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Interview: “Revolution of increasing expectations”

Interview: “Revolution of increasing expectations”

07-09-2011

In Chile, tens of thousands of students are on the street demanding an improved education system. Yet, protests are not limited to students as citizens start to join the demonstrations. We have talked to David Altman, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

 

In the last weeks, the European media is increasingly covering the students' protest in Chile. What is your impression of the situation?

Although the protests are on-going, the situation has calmed down in the last week: The students are willing to enter negotiations with the government; a first meeting between student protesters and the government took place last week. Several universities have resumed lectures and classes.

Nonetheless, tensions have not resolved; things are bubbling beneath the surface. You can feel a general discontent with the government and the current course of politics. The demonstrations are no longer limited to students, but other parts of the population are joining. Students do have the time and power to mobilize a great mass. Their protests have started in May and are ever since on-going and intensifying. First, the general population offered their sympathy and support. Soon those supporters gathered for demonstrations as well. In that sense, the student protests have acted as a trigger, causing now greater political demonstrations. Now the list of demands of society is broad and evident: housing, health, pensions, and security are great concerns for the population.

In your opinion, what are the main reasons for the emerging protests?

People are pointing their finger at almost everything. Their discontent is not solely directed against the government. The current administration has been elected in 2010. It is not perfect, yet many problems have a long history; those problems are indeed structural. The citizens are frustrated with the system. Our system, as it stands, is incapable to solve social concerns. Chile is suffering from social inequity. If you are a blue-eyed male, young, healthy, and highly educated, you are in a good position. However, if you do not fit this description, you will start facing difficulties. Your future does not look as bright. Now citizens ask for equal opportunities and fairness.

In the last 20 years, Chile has gone a long way and it has improved in several areas. Chile is often pointed out as an exemplary case of development. Yet, in regard to dimensions of social policies, not much progress has been made since the end of the Pinochet regime in 1989. Of course, the different administrations have made some alterations and improvements, yet the final product is not satisfying. I like to describe the situation as a revolution of increasing expectations. The Chilean economy reports a steady growth; much investment can be observed. Now citizens are demanding a greater share of the cake.

However, there may be a contradiction in the way Chile is portrayed. You can observe much development. We can for example not deny the fact, that 70 percent of the current students are the first generation in their family pursuing higher education. The situation is neither black nor white. Of course, improvements are needed.

Your illustrations bring the demonstrations in Spain to mind. To what extend can you compare the situation in Chile with the Spanish protests?

You can definitely draw comparisons between Spain and Chile. For example, the housing situation is a great concern in both countries. Same holds true for the situation in Israel. Israel is as well affected by huge demonstrations. In Tel-Aviv, 450.000 citizens protested against the high, but yet increasing cost of living.

Of course, every case is unique; the general conditions are different. Each society is facing different concerns. The protests in Spain are for example motivated by the Euro crisis. Chile is facing different challenges. Yet, in my opinion, there is one common factor uniting all the protests: that is the frustration with the political system. The citizens are dissatisfied with the current situation, go onto the streets and voice their demands.

A popular claim by the student protesters is a referendum. Do you think it is a wise move?

Many students are indeed calling for a referendum. In my opinion, it's a bold, maybe even dangerous move. I fear that the students have not carefully enough considered their claim. It is not yet clear what matter should be exactly voted on. The students demand top-quality education, but at the same time education should be a free good. How should you realize both demands? From where the money will come from? It is important to offer a concrete proposal. Further, the referendum may backfire due to formal requirements. In order to vote, one has to be registered at the election office. However, about four million, mostly young people are not registered and hence, they cannot partake at the referendum. Thus, it is unlikely that a referendum will result in the outcome, the students are fighting for. I value direct democracy, yet it cannot cure everything. In Chile, the whole political system has to change first, before tools of direct democracy can benefit.

In your opinion, how can the dispute be resolved?

I would like to believe in the government. After all, it is the government's responsibility to achieve social peace. Furthermore, politicians, when faced with immense protests, have to realize, that reforms are required for their own survival. Thus, the ball is in their playing field. In my opinion, the set-up of the institutions has to be modified. The parliament is hereby decisive; after all, 99% of the daily political activity takes place in the parliament. Further, it is essential to consider the electoral system.

The citizens' power is important to achieve change. Yet, patience is also crucial. The situation we face is not as bad as we can imagine a classical revolution. Thus, people can pressure politicians, wait for elections and voice their discontent. And whoever we elect, they need to realize change.

The protests have affected the government. The administration is ready to some concessions. Of course, it remains unclear, whether the government can satisfy all students' claims. Yet, certain demands should be discussed. Student loans are for example a hot topic. The interest rate is up to five percent, a high value since Chile is an emerging market. It will be a long bargaining process, in which government and students will meet in the middle. Last week, meetings have commenced and we have to wait how the process will evolve.

What is your future outlook?

I am concerned about the violence. Unfortunately, recent protests have turned violent. The police has been overwhelmed restoring social order, and responded with even more violence. Sadly, violence is common in the Chilean protest culture. Furthermore, due to its past, the police is to certain extent still militarized. In the Pinochet era, the police belonged to the defense ministry.Nonetheless, it is unacceptable for the police to deploy weapons against the protesters. In late August, a 16 years old student died as he was hit by live ammunition coming from police's weaponry. The government reacted quickly and has launched an investigation into the matter. Nine policemen have been separated from the police department.

I hope the tensions will further fade down; and it looks promising. Universities have resumed classes and lectures. The government invited students for a dialog. I believe they will eventually arrive at some arrangement. However, I am not confident, that the structural problems will be completely solved. After some time, a new movement will emerge pointing out different or maybe even same concerns. That is the course of policy!

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Vanessa Eggert

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