Young women in Chile spur widespread revolt

Students organize against sexual abuse and privatizing education

Abortion rights march in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. PHOTO: Fran[zi]s[ko] Vicencio on flickr
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In January, the hemispheric #MeToo revolt blew up in Chile. Outrage over sexual abuse by Catholic priests and university professors catalyzed mass demonstrations against Pope Francis, corrupt college administrations and the government’s wholesale neo-liberal privatization of education.

Primarily initiated by women students, young, feminist men jumped in and joined their crusade to stop relentless violence against women. Latin America has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest rates of misogynist violence. Restricted access to abortion is a cause of poverty and domestic abuse. In Chile, femicide increased 30 percent between 2016 and 2017. Too often, the Catholic Church and its anti-female stances dictate public policy.

The Chilean students are part of a tidal wave of female-led protest sweeping Latin America. In Argentina demonstrations for abortion rights brought out millions. In Brazil tens of thousands marched against a ban on abortion. In Chile there was uproar over Pope Francis’ visit.

U.S. coups in Latin America. Chile’s current problems stem from 1973 when the Chilean military and right-wing businessmen collaborated with the U.S. government to overthrow duly-elected President Salvador Allende. Allende had nationalized the country’s lucrative copper mines, threatening multinational corporate profits. So, the CIA organized a so-called “anti-communist” coup and after the dust settled, the murderous General Augusto Pinochet was in power.

Chile experienced one of several reactionary U.S.-engineered coups in the region. Overthrows in Argentina and Brazil also installed brutal pro-Wall Street dictators to protect big business by stopping land redistributions and nationalizations.

Pinochet destroyed Chile’s publicly-owned education system. Schools were made into private entities, traded on the stock market like cars and oil. A free college education became a thing of the past.

In 2011, one year of college tuition was three times the annual wage for most workers. That same year a group of 14-year-old teens, all of them young women, took over their high school to demand affordable education. The revolt spread to 200 elementary and high schools and a dozen universities. They included a 3,000-person choreographed performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to imply that Chile’s education system is dead.

A galvanizing trip. Students erupted again in 2018 when Pope Francis visited Peru and Chile. His trip provoked protests denouncing his protection of pedophile priests, strong stance against abortion, and collusion with the dictatorship during Argentina’s dirty war. As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the pope fingered progressive priests and lay Catholics to the military Junta in power. Most of those he named were tortured and executed.

Before the January visit, Pope Francis accused vocal victims of slandering Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest. The pontiff was forced to backpedal. He apologized for the Church’s handling of the pedophilia scandal and condemned femicide.

His words did nothing to quell the anger. At least a dozen churches were burned during his visit.

Pope Francis went home. But the young women and men did not. Protest broke out again in April and continued for months. These current actions denounce violence against women and demand the end to draconian laws against abortion. The specific feminist nature of the demands is a different and welcome change for organizing in Chile. Women are outraged and mobilizing.

When sexual harassment charges against a prominent law professor at the University of Santiago were dropped, the students occupied the law faculty offices. They hung bras across gateways and painted slogans on the walls.

Student demands included: addressing sexual harassment and abuse; hiring more female professors; and putting women authors on reading lists.

Protesters also called for firing a cabinet minister who helped restrict abortion even further.

The rebellion spreads. In October, 100,000 students marched against new right-wing President Piñera to protest his role in getting a law tossed that banned for-profit schools.

Workers went out after the students, to protest a pension system that was privatized under Pinochet. Currently, retirees get starvation-level benefits while banks rake in the profits.

Only time will tell what happens next, but the students have pledged to expand the movement’s reach to other sectors!

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