“A tough fight is on the horizon to change the political system”
An interview with student leader Francisco Figueroa
Since mid-June, Chilean high school and university students have staged school and campus takeovers, strikes and protests that thousands of people have supported, demanding deep reforms in the education system. A generation of student leaders and an organized base have placed the issue of free and high-quality education at the center of the national debate.
Latinamerica Press correspondent Rocío Alorda spoke with Francisco Figueroa, a journalism student and vice president of the University of Chile’s Federation of Students (FECH), one of the pillars of the Confederation of Students of Chile (CONFECH), a group that has been on the front line of negotiations with President Sebastián Piñera’s administration officials to end for-profit education.
Why do you think this movement has been historic?
It’s been historic because what’s being proposed and accomplished are things that were unthinkable for the last 20 years, and it has achieved enormous social breadth. The political fact that allows us to say this is that the [student] movement put an end to the social conditions underlying the “transition” [to democracy that began in 1990]. In other words, the “transition” was possible because part of the people trusted the Coalition [the center-left coalition that governed between 1990 and 2010] and the right. Today that legitimacy of the political class does not exist and there is a tremendous legitimacy for new social actors who are entering the political arena. So it’s historic because it’s the closure of a political cycle.
So are we dealing with a new era?
Yes, a new era, [and] we don’t yet know who is going to lead it or who’s going to sort it out. But it has definitely, definitely opened up.
Today the political scene is very flexible and things can happen that were unimaginable before. What has been the progress made by the student movement?
Specifically I can think of two dimensions. The topics and value judgments on these issues have come to light in unexpected ways. For example, today financial profit in education is deeply questioned, something that was impossible to suggest before. The idea of strengthening public education has really taken off, it’s considered a necessity. In addition there has been a critical assessment of education. No one can say that education in Chile is not in crisis and does not contribute to inequality, and political actors have had to realign themselves based on this.
Second, this movement has made the government commit to repeal laws that prevented student organization in higher education institutions created after 1980.
Progress has been made in student aid issues and while there is still no document signed [by the government], next year students will have better conditions. A lot of progress has been made in student organization, a number of student unions have flourished in areas where there hadn’t been any, and the quality of debate in the university community has deepened.
Will there ever be free education in Chile?
I think so, because I am optimistic that the new social movements, the left, will get into government. I think that with the social power needed, we are going to push that reform through. That may not happen tomorrow or in five years, but I think it will happen.
Did the student movement bring to light the crisis in Chile’s democracy?
Yes, absolutely, because it not only revealed the crisis in education but also the crisis and the failure of this democracy to process social conflicts, to resolve social expectations. Today it is evident that the ceiling that this democracy puts on is too low and can’t continue.
What was the catalyst that brought to light the crisis in education?
Good question. For a long time, it was said that these young people were ni ahí, not there [a Chilean expression used by young people to express disinterest] and that there was pure individualism. This breaks down all those theories. I think students see the crisis every day in their schools, in their universities, they notice the authoritarianism there. They see in the media the paradoxes of politicians who don’t have any arguments and don’t have the support of the people, but have so much power. As they see it daily in their schools, their families, their universities, that all comes together and just clicks on them, and they unite and say: “For years we were told we were in a developed country, and it wasn’t really like that.”
It’s said that this is a generation without fear.
Yes, compared to previous generations that were limited by their experience under the dictatorship, when dissenting with the parties, with the government, was often synonymous with death, this generation doesn’t have those fears. So that’s a considerable advantage.
Currently there are a few perspectives on solutions to the conflict. What are those?
We, as FECH, stand behind the need for the major disagreements between the government and the students to be resolved by a referendum [on the type of education the citizens of Chile want]. We don’t know exactly how the movement’s strategy plays into this, because every week the scenarios change, but we don’t think it’s possible for positions supported by the majority not be implemented. When the people massively support the end of for-profit [education], or more than 70 percent of people support our demands and these aren’t implemented, that’s synonymous with not being in a democracy. That’s why we think a referendum needs to be used as a tool.
Is there a future for these new political generations in traditional spaces?
I don’t think it’s going to be easy because the majority of [us] students aren’t part of official political parties that have the possibility to participate in elections. So the political future of this generation also depends on the existence of institutional conditions that allow it. I think a tough fight is on the horizon to change the political system, and with that we are going to run into resistance from the Coalition and the right. In that sense, a battle is coming up because it’s a generation with a lot of social support but resistance from the political class, so there might be new conflicts generated by this issue.