Tag Archives: Javier Sicilia

Chile- The Fight for Education

15 Sep

You don’t have to spend that much time with me before I start to bring up Latin American current affairs or make references to Latin American policies. It is no secret that it aggravates me that the news in the US is blasted with events in the Middle East but yet you truly have to dig to find out what his happening in Latin America, a region right next to us. That’s why it is no surprise to me that while, recently, it has been impossible to escape news on protests in Egypt and Libya; I have heard nothing about Chile’s student protests in the mainstream media here. No, I learned about it the way I normally have to learn about what is happening in Latin America by following the right people on Twitter and knowing where to dig on news sites. It saddens me because what is happening today in Chile is historical and something Latin America and the world could learn a lot from.

Protests for education have been happening recently across Latin America, from Puerto Rico, to the Dominican Republic, to Mexico and to Colombia. However, the protests in Chile have gained the most attention as students, educators and Chilean citizens have been continuously protesting since May. The protests in Chile have brought together hundreds of thousands of Chileans across the country, the country has not seen protests this large-scale since the return of democracy in 1990.

The protesters are fighting an unequal and segregated education system which has become more privatized recently. The protesters want public school to be run by Chile’s Education Ministry, instead of local governments. Public schools being run by local government increases the inequality between rich and poor districts. Chilean officials have focused primarily on access to education as opposed to quality and equality. The quality of public school education is extremely poor.

Meanwhile, to attend a university, even if it is public, students have to pay enormous amounts of money. “They know that Chilean universities are the most expensive places to study, that advancing in higher education depends more on the university you leave than your own merits, that success isn’t guaranteed.”, said Bernardo Navarrete, a political analyst at the University of Santiago. Chile has the most complex financing system of education in the region. The education climate that people are experiencing in Chile is one where a parent has to decide which child to send to college. Higher education fees are normally higher than minimum wage. Only a small percent of Chilean youth, the wealthy percent, have access to quality schools and do not have to go into lifelong debt to receive it.

Why is education so important? Education is the foundation to the society, with strong education comes strong leadership and positive change. To simply put it, better education will lead to a better country. The musical group Calle 13 has been publicly supporting the movement in Chile. The leader Rene Perez was quoted saying, “Education is fundamental. The easiest thing for a government is to have a public that is uneducated so that they won’t fight for their rights. There needs to be free and public education.” When a country has free, public, quality education there are more opportunities for the middle and lower classes to achieve a higher economic level, society gaps close. With more educated minds there are more people to contribute to the country, more minds to work on scientific, technological, and of course political problems. That is why education is so important, and why free, quality education needs to be achieved not only in Chile but across Latin America.

The protests in Chile started as isolated boycotts by high school and university students. In early June protests started with anything from pillow fights in the streets to a huge flash mob of students dressed like zombies dancing to ‘Thriller’, to traditional peaceful rallies. Since the beginning of June hundreds of thousands of high-school and university students have been boycotting their classes as a means of protest. Several cacerolazos (a protest consisting of banging pots and pans) have been carried out. Protesters have also been occupying University of Chile’s campus, right next to the Presidential Palace. The protests have been large, although the Chilean government will try to convince you otherwise, and they have been consistently occurring for months.

On August 1st, the government announced 21 policies and proposals for the development of education including writing into the constitution the right to quality education. However, on August 5th, protest leaders rejected the government’s proposal stating that they want a profound change to the system not just an improvement. A few days later there were mass protests across the country. The news focused mainly on the violence cause by few protesters who broke off from the crowd, but the majority of protesters remained peaceful. Mostly, it was the police whom acted aggressively with the protesters firing water cannons and tear gas into the crowd. Since the protests started two students have been killed by bullets and hundreds of student protesters have been arrested.

Pinera’s government has scrambled to try to end the protests which have cause a nose dive in his popularity. On September 3rd, the President met with student leaders. Both sides discussed a twelve point petition submitted by the Confederation of Chilean Students that outlined demands for education reform. While the two sides agreed on some issues, like a constitutional guarantee to the right of quality education, they also disagreed on many central topics. Most recently, Chile’s Education Minister proposed working groups to find solutions to the conflict for education reform. Just this past Monday students handed over a counter-proposal with four guarantees they want from the government before participating in working groups. The guarantees were: to freeze two bills given to congress in August on education reform that were drafted with no student nor teacher input, to have TV and online coverage of the working groups, to end state funding for profit-based education institutions and, lastly, postponement of the end of the first academic semester, which could leave thousands of students without credit for a partially completed semester. The protesters have been quoted many times saying that they have no idea how this all will end, but they know they are making some sort of change.

One unique aspect of these protests has been who has been at the head leading the masses, the face of the uprising, Camilla Vallejo. Vallejo is a 23-year-old student who serves as President of the University of Chile’s Student Union. Vallejo has her own police protection now, after receiving several death threats. Vallejo has always preached peace to the protesters reminding them that the fight is not against the police but a peaceful fight for education. When discussing Vallejo I can’t help but compare and contrast her with Mexico’s Javier Sicilia (who you can read about in my What the Heck is going on in Mexico? blog) They both are the faces of movements for hope of a better future for each of their respected countries. They both emphasize maintaining peace in their movements and protests and both won’t settle or make half way deals with their governments. However, unlike Sicilia, Vallejo is not an old man in a cowboy hat and a multi-pocketed vest, no Vallejo’s youth and beauty has captivated the nation and the world. Vallejo is very aware of this and uses it to her advantage. She was quoted saying, “You have to recognize that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarized in such superficial terms.” And unlike Sicilia, Vallejo is still very young, and it is because of this that Chile is buzzing with hopes of a political future for her.

There is no way of telling what the end result of this movement in Chile will be. But this movement has already accomplished so much I can only imagine that this movement is headed towards success. Perhaps Chile will be a model for movements for education reform across Latin America, a catalyst for movements in the region. They are already happening in Latin America, but from what I have seen they have not reached the level of Chile. I have not followed many of the other education movements closely, except for the Dominican Republic’s 4% movement. Last year, there were calls for the Dominican government to increase the amount of the GDP spent on education to 4%. Two days last year the entire country wore yellow in support of the movement. But there needs to be more, the Dominican needs to follow Chile’s model it’s laid down. The Dominicans, and other citizens of Latin American countries, need to hit the streets in peaceful protest and continue to protest until their demands are met. Today Chile is seen as the beginning of a huge shift in Latin America. Hopefully one day, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and all of Latin America will have education that is accessible to all, free for all and of high quality for all.

I want to leave you with the video of the Chilean students ‘Thriller’ flash mob. (Take note of the stray dogs trying to figure out what is going on) Thriller

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What the Heck is going on in Mexico?

13 Jul

Last week, I was out having drinks with a group of people when I discovered one of the girls in our group was from Mexico City. I was quick to ask her what she thought of the Peace Movement and Javier Sicilia and then I was shocked when she had no idea what I was talking about. Realizing no one in our group had any idea what I was talking about and seemed slightly curious I immediately dived into my summary of what has been happening south of our border. In retrospect, I should not have been so surprised that no one, not even the girl from Mexico, was informed of Mexico’s politics. After all, many people here in the United States do not pay attention to our own politics, let alone those of other countries. But being a scholar of international affairs, more specifically Latin America I believe that people should be informed.

In California, a huge amount of our population is of Mexican descent and not only do we share a border with Mexico but our beautiful state used to be Mexico. Yet, our news ways are filled with news of the Middle East and not nearly enough with what is happening right near us. The general public appears to be aware that Mexico is currently dangerous due to something about drug cartels, but does not seem to be well-informed beyond this.

To me, the story starts in Ciudad Juarez, a border city that can be seen from Texas. Juarez saw a huge surge of population increase when maquiladoras started appearing in the city. Maquiladoras are factories for TNCs (Trans National Corporations) that exploit Mexico’s cheap labor. Despite the terrible working conditions of the Maquiladoras Mexicans see the work as an opportunity to receive a better income to support their families. In the late 1990s when these maquiladoras started showing up is also when the femicide in Juarez started. Young women, most of who worked in the factories, started being brutally murdered and disappeared. Due to police impunity, investigations into the murders have been a joke and even though arrests have been made the murders have continued. In 2005, the number of murdered girls was close to four hundred and it has only gone up since there. (Juarez femicides could be a blog of its own there is so much information. However, I feel it must be mentioned when speaking about Mexico’s violence. For further information, a good book on this is The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border by Teresa Rodriguez . )

In 2006, Mexico’s current President, Felipe Calderon, was elected and he launched his anti-drug campaign. The Drug War is a military campaign against organized crime, i.e. against the drug cartels. The problem with the Drug War is that it is combating violence with violence and in the process the murder of innocent citizens has increased. Since Calderon launched the Drug War there has been over 40,000 murders and over 5,000 disappearances related to the war. It is not just the cartels who are responsible for the violence but also the corrupt military, hired to protect the people. Even though it is widely known that the military is a huge reason for the violence only one solider has been committed for human rights abuses.

Then in late March, it seems that the Mexican Drug War violence pulled its last straw, at least for one father, who also happened to be a nationally known poet. After Javier Sicilia’s young son, Juan, and friends were murdered because two of the men had reported an extortion attempt, the poet took to national airways. He asked his fellow citizens why as a public they keep enduring this senseless violence, why the Mexican people were not uniting against the impunity. The people who were mourning in their homes, scared of speaking out about their family member’s death he called to the streets to mourn in unity. Sicilia called his fellow citizens to civil resistance and nonviolent action, he called his people to awaken and speak out against injustice. Sicilia quickly rallied several mourning families and soon they started filling public spaces in Mexico. They gathered, all holding plaques of the names and pictures of loved ones who fell victim to the war. With encouragement from Sicilia they were no longer afraid to speak about the injustice murders of their family members. The people organized marches between Mexican cities demanding the right to walk peacefully through the streets of Mexico, demanding the violence to end. Sicilia rallied Mexicans fed up with the violence to push for an end to Calderon’s war on drugs.

In the beginning of June, right as this movement for peace, led by Javier Sicilia, was gaining momentum a peace caravan was planned. The Caravan of Solace, as it was titled, was over 1200 miles that traveled through the cities hit hardest by the Drug War. The caravan, whose numbers fluctuated, stopped in over ten cities. As the caravan traveled they stopped in each city to hold rallies where Sicilia and relatives of victims would speak to the crowd. In these rallies the main goal of ending the drug war was repeatedly emphasized. The Caravan’s last stop was in Juarez, “the epicenter of pain”, as Sicilia called it, where a national pact was drafted. The National Pact was drafted by civil society groups from around the country, hundreds gathered in downtown Juarez to hear the pact’s points being read. Sicilia was criticized by some that what was read in Juarez was just a draft of the pact but he defended it by saying that the pact needs further consultation in order to draft a final, more serious document. Sicilia has said that he hopes the National Pact will be strong enough and backed with enough public strength that the government will not be able to ignore it.

On June 23rd, came a victory for the National Peace Movement when Javier Sicilia and other victims of the drug war met in a public meeting with President Calderon, an event which is rare in Mexican history. Sicilia stated the reasons for the meeting: to ask Calderon for an apology to the nation and victims’ families, to find justice, to end the war, to legalize certain drugs and protection for journalists. Calderon agreed to an apology for the death of innocent victims but not for the death of criminals. In response to Sicilia’s criticism of the Drug War Calderon continued to defend the war saying, “I would rather be judged, albeit unjustly, for having acted than for having done anything at all.” Although Calderon set to his ideas and stuck by his war he was able to hear the victim’s stories and thoughts. One positive outcome of the meeting was the creation of an office for attention to victims, which will use seized money from drug trafficking to install a plaque with the names of victims of the war. Both Sicilia and Calderon agreed the meeting was positive and to have another meeting in three months.

Reviewing all of this, some people in the United States might see this as Mexico’s problem, might think that their hands are clean of this problem; yet, this is not at all the truth. The drug cartels are selling their supplies to the US, in order for gringos to continue their addiction. Money from drugs offers Mexicans an opportunity at a lot of money they would most likely not have the opportunity to elsewhere. The United States’ policies toward drug control are all backwards; they are focused on incarcerating drug offenders. As a result, jails in the US are overcrowded with people charged with minor drug violations. The US first needs to focus on the source of the problem and make drug rehabilitation its priority. Instead of spending all of its money in jails the United States needs to divert money to drug rehabilitation programs and campaigns against drug use. I think very little drug users here in the US think that they are responsible for the thousands of deaths in Mexico, but they are just as responsible as anyone else. Perhaps a campaign visually linking the two would be effective, for example, an ad showing a teen consuming drugs next to a dead body in Mexico’s desert. But, instead of focusing on these policies the US is throwing its money to Mexico’s Drug War, which is helping to fund the impunity and corruption.

Another US policy contributing to Mexico’s violence is gun control. Because people here believe that it is their constitutional right to own a machine gun, gun control has been weakened and it is easy to have access to deadly weapons. Almost all of the guns used by Mexico’s drug cartels are from the United States. What gives cartels even easier access to weapons from the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Mexico which not only makes the drug cartels life a lot easier but also hurts farmers in the process. The US needs to revamp its entire approach to drug control and its relationship with its southern neighbor.

Skeptics think there is little possibility of success for the Peace Movement thinking the government will be unwilling to change and move in the right direction. Yet it is important to remember the incredible parts in this story, a poet, and a father, with no prior political background has united an ailing nation to speak out against violence and unite in nonviolent conflict. In no way am I doubting that the Peace Movement has a long way to go, but for only starting four months ago it has made significant progress. It is no secret that it will take a lot of work to change Mexico’s situation, but when the whole society is united it will be hard for the government to ignore their demands for too long. Unfortunately, even if Mexico does change its policies and stops the Drug War there is also great change that needs to happen in the United States. If both countries partner together, both the governments and citizens, to find a lasting, sensible solution to drug violence than perhaps one day Mexicans can walk safely in their streets and no longer live in constant fear for their lives.