Gabriel Boric’s historic win symbolises the culmination of not only broader Chilean aspirations but also of its youth’s long withstanding struggle that began in the 1980s, under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean student protests that advocated for university democracy during that period were a prelude to far more profound political changes that included the formation of new opposition parties and coalitions, the promotion of agendas that included broader openness and democracy, and above all, the generation of a far greater social and political awareness on the part of students and young professionals (Ordorika 7). Gabriel Boric was one of those students who belonged to this socially and politically conscious generation, collectively known as the “la generación sin miedo” (the fearless generation), rising to power in a steady yet inevitable manner. Boric’s win is thus the natural manifestation of all former Chilean student mobilisations that have echoed throughout the country for at least a decade. This article gives a brief history of Chilean student mobilisations and emphasises on their relevance to Chilean society and politics. Finally, it attempts to explain how student protests, prominently the ones in 2011, were conducive in creating an environment for shaping a leader like Gabriel Boric to rise to power.
Since the 1973 military coup Chile became a living experiment for Friedman’s neoliberal free market ideas, with the economist and some of his former Chilean pupils urging Pinochet to implement them as a “shock program” to pull the country out of economic malaise (Langman). As a result of which higher education which was free and funded by the state, became extensively privatised and paid for by students. The 1981 Law further created new independent institutions out of existing universities’ regional branches, progressively eliminated direct funding, as well as permitted the creation of new private institutions (Disi Pavlic 451). The implementation of these market principles, that later became central to Washington Consensus, became the genesis of a decades long resistance to come.
Student mobilisations although forced to move underground in the first decade of the authoritarian regime, erupted with full force in early 1980s as “protestas nacionales” (national protests). And in the later years of the Pinochet era, many Chilean students got actively involved on two fronts – as part of political parties and social organisations (Cummings 57). Resulting in the formation of two principal opposition student organizations – FECh (Federation of the Chilean Students), which Boric later became a part of in 2011, and the high school student organization FESES (Federación de Estudiantes Secundarios de Santiago) – both of which played a significant role in working alongside the Concertación, in transitioning Chile into a democracy. And with this return to democracy in 1990, a new generation that collectively identified as “la generación sin miedo” (the fearless generation) came to be formed (51). Being the first generation of students born after the dictatorship, the post-Pinochet generation did not share their predecessors’ fears regarding protest action and its impact on Chilean democracy (51). This lack of fear transformed into a group that was motivated to turn discontent into political action and thus this young fearless generation led the protests of the new century, aimed at eradicating the neo-liberal legacy that remained in higher education systems even post-democracy. Boric belonged to this very fabric of the fearless generation, as can be witnessed by his early participation in student politics – first in secondary school and then at univeristy.
The center-left coalition and successive governments made only tepid attempts to make structural changes to the economic model in the post-democratic phase, the core of which remained market-based policies. But as economy grew and many Chileans rose to the middle class there came to be an increase in access to the education system for the new generation of students (61). As access to education increased so did the expectations for social mobility and a higher quality of life which came with higher education. A university education was no longer believed to be reserved for the wealthier or better-performing students (62). But as education was becoming more accessible, high costs remained unaffected thereby making students of the lower-income bracket vulnerable to the very policies that encouraged them to enter the system. Mass protests in form of student mobilisation erupted against increasing education costs, re-activating Chilean civil society in the 2000s. A pertinent feature of the protests at the time was the role of high schoolers (ages 14-18) as being the predominant mobilising force. Unlike their counterparts in countries like the U.S. and U.K where student activism has until recently tended to be preserved to college-age students, school-age activism has a long history in Chile (Vergara). Secondary school student organisations that were disbanded under Pinochet were resurrected in the 2000s due to the grievances and frustration caused by market-oriented policies. Boric began his student political career during this phase by participating in the re-establishment of the Federation of Secondary School Students of Punta Arenas, his alma mater. Two prominent protests that took over Chile in the 2000s were – the 2001 Mochilazo protest to reduce student fares in public transportation, and in the 2006 Revolución Pingüina against the privatization of the Chilean education system. High school students’ protests won discounts on public transportation and the waiver of charges for university entrance exams for most students16. Yet, issues relating to the private sector’s ability to establish new schools, the administrative autonomy of colleges, the market’s self-regulation and, most importantly, students’ responsibility for financing their education remained (Disi Pavlic 452).
The Protests of 2011 and the Rise of Gabriel Boric
The unaddressed issues made a comeback with full force starting 2010s, also officially marking the entry of Gabriel Boric into politics. The massification of universities due to government policies such as, encouraging growth of private universities and incentivising enrolment into education institutions by granting easy access to credit, began to recur negative impacts. The government began cutting budget for public colleges which then forced them to either charge or increase tuition. In this backdrop a discernible trend that was observed both nationwide and in the Santiago Metropolitan region, was the increased likelihood of lower income students to take loans to pay for college, as they were less afraid of incurring debt. For instance in 2005, President Ricardo Lagos’s administration created the State-Endorsed Loan; a majority of the students who benefited from the CAE in 2010 belonged to the lowest income brackets, who had difficulty adapting to the costs (tuition but also others like transportation and meals) associated with higher education (453). Increased availability of credit therefore had a direct effect on college enrolment but paradoxically incurred negative repercussion for the very students for whom it was being made available – the newly entered working class students (453). By 2007, tuition in public universities accounted for 28% of the gross national income per capita—higher than in any OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country—while tuition in private universities represented 32% (452).
By the time protests erupted in 2011, the OECD found that 85% of spending on higher education in the country came from households, as opposed to the OECD average of 69% (452). The protests of 2011 have been linked to two major reasons – massification of universities and weak organisational linkages between students and ruling political party (Disi Pavlic). As explained earlier, changes in education finance and enrolment policies increased both the level of grievances and the size of the student population in higher education institutions. The mass of this population no longer became to be dominated by the politically conscious elites but rather the “new” non-elite and politically unaffiliated students who were being burdened with burgeoning student debt and increasing costs (455). These were the dominant masses whose discontent erupted in the form of massive student-led protests of 2011. As one student leader puts it, students from less selective institutions became “proletarianised” as their socioeconomic background diversified, and they began demanding system-wide changes to get more public support (455).
Furthermore, as time passed by, the ruling parties’ linkages with students which started off strong under the Concertación governments, subsequently began to erode by the late 2000s. This, however, did not mean that students became depoliticised: the Communist Party (PC), for example, maintained strong linkages. Student organizations that were hostile to or had no connections with the government gained influence. It was students from the PC and new organizations such as SurDA, New University Left (Nueva Izquierda Universitaria), and Autonomous Left (Izquierda Autónoma, IA), who provided resources and organised many of the mobilisations in the first decade of the 2000s (455). Boric too became part of the Autonomous Left during his short-lived university years, after which he was elected as the President of FeCH as part of the Creating Left (Creando Izquierda) list in 2011. The year 2011 is particularly prominent in the history of Chilean student mobilisations as protests erupted over an unprecedented large and diversified scale and brought to light the persistent neoliberal legacy in Chilean society since Pinochet’s fall. During this period Boric became one of the main spokesperson for the Federation of Chilean Students. But by the time the protests erupted, the ruling Pinera government had lost virtually all connections to the major student organizations (455). One of the predominant reasons why a student leader like Boric could rise to being the current President can be dated back to this very moment. As the government linkages weakened and student grievances heightened, there emerged a power vacuum. And student leaders such as Gabriel Boric and Camilla Vallejo (Communist Party of Chile) were up in the race of filling this vacuum. More importantly, as the socio-economic background of students protesting diversified so did their demands, in order to assimilate within their collective struggle the deeper societal discontent against widening inequality. Thus broader social issues such as low wages, meagre pensions, rising cost of living, etc were being actively taken up by student leaders and thus became part of their struggle. This aided in student mobilisations getting more momentum and support over time as can be witnessed by the 2019 Chilean protests, which although instigated by high-schoolers garnered widespread support from diverse socio-economic classes, prominently the middle class, who stood in solidarity with the students to demand for change.
It is only then symbolic that the massive protests that started off by a bunch of high-schoolers jumping the turnstiles have come to full cycle by election of a student leader himself. Student protests have been a dominant force for change in Chile, acting as key instruments of translating public dissent into political action. Over the years, their active efforts have contributed immensely in upholding true democratic values of freedom of speech and expression in Chilean society. Since 2011, Boric’s rise within the political system has been a steady yet noticeable one. And a key aspect in his rise has been the student-led politically charged environment that has been cultivating in Chile since the advent of 2000s. Leading the current politically-conscious generation, Boric has a chance to finally bring to Chile the radical structural changes that it has been demanding for long, starting with the re-writing of the new Constitution. Being a young democracy, this is a massive and a significant win for Chile as a country but also for democracy by and large which is said to be in decline in recent years. Finally, it has also set precedent for the power that student mobilisations hold and the change that they can transpire in a society.
- Ordorika, Imanol. “Student movements and politics in Latin America: a historical reconceptualization.” Higher Education (2021): 1-19.
- Langman, Jimmy. “Behind Chile’s Protests Are Decades of Economic Injustice.” Foreign Policy, 23 Nov. 2019, foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/23/chile-upheaval-protests-model-muddle-free-market.
- Disi Pavlic, Rodolfo. “Sentenced to Debt: Explaining Student Mobilization in Chile.” Latin American Research Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 2018, p. 448. Crossref, doi:10.25222/larr.395.
- Cummings, Peter M. M. “Democracy and Student Discontent: Chilean Student Protest in the Post-Pinochet Era.” Journal of Politics in Latin America, vol. 7, no. 3, 2015, pp. 49–84. Crossref, doi:10.1177/1866802×1500700302.
- Vergara, Eva. “Students Keep Driving Protests Demanding Change in Chile.” AP NEWS, 8 Dec. 2019, apnews.com/article/819108269b65dc2dd4dffcfd7712d53a.