In 2011, students in Chile made headlines when they launched a nationwide strike lasting almost eight months.
The trigger was high tuition costs that drove students and their families into debt. There were coordinated marches in all major cities. At some universities students took over buildings. The marches took on almost a carnival atmosphere with students engaging in “kiss-ins” and pillow fights.
Before long, the marches became multifaceted. Opponents of the massive HidroAysén dam project in Patagonia joined in. Students and trade unions joined forces when workers staged strikes and marched in Santiago and other major cities.
Tasha Fairfield, an assistant professor for the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development, said the strikes were pivotal. “The student movement played a critical role in creating political space,” Fairfield said. It “dramatically changed the political context in Chile and helped to place the issues of Chile’s extreme inequalities centrally on the national agenda.”
Although most of the demonstrations were peaceful, some protestors wanted more direct confrontation with the police. Masked protesters armed with stones clashed with police forces equipped with riot gear, tear gas, and armored vehicles with water cannons. The harshness of the government crackdown drew international criticism.
More than two thirds of the population supported the student movement and its demands for education reform. The students consistently rejected the government’s attempts to appease the protesters as grossly insufficient. Their goal was free university tuition. President Sebastian Piñera, the first conservative president since the 1988 plebiscite that ended General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, saw his ratings plummet to the lowest of any leader in the post-authoritarian era. Ordinary Chileans had made clear that they wanted to see changes in their society.
This set the stage for Michelle Bachelet to run for election in 2013. She was previously president from 2006-2010, but Chile’s laws prevented her from running for a second consecutive term.
This time around, her platform was much more radical. Bachelet pledged to reform the tax system and, with the increased revenue, reform the education system. She won the election and immediately took the first step. She raised the corporate tax rate and closed significant loopholes.
The 2013 Elections
Bachelet was backed by the Nueva Mayoria (New Majority), a center-left coalition made up of her own Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Party for Democracy, among others. After falling just short of an absolute majority in the first round of elections, Bachelet won handily in the runoff, taking home over 62 percent of the vote.
The elections remade the legislature. Isabel Allende (from the Socialist Party), daughter of Salvador Allende, became the first woman president of the senate. Several student leaders, including Camila Vallejo (of the Communist Party) and Gabriel Boric (an Independent), launched political careers by winning their bids to join the Chamber of Deputies. The left was swept into power by a wave of public support and gained strong majorities in both houses of the National Congress.
Bachelet had been given a clear mandate. The government put together a package that would raise corporate income taxes from 20 percent to at least 25 percent and close tax loopholes for companies and wealthy business owners. The changes promised to bring in an estimated $8.3 billion each year. The government pledged to put half of these funds toward providing free education for all Chileans by the year 2020 and to roll back the for-profit schools that emerged during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The remainder would be used to improve the health care system and other social programs.
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