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John Passant

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May 2012
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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
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Chilean student rebellion heats up

For almost a year, students in Chile have been staging mass protests and organising sit-ins and occupations in a struggle to transform the country’s education system. Schooling in Chile is highly privatised, with less than half of all students in public schools and one of the lowest levels of public spending for higher education in the world.

Tens of thousands rally in Santiago last week. 

Tens of thousands rally in Santiago recently

As Jorge Jorquera outlined in an article last year:

The students are demanding an “end to private sector financing of education”; an end to all profiteering from primary, secondary and tertiary education; a guarantee of access to higher education for students “from the most vulnerable sectors” of society; a guarantee of quality not based on testing; a guarantee of the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous people; and the wholesale rebuilding of a national public education system funded by the state and unconnected to private enterprise.

With the students continuing to take to the streets, and with workers backing their demands, the government has recently been forced to grant some concessions. In the past week president Sebastián Piñera announced an increase in the corporate tax rate (to a still incredibly low 20 percent), with the revenues to go into the public education system.

However, the students have also articulated a program that goes beyond education. Many of their grievances are social – Chile is the most unequal country in the OECD, and the issue of education has illuminated the class divisions at the base of society. By granting concessions, the government may yet give confidence to the students to take their struggle further.

Racaredo Galvez, member of Fuerza Universitaria Rebelde (Rebellious University Force) and president of the Federacion de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Concepcion (Concepcion University Student Federation) was in Australia for the Marxism 2012 conference at the start of April. He spoke to Socialist Alternative’s Sergio Monsalve Tobon about the rebellion.

Last year we saw massive student mobilisations. Could you tell us about the issues that drew students out into in streets?

Students have been mobilising for many years. There were student mobilisation in 2006 and 2008. Many of them have been focused on the cost of education. Last year, students were mobilised by three ideas. One of then was access to tertiary education. Another regarded the funding of tertiary and secondary education.

We demanded that the national government take over the running of public secondary school – off the hands of local governments – and that the state provide them with greater funding. We also demanded a free public university system, so that students would not have to take out bank loans to enrol in public universities. So what we were asking for was greater levels of state funding for the universities.

How would this be budgeted? We proposed reforms to the tax system; that the big transnational and enterprises of the country get taxed more. In this way there would be more money for education, and health and public housing.

The third idea was that of democracy in the education system. We asked that, on top of being free, the university system should be democratic. We demanded that we – as students together with the university workers, both academic and non-academic – should elect the university authorities; that we should participate in the drawing up of the curriculum; that we should decide which courses get expanded and which ones get dropped; that we should participate in the administration of the universities.

Is the demand to increase the taxes on industry something that’s come up recently in the movement?

During 2011 that point of view began to gain strength after high school students demanded the renationalisation of the copper industry. Today in Chile the greatest tax burden is levied on the poor –the Value Added Tax [the GST equivalent] accounts for 60 percent of all government revenue. At the same time what companies pay in tax is a minor part of government revenue.

That is why this demand began to have more force behind it. We also began to realise that the Chilean government is a government of big business. The president is one of the richest businessmen in Latin America. It’s obvious that the logic of the government is to make education a business, to make health a business… In fact one of the government senators recently said that for her it would be preferable to increase Chile’s external debt…rather than increase taxes on business and the transnationals.

What have been the main obstacles faced by the campaign?

There are three main obstacles. The first is the media. The mass media in our country are controlled by big business. They report in a blinkered way and they report what suits them, so as to misinform and destabilise the student movement.

Hand in hand with this goes another obstacle, which is repression. In our country there has been a high level of repression since the dictatorship. The governments of so-called socialists maintained very high levels of repression. During the last protests the number of people detained, injured, and jailed has gone up incredibly. I was jailed for a week under false charges….

The last main obstacle is the business-focused vision of the state.

Earlier this year there were student union elections in Chile’s universities, which saw a change in the leadership of the student movement. You were elected president of Concepcion University Student Federation. What was the significance of the change?

One of the most relevant things that resulted from this change in leadership was that the Communist Party lost ground in a great number of student Unions. Students from the revolutionary left gained ground. Today most student unions are out of the control of institutionalised parties. There has been a slow developing sense that students want nothing to do with institutionalised parties, parties that are in parliament. So there is a greater affinity with, and representation by, students from grassroots organisation.

What were the tactical differences between the old and the new leadership?

There are disagreements in the campaign. Some leading figures are betting on negotiations with the government and on us accepting small reforms. Then there are others, like us, who don’t want to negotiate with the government for small reforms. This second position won out – not to negotiate for small reforms but to continue forward towards the greater demand for a free, democratic and multicultural education. Currently students have a broader vision regarding the economic model and the sort of society that we want. We in Rebellious University Force (FUR) want to get rid of capitalism, we say this openly, and in some way students feel represented by this position.

Has de government offered anything to the student movement so far?

The government’s greatest offer has been a reduction in the interest rates on student loans from between 5-6 percent to 2 percent.

Is that what was rejected by the students in this year’s student union elections?

Clearly so. But why did we say no to this? Because they wanted to reduce our interest rate by giving state subsidies to private banks. The government also proposed an expansion of the scholarship system, so that government scholarships could be used not only to study in public but also private universities. So we said no!

Right now we are trying to unmask the businessmen, to show that the reason the government does not give us any solutions is because it’s incapable of doing so, because the government is beholden to the bosses… the Chilean government has already indicated that it will not grant what the students are demanding. So when the government declares that to you, what do you say? Do you say: ok, forgive us for protesting, but what can you give us? Do you say lets make a deal, we’re willing to settle for less! Or do you say: this is what we want and we’re going to keep fighting, and the reason you don’t give it to us is because you just want to keep enriching yourselves… and you are all demonstrating that the ones ruling are the large businessmen of this country.

So the government’s intransigence has led to a strategy of broadening the struggle and engaging the support of other social sectors.

Yes, that’s where this strategy comes in. We can begin to show, for example, that the businessmen who own the ports in Chile, who exploit and oppress the port workers, are the same businessmen who work hand in hand with the government and who have relationships with parliamentarians and ministers who own universities. So you can start to see how all the social problems in our country, problems of housing, problems of health, problems of education, start to link up though the bosses. The bosses are present in the executive, in the judiciary, and the parliament…that’s why they continue to approve the expansion of private universities, that’s why they continue to approve the privatisation of health services.

We’ve heard that the dock workers have shown solidarity in support of the students.

Yes, they struck six times for either half a shift or for a whole shift. On three occasions 70 percent of all the ports in Chile were brought to a stand till. On six occasions all the ports in the state of Bio Bio, where Concepcion is, were brought to a complete stop…. This demonstrates the strength that exists in this sector. But something interesting has been happening. When these strikes were happening last year… they came about through coordination at a regional level between students and dock workers.

But towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year there were moves towards the formation of the Chilean Union of Port Workers (UPC). This is a [national] coordinating committee involving all the port unions, which they can use to state their own demands and call strikes. In February this year they went on strike twice around their own demands, and we the students went on strike in solidarity with them. They have also offered to strike again this year [in solidarity with the student movement], but with more strength now that they have a more clearly defined national body.

So were to from here for the movement?

We have to generate a social movement that can keep on fighting against neoliberalism… If you have noticed the level of social protest in Chile has been growing more and more. As students, we want to add to the social protests. We don’t want to talk any more about the “student movement”. We want to talk about the social protest – the social movement of the workers, the students and the poor of our country. So the task of the students will be to add ourselves to those that continue to criticise, to continue to analyse and, with all the tools that we have, to motivate the sector of the working class. I think that an auspicious climate is approaching for social protest in Chile.