Student Protests and Pinochet’s Will: Public and Private Memory of Neoliberalism

On Wednesday, April 25, two important and interrelated events occurred in Chile: the former dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s revised last will and testament was opened, and around 60,000 students marched in protest of the economical and social disadvantages ingrained in the neoliberal educational system that Pinochet put in place. Both events point to Chile’s ongoing memory struggles over the dictatorship’s neoliberal legacies, now in the context of Sebastian Piñera’s right-wing government and the upcoming presidential election.  And if we trace these big events to how they affect ordinary people, we find that the memory of neoliberalism is present in the everyday lives of Chileans, and suddenly the mundane gains greater importance.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Pinochet’s revised will did not reveal where his embezzled funds are hidden, let alone who inherited them nor how they could be accessed.  Pinochet privatized state industries and pocketed large chunks of the money, taking advantage of neoliberalism’s hallmark at the expense of working-and middle-class Chileans (and not to mention doing what dictators do best—whatever they want). Thanks to that and many other neoliberal reforms (drastic implementation of a free-market economy and dismantling of the welfare state, tariff slashing, union busting, privatization of state industries, etc.), the middle class was impoverished, and the working class was even worse off than before. And then there’s the education issue.

Pinochet privatized the university system, and he also divided the primary educational system into three groups: public, particulares (partially state-funded, partially funded by outside sources, mainly other countries), and private schools. Although Piñera’s government has made steps (if baby ones) toward meeting the left in the middle on the issue of education by beginning to implement reforms, and also by cooperating in the opening of the will, it is perhaps difficult for those who have been saddled with the negative effects of neoliberal reforms for their entire lives—even the student protesters, who never experienced the dictatorship—to forget Pinochet’s legacy and what little has been done to change it since the transition to democracy.

Perhaps that is why, in spite of the fact that Piñera’s government has introduced reforms into Congress that have conceded to the main demand of the student protesters, the movement and its supporters remain cautious. The reforms would put the state, not the banks, in charge of financing higher education through loans at low interest rates to be paid when students begin working.  They would also lower the points that students must score on entrance exams, supposedly giving students coming from disadvantaged educational backgrounds a fairer chance at getting into as good a school as their private-school peers.

Yet that is really putting a band-aid on a much larger problem.  In 2008, I volunteered teaching English a couple of days a week in two public schools, a high school and an elementary school. In both, the teachers were overworked and under-paid (many taught both day and night to cover the day students and the night students of an overenrolled school).  The children were rowdy, disinterested, and extremely distracted. I talked with the teachers under whom I worked, and the situation was as I suspected: the students came to school hungry, and many of them with problems at home, so of course they found it hard to concentrate and behave at school, and they didn’t see the point.

Not all of them were like that: some of them decided to buckle down so they could get out of their current situation, go to college, and end the cycle of poverty or relative poverty. I am facebook friends with some of those students, and it pleases me to see that one is now doing his clinicals in dentistry; another is studying sound technology, another social work, another medicine, and another English literature. A couple of months ago on the metro I heard a voice say, “Brandi, is that you?”  It was my former student Felipe—the one who studies English. I was so happy to see him. Life is going really well for him, and he is very happy. In addition to studying, he teaches English to other undergraduates at the Universidad de Concepción. But education reform needs to be real, at the university and primary levels, for more kids like them to be able go to college. They feel neoliberalism on a daily basis.

So to get back to the main point, memory struggles over neoliberalism are sometimes very evident and very public, such as the opening of Pinochet’s will or the massive student protests.  But they are also very quiet and private, seen in the everyday movements that people make as they go forward (like my former students who are now pursuing higher education), or to just get through the day (like my other former students, as well as their teachers, who do the best they can). And in the end, the huge, public spectacles that everyone will remember years from now are composed, at their very core, of these very ordinary experiences, because that is what gives them their worth.

For more on memory, neoliberalism, and the everyday, see Clara Han, Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile, forthcoming in June.

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