Unequal schooling

It was five years ago that Chilean secondary students launched a protest movement that mobilized schools up and down the country and as far away as Easter Island.  The students wanted more equitable funding for elementary and secondary school education; the government of Michelle Bachelet made a few concessions but no deep reforms were made, even as the protest movement seemed to die out. (Bachelet did expand nursery school coverage, from 12 to 38 percent, during her four years in office).

This month the student protests returned with a vengeance, with additional demands for a more affordable higher education system. Over the past three decades private universities—of varying quality—have multiplied in Chile and the country now has an estimated 25 public and around 50 private universities. The number of university students has increased from 150,000 students in 1981 to 1.1 million today and two Chilean universities—the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and the Universidad de Chile—rank among the top ten higher education institutions in Latin America.The Chilean educational picture might not look too bad when compared with that of other Latin American countries, but Chile now belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and sets a far higher bar for itself.  It has the worst income inequality of any OECD member country and the organization also notes corresponding high levels of mistrust among Chileans. Only 13% of Chileans express high trust in their fellow citizens, much less than the OECD average of 59%. The education system is not providing much social mobility, it seems.

The OECD report notes improvements on Chilean students’ scores on standardized tests, but that outcomes “still need to catch up with OECD standards and equity problems should be addressed.”To read the full report: http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/displaydocumentpdf?cote=eco/wkp(2010)40&doclanguage=en

A good background piece on Chilean education was published a few months ago in the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce magazine: http://www.businesschile.cl/en/news/education/back-reform-school

Pinera and his changing cabinet

The Economist has a piece on its Americas blog about Fernando Echeverria’s three-day stint as Chile’s energy minister and wonders why no one noticed the conflict of interest—that the state oil company owed money to his construction company—before he took office. The article is entitled “A stubbornly persistent old boys’ network.”  http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2011/08/politics-and-business-chile

In Calama, an old wound

Leonilda Rivas spent decades looking for her son's remains, but died three years ago before lab tests identified his bone fragments. Photo by Paula Allen

Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal has identified the remains of five men executed in the northern mining town of Calama during the aftermath of the 1973 military coup.  The bone fragments were discovered in the Atacama Desert and sent to a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria for testing. Last week officials finally turned the remains over to the families.

The case is part of the notorious Caravan of Death, a series of summary executions ordered by a visiting army delegation from Santiago that toured five provincial cities. The delegation suspected that local military officials were dealing too leniently with leftists and even went so far as to arrest, imprison and torture a military judge who had presided over the trials of political prisoners but whose prison sentences were deemed not severe enough. In Calama, 26 prisoners were taken from their cells and executed “in total disregard for the law in a cruel and barbarous manner,” according to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.

The victims’ bodies were never returned to their families, and quickly buried in the desert outskirts of Calama. A few years later the army attempted to hide the evidence of these and other killings by removing the bodies from makeshift graves in various parts of the country and dumping them into the sea. But the hasty removal still left fragments of bone and clothing behind.  Some of the bereaved wives and mothers began their own search, going out into the desert with shovels.  In July of 1990 a former soldier, now living outside the country, revealed the site’s location near Calama, and the remains of 13 of the men were later delivered to their families.

Other families were left in limbo, but continued searching the Atacama. Leonilda Rivas, pictured above, never gave up hope of finding the remains of her 23 year old son Manuel Hidalgo and giving him a proper burial. Her son’s remains were among those delivered to their families, but Rivas was not present at the Servicio Medico Legal’s brief ceremony–she died in 2008.

Chilean film director Patricio Guzman incorporated the Calama women’s search into his prize-winning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, a meditation on science, history and human rights in the world’s driest desert, whose clear skies attract astronomers from around the world.

“I wish that the telescopes didn’t just look in the sky but also see through the earth so that we could find them,” one of the widows tells Guzman.

A link to the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7f4MLL-Hk