By Luca Hodges-Ramon –
On Thursday night at the Estadio Nacional De Chile, an exuberant Chilean crowd celebrated after goals from Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas ensured Chile got their Copa América campaign off to a winning start against Ecuador.
As host nation, and with a wealth of talent at the disposal of Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli, expectations within the Andean nation are high. But while many Chileans harbour hopes of winning the Copa América for the first time in its 99-year history, students and teachers alike are viewing the tournament as a means through which to highlight the inadequacies of the country’s education system.
Founded in 1916, the Copa América is thought to be the world’s oldest international football tournament, predating the World Cup by 14 years. However, the corruption scandal that has engulfed football’s world governing body FIFA, has brought some unwanted attention to the prestigious tournament, especially given that several of the bribery and kickback charges have been linked directly to the Copa. This scandal has been accentuated by domestic corruption and widespread discontent regarding Chile’s education system.
Student Protests Accompany Start of Tournament
Speaking to the New York Times, 34-year-old Chilean football fan Jorge Gálvez admitted “There is not as much attention on the Copa as there should be because there are many problems with politics and strikes and the economy.”
The build-up to the Copa América has been accompanied by a wave of student protests that began in Chile’s capital of Santiago last Monday. This was followed by a larger demonstration just one day before the tournament’s opening ceremony, in which protestors set fire to barricades on Santiago’s Alameda Avenue, one of the city’s busiest roadways. Similar protests have also been witnessed in the south of the country and in May, two students were killed after clashes with Chilean police in the port city of Valparaiso.
Students, teachers, citizens and workers have all taken to the streets to express their anger at an education system which fosters inequality. During the military junta of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s, education funding was cut, largely due to General Pinochet’s perception that giant public universities allowed space for dissent against his regime. This prompted universities to raise tuition fees and reduce student numbers. Pinochet’s regime favoured privatisation, leaving private institutions to flourish while public schools in the poorer areas floundered.
Despite the return of democracy in 1990, the landscape has scarcely improved, especially with regards to higher education. Chilean universities are among the most expensive in the world when adjusted for its per capita gross domestic product. Thus, wealthy students represent an overwhelming majority of the student body which, according to the non-profit group Educación 2020, equates to a form of educational “apartheid.”
Millions of students and educators have fought to extinguish this legacy and recently tangible progress has been made. Following her re-election in 2013, Chilean President Michele Bachelet has brought education reform to the fore of domestic policy. In May, Bachelet enacted a law that bans for-profit universities and enterprises at state-funded schools as well as unveiling plans to ensure free university education will be provided to 60 percent of the poorest students starting in 2016.
Student groups, however, have labelled the reforms “inadequate” and the protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations “indefinitely” during the Copa América. The organisation responsible for mobilising Chile’s students is the Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (Confederation of Chilean Students —Confech) and following last Wednesday’s protest march they announced “We are seeing the support from Chilean society for our demands, which are essential for change and the transformation of education in Chile.”
The Parallels with Brazil
Parallels can be drawn with the furore that swept Brazil prior to, and during, the 2014 World Cup. Once again a major footballing event is being used as a platform to protest against political and economic inequalities. Unlike the Brazilian protestors, however, many Chileans have no qualms with the country hosting the Copa América and instead see the tournament as an opportunity for publicity.
Cecilia Amaya is a secondary school teacher who had joined a protest with colleagues at the Juan Pinto Duran training complex, the Chile team’s training base, ahead of their opening game against Ecuador. She told the New York Times that “We have no problems with the Copa América. We’re probably not going to protest during the games because we want to watch them. We want our team to win.”
Educators across the country have been on strike since June 1, campaigning for improved working conditions including demands for reduction in class sizes, planning and teaching time to be split equally and an incentivised pension scheme. The teachers have also called upon La Roja’s stars to show solidarity with their campaign. Chilean football’s poster boy, Alexis Sanchez, was named specifically as the protestors attempted to garner support.
Many Chileans will be hoping that this Copa América proves to be the harbinger of a new era, not only for Chilean football but also for educational reform. Whatever the outcome, the Copa América has at least served to draw global attention to the struggle facing students and teachers in Chile.
Luca Hodges-Ramon is a freelance writer and academic researcher due to begin his Masters at University College London in Political Sociology (Russia and Eastern Europe). Currently residing between Sussex and Siena, he developed his interest for the region while studying modules on the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis at university. Given his Italian heritage, he is also fascinated by the interrelation between Calcio, society and politics and you can read more of his work on his blog www.beyondthefieldofplay.com or follow him on twitter @LH_Ramon25.