Why Chilean Students Protest

Certainly, the demand for educational reforms in Chile is a major cause of student mobilizations over the last two-plus years. But reform is rarely enough in and of itself to sustain a long-term movement; there have to be other systemic and political issues that revitalize the movement. In Chile, the structural problems with the educational bureaucratic apparatus has played an important, if overlooked, part of that revitalizing force. Howso? Well, last night, Chile’s Senate voted to impeach the Minister of Education,[update: less-detailed English version here] Harald Beyer, finding him guilty for failing to act against profiteering within universities, among other charges. The vote followed the Chamber of Deputies’ recent vote to impeach Beyer. Although President Sebastián Piñera’s government insisted Beyer would remain in his post “until the end,” the end is now apparently nigh, as the impeachment means Beyer is banned from holding public office for 5 years. Additionally, whoever replaces Beyer will become the fourth Education Minister in just two years in Chile, as his previous two predecessors had resigned in the face of student protests demanding free higher education.

Given the apparent government corruption in the Ministry of Education, this type of turnover is exactly the kind of issue that can reignite student movements and give them strength both in terms of internal organization and in terms of creating broader social support for them and/or opposition to the government. Indeed, the fallout of Beyer’s policies and his lack of oversight were significant issues in recent protests that saw over 100,000 students march.

The turnover and malfeasance of the ministers of education under Piñera certainly reflect poorly on his administration, and there seems to be little doubt that, when he leaves office next year, education will be one of the key defining issues and failures of his government. Indeed, it is of little surprise that presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet has already made educational reforms a key part of her platform as she seeks the presidency for a second time. That she has done so, and that so much of Piñera’s government has been defied by his intransigence or inability to address educational reform, provides a powerful reminder of the political and social power of student movements and of the educational issues they embrace in the twenty-first century.

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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