Sleeping on a tiled classroom floor, sharing cigarettes and always on the lookout for police raids, the students of Carmela Carvajal primary and secondary school are living a revolution.
It began early one morning in May, when dozens of teenage girls emerged from the predawn darkness and scaled the spiked iron fence around Chile‘s most prestigious girl’s school. They used classroom chairs to barricade themselves inside and settled in. Five months later, the occupation shows no signs of dying and the students are still fighting for their goal: free university education for all.
A tour of the school is a trip into the wired reality of a generation that boasts the communication tools that feisty young rebels of history never dreamed of. When police forces move closer, the students use restricted Facebook chat sessions to mobilise. Within minutes, they are able to rally support groups from other public schools in the neighbourhood. «Our lawyer lives over there,» said Angelica Alvarez, 14, as she pointed to a cluster of nearby homes. «If we yell ‘Mauricio’ really loud, he leaves his home and comes over.»
For five months, the students at Carmela Carvajal have lived on the ground floor, sometimes sleeping in the gym, but usually in the abandoned classrooms where they hauled in a television, set up a private changing room, and began to experience school from a different perspective.
The first thing they did after taking over the school was to hold a vote. Approximately half of the 1,800 students participated in the polls to approve the takeover, and the yays outnumbered the nays 10 to one.
Now the students pass their school days listening to guest lecturers who provide free classes on topics ranging from economics to astronomy. Extracurricular classes include yoga and salsa lessons. At night and on weekends, visiting rock bands set up their equipment and charge 1,000 pesos (£1.25) per person to hear a live jam on the basketball court. Neighbours donate fresh baked cakes and, under a quirk of Chilean law, the government is obliged to feed students who are at school – even students who have shut down education as usual.
So much food has poured in that the students from Carmela Carvajal now regularly pass on their donations to hungry students at other occupied schools.
Municipal authorities have repeatedly attempted to retake the school, sending in police to evict the rebel students and get classes back on schedule, but so far the youngsters have held their ground.
«It was the most beautiful moment, all of us in [school] uniform climbing over the fence, taking back control of our school. It was such an emotional moment, we all wanted to cry,» Alvarez said. «There have been 10 times that the police have taken back the school and every time we come and take it back again.»
The students have built a hyper-organised, if somewhat legalistic, world, with votes on everything including daily duties, housekeeping schedules and the election of a president and spokeswoman. The school rules now include several new decrees: no sex, no boys and no booze. That last clause has been a bit abused, the students admit.
«We have had a few cases of classmates who tried to bring in alcohol, but we caught them and they were punished,» said Alvarez, who was stationed at the school entrance questioning visitors. Alvarez, who has lived at the school for about four months, laughed as she described the punishment. «They had to clean the bathrooms,» she said.
Carmela Carvajal is among Chile’s most successful state schools. Nearly all the graduates are assured of a place in top Chilean universities, and the school is a magnet, drawing in some of the brightest minds from across Santiago, the nation’s capital and a metropolis of six million.
But the story playing out in its classrooms is just a small part of a national student uprising that has seized control of the political agenda, wrongfooted conservative president Sebastián Piñera, and called into question the free-market orthodoxy that has dominated Chilean politics since the Pinochet era.
The students are demanding a return to the 1960s, when public university education was free. Current tuition fees average nearly three times the minimum annual wage, and with interest rates on student loans at 7%, the students have made financial reform the centrepiece of their uprising.
At the heart of the students’ agenda is the demand that education be recognised as a common right for all, not a «consumer good» to be sold on the open market.
Currently, many Chilean schools are for-profit institutions, run as businesses. Until recently, the classified section of the leading newspaper, el Mercurio, regularly featured schools for sale, in adverts that often described the institutions as highly profitable investments.
The Chilean uprising has changed that. Now owners of public schools have begun posting employment ads in local newspapers for security guards to fend off attempts by students to seize the schools. One advert offered employment to able-bodied men who could use dogs to repel potential student takeovers. («No experience necessary,» it read.)
Politicians and many parents fret that the cancellation of classes has turned 2011 into «a lost year» for public education, but for many of the students the past five months has been the most intensive education of their life.
«I have become a lot more mature. I used to judge my classmates by their looks. Now I understand them and together we stand up for what we believe,» said Camila Gutierrez, 15, a freshman at Carmela Carvajal. «It has been exhausting, but if you want something in life, you have to fight for it.»
The first murmurings of the «Chilean Winter» came in in late May with the first takeover of a public school. Five months later, around 200 state elementary and high schools as well as a dozen universities have now been occupied by students. Weekly protest marches gather between 50,000-100,000 students throughout the nation, with especially large turnouts in coastal cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion. Charismatic student leader Camila Vallejo – known as Comandante Camila – has become a cult hero across Latin America. Initially, the protestors’s demands for free universal education was flatly rejected by the conservative administration of president Sebastian Pinera, but the government is now moving incrementally towards meeting their demands.
Talks between the ruling conservative government and striking students collapsed on Wednesday evening with irate students accusing the government of failing to provide new proposals. But Government officials responded that the students would be welcomed back to negotiate.
On Thursday when thousands of students gathered for a protest march in downtown Santiago, Government officials refused to authorize a march route that included a central thoroughfare and defiant students used social media to send out a singular message – the march is on. For much of Thursday, downtown Santiago was awash in tear gas and rioting youth. Smashed cars, 137 arrests and mutual accusations that the violence was avoidable further highlighted the gulf between student leaders and the Pinera government.
With imaginative protests including a kiss-a-thon in which 3,000 couples groped and smooched for exactly fifteen minutes, the Chilean student movement has captured the imagination of a long dormant but apparently disenchanted Chilean public. The unified front of students also counts on support from an estimated 6 of 10 adults in Chile, far higher than the nation’s political coalitions or President Sebastian Pinera whose recent approval ratings has ranged from 22% to 30%. However the frequent violence which accompanies the street marches has outraged many Chileans who see their cherished stability now on the edge of social chaos.