By: Seaira Christians Daniels
Produced & edited by Kaylyn Hlavaty
“The buses weren’t running again today.”
“I couldn’t leave out my front door.”
“The entire block was shut down, and that’s why I’m late for work today.”
Rakesh Arora, Owner of Jewel of India Restaurant, has heard all of these excuses for his employees being late to work, and he believes them all. The Jewel of India is located in the Providencia region of Santiago, Chile, about a 15-minute drive from Santiago de Centro, the capital city’s downtown.
Arora had read news articles on the Internet with images of cloudy mists of tear gas and block-lettered banners blaring the statements of young people protesting the Chilean higher education system. The demonstrations have been occurring as early as 2005, and continue today.
When student protests erupt, public transportation service is suspended and many streets shut down; employees living in Centro must wait for the storm of activists to subside.
Arora says Chilean protests starkly differ those in his native country, India.
“We can do protests in India; we don’t eat, all we do is sit. We don’t strike, and we don’t damage property.”
He chuckles to himself; his country still practices the non-violent protest ideology established by Mahatma Gandhi, he says.
He’s thankful his swanky, stucco and clay-tiled roof eatery, ranked number one by TripAdvisor.com, is left relatively unscathed from the sometimes-violent demonstrations.
Many restaurants closer to downtown Santiago haven’t had such luck.
Impossible. That’s how Agusbin Ronero, manager at Ana María Restaurant in the Metropolitan region of Santiago, describes the difficulty in running his business while students are protesting.
Ana María is a brisk, seven-minute walk from the nearest university, Universidad Andrés Bello, in Santiago de Centro. Ronero has to close his restaurant whenever student marches start.
He says the protests have stifled his business, along with many other casinos, or local cafes, located near Chilean universities.
A few paces farther than around the corner from Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, Gato Pardo Restaurant is subjected to the same closures as Ana María.
It’s the students’ methods, says Juan Romero, manager at Gato Pardo, not the message, that he disagrees with.
“The central idea is good,” he says, “the intentions are good.”
However, Romero says the students may be causing more harm than good because the protests are sometimes dangerous. Many of the student demonstrations escalate to a volley of tear gas and firebomb throwing between police and the protestors.
Romero estimates that only ten percent of the students involved in the protests have actually been victims of the high credit interest rates and substandard educational quality that originally sparked the protests.
Most of the rest, he says, are delinquents who join the ranks of protestors and use the demonstrations as an opportunity to incite havoc.
He suggests the students engage in more peaceful dialogue with the government as a better avenue to express their discontent.
Government Policy and Plans
Small businesses are allies of the Chilean government, says president Sebastián Piñera.
He says the ingenuity and meticulous preparatory skills that entrepreneurs use to forecast good business models will help develop Chile and eliminate poverty.
But with a group of unsatisfied and unsettled young people, the Chilean government has had to revamp its policy on education.
In 2011, the government released a statement saying that it would make new efforts to improve the quality of education, the level of transparency in government, and reduce the amount of student debt.
Under the Crédito con Aval de Estado, or government guaranteed bank loan program, the Chilean government promises to decrease low-income student loan interest rates with a state bank guarantee.
In late September 2012, a new budget plan was unveiled announcing that the nation will be spending more money on education in the future.
The amount of total income the government has spent on education since 2007 has steadily increased; however, the majority of the 18.2 percent total spending distributed to education is sent to pre-primary, primary, and secondary education, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
To meet demands of student activists, Chilean administrators created scholarships like La Beca Vocación Profesor, a Professor’s Vocational Scholarship, which gives aid to students training to be teachers. And the government says it wants to add 110,000 more scholarships by the end of this year.
On the Home Front
In addition to her household chores, Teresa Calderon works 12 hours per week doing laundry and ironing to contribute to her family’s largest investment, the education of her two daughters.
Her husband works 54 hours per week to fulfill the traditional duty of Chilean parents, funding an education for their children. The national average is about 40 hours per week, according to a 2011 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report.
The result is worth the labor to Teresa when she considers the noticeable difference in the quality of education between public and private universities in Chile.
She says her two daughters, who are enrolled in private universities, know more English than students in public universities, and will have a more valuable degree with the help of the weight of their private institution’s name.
Josefina Aguierra, a Chilean university student who attended Redlands High School in Redlands, CA, says she had more resources at the public American high school than do her peers who attend public universities in Chile.
Because of the educational inequalities in Chile, Teresa rallies, with many neighbors, friends, and countrymen, behind the cause of the student activists. She does not fear the violence resulting from some protests.
“They are exercising their rights; I’m not afraid,” she says, as though the large public disturbances caused by both students and delinquent trouble-seekers were an afterthought to the grand ideology that the government should provide an education for its people.
Teresa thinks that perhaps the government should pay for public education because the students who graduate are helping to better their country. The schooling, in that sense, is a public service.
“A better access to education gives you a better social environment. If you have to pay back the loans, how can you do that?” she inquired. She says she knows people still making payments on university loans 20 years after they’ve graduated.
Marching and picketing past the transience of immediate reform, the student protesters aim to permanently alter Chilean educational policy.
Aguierra says the protestors hope that someday, their social movement will be chronicled on the pages of future history books.
“We want to be known as the generation that changed education in Chile,” she says.