Chilean student-protest leader speaks at Berkeley

Along with the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Occupy movement here and in Europe, 2011 has seen a massive popular uprising in the shadow of the Andes. There, Chilean students have mounted a series of protests demanding an overhaul of that country’s educational system, bringing hundreds of thousands of students and supporters into the streets.

Giorgio Jackson

Giorgio Jackson

On Wednesday evening, students packed a large Boalt lecture hall to hear from Giorgio Jackson, a key leader of those protests, sometimes referred to as the “Chilean Winter.” The crowd, more than 150 strong, included a large contingent of Chileans from campus and the Bay Area, as well as Occupy activists and sympathizers. The event, conducted in Spanish with English translation, was hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and by Berkeley Law.

A student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and a leader of the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations, Jackson traced key events leading up to this year’s protests, particularly Chilean high-school students’ “Penguin Revolution” of 2006, so named for the appearance of their school uniforms. At its peak, that movement brought out more than 700,000 protesters and tested the mettle of then-President Michelle Bachelet. Jackson noted that many of the secondary students who led that demand for educational reforms are involved in the current protest movement, this time as college students.

While Chile is considered a relatively stable Latin American democracy, its income gap between rich and poor is extreme, he said. The cost of college tuition in Chile is among the highest in the world, with great disparity in quality depending on one’s ability to pay.

“By your place of birth, it’s easy to know your chances in life,” said Jackson.

Peace sign made from spent tear-gas cannisters

Peace sign made from spent tear-gas canisters

Many of his country’s economic policies are based on free-market ideas embraced by, and now a holdover from, the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. Over the past two decades, the higher-education system has expanded significantly, in part through expansion of profit-making private institutions. Schooling at one time was free. Today the state pays 15 percent of higher-education costs, while families must supply the rest, often by taking on considerable debt. A voucher system is in place.

Chilean students are demanding significant reforms, including regulation of private institutions and an overhaul in the system for financing public education.

Jackson shared images of some of the mobilizations of the “Chilean Winter,” revealing their magnitude and creativity as well as the fury of ensuing street battles with police. In one photo, students created a large peace sign made of spent tear-gas canisters.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, more than one student in the hall sought Jackson’s advice on how U.S. students, at Berkeley and other campuses, should pursue their own protest agenda for educational access and affordability. Distilling your message into simple language “helps a lot to mobilize people,” he suggested.

A webcast of Giorgio Jackson’s talk will be available on the CLAS website starting the week of Dec. 5.