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Credit|El Piño Comunicaciones Credit|El Piño Comunicaciones

Arriba Lxs Que Luchan: Chilean Students Struggling to Win

By Alexi S

Credit|El Piño Comunicaciones

From 2011 onwards, the Chilean student movement, represented by the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH), an organization made up of student federations from major universities across the country, has made the concrete demand for free education, drawing hundreds of thousands into the street in a national movement leading to the occupation of high schools and universities all over Chile.

Though this demand has yet to be fulfilled, the recently elected Nueva Mayoría government of Michelle Bachelet ran on the promise of free university education. The current proposal includes a progressive system providing free tuition for 70% of the population, the elimination of the national university entrance exam within seven years, and the passage of a more progressive tax system to pay for such programs. While it provides improvements, this scheme runs counter to the student movement’s demands of universally free education, immediate abolition of entrance exams, democratization of universities, and the nationalization of copper mines to pay for the education system.

Melissa Sepúlveda is the current president of the Federation of Students of the University of Chile (FECH), elected on the LUCHAR slate, a coalition of diverse revolutionary student organizations. Melissa is a member of the Libertarian Students’ Front (FEL) and La Alzada, Libertarian Feminist Action. {Young}ist sat down with Sepúlveda to talk about organizing on the ground and the future of the movement.

You continue negotiations with the government to achieve free education, among other demands. Can you describe the main differences between the government’s plan and the CONFECH’s proposal?

First of all, there is clear difference with respect to the form in which the government has constructed the education reform — it is the old technocratic form, a project that does not consider the input that the student movement has put forth. […] You can see this in the declarations of the Minister of Education that continue with the same logic of “free market education.“ Yes, they are going to allocate more resources to the current system, but there is not a real change in the mechanism of competition — it makes students and schools compete for the same resources.

So there is one system of education for the rich, and another system of education for the poor and for the rest. The government’s proposal has projects using slogans of the 2011 student movement, but it does not fundamentally resolve or propose a concrete paradigm shift in the Chilean education model.

When you put forward the idea of education as a right, what exactly do you mean and why is it important to present it like that and not in another way?

The government talks about “rights” but from an individual conception: “How can I educate myself at no cost?” and not “How can we change the educational model?” It’s a very economistic vision of the problem with the thinking that it can be resolved with just a few more resources, when what is really needed is a structural change of the educational model in every area: what happens inside the universities, the objective of research development, and so on. At the end of the day, the education system must take into account the Chilean reality of a country where inequality is among the highest in the world.

Can you speak a little about how LUCHAR won the presidency of the FECH? What were the proposals that set you apart from the other lists?

LUCHAR consists of organizations that are looking for more than just a change in the educational model and, instead, a complete transformation of society. We hold principles of horizontalism and direct democracy and are trying to end the logic of centralism and the concentration of power in few leaders. These changes have been entering the student movement for a while now as seen in the changes in organization since 2006, when spokespeople had to be representatives of assembly discussions and respect these ideas over what they, their party, or their organization thought.

The FECH is an organization built of many political currents. How do you get past sectarianism in the FECH?

The FECH is the only national federation that has a system of an “integrated executive board” where different organizations hold different positions on the board. This serves to avoid sectarianism because, at the end of the day, it forces the necessity to work together as a Left. It is a sector which is very heterogeneous and has different political currents, but everyone comes to the table in a way that allows us to get something done because if we do not, we will marginalize ourselves as opposed to the Concertación, the Right, the Communist Party, etc.

In the United States, the idea of active membership in a political organization, militancia, is not as widespread as in Chile. Can you explain the importance of militancia in the FECH and for you especially as a member of the FEL?

It’s a necessity. Militancia is a necessity because it allows you to get to levels of reflection that, alone it would be impossible to achieve. What it really is, is just coming together and discussing, and at the end of the day the FEL defines itself a school of struggle, and that is the truth; it allows you to share your experiences and the development of similar tasks with other comrades to understand the problems they have encountered previously, it gives you the tools to pinpoint what is really important to develop in your university or your place of insertion. Whether it’s student organizing, community work, or labor, it gives you the tools to be able to pinpoint these things and, in the end, give better input to develop the organizations.

We have not seen as much movement: occupations, extended strikes, etc. this year. What is the proposal of the FECH or the FEL to continue the struggle?

The capacity of the student movement to mobilize doesn’t depend on [outside] coercive forces, but rather it’s determined by other factors, and we, of course, encourage mobilization, and we believe that it is the only way that we are going to have a possibility to impact the education reform or to impact this entire transformational process that Chile is undergoing right now. It is the only way to show that these changes need to go deeper. We have a few key perspectives that for us are relevant, having to do with multisectoralidad: the convergence of different social actors and to start combining the different expressions of the movement that have been popping up for a few years now. I’m talking about the labor movement, the movement of the Mapuche, and the education workers who are offering a resistance to the reform as it is put forward currently by the government. So there we have a series of networks that have been organizing together, maybe not in such a visible way to the outside world or to the media, but we have been working together with these movements, giving them resources, and sometimes they are basic things: offering a union the FECH’s offices so that they can meet, supporting a strike, helping out with press work, helping craft speeches, etc. We are working together in a more fundamental way than just having a meeting of spokespeople or leaders of the different organizations.

What advice do you have for American students, also fighting for a free and democratic education, who still do not have real structures at the local or national level like the CONFECH to coordinate their struggles?

I believe that militant organiz[ing], not speaking about one party or organization in particular, lives in individual commitment that is put towards a cause: the transformation of society. This requires high levels of discussion and articulation, and doing this is a collective task. This has to be a permanent practice within the university or the school or wherever it is that you radicalize, look for similar minds and try to organize more people. At the end of the day, this is the job of an organizer.

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Alexi S

Alexi S is a student and organizer at CUNY Hunter College


higher education


August 07, 2014

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