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Protesters supporting Chilean students march toward the Chilean Consulate in Buenos Aires on Aug. 25
Chilean students and workers took to the streets for a second day Aug. 25 to protest government policies. More than 1,000 have been arrested during the protests, with more than 200 injuries and one civilian death reported. The protests are being driven by a downturn in the Chilean economy and a spike in the number of college-age youths, and while these factors could ultimately be self-limiting, in the short term the government will have to make changes to keep the protests from growing.
Violence erupted Aug. 25 during the second day of national strikes in Chile as students and workers protested the Chilean government’s policies. Gunfire was reported in several locations around the country, and reports indicate that 1,394 people have been arrested, 153 police and 53 civilians have been injured, and one civilian was killed. Sponsored by the Workers’ United Center labor union, the protests have merged wage disputes with ongoing student demonstrations against Chilean President Sebastian Pinera’s government policies. The protesters demand sweeping education reform and wage hikes, and some environmentalists are protesting a dam planned for Patagonia.
The protests pose a serious political challenge for Chile, which had been one of the region’s most stable countries over the past two decades. Pinera, a right-wing leader, businessman and Harvard-educated economist, ran on an election platform of education reform and a promise to run the country like a business. Pinera’s is the first right-wing government to hold power in Chile since the country returned to democracy in 1990, and Pinera’s approval ratings — which have plummeted to 26 percent from 44 percent in late 2010 — are the lowest in that same time period. Given that Pinera’s policies have not shown much of a change from the previous administration, it seems clear that the protests stem from the population’s desire for significant change as represented by the 2009 election of Pinera’s party after two decades of continuity.
The students involved in the protests across Chile have numerous complaints. They want education to be completely subsidized — a reflection of the financial strain created by a 26 percent increase in the price of public education since 2005. The increased costs affect a greater portion of the population than before; the number of college students in Chile has grown from around 200,000 two decades ago to approximately 1 million. Legally, private universities can compete alongside public institutions, and students are protesting the idea of universities making a profit by charging higher tuition. Students are also protesting strict loan repayment rules. Since previous protests attempting to pressure the government to make structural changes to the education system have triggered only limited concessions from the government, the students now want a national referendum on the issue.
At the same time, the government is facing opposition from workers at state-owned copper company Codelco. A workers strike in July — the largest such strike in 28 years — caused millions of dollars in losses and forced Pinera to reconsider a proposal to privatize the company. An agreement was reached in early August, but the size and intensity of the strike lent considerable weight to growing unrest throughout the country.
A couple of structural factors are contributing to the current unrest. First is Chile’s economy. The country has done relatively well in the wake of the global economic downturn, with the growth rate for 2011 initially projected to be 6 percent. However, in combination with the effects of the 2010 earthquake, the global downturn triggered a rise in Chile’s poverty rate — from 14 percent in 2006 to more than 19 percent in 2010. This is still a significant decrease compared to the dictatorship-era rate of nearly 40 percent in 1989, but it is a sharp rise for a country that, in recent years, has grown accustomed to a consistently narrowing gap between rich and poor.
The second major structural factor is a population surge of people in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Not only is there a bump in the youth population, but it is also the first generation of students to have grown up entirely in post-dictatorship Chile. With more students enrolling in college, there are more students looking ahead to unprecedented (for Chile) levels of indebtedness when they graduate. This is also a generation that has grown accustomed to economic stability and mostly participatory democracy, with none of the fears of their parents’ generation. This population cohort’s increased willingness to use protests to push for political change has been a notable phenomenon over the past several years.
Ultimately, these factors could be self-limiting. Government policies are likely to remain fiscally responsible and relatively responsive to public demands. Chile’s copper-funded coffers are deep, and the government’s options for expanded spending to combat the economic downturn are more numerous than in many other countries in the region facing civil unrest. Furthermore, youth cohorts ultimately grow up, get jobs — assuming a continued economic recovery — and have families.
However, in the short term, Pinera will have to make greater educational and wage reforms to placate the protesters. His calculations likely will be tempered by the concern that the government’s capitulation would only prove the effectiveness of protests and could spur a secular shift toward more protests in Chile. If, however, Pinera refuses to make changes, the protests will grow, possibly affecting key industries and economic activities.