Chile’s Own Educational and Debt Struggles

The Chilean student protests and issue of educational reform in Chile have been a recurrent topic that we’ve discussed here since the blog started up late last year. Although Sebastián Piñera has begun to move toward reforms (after the ongoing protests gained widespread support even while his administration’s support reached extraordinarily low levels in Chile), it has not been enough, and as Brandi pointed out, students continue to march against the current educational situation and Piñera’s policies specifically, and against the type of neoliberal approach to education and to Chile’s economy that is the foundation of Piñera’s administration more generally.Recently, the AP’s Luís Andrés Henao ran a story on just what the lived experiences of many of Chile’s university students (and their families) are:

Cristobal Steffens and his sister Natalie were the first in their family to go to college, and both emerged with good jobs. But they also joined the 500,000 Chileans who have had to take on sometimes-crushing debts. Their father put up the family home as collateral for student loans whose interest rates soared beyond what he could pay. Now the bank is threatening to evict them.

“My folks wanted to give us the best, they wanted us to become professionals and we had no other option. But this loan has practically seized our lives,” said Steffens, a veterinarian who blames his early baldness on the stress of losing his childhood home.

“Chile’s educational system is a fraud,” he said. “And we’re living a daily nightmare.”

Despite more than a year of mass protests that raised hopes across Chile for education reform, few students have seen any real benefits. Politicians and students have hardened their positions, but the system is still failing families with poor quality public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and banks that still make huge profits on loans that most Chileans can ill afford.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it should: the situation confronting Chile today is remarkably like the one confronting the United States. The origins for these similarities date back to the 1970s. Upon overthrowing democratically-elected leftist president Salvador Allende, Augusto Pinochet’s economic policies shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum. Pinochet brought in men who had worked with Milton Friedman, the neoliberal economist who pushed for aggressive privatization and degregulation of markets and economies, and these men, known collectively as the “Chicago Boys,” made Chile the paragon of neoliberalism in the continent. By the time presidents like Argentina’s Carlos Menem and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso adopted similar platforms in the 1990s, Chile had already been operating on a neoliberal macroeconomic system for two decades. Thus, from the 1970s onward, it was Chile’s economy more than any other South American economy that regularly most closely resembled the United States’ own neoliberal economic visions and attitudes throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, when George Bush tried to privatize social security in the United States in 2005, he pointed to Chile as a paradigm (even while the inherent failures of and pitfalls in privatization became increasingly clear in Chile). Thus, in many ways, it is not surprising that it is Chile’s higher educational system, with its network of student loans that are increasingly hurting students and families and posing real long-term threats to the Chilean economy, is the one that most closely resembles the situation confronting university students in the United States today.

That is not to say the two systems are totally equivalent, nor are the responses (and my colleagues may have more to say on this matter as well). After all, for months, tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of students have taken to the street in Chile, mobilizing for reform and demanding the government address their concerns, even while they gain the support of the general population. Meanwhile, a broad student movement in the United States, or even a regional movement, has failed to materialize. This is not to say those affected in the US are doing nothing; certainly, some segments of the Occupy movements that broke out throughout the country in the last 18 months occasionally touched upon this issue in its broader calls for fiscal reform (though the focus on broader economic inequalities between the so-called “99%” and “1%” prevented educational debt from ever becoming a centerpiece to the Occupy movement). Additionally, calls for legislation like House Resolution 4170, known as the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, are growing, and media outlets are increasingly covering the story in the United States, thus simultaneously revealing and adding to the growing importance of the issue of higher education and student debt in the US. Personally, these legislative tactics strike me as being less effective than the direct mobilization one sees in Chile, again for any number of structural reasons (the slowness of Congress to act; the influence of businesses like banks and lending agencies in US politics; the lack of a direct popular voice in these processes), but they at least reveal that the American public is not completely silent on the issue, even if it is not nearly as vocal or participatory as the Chilean public.

Nonetheless, there are important broad similarities between both countries that point to the pitfalls of the macroeconomic models that have come to dominate both Chile and the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, and it is now students who are paying for the sins of their forebears.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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