Chilean revolution: Education or politics?


Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

Central Chile's good soil and good rainfall encourage the production of corn, potatoes, sugar beets, barley, and wheat, along with apples, grapes, and other fruit. Agricultural exports increased in the mid-19th century in response to demand from the California gold rush, and politically connected landowners expanded production by enlarging their estates and bringing more peasants into their work force as inquilinos (tenant farmers). Entrepreneurs in 1851 backed a rebellion against President Manuel Montt Torres, whom they accused of running the government in the interest of central landowning elites. British ships helped Montt end the brief civil war, and Montt established the first government-run railroad company in South America.

During most of the late 19th century Chile was at peace. When nitrates-used by Europeans and Americans in fertilizers and explosives-became very economically valuable, Chile from 1879 to 1883 soundly defeated Bolivia and Peru in a war for control of the nitrate area which is now part of northern Chile. The nitrate boom lasted for three decades, during which time most revenues of the national government came from export taxes on nitrates; when nitrate sales finally decreased, copper mining took its place. Government and church leaders, enjoying nitrate and copper windfalls, tended toward smugness, and leftist ideologues seized the opportunity to agitate among miners, with insurrections in 1907 and other years encountering violent suppression.

One president during this period, Jose Manuel Balmaceda in 1891, tried to gain more power, but the Chilean navy carried out a coup and Balmaceda, a hero to a Chilean president 80 years later, committed suicide. A military coup and counter-coup in 1924 and 1925 led to a new constitution that officially separated the Catholic Church and state, asserted the government's right to remove some private property rights and its obligation to care for the social welfare of all, protected the rights of workers to organize economically and politically, and increased presidential power, with presidents serving six-year terms. But rich landowners were often poor in compassion, and class divisions grew. Sept. 11 was still decades away.

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Northwest of downtown Santiago is Renca, and the road there displays not only graffiti but a wall drawing of former Marxist president Salvador Allende and a hammer-and-sickle Communist Party poster with the words, Otro Chile es Posible. Indeed, "another Chile is possible," but in this poor Chilean town old tires and rusting oil drums sit beside the main road under signs for Blockbuster videos and Nintendo 64 play stations. Women sit at fruit and vegetable stands, shooing away packs of dogs, as horse-drawn carts (horses for work, not for show) plod down dirt roads.

At one intersection stands the Colegio San Joaquín, a project of the Fundación Marcelo Astoreca Correa. A group of young engineers created the Fundación in 1989 to commemorate their friend Mr. Astoreca, who died suddenly at age 33; as they put it, "Marcelo had a strong spirit of service and at the moment of his accident he was carrying out a program to improve education among the poor." He was convinced that problems would not be solved only by investing more resources, but by creating a different kind of school.

Today, CSJ is a K-12 school with 500 students, often with 42 in a class. (Municipal school classes are also large by U.S. standards.) With the boys wearing white shirts, blue CSJ ties, and gray pants, the girls in their white blouses and blue skirts, and all sporting navy blue coats as they come and go, CSJ seems a world away from the dust and graffiti just outside its walls.

CSJ students generally come from hard family pasts, and only about one-fourth live with their birthparents. Average household income is about $200 per month obtained through construction, selling vegetables, or working in homes or at restaurants, but these children plan to have better lives economically. In the computer room at 5 p.m. older students are searching websites to learn about different occupations, and will make PowerPoint presentations to classmates about what they have found. Some will receive diplomas in accounting, others in computing, and about one in seven will go on to university study for other occupations.

Orderliness, not an unordinary curriculum, distinguishes CSJ from municipal schools, explained Luz Maria Budge Carvallo, headmaster for eight years and now an energetic trainer of teachers. "The Ministry of Education wants progressive education. We want traditional education. Our children come from unstructured houses where there is no discipline. Fathers come and go. At other schools, they jump on the desks. But we make a big fuss out of anything disorderly." That's evident in the clean walls and surroundings, the educational equivalent of the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention: Broken windows lead to break-ins and broken bones; messy school surroundings lead to messy homework and messy minds.


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