Interview with Felipe Ramirez of FEL-Chile
Interview by Scott Nappalos with Felipe Ramirez from FEL-Chile.
Translated by Mónica Kostas.
Scott: How does the system of representation function for students in Chile?
Felipe: Ok, there, we must make a distinction. The Chilean student movement is divided between high-school and college. There are two organizations that tie the high-school movement. One is the ACES (Coordinating Assembly of Secondary [high-school] Students), and the other is CONES (National Coordinator of Secondary [high-school] Students). These two organizations have their own models of representation and structure. At the university level, the movement is unified by CONFECH (Confederation of Students of Chile) which gathers student federations of different universities. Usually it gathers the more traditional universities, basically the ones that existed before 1981 which is when the dictatorship generates a new law for universities, and during last year, a series of private universities (that emerged after 1981 and did not have an official organization) have been incorporated. So these federations have to make annual choices on directions and objectives in a democratic manner without the intervention from the authorities of the university so that that there is transparency and respect for the autonomy of the student body at the time of choosing their leaders. It basically functions like that.
Scott: And with 2011, how were the students agitated? For example: Was it a spontaneous fight or were there joint campaigns from different groups? Was it just some groups? How did it happen?
Felipe: I think that the mobilization of 2011 can be classified as many things except spontaneous. But not because political groups had been doing specific work that was dedicated to make this happen, but because the objective circumstances of the country, in general, were the conditions that made students come out en masse to protest. On the one hand, there was the combination of the end of a withdrawal produced both by the defeat of the high-school movement in 2006 and the university withdrawal after the mobilization of 2005. Both 2005 and 2006 were very intense years for mobilizations, and then both defeats (and movements) converge in 2008, when a new law for education is approved. 2009 marks the lowest point in mobilizations and then in 2010, we start seeing important signals that the movement is waking up and that the circumstances are generating a more active student movement, more mobilized, etc. Similarly, combined with the fact that in 2005, after the signing of the defeat of the student movement and the creation of equity loans, the first generation of students entering with those credit loans is graduating in year 2011. That means that all the damage and all the debt that accumulates from the year 2006 with the new credit loans explodes in 2011 in examples like the indebtedness of the CAE (the equity loans from the state), the indebtedness of other credits that were borne out of this new system of financing like the CORFO credit which had an interest rate of 8% and allowed family assets to be confiscated from students, expropriated as part of payment, etc. All this produced an environment that for anyone, it implied a social explosion. At the same time, the country was generating a mobilization; there were mass demonstrations in the Magellan’s area in the far south, just at the beginning of this year there were massive demonstrations on the issue of power plants, the environmental issue and so on, so there was an atmosphere that allowed you to predict that 2011 was going to be a powerful mobilization. No one imagined it would be so strong, but overall we could see it coming. And within that environment, the different organizations tried to fulfill their roles. During that time, the leftist organizations of every stripe and every color, tried to position themselves, and to come up with certain guidelines as the year developed.
Scott: There was a period where FEL was small, and a period where FEL grew and become very large. What changed? Was it only the objective situation, or were there different strategies?
Felipe: I think the most crucial thing for the growth of FEL and for the strengthening of the national organization was its political maturity. At first, the FEL was an organization that had very few policy plans. Proposals toward the student movement emerged in a complicated context in 2003, there was a whole mobilization against the financing laws, the new framework laws that were being implemented, and overall, the financing issue that explodes in 2005 from which forms this powerful movement that finishes with the agreement between the heads of the student movement and the ministry of education to create the state run Crédito con Aval, the entry of banks to the finance system, etc. Faced with these situations, the FEL begins to slowly start building the framework for its political line, its proposal to education and the funding issue and all that somehow congeals in 2011. The mobilization catches us with an organization that is starting to grow along the heightening of the student movement and we see high school students go onto college, and these students come with a history of struggle and mobilization already, and they’re interested on the left and that also allows us to accumulate part of the whole process. The year 2011 forces the organization to throw the muddle, to understand that anarchism can not remain a sum of values, a sum of words of good upbringing or books that were written 140 years ago, nor moral principles, nor ethical ones. Anarchism has to be a policy, and without it being a political policy, it dies. And faced with this dilemma, luckily the organization opted for political discussion, for the creation of concrete proposals to give to the movement, understanding that we are not fighting for the revolution but for the specific conditions that accumulate towards a project of the working class, and that has allowed us to grow and consolidate as a national structure and also carve out a place among the leftist organizations.
Scott: In the press, we hear only about the big issues in the student struggle such as free education, privatization, and debt. Are there other smaller fights, where the FEL participates or other students are involved (for example if classes are canceled or similar things)?
Felipe: Well, that’s a whole topic. On the one hand, there’s the issues that are structural, as in structural models of the Chilean education, and on the other, there’s the concrete interaction of this educational structure within the institutions themselves. It is impossible to separate the internal conflicts, the curriculums of our careers, the precarious conditions, the lack of economic resources within each college or career, the educational policy of the ministry of education, and finally the role of the state and the unlimited power of the private corporations within the educational system, in that context. Every college and every career has small struggles, they have local claims, but what really matters and where you actually define the future of education, is not in these struggles, but rather the struggles around structural issues. Nothing matters if you lose the national struggle, that is to say, you can postpone the effects of structural policy, but not forever. There’s no simple solution to a problem that affects all universities equally.
Scott: What happened with the struggles of 2011, and which battles are present now?
Felipe: Well, 2012 is characterized by the student movement having to confront that the conflict of 2011 isn’t over. There is neither an agreement nor is there a complete defeat. What eventually happens is that the student movement returns to school without acknowledging a defeat and handing over the summer holidays as a kind of ceasefire. And in 2011, during the first semester until July what the movement tries to accomplish is to retake the demands of the previous year, in the context that the government, the state, and the political parties have control over the political initiative through reforms like the tax reform, through austerity measures like the ministry’s educational proposals…Basically what it seeks ultimately is to try to disarm this rephrasing of the student movement after the impasse of the summer. And while that proves to be difficult during the first semester, right now, in this precise moment in August, we can see high-school students trying to appropriate their struggle; there’s already dozens of high-schools taken all throughout the country, and we hope to see different universities generating mobilizations soon, we want the last half of August and the first half of September to allow us to see a much stronger movement than the one we've seen this year.
Scott: How will the elections affect the student struggle? Because October’s coming soon...
Felipe: Sure, there are local elections coming now, and the reading we get is that the parties of the more reformist left who bet on this path of municipal elections, and next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, what they want is to package the demands of the student movement toward institutionalization—strengthening their own political alternative as a tool for conflict resolution. We think that this is an illusion that is often created in any electoral path especially with the big parties like the democratic one and so on, who are largely responsible for the current situation. So then, neither the state nor the political party system deliver basic conditions to the social movement or to the student movement in particular, to be able to see them as a solution. So, of course, it all presents a problem because the idea that the elections are part of the solution will be presented with great force and from many sectors, so there we have to see how we are able to maneuver and prevent the social movement from being co-opted.
Scott: What relations and exchanges are there between the student movement and other struggles in Chile, such as workers, households, etc.?
Felipe: Look, I think starting from 2011 with the series of fights that I already described, the regional conflicts that develop both in Magallanes, as in Aysén, in the northern mining areas, the environmental struggles, the student struggles, and the different trade union struggles and mobilizations taking place, allowed us to understand one thing: Chile is a country deeply dependent on the capitalist periphery of the world, and a place where resources are highly concentrated in a few hands, in a few families. The responsible ones for the environmental conflicts with thermal or hydro plants, the poor working conditions, the low wages, and the extreme privatization that we already have with the education system, with the debt problem, and having to pay quadruple the cost of rent, are all the same culprits. They are the same entrepreneurs, they are the same faces, and the same holdings—national or international, repeated again and again. So, the enemy is finally clear. And it’s not a matter of values, not a matter of uniting the different causes due to some metaphysical reason, it is a concrete thing. We face an economic, political, and social system that is concrete, that has concrete and real expressions in our daily lives, and which deeply intersects the different spheres of our lives. In that sense, the student movement as well as other struggles have been slowly trying to understand this reality and trying to articulate in some way or another a political alternative to deal with these facts. That is a long and very difficult process in a country that is just recovering from the defeats suffered by the popular movement, which is just rebuilding its organizations after the defeats of the years '88 and '73, when fear reigned massively even until 2011, and where social organizations are really disarmed still. But we have seen some pretty encouraging signs, some union sectors such as the miners or longshoremen where libertarians have a pretty important position, have organized sympathy strikes paralyzing labor [inaudible] which is something not seen since the days of popular unity. So there are some encouraging signs that are positive though very isolated at the moment, but they still allow us to believe that it is possible to move towards a reconstruction of the popular movement and they also allows us to slowly build a political alternative.
Scott: Ok, perfect. Thanks.