the rescue of the Chilean miners in October 2010, had sunk to 22 percent, the lowest of any Chilean president in modern history, while the student movement’s national approval rating stood at 72 percent.
I had heard a lot about the joyful, carnival madness of the marches: hundreds of thousands of people roiling the streets of Santiago, with bands and costumes and colorful signs and floats and shouts. When a freezing rain fell on the day of a scheduled demonstration, protesters filled the streets in what became known as the March of the Umbrellas. Whimsical “happenings” and flash-mob actions drew international attention. There was the Kiss-In, when students made out for 1,800 seconds (30 minutes) in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace, to publicize the $1.8 billion it would supposedly cost to finance public education — and the 1,800 laps students jogged around the building, in round-the-clock relays; the protest where people dressed as zombies and danced to “Thriller”; the cacerolazos, tweet-ignited outbreaks of people banging on pots and pans, raising a swarming metallic-insect racket.