So this was a surprising interruption in my otherwise normal day. We were told at around 4pm that it was a good idea to clear out of the Start-Up Chile office due to the riots tonight. Having heard a bit about the students’calls for quality education, I thought that this would just be a small if somewhat rowdy protest. The tear gas in the streets and Chilean carabinero police in full battle armor probably should have warned me otherwise. But it wasn’t until we tried to leave our apartment around 8:30pm tonight for a friend’s birthday party did we really get a big dose of reality. Here are a few pictures of our short-lived attempt to walk 6 blocks just south of the Alameda:
I’ve never been tear-gassed before, so it was a pretty shocking experience. Even though we managed to avoid the worst of it, we could see the multiple fires down the streets, smoke and sirens, all underneath a constant banging of pots and pans in a typical South American cazerolada protest style. From what I could see, it was definitely an overuse of force on the Chilean government’s part. The quotes from some government spokespeople were quite disturbing: Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter warned, “The time for marching has run out”, and Andres Chadwick, a government spokesman, said, “The students are not the owners of this country. We cannot be held prisoner as a society by the idea that the only rights that matter are those of students to protest.”
While I don’t condone when reckless violence is masked in the form of protest, and while the fires and crowds of young men running through the streets was rather disturbing to see, I still cannot believe this is the amount of force necessary against students who are calling for change in education. If anything, seeing students passionate and willing to speak out in the name of something they cared about was refreshing to see, not a dictatorship of students over a country. If anything, the police with their full battle gear, tanks, water cannons and tear gas were the ones that terrified me the most. I agree with the spokesperson for the student demonstrators that riots likely would not be as violent, not as war-like, if the government did not treat it so much like a war but rather as compatriots trying to improve the situation for everyone, which is what it truly is.
Looking more into the actual educational issues up for debate, it seems that the heart of the matter is whether education should be a public or private good. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has made clear that he believes education should be private, tacitly supporting for-profit activities in education, while the student demonstrators believe in greater government intervention and funding. For me, the biggest question is, what is the value of an education? As an immigrant to the US who arrived as a family with basically nothing in our names, education has been the open pathway that led me, if not to guaranteed success, at least to opportunity and the freedom to choose the life I want to lead. Beyond even healthcare, which becomes an issue only when one is sick, education affects each and every one of us and determines how many doors will be open to us later in life. For me, the value of an education is priceless, which makes it difficult to price in the private markets. It also has unbound positive externalities for society to have an all-around educated population, regardless of income. So I guess I am on the side of the protestors, despite getting a faceful of tear gas and missing a friend’s birthday party because of them.