Today is election day in Chile.
Candidate posters plaster the streets and buildings, and every single business in the city of Santiago is closed so that everyone can have the opportunity to vote. Sadly for us, even the lavenderia (the laundry) at our hostel is shut down for the day. No clean socks for me, I guess. Elections are a time of change, a time when folks can voice their opinion, try something (some one) new. And while elections always hold some energy, the fervor around voting day here led me to investigate why the democratic process in Chile holds such a thrill and importance.
Turns out, the Chileans have a lots of reasons to celebrate a free and valid election day, as this certainly hasn’t always been the case. In 1974, Augusto Pinochet led a coup d’etat after the former president (Salvador Allende) apparently committed suicide. Although Pinochet instituted many economic policies that had positive effects for the Chilean economy, during his brutal military dictatorship thousands of people were killed and “disappeared”, more than 30,000 people were tortured, and over 200,000 people went into exile. (Most of these atrocities were committed against people of differing political beliefs, many of them students.)
Yesterday I met university student, Ana, who’s working to become a special education teacher at one of Santiago’s universities. She mentioned that during Pinochet’s rule, Chile’s education system also took a serious blow. While Pinochet never invested much in education during his rule (between 1970 and 1989, government spending on education dropped by more than 20%), Pinochet’s last official act in office was to dismantle and privatize the Chilean education system. The result was effectively a two-tier education system in Chile: a world class school system for those with money, an almost non-existent system for those without.
Although Pinochet’s rule is over (he stepped down in 1990), some of his legacy still lives on in today’s current education systems. Unlike Chile’s neighbors, which have comprehensive public university systems to provide cheaper quality education, many of Chile’s schools and universities are still privatized. Reading between the lines here, this means that most can’t afford them. In addition, the public school system has been so chronically underfunded that, in most cases, the public schools that do exist aren’t even up to the standards of Chile’s poorest neighboring countries. For one of the wealthiest countries in South America, Chile is far behind many of its less affluent neighbors in terms of equal access to education.
I also found these sobering macro-economic facts about the ongoing distress caused by Pinochet’s education policy:
“Overall, the impact of neoliberal policies has reduced the total proportion of students in both public and private institutions in relation to the entire population, from 30 per cent in 1974 down to 25 per cent in 1990, and up only to 27 per cent today. If falling birth rates have made it possible today to attain full coverage at primary and secondary levels, the country has fallen seriously behind at tertiary level, where coverage, although now growing, is still only 32 per cent of the age group. The figure was twice as much in neighbouring Argentina and Uruguay, and even higher in developed countries—South Korea attaining a record 98 per cent coverage. Significantly, tertiary education for the upper-income fifth of the Chilean population, many of whom study in the new private universities, also reaches above 70 per cent.” [read full article]
Ana is trying to raise money for school by offering her poems (for a tip) to passers by on the street. Her program is about $400/month, and she has another 2 years before completing it. She was quick to point out that the $400/month is just tuition and doesn’t include books or school fees etc.
When I asked about scholarships, she said that they are only for the very poor, who also score very highly on their entrance exams. When I asked Ana about taking out a loan for school, her reply was one that I’ve heard a dozen times before. Yes, there are loans available, but only if your family has a house and/or a car and/or property to leverage for collateral. In truth, it’s really only the most well off who can qualify for loans in Chile’s traditional banking sector.
While she didn’t begrudge those who receive scholarships or whose families are well-off enough to qualify for bank loans, her situation does point to an troubling conundrum that many students find themselves in. There are “two Chile’s” in Chile. One for the “haves” and one for the “have nots”. In a world that is trying to shrink this gap, higher education is a fail-proof prescription. Sadly, students like Ana, who are part of the deserving middle tier of students, have been left to their own ingenuity to find a way to pay for school.
After learning Chile’s history, and hearing Ana’s story, it’s no wonder that Chileans are out in force today, voicing their opinions and making their democracy work. With any luck, the tides will continue to turn in favor of a more egalitarian education system, so that folks like Ana can not only afford school, but have lots of great quality schools to chose from.
It’s a tough uphill struggle for Ana, and for Chile.
I wish them well.