Have you heard the one about the middle income country that has just joined the OECD with a burgeoning, socially-aspirant middle class, a Romney-esque billionaire President and a group of revolutionary students?

Image courtesy of Osmar Valdebenito, © 2011, some rights reserved.

It all ends in kissing protests (seriously[1]). More seriously however, it also ends with water cannons on the streets of Santiago and a series of poll ratings that would make Nick Clegg grimace.

Since Chile threw off the shackles of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, it has gained a reputation for being the most politically stable, economically successful state in Latin America. The inconvenient truth that still haunts Chilean society is that it was arguably Pinochet’s economic model, inspired by the monetarist Milton Friedman, which has enabled its meteoric rise. GDP growth is at an annualised 4.6%; a figure that any European state would happily swap for their newly acquired Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite China’s ‘soft landing’, demand for Chile’s top export, copper from the mines of the Atacama Desert, is set to increase a further 6% this year.  That must have been a symphony to the ears of the Chilean mining minister, Señor Wagner, until he botched the privatisation of Chile’s lithium reserves last week and was forced to resign.

There have been protests over education in Chile since ‘The Penguin Revolution’ of 2006 (so named because of the distinctive black and white uniform of Chilean secondary school children). But what do the students actually want? ‘Free, high quality education for all’ is the rallying cry that unites a particularly fractal movement – one in which fratricide is common.

The Chilean state spends around 4.4% of GDP on education which is comparatively low for the OECD group that it has designs to inhabit permanently. Many universities are also run like businesses for profit and the average time to complete a degree is over 6 years. No new public universities have been built in over twenty years, nor is there an equivalent of the UK government-backed Student Loans Company and therefore students with parents in the lower-income bracket have to look to private banks that charge exorbitant levels of interest on top of their loans. ‘Copper for education’ is the black and white lense through which the Chilean students see the conflict.

Clearly the government must act. President Piñera, who made his fortune bringing credit cards to Chile in the late 70’s, is the first democratically elected centre-right leader in over half a century. He is acutely aware that the diversification of the Chilean economy away from mining, which has acted like oil in the Arab world, is fundamental to the continuing prosperity of Chile. A mature financial services and legal sector has sprung up in the capital, Santiago. The entrepreneurial fund, ‘Start-up Chile’ is trying to create ‘Chilecon Valley’.  Your correspondent lived with a recipient of the $40,000 seed fund that, at the very least, has the effect of raising the aspirations of the educated Chilean graduates and makes them believe that they can match the very best of Latin America and then the world.

However, the protests have left Piñera’s government floundering, and many of their defeats have come down to a series of PR coups. Just as the Obama campaign team have sought to paint Romney as an out-of-touch billionaire who finds it difficult to relate to ‘ordinary Americans’ (‘my wife drives a couple of Cadillacs’), then the student movement at the height of the protests last year was led by the particularly PR friendly and Communist firebrand, Camila Vallejo. She went on the win The Guardian’s ‘Person of the Year’ award in 2011. No UK student attained such a national or even international profile as her, despite the protests against the UK Coalition’s decision to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 during its first parliamentary session.

Part of the reason for this is the sheer range of intellectual attacks pursued by Vallejo and her cohort. The criticism of Chile’s education system started during the administration of Michelle Bachelet (who is now heading up ‘UN Women’ in New York) when 790,00 secondary school children went on strike. Six years later and the current student leadership are not merely attacking the state of public education in Chile, instead are openly questioning ‘El Modelo’ of Chile’s economic and social development.

If Piñera was President of Nigeria he would be called ‘Badluck Sebastien’. Chile was ravaged by the 6th largest earthquake ever recorded in 2010 (the 2011 Japanese one being the fifth) in which over 500 people lost their lives. A mine shaft collapsed in 2010 and thirty three miners (‘Los 33’) were trapped underground for a record 69 days (all of whom survived and, in a depressingly predictable turn of events, had their story bought by Hollywood).

But what could be the defining disaster for Piñera’s Presidency and for the future of Chile is if the stratification and inherent inequality of their education system does not change. Improving the equality of opportunity through education is the only sustainable way to lock in social mobility.

Chilean society has radically transformed over the last twenty years; it has the 4th highest usage of Twitter per capita in the world, there are more mobile phones than people. Yet the institutions of governance have been perilously slow to evolve and hence risk putting the break on Chile’s success when the copper eventually runs out. That is why the education protests have garnered such long-running popular support among the general population of this Andean nation; there is an understanding that the conveyor belt of success where one is locked in at birth must be opened up. This is not a purely moral argument on the grounds of equality, but rather a concession that Chile will find itself falling down a mine shaft of its own making and maybe it won’t have such a miraculous escape as ‘Los 33’. The tectonic plates of Chilean society are moving. The student protests are a symbol of the fault line in Chilean society that could be more dangerous than its fractious geography.


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