by Sally Helm
A clown came to the protest wearing stilts. He held a sign—“No More Military Spending!”—and also, a toilet plunger. Nearby, two women chanted that “water is a right,” and a group from the communist party unfurled a long red banner. The clown passed a whitehaired communist, and gave him a plunge on the head.
University students planned to descend on Valparaíso to protest for education reform—but it seemed there would also be a protest about every single other problem in Chile. Then a little girl appeared, blowing a whistle and waving a flag that declared, “education is a right.” Soon behind her came the students—hundreds of them. They were out in force to repeat their demands: free and high quality education for all.
A hooded figure with a bandana over his face emerged from the periphery. In front of a group from the Universidad de Chile, he lit a cardboard tube on fire. It smoldered for a while, throwing off smoke, and slowly burned out. Meanwhile, President Sebastián Piñera addressed the Chilean Congress a few blocks away—his state of the nation address was the immediate occasion for the march. He spent some words on education, ending with a little fatherly advice.
“Never before in our history has a generation had so many opportunities to educate themselves,” the President said. “But [the students] should remember that they also have responsibilities. To their studies, to their families, to their country, and above all, to themselves.”
Back at the march, parents began to take the young kids home. The roofs were spotted with dark figures clutching rocks. Officers waited behind a white plastic barricade as protesters in gas masks began to dismantle it. Then a rock flew from a rooftop, and the fight began. Forty minutes later, after a flurry of tear gas and arrests, the white plastic barricade lay twisted and burned, and the President’s speech ended. He had not promised free education for all. No one was surprised.
Fernando Hidalgo, a 19-year-old sociology student in square-framed glasses, sat in a park outside of Santiago’s Universidad Central to explain his involvement in Chile’s massive student movement. Since the summer of 2011, students have been fighting to lower or eliminate tuition payments and make higher education accessible to all. The government has yet to accede to most of their demands.
Still, Hidalgo said that the movement has had other important effects. “An enormous trampoline,” he said. “Yes—the student movement has definitely been a type of trampoline that other social movements have jumped off from.” Some of those movements are separate from the central student unrest, though perhaps inspired by it (a notable example is the mobilization in Aysén, a region to the south).
Additionally, however, the student movement itself has grown to encompass a wider range of causes.
“We’ve started to see that education is connected to constitutional changes, and to societal inequalities over all,” said Sebastián Donoso, Universidad de Santiago’s student federation president. “The movement isn’t just one dimensional anymore.” Some say that increased participation has diluted the movement’s education-focused message, but most leaders favor greater numbers.
“The only way forward, when the government isn’t listening, is to win the support of the population,” said Jorge Brito, president of the student federation at Valparaiso’s Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María. He opened the door to their headquarters. The vibe was like that of any typical college dorm room: Music played, and one student sat on a stool while his friends shaved his head. Brito waved and asked them how they were doing. Then, he retreated into his office.
No barbershop antics here: It was quiet and casually professional. Two desks sat among bookshelves lined with white plastic binders. Their spines read, “Agenda: CONFECH meeting, March 2011” and “Agenda: CONFECH meeting, April 2012.” Brito closed the door to muffle the razor’s whine. On his campus, Brito plans federation events and meetings, and he also works with the nation-wide Confederation of Student Federations (CONFECH), which is responsible for organizing many of the movement’s activities. With participation as his goal, he spent last year planning protests that sometimes felt like parties.
“One time, it was very beautiful, we did ‘dances for education,’” Brito said. “Another time, 500 of us gathered in the center of Valparaiso, and 1…2….3…we all fell to the floor. Thirty minutes we were on the floor. And people were passing”—Brito lowered his voice to a whisper—“they were saying, look, look, what’s happening, what’s happening.”
That’s what creative protest is about, students explain—calling attention to themselves, so that officials take note of their concerns. “One way to get people involved is to talk about our demands, to say that education should be free and high quality,” Brito said. “But another is the form that you use to say those things.” Student leaders have spearheaded some of the more creative tactics, but their followers have also chosen diverse ways to represent themselves. They Photoshop images of Minister of Education Harald Beyer with his pants down, they put on bear suits, and they pretend to be pirates. In May 2012, Rocío Sara came to a march in Santiago dressed up as an ant.
“It’s from that movie! A Bug’s Life. You know that movie? ” Sara asked. She wore a headband with two protruding antennae made from balls of tape, and she had painted her arms and face with swirls of bright seablue.
“Going out to the marches—it’s like being awake, always,” she said. “It’s not to achieve the demands, really. It’s just a form. It’s to say, ‘we can march.’”
For Brito, however, the creative forms have a practical end: He hoped that they would inspire widespread mobilization, which ultimately would spur the ruling class to action. “But, the government didn’t respond, and didn’t respond, and didn’t respond, and didn’t respond,” Brito said. “And we kept going, and going, and going. And finally, many of our peers opted for violence.”
Fernando Hidalgo, the glasses-clad 19-year-old, is one of those.
“When you gain more experience in this… you realize that violence is a method that eventually brings you to a level of greater productivity,” Hidalgo said. “The ruling class doesn’t tend to listen to protests. But when there’s violence? When there’s a scene, and the roads are cut off for more than ten hours, and there’s damage to public property, or costs to pay? Then, they listen.”
Hidalgo is a self-proclaimed encapuchado: “hooded one.” Faces wrapped in black scarves or obscured by bulky sweatshirts, they lurk on the edges of the festive demonstrations, coming out for the inevitable brawls at the end. Not a march goes by without reports of rocks or Molotov cocktails thrown at police officers, and tear gas or water cannons unleashed in response. The violence has even spread beyond the marches—in both Santiago and Valparaiso, students have burned cars and destroyed other property, purportedly in solidarity with the cause.
A taxi driver says that he used to support them, but students have shut down public streets too many times. Now he calls them “a bunch of good for nothings.” One moderate student says he believes in education reform, but that the demonstrations are just “a bunch of noise.” Hidalgo said that he and his clan have been unfairly characterized. “What happens is, in the media… it starts to look like we’re all vandals, we’re all delinquents,” he said. “But really, there are many reasons behind the capucha.”
Brito doesn’t see these reasons. “If you want a society with more solidarity, you don’t go and burn the car of a woman who’s just trying to go to work,” he said. “I don’t know how that advances our movement. I don’t know how that helps us achieve our demands. I don’t know.”
He tries to minimize the damage of the encapuchados when it comes to public opinion. Last year, after some protesters burned a car, Federico Santa María’s Student Federation held a party in a disquotheque to pay for a new one.
“But one of the other universities’ federations didn’t participate, because they said that all forms of protest are valid,” Brito said. “Even violence.”
That’s the kind of talk Hidalgo respects.
“Some people within the movement reject the capucha, something that I don’t really understand. I think that you have to support all the forms of opposition—absolutely all of them,” he said.
For Hidalgo, it’s student leaders who don’t know how to get things done. “If someone goes dancing in the Plaza de Armas, in the capital building, they’re going to be laughing,” he said. “People come with flowers, with balloons, with cheers, and everything very beautiful and all of us expressing ourselves. But we’re not going to achieve anything.”
Brito can easily spend an hour listing statistics about poverty, facts about Chile’s higher education system, and proposals for how to reform it—but he doesn’t deny the lack of concrete results. “Up until now, the student movement has achieved practically nothing in education,” Brito said. “But, it has changed minds. And so today more changes are possible…we can start participating in our democracy again.”
Hidalgo’s brand of participation might not be what he had in mind, but the two men have strikingly similar ideological goals.
“I think that we have to defend the little that remains for us of our democracy,” Hidalgo said. “Ruthlessly.”
The Santiago policeman stared fixedly at a parked car. At 21, he’s the same age as many of the students he has arrested at marches gone out of control. When he agreed to speak (anonymously), he flicked his eyes up and down the block as if afraid of being watched. Even speaking anonymously, the officer toed the party line. The protestors are violent ruffians, while what the police do isn’t violence it’s just “necessary force.” “Tell me,” he said, “have you seen an officerthrowing a Molotov cocktail at a student?” He shook his head. “You’re not going to see that.”
A police van rolled up to the Santiago corner. The officer approached it and saluted smartly, slamming his boots together. “Not everyone understands my choice to become a police officer,” he said, returning to his post. “It’s about duty. It’s about protecting my fellow citizens.”
He thinks the students should appreciate the prosperity and stability that they’ve inherited. “We have freedoms, but we have to act responsibly,” he said. “There’s a limit to our liberties.”
The encapuchado doesn’t accept that kind of limitation, and doesn’t think it’ll hold up for long.
“Even with the toughest terrorism, the state can’t block the authority of the people forever,” he said. “Protest itself is a symbol of freedom. If you go to a march today in Chile, it’s two or three hours of liberty.”
For Sara, the ant, that’s success enough. “I think that the marches will have a result, no matter what,” she said. “They’re for all of us. To be united, and to be in opposition.” Satisfied with her explanation, she looked up ahead at where her friends had disappeared into the crowd. All around her, a chant picked up force. It was both raucous and choreographed, and they all seemed to know it.
“Chi! Chi! Chi!” “Le! Le! Le” “Chile!”
SALLY HELM ’14 is an English major in Berkeley College. The majority of the interviews for this article were conducted in Spanish. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.