The political temperature continues to rise in Chile since last week’s killing of 16-year-old high school student Manuel Gutiérrez in the capital Santiago.
The country, which is the world’s major producer of copper, has been viewed as a rock for global capitalism in an unstable South America. But now it is seeing – horror of horrors for its right-wing rulers – a united workers and student movement which has the support of the majority of Chilean citizens.
Interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter has been forced to announce that the bullets that killed Gutiérrez matched those in a 9mm UZ submachine gun belonging to police officer Miguel Millacura. Hinzpeter has been compelled to ask for the resignation of deputy chief of the Metropolitan Zone Sergio Gajardo.
The discrediting of the police – and the continuing 37-day hunger strike by a high school student – will intensify the political and social crisis facing President Sebastian Pinera.
Over the last three months, massive student protests for an egalitarian education system followed close on the heels of the longest-ever strike at Collahuasi, the world’s third largest copper mine. In July, miners struck at the state-owned Codelco mine, followed by workers at the world’s biggest copper mine, Escondida.
An estimated 70-80% of Chileans support the student movement with parents and grandparents joining their children in massive street protests. Last week, up to half a million people took part in strikes and demonstrations around the country as the Workers United Center of Chile joined in with a 48-hour strike. Over a thousand arrests were made as the state struck back.
Although the country’s booming economy is growing at 6.8%, it also has a 15% poverty rate and the widest gap between rich and poor in the region. Chile ranks as the world’s 16th most-unequal country, along with El Salvador and Panama.
Its workers know that the wealth they generate is being creamed off by a tiny elite. And, with an average debt of $45,000 which is around 174% of a student’s annual salary upon graduation, no wonder there is anger amongst young people.
Chilean students are part of a global “indignation” movement that is seeing protests from Honduras, where 17-year-old Nahum Guerra was shot on August 22 during protests for public education, to Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and other mass movements in Europe, North Africa, Middle East and India.
Most important of all, just as in Spain and Greece, an entire generation of students and workers feel disenfranchised as they do not see themselves represented by established political parties. The “leftist” Concertación bloc, which took over after the military dictatorship, is scoring only 17% in the polls, even lower than Pinera’s 26%.
The CUT union leadership is discredited by its close relationship with the official parties as is the Chilean Communist Party (CCP). And whilst students are fighting against government strategies for private profit-driven education, the CCP is running a profit-oriented university in the country’s capital!
The rise of local and territorial people’s assemblies amongst students and around the country is opening up new avenues for a mass movement to devise strategies to go beyond capitalism. Helped by social networking, Chilean students are linking up directly with the real democracy movement (DRY and 15M) in Spain and elsewhere.
The rise of Chile’s worker-student movement is proof, if proof is needed, that 2011 is indeed the year of “global indignation”. Understanding the experience of how democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by Pinochet’s military junta in 1973 is vital. This is the spectre that haunts not only Chile but every mass people’s movement.
The development of people’s assemblies in Chile and elsewhere shows the urgent need to go beyond resistance – and the mistaken belief that the existing state can be reformed – to a strategy for wresting economic and political power away from those who hold it.
A World to Win secretary
31 August 2011