Why Chile and Chicago

A mural on the outside of a public high school in Valparaíso. Aula Segura refers to a national law in Chile which high school students have protested because of increased police presence and repression in schools. No más repression por aula segura means “no more repression by the Safe Classroom law.”

The long arm of US imperialism engineered and helped carry out the coup, and economists at the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago Boys, brought their neoliberal economic program to Chile. Chile and the Chilean people were their laboratory.

The policies they tested out here—privatizing public institutions (including schools) and public services, breaking unions, and opening every sector of the economy to multinational corporations and foreign investors—these policies came back to the U.S. and are global. But our similar experiences and our resistance to these policies create the possibility of a new kind of connection between Chicago and Chile—solidarity and shared learning from below.

Chile’s neoliberal governments turned public education into a market with national high stakes tests (the SIMCE) and vouchers. Today only 30% of schools are public. Charter schools and private schools comprise the majority. As in the U.S., education is a key mechanism to undermine social solidarity and critical consciousness.

Teacher education and curriculum are standardized and geared to competition, test-prep, and individualism. But Chile’s students and teachers have re-invigorated struggles for social justice. In 2006, high school students launched a national strike against school fees and for an equal education, called the penguinos movement because of the students’ black and white uniforms. The strike shut down secondary schools for a month, and Chile’s children reawakened the Chilean social consciousness. In 2011 and 2013, university students shook Chile again. Using their experiences as penguinos, they launched massive strikes and school occupations across the country, demanding a new framework for public education and the end to profit in higher education. Some of these students are now part of a new generation of critical university faculty who are challenging Chile’s official history and neoliberal teacher education.

These movements also inspired a group of young academics and teachers to launch a campaign to end the SIMCE (Alto al SIMCE). The SIMCE (like NCLB) is the mechanism that drives markets and degrades teaching and learning. Teachers also have stepped onto the national stage as important social actors, with national teacher strikes in 2015 and again this spring.

For five years, we have been sharing lessons with Chilean educators and activists against education privatization, standardization, and high stakes testing. We call our project, From Chicago to Chile and Back Again. Our two spaces are connecting again, this time in solidarity. We are so fortunate to be working with and learning from Alto al SIMCE, teachers and other activists, and critical academics who gave birth to and are products of these movements and from veterans of resistance to the dictatorship. Our contexts and histories are different, but we all are confronting the system of neoliberal racial capitalism and its manifestations in education. Our common struggles, our common enemy, our shared urgency for another, more just, world has brought us together.

The resistance in Chicago as well

Why Chile?

Chile was a laboratory for neoliberalism, ushered in by a violent military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. The coup (engineered by the U.S. government) overthrew the democratically elected socialistgovernment of Salvador Allende and replaced it with a brutal military dictatorship, headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Under the dictatorship, thousands of leftists, workers, students, union leaders, community organizers, and their families were rounded up, tortured, disappeared, and murdered. Unions and all forms of popular organization and assembly were outlawed.

The dictatorship dismantled socialist programs and laws to democratize the economy and government, support worker and peasant cooperatives, and redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. The iron fist of the military/state ran Chile from top to bottom. The dictatorship cleared the way for the world’s first experiment with neoliberalism—a brutal form of free-market, unregulated capitalism in which profits, privatization, and individual responsibility are the main goals.

The view from the cerro of the Pacific Ocean and el Plan (downtown) of Valparaíso

Why Valparaíso

Valparaíso, Chile’s second largest city, located in the middle of the country on the Pacific coast (you’ll hear a lot more about Valparaíso in our blog) has a radical leftist mayor, Jorge Sharp (elected in 2016), and city administration. Jorge was a leader of the 2011 university student strike. While Valparaíso went to the left, Chile’s national government went to the extreme right wing (sound familiar?), with the election of Sebastián Piñera in December 2017. So what is possible for a city government to do at this moment, in this context? We think this question is extremely relevant for Chicago.

The political legitimacy of the racist neoliberal order in Chicago has been destabilized. A new Black liberation movement led by young people and Chicago’s grassroots education movement shook city government, pushed out former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and brought in a wave of progressive, socialist, people-of-color activists to city government. But economic power still rests with the investment bankers and corporate elites, and they are pushing ahead with their agenda to market the city for real estate development, gentrification, and tourism, and drive out working-class people of color. 

It looks like the new mayor has to walk a tightrope between satisfying the corporate elite but not antagonizing working-class people of color, parents, and teachers demanding rent control; a community benefits agreement for the Obama center; real sanctuary for undocumented folks; an elected representative school board; fully funded and resourced equitable, quality neighborhood public schools; and community control of police. 

This moment is an opportunity for a people’s agenda. Like in Valparaíso, we ask: What is possible at the local level? What kind of power can we wield? Over the next few months, in the spirit of solidarity and shared learning and struggle, we and our Chilean friends will share our reflections on the local struggle here to create another city and another world –its complexities, challenges, possibilities, lessons, similarities and differences. Along the way we want to share the flavor of the city—a complex, vibrant, busy, economically marginalized, and powerful city that was the birthplace of Salvador Allende and has tremendous potential to be a leader in the creation of a new, just, humane social order.

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