This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
In 2011, students in Chile made headlines when they launched a nationwide strike lasting almost eight months.
The trigger was high tuition costs that drove students and their families into debt. There were coordinated marches in all major cities. At some universities, students took over buildings. The marches took on almost a carnival atmosphere, with students engaging in “kiss-ins” and pillow fights.
Before long, the marches became multifaceted. Opponents of the massive HidroAysén dam project in Patagonia joined in. Students and trade unions joined forces when workers staged strikes and marched in Santiago and other major cities.
Tasha Fairfield, an assistant professor for the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development, said the strikes were pivotal. “The student movement played a critical role in creating political space,” Fairfield said. It “dramatically changed the political context in Chile and helped to place the issues of Chile’s extreme inequalities centrally on the national agenda.”
Although most of the demonstrations were peaceful, some demonstrators wanted more direct confrontation with the police. Masked protesters armed with stones clashed with police forces equipped with riot gear, tear gas and armored vehicles with water cannons. The harshness of the government crackdown drew international criticism.
More than two-thirds of the population supported the student movement and its demands for education reform. The students consistently rejected the government’s attempts to appease the protesters as grossly insufficient. Their goal was free university tuition. President Sebastián Piñera, the first conservative president since the 1988 plebiscite that ended Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, saw his ratings plummet to the lowest of any leader in the post-authoritarian era. Ordinary Chileans had made clear that they wanted to see changes in their society.