What next for the student movement in Chile?

Jorge Jorquera speaks with Melissa Supulveda, the new president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECH) and a member of the Federation of Libertarian Students (FEL).

Historically, the FECH has been a critical voice and an important base and source of leadership for the working class and revolutionary movements of Chile. The 2011 and 2012 FECH presidents, Camila Vallejo (Communist Party) and Gabriel Boric (Autonomous Left) were both elected to parliament in the recent elections.

After three years of massive mobilisations and having placed education at the heart of the struggle against the neoliberal model, the student movement in Chile will be critical in coalescing a left wing alternative to the Nueva Mayoria government of Michelle Bachelet.

[Translated by Jorge Jorquera.]

After three years of high levels of mobilisation and organisation, where is the student movement in Chile now?

There are a number of things. On the one hand there’s an exhaustion following the mobilisations of 2011, which were intense and massive, extending over a significant period, at least some seven months, and including strikes, occupations, marches and other street actions virtually weekly. In the process, students were confronted with the risk of losing benefits, scholarships and whole academic years. We’ve experienced this exhaustion as a decrease in mass mobilisation over 2012 and 2013. Nevertheless, the conflict remains, and there are still mobilisations, marches, protests.

While the student movement had a number of triumphs, now we are confronted with a completely new scenario. We have a change of government, with the newly elected Nueva Mayoria, which is the Concertación [the coalition that held the presidency from 1990 to 2010] but now incorporating the Communist Party. The new government's program gives the appearance of incorporating many of the demands of the student movement.

It’s a government program that takes on the demands and slogans of the student movement but not in terms of the substance of the perspectives outlined and developed by the movement. You could say that they have coopted the slogans. This is a major problem because it appears to the great majority, and certainly through the press, that the government is going to provide solutions to the demands of the student movement. We run the risk that in 2014 the cycle of mobilisations will be closed, as if the problems have been resolved.

This is precisely why we’ve called for 2014 to be a year of mobilisations. We’re making a call now from the CONFECH (Confederation of Chilean Students) emphasising that the only guarantee we have of having our demands met is in our continuing mobilisation, maintaining our pressure on the government.

Things are clearly more complicated in the context of a centre-left type government, if we could call it that. It's a similar scenario being experienced in various Latin American countries. In this framework, what are the perspectives of the FECH and the student movement toward the broader social movement and in particular the trade union movement, which remains dominated by the institutionalist left?

That’s one of the other perspectives of the confederation. We have to be prepared and organised to converge with all the other sectors of struggle; like the trade union movement and the various local movements that have sprouted tackling problems of the allocation of resources by the national government.

There have been important struggles in this respect. Like the community of Freirina, where workers denounced the meat company Agrosuper and took up a struggle around health, social and environmental concerns. There was also an important mobilisation in the community of Aysen (southern Chile), a large struggle against increases in the price of gas. There was a gigantic mobilisation involving the entirety of Aysen; they cut off roads, took over the community and managed some gains.

In a number of regional cities people face especially high-priced foodstuffs, utilities and other goods and services. As a consequence of their isolation, the inequality that exists throughout Chile is magnified. It’s expressed more crudely in those regional areas. These are expressions of the larger social movement and of course we all have a common origin: the model established during the dictatorship.

As a consequence, we have decided to fight together, aiming to generate spaces of convergence. There’s an alliance that’s been developing over the last couple of years, for example, with the dock workers. We marked an important milestone last year, when on 26 June we marched together, workers and students, around the problem of education, and demanding the renationalisation of our natural resources. The dock workers went on strike, the copper workers went on strike, and for us it was a very important milestone – that gesture of solidarity and mutual support between workers and students.This year we hope that there won’t just be gestures of support but that we can begin to build an agenda of work on common demands and give further sustenance to this alliance.

How is this alliance with workers and the trade union movement complicated by the current perspectives of the Communist Party, which now has a significant influence, perhaps the greatest it has ever had, in the CUT [national trade union federation]?

We’re confronted with a real challenge because the PC is a party that has a real insertion inside the CUT, inside the teachers’ union and in various other organisations, such as secondary school and neighbourhood organisations. There is a real insertion, which of course the government of [outgoing President Sebastián] Piñera didn’t have. It’s very different. We know that the new government strategy will likely centre on dialogue. We know also that those bridges will probably be extended by some of the student ex-leaders now in parliament, who are part of the alliance of the Nueva Mayoria.

This changes the scenario quite radically, compared to what we confronted with the Piñera government. That government of the right was so closed off to everything from the movement, in terms of the demands of students, that in the end our main achievement was in being able to define publicly two clear and opposing projects: the neoliberal project that had been installed during the dictatorship and preserved and deepened by the Concertación and which the right simply wanted to deepen further; and on the other hand, the model the movement has begun to elaborate, the proposition that education is a social right that must be guaranteed and education in Chile fundamentally transformed. The Piñera government enabled us to define these two contrary projects.

Our challenge now is that everything is going to be much more mixed up. The Concertación already has various agreements with business and receives much support from it; in fact, within its ranks are many individuals with direct business interests in education. So we know that there is no a priori interest among the new government in transforming the education model.

The challenge here is gigantic. The government needs to acknowledge that if there are going to be any fundamental solutions, you can’t satisfy both sides. You can’t satisfy business and also satisfy the social movement. If that happens or appears to happen, it will only be a demonstration that once again the business model of education has simply received a make-over rather than a transformation.

Given the challenges involved in this, what are the perspectives of the student left, such as the FEL (Libertarian Student Federation), in relation to the rest of the left, both other organisations and individuals in the radical left and those in the more institutionalist left?

We think that – particularly taking into account the new political cycle opening up in 2014 – we need unity in terms of the left, especially this left that has been at the margins, so to speak, of institutionality. Otherwise we run the risk of being marginalised, singled out by the government, who will try to paint us out as if we are working with the right, in opposition. We have to distinguish our project, which requires joint work among the left.

This has very often proved difficult on the Chilean left. Even in cases when we’ve had very similar strategic perspectives and tactics, sectarianism has prevailed, personal differences even. Today with the challenges facing the popular movement it requires the maturity of the organisations of the left to work together to ensure that the revolutionary and radical politics of the left is in the bosom of the popular movement here – that we're responding to the tasks and the challenges that confront the popular movement and that we're not so overwhelmed by the theoretical discussion of what has to be done.

That’s the call we are making, because we know that in the next four years there will be reforms, there have to be reforms because the function of the Bachelet government is precisely to restore governability to the country. And for that they are going to have to make reforms.

Now, how deep will these reforms be? Will the scenario really change? That’s going to depend directly on the social movement, on our capacity to put pressure and our ability to privilege the organisation of workers and students, to privilege a material and cultural situation for the workers and students that will allow us to go forward in the class struggle. This new scenario depends fundamentally on the social movement and the organisations of the left inserted in this movement.

Is there the will among the various organisations of the student movement and the left to move in this direction?

There is the will and there is a lot of common ground from which to work. We don’t really know very well what the perspectives of the Communist Youth will be, of the PC and in particular of the Jota [short popular name for the Juventudes Comunistas]. We do know that for the PC it is also in their interests for there to be mobilisations, which gives them the ability to negotiate within the government coalition, that’s their strategy. Having joined the Nueva Mayoria government, it is pretty clear what function they want to fulfil.

In addition, the other more radical left also has the will to mobilise and organise, to go forward, including in subjective terms, in terms of developing and realising a class conception of the student movement. Knowing that the student movement is necessarily multi-class, we know also that for the movement to develop, students need to identify with the demands of workers, as sons and daughters of workers, as future workers. This work of developing a class identity in the student movement brings together all the sectors of the radical left.

Last year Chile commemorated 40 years since the Pinochet coup. Given the opportunity to reflect on all this history, how does the FEL situate itself in the historical context of the left in Chile?

When we arrived at the presidency of the Federación, it was a historic achievement in a number of senses. To start with, the FECH was formed at the beginning of the 20th century by anarchist students. Our triumph came 91 years later; it had been 91 years since there had been anarchist students in the presidency. Additionally, as a feminist, it’s the first time for a feminist woman to be the head of the FECH, and the campaign we mounted to win the presidency also had that feminist character.

Even though the libertarian current had been very strong in the early part of the 20th century, not only in the student movement but also in the labour movement and various resistance movements, there was a long period of disappearance of the libertarian current, really until the beginning of the 1990s, when we started to reorganise the anarchist sector. Various new organisations developed, many small collectives, and organisations like the FEL were formed, which has now existed for 10 years.

The FEL is a national organisation that respects the principles of horizontalism, of direct democracy; all student members, all the members, have the same capacity for political elaboration, everything is discussed in plenaries, and then there are people in charge who are mandated to synthesise things on a national level. We have affiliated organisations stretching from Arica in the north to Chiloe and Valdivia in the south.

We are still a relatively new organisation compared to the Communist Youth, or the PC itself, which has been around for 100 years. Nevertheless, we have still managed to position ourselves inside the social organisations like in the Federación and the dock workers, for example.

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