Viewpoint by Pía Figueroa*
SANTIAGO (IDN) – Every year, as they have been doing since 2011, students in Chile take to the streets each Thursday, demanding a free and good quality education system.
They are increasingly being joined by their parents – tired of paying for expensive schooling which is certainly the most expensive in the whole of Latin America – and teachers who leave work to join the students with a call for proper definition of the teaching career.
And virtually every Thursday for the last five years, these demonstrations have been repressed by the police with water cannons and tear gas, ending in unfortunate incidents.
Without being able to establish a proper dialogue in order to satisfy the people, the current government has enacted several laws considered part of a major reform of education, which is one of the “historic” transformations that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet wants to leave as her legacy, along with tax reform, reform of the pension system, electoral reform and civil liberties, such as same-sex partnerships and abortion rights.
Seen from afar, it seems like a major package of meaningful actions. They are legislative proposals that seek to change the foundations of education, economics and Chilean politics, leaving behind the old system in force since the era of Augusto Pinochet. Other initiatives are driving forward social changes, which aim to modernise one of the most conservative countries in the region.
However, perhaps because of the style and form of governing which has lent a deaf ear to the constant demands of the people and cooked up proposals behind closed doors, none of these reforms has left the population with a feeling of agreement, progress or a better future. On the contrary, they have increasingly reduced the level of popular approval of the cabinet and the president, who today has the lowest approval rating a Chilean government has ever had.
Tax reforms proposed by Bachelet – implemented in September 2014 – were primarily aimed at financing changes to the educational system. They sought to increase tax collection by three percent of gross domestic product (GDP) up to 2018, the equivalent of about 8.3 billion US dollars (of which about five billion would be allocated to education).
However, the economy has since slowed down and momentum has fallen, even if corporate taxes have increased and the tax rate for individuals reduced, and additional taxes on alcohol, sugared drinks and polluting vehicle emissions have been created, as well as mechanisms to combat tax evasion.
This year, 2016, the country will go to the polls in late October to elect new councillors and mayors, measuring the strength of each political party and getting ready for 2017, in which the first post-reform parliamentary elections will be held.
For those elections, the number of members of parliament will increase from 120 to 155, and of senators from 38 senators to 50. It is now also required that at least 40 percent of candidates must be women, pointing to greater gender parity in elected office.
Perhaps these changes could make room for young political groups and extra-parliamentary parties that have not been able to make themselves heard in Parliament, which is still governed by rules and standards designed in the period of dictatorship.
Removing all the shady legal caveats that Chile has kept in place since the ‘dark ages’ has been a battle against cultural conservatism. It was not until 1999 that the law punishing homosexuality was abolished, and only in 2015 were civil unions between couples of the same sex approved.
However the so-called Civil Union Agreement (AUC) leaves Chile behind neighbours Argentina and Uruguay – which passed similar laws some years ago – because, while the AUC allows couples to share assets at the legal level, receive inheritance and pensions and share the benefits of the health system, it does not include the right to adoption.
In terms of civil rights, abortion was only legalised this year, but only for three reasons: risk of life of the mother, rape and fetal infeasibility. This is a step forward considering that Chile had been one of the few countries in the world where abortion was prohibited in all circumstances and was considered a taboo subject, but it is far from what women’s movements are demanding, which is the right to decide over their own bodies.
It could be said that with all these reforms the country is progressing towards the United nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and maybe so.
In fact, Chile is diversifying its energy matrix towards clean sources (solar, wind, geothermal, small hydroelectric plants, etc.) and also advancing in energy efficiency. Innovation, seawater desalination, efficient use of natural resources, combatting desertification and climate change are all being enhanced in a context of growing environmental awareness. But all this is not enough.
Today, Chileans are obsessed with social changes and want to finish this period with a significant transformation in the educational system, which is understand as the basis from which to aspire to a more egalitarian society.
The call is for a teaching career in line with the demands of teachers and different to that imposed by the Ministry of Education without listening, arbitrarily limiting teachers. Teachers continue to organize their days of national protest against the new teaching career and ring the bells and buzzers of all the country’s schools in a sign of massive protest.
Chileans want a country that puts an end to social inequality and the discomfort it generates in all social strata.
It is little known that in late November 2015, the OECD presented its Economic Survey of Chile 2015, including its latest report on income distribution showing that the country led the ranking of the most unequal countries with a Gini coefficient of 0.503 between 2006 and 2011, sharing first spot with Turkey and Mexico. The Gini coefficient is the most commonly used measure of a country’s inequality.
The OECD report called for more inclusive economic growth in Chile given that the richest 10 percent currently earn 26.5 times more than the poorest 10 percent, exceeding the average of OECD member countries by more than 100 percent.
These are differences that are intolerable and when people go out to the streets, as they do every Thursday, to protest against the educational system or the pension system, what they are really asking for is an inclusive, fairer country, where everyone has the opportunity to develop and where progress benefits everyone.
* Co-Director of Pressenza International Press Agency, life-long humanist, author of several monographs and books. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 August 2016]