New democracy, new lessons

In Features /

By Liz Nyburg

It’s the July winter vacation and the sun goes down at 6 p.m.  As in most homes, the temperature’s about 15 degrees Celcius and the charge for the small amount of electrically-generated heat is 14 cents Canadian a kilowatt-hour (North York Hydro charges only 10 cents a kilowatt-hour).  

Claudia Venegas and he classmates are eating vegetable stir-fry and noodles in her mother’s neat, dark apartment in Santiago, Chile.  As a fifth-year psychology student at Universidad Centra de Childe, Venegas pays about $4,700 Canadian for tuition in Chile, where minimum wage is $1.46 Canadian an hour.  In Ontario, where minimum wage is $6.85, the cost of education would be comparable to paying more than $22,000 a year.

When asked why tuition is so high, students at the private Universidad Central de Chile laugh.  Tuition fees went up 6 to 16.7 per cent in Chilean universities this year, which harmonizes beautifully with Ryerson’s recent 10 per cent hike.

“It’s a business, there’s a demand [for university education] and prices group,” says Andrea Varga, a fellow psychology student.  Ten years ago in Ontario such a statement would have rung upon the ears of students as the cynical truth of life in a developing country that couldn’t invest in education.  In Ontario, as in Chile, it’s the new mantra of universities interested in turning a profit off those they intend to educate.

Venegas’ friends aren’t even getting Ivy League quality for their fees.  Private universities have slightly easier entrance requirements, and less prestige, than the state universities.  That’s because the state universities are older and have government-subsidized tuition.  Psychology tuition at one state university, Universidad de Chile, is $3,600 Canadian.  At Chile’s wages, the $1,100 Canadian difference with Vengeas’ fees is equal to working 800 hours at McDonald’s.  As more people compete to get in to the less expensive programs, high school marks become more important.  To give the students an idea of their competition, the state run university publishes a detailed chart of the first selection and last selection marks of the accepted candidates.

At the Universidad Central, the signs of the old regime are still visible.  Poor funding meant there was no toilet paper at an entire campus until two years ago.  The library has only two copies of the Rorschach ink blot test all psychology students are required to study.

So how do students get money?  Even though unemployment dropped to 4.4 per cent tin 1992 from 35 per cent in 1983, Chilean university students can rarely find jobs during the school year, even at low wages.  That’s because class time is typically 40 hours a week, including Saturdays, an employers want workers for at least 20 hours a week or not at all.

As for financial aid, there are hundreds of scholarships, and a government grant for students with low income and a 71 per cent average.  Andrea Villanueva, from a family of five whose father is unemployed, couldn’t qualify.  The annual family income was over the requisite threshold of $841 Canadian per month.

Despite a 95 per cent literacy rate, Chile is still a country of extreme poverty and wealth.  Psychology student Angelica Romano thinks that even after eight years of democracy, Chile is still weakened by its “history,” which is a sort of Chilean code for blaming problems on former military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Right after Pinochet’s bloody 1973 overthrow of the democratically-elected Marxist government, the Mapocho River running through the centre of Santiago would be the site of mutilated corpses when the army attacked the barrios (neighbourhoods) at night.  By 1985, starving people fought with stray dogs for scraps thrown into the same river from the food market.  When peaceful negotiations sidelined Pinochet in 1990 and democracy returned, the proportion of people living below the poverty line had more than doubled to 41 per cent from 1973 levels.

Chile spent 14 per cent of its 1995 budget on education compared to Canada’s 18 per cent, but it has a lot of catching up to do.  Out of 45 high school classmates, Varga estimates only 15 went to university.  Three years ago only 54 per cent of Chilean kids enrolled in high school, which is neither free nor compulsory.  Both Universidad Central and Ryerson students know there are lots of people who can’t afford university at all this year, food bank or no food bank.

So the Santiago friends consider themselves lucky.  They worry about money, pay fees on an installment plan, borrow from their parents, and live with their families.  To relax they go to the movies once in a while, a free concert, for a walk or [they all laugh] “do nothing.”

Like many students who find politics depressing, Romano says there’s a lot of disillusionment.  Chile is still a democracy under current President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle.  But Pinochet is still legally a senator-for-life, and the 1980 Constitution also prevents Ruiz-Tagle from dismissing any commander of the armed forces.  Chileans are so fed up with politics that at the 1997 election, 40 per cent of them either stayed home or spoiled their ballots.  Canadians didn’t do much better with a 32 per cent turnout the same year.

Chileans are unlikely to see political action as a solution to third-world conditions.  Their grin-and-bear-it attitude is not indifference.  They want to help.  Romano, for example, would love to do social work among impoverished street vendors.  Many Chilean students work for a Peace Corps-like volunteer organization when they graduate.

Still, it’s hard to imagine these Universidad Central students chanting slogans in a roaring crowd or storming the lobby of any major banks on Santiago’s version of Bay Street.

It’s not just because of the choking smog among the yellow buses on Santiago’s central artery, Liberator Bernado O’Higgins Avenue.

For one thing, the police presence is serious.

In Santiago, even decorous citizens bicycling downtown in July for a better environment are watched by an armoured-carload of carabineros (see photo).

(Editor’s note – the original story included a photo with the following cutline: This young member of the carabineros is armed with handgun, attack dog and spiffy new uniform.  The semi-military group is still intensely loyal to Pinochet and acts as a cross between riot police, national investigators and local law enforcement.)

“Let us see the mountains,” says one banner.  The peaks of Cordillera, as close to Santiago as the Coast Mountains are to Vancouver, remain hidden, like Chile’s future, in a dirty beige haze.

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