By Carlos Barón, Professor of Theatre Arts, special to Xpress
For the last three and a half months Chilean secondary and university students have staged amazing and creative demonstrations against their educational system. The system is the most expensive in the world, the result of a 17-year legacy of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who led a military coup, or overthrow effort, on Sept. 11, 1973.
I grew up in Chile, and we Chileans call that date “Our little Sept. 11” because, compared to the way “the other” 9/11 is presented, it feels that way. But the number of dead people in Chile was 10 times larger than the number of those who fell in that horrible day when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York, and the coup in Chile was partly funded and very encouraged by the U.S. of A.
Before Pinochet decreed the creation of private universities and ushered in the era of for-profit education in Chile, there were eight state-financed universities and fewer than 150,000 university students in Chile. The state began reducing government funding for public universities and extended its hand to dozens of private universities that sprouted overnight, eager to profit from “the business of education.”
In turn, these new “higher education institutions” extended “easy” credit to a hungry-for-education populace. (In that, those students’ loans in Chile are clearly reminiscing of the predatory mortgage loans that have helped create the economic mess reigning in the U.S. today.)
Now, there are 1.1 million students in Chilean universities, in a country of about 17 million people. More of those students are in private colleges than in public ones, and most of them are heavily indebted to those predatory loans extended by banks and other private institutions.
That has led to some tough choices for many university students. “I’d like to study psychology, but I’m not sure I can because of the price,” said Maura Roque, 17, who recently undertook a hunger strike against the educational system in Chile. Coincidentally, a week ago, in San Francisco’s Mission District, I met “Juan” a recent psychology graduate from Chile’s schools and he told me: “I owe $50,000! I will be paying that for quite a few years!” Obviously, Ms. Roque could not begin to consider such a debt.