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Chile: “We Are Prepared to Give Our Lives for Education”

By Pamela Sepúlveda

(When one supposed dissident named Farinas in Cuba goes on a hunger strike, it’s world headlines, but when the entire nation of Chile is rocked by a student hunger striked backed up by the organized labor movement, who gets to hear about it in the United States of America? All the dominant capitalist news media are shutting this action out of their coverage. NR: Walter Lippmann)
As students and teachers continue their massive protests in the streets of Chile’s cities, one of the most extreme methods of demanding higher-quality, free public education is the hunger strike being undertaken by 28 youngsters at secondary schools across the country, four of whom have not taken food for nearly 40 days.

One teenage girl in the south of Chile had to be urgently admitted to hospital on Tuesday, Aug. 24 in unstable condition, and last week another young woman in Santiago required medical attention. Several of the hunger strikers have lost 10 kg or more.

The government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera, under heavy pressure from the ongoing demonstrations, is attempting to pass on responsibility for solving the crisis to Congress. Its proposals have so far been characterised as insufficient by the teachers and students fighting for radical changes to the education system.

To cap Piñera’s problem, social grievances have expanded beyond the issue of education, and Thursday was the second, and last, day of a nationwide general strike called by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, the main union federation, to demand structural changes in the political and economic system, that was also joined by 80 other social organisations and opposition parties.

The protest by students and teachers has lasted over three months so far, making it the longest demonstration since 1990, which marked the end of a 17-year dictatorship that in its dying days imposed the present education structure, which subsequent democratic administrations have left unmodified.

Education Minister Felipe Bulnes was particularly critical of the hunger strike, saying it “does not solve any of our problems; in fact, it only complicates the situation.”

Francia Gárate, an 18-year-old in her final year of secondary school, joined the hunger strike over a week ago and told IPS they were fasting “so that they take us seriously.”

“I would ask (Piñera) to realise that we are not playing games; he should wake up, because what we are doing is not a game, and we are prepared to give our lives for education,” Gárate emphasised.

She said at the moment she does not even want to think about what she will do when she finishes secondary school. “I’m in my final year, and obviously I want to go on studying; but if we can’t afford it, what can I do? We only have enough to get by on,” said the young woman, who lives alone with her father, a labourer at a factory on the outskirts of Santiago who earns less than 400 dollars a month.

Studying at a university costs at least 450 dollars a month in Chile.

In the face of the government’s lack of response, “the hunger strike will not be abandoned,” and any harm to the health of the participants “is entirely President Piñera’s responsibility,” Miguel Rebolledo, a spokesman for the Liceo Experimental Artístico, a secondary school in Santiago that focuses on the arts, told IPS.

On Wednesday, six students called off their hunger strike, but 28 students at schools across the country are continuing the protest.

According to José Horacio Wood, head of ANIDE, a children’s rights foundation, “hunger strikes are an extraordinary and extreme form of protest,” and are particularly risky for children or adolescents, like the secondary student strikers.

Concerns arise from the health hazards and the risk of fatality associated with the protest. But one must ask why children under 18 find it necessary to exert pressure by means of a hunger strike, he said.

In Wood’s view, Chile’s democratic system is failing, and the evidence is “the attitude taken by a government that has shown no sign of taking the proposals of secondary and university students seriously.”

“The state is to blame for forcing us to take extreme measures to make our voices heard,” María José Zúñiga, spokeswoman for secondary school students at Liceo A-131, a high school in the municipality of Buin, adjacent to the nation’s capital, told IPS.

The 28 students who are still refusing food were recently joined by three parents or guardians, and 22 university students.

The authorities say students will be able to pass year-end exams and be promoted to the next school class, in spite of the classroom days that have been lost, and have come up with a plan called “Salvemos el año” (roughly, Let’s pass the year).

They met with student movement leaders for a careful review of the bills the government proposes to send to parliament.

“Points that still need clarification will be reviewed as many times as necessary, and we will make sure this happens, so that all their queries and doubts are aired,” Minister Bulnes said.

The minister explained that the initiatives include a constitutional reform that would guarantee the right to a quality education, as well as a bill to increase student grants for the poorest 40 percent of society.

A system of combined student grants and loans, to cover up to 60 percent of the cost of tuition; the reduction of interest rates on state-approved loans from 5.6 percent to two percent; and strict enforcement of the law prohibiting universities from making profits are also necessary, he said.

The government proposes creating a Superintendency of Higher Education to oversee that prohibition, as well as introducing a bill to end the administration of public primary and secondary schools by local municipal governments, one of the main criticisms levelled against the present system, Bulnes said.

“As far as the government is concerned, these proposals have always been on the table. What is lacking is for other sectors to stop being so intransigent,” the minister complained.

But in the view of leaders of the education movement, the measures proposed by the Chilean government do not go far enough, and they lack the required guarantees.

Camila Vallejo, the main spokeswoman for the Confederation of Chilean University Students, said there are “many gaps” in the government’s proposals. To offer more grants and greater coverage is not an adequate response to “our proposal, which advocates moving towards free education,” she said.

Zúñiga, the secondary student spokeswoman, enlarged: “More scholarships, more loans, are no use to us, because students will only take on a heavier burden of debt. What we are really asking for is quality public education that is free for everybody.

For his part, the president of the national Teachers’ Association, Jaime Gajardo, said the government proposals “are really calling on parliament, instead of social actors, to decide the issues.” He also criticised the lack of clarity over how exactly the state will take on a more active role in education.

While it is positive that the government is considering overseeing the question of profits in universities, there are uncertainties about how it will be monitored in secondary schools, as “the administrators of private schools are cashing in on resources that belong to all Chileans, and not a word has been said about that,” Gajardo said.

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