It began early one morning in May, when dozens of teenage girls emerged from the predawn darkness and scaled the spiked iron fence around Chile's most prestigious girl's school. They used classroom chairs to barricade themselves inside and settled in. Five months later, the occupation shows no signs of dying and the students are still fighting for their goal: free university education for all.
A tour of the school is a trip into the wired reality of a generation that boasts the communication tools that feisty young rebels of history never dreamed of. When police forces move closer, the students use restricted Facebook chat sessions to mobilise. Within minutes, they are able to rally support groups from other public schools in the neighbourhood. “Our lawyer lives over there,” said Angelica Alvarez, 14, as she pointed to a cluster of nearby homes. “If we yell ‘Mauricio’ really loud, he leaves his home and comes over.”
The first thing they did after taking over the school was to hold a vote. Approximately half of the 1,800 students participated in the polls to approve the takeover, and the yays outnumbered the nays 10 to one.
Now the students pass their school days listening to guest lecturers who provide free classes on topics ranging from economics to astronomy. Extracurricular classes include yoga and salsa lessons. At night and on weekends, visiting rock bands set up their equipment and charge 1,000 pesos (£1.25) per person to hear a live jam on the basketball court. Neighbours donate fresh baked cakes and, under a quirk of Chilean law, the government is obliged to feed students who are at school – even students who have shut down education as usual.
So much food has poured in that the students from Carmela Carvajal now regularly pass on their donations to hungry students at other occupied schools.
Carmela Carvajal is among Chile’s most successful state schools. Nearly all the graduates are assured of a place in top Chilean universities, and the school is a magnet, drawing in some of the brightest minds from across Santiago, the nation’s capital and a metropolis of six million.
But the story playing out in its classrooms is just a small part of a national student uprising that has seized control of the political agenda, wrongfooted conservative president Sebastián Piñera, and called into question the free-market orthodoxy that has dominated Chilean politics since the Pinochet era.
The students are demanding a return to the 1960s, when public university education was free. Current tuition fees average nearly three times the minimum annual wage, and with interest rates on student loans at 7%, the students have made financial reform the centrepiece of their uprising.
At the heart of the students’ agenda is the demand that education be recognised as a common right for all, not a “consumer good” to be sold on the open market.
Politicians and many parents fret that the cancellation of classes has turned 2011 into “a lost year” for public education, but for many of the students the past five months has been the most intensive education of their life.
"I have become a lot more mature. I used to judge my classmates by their looks. Now I understand them and together we stand up for what we believe," said Camila Gutierrez, 15, a freshman at Carmela Carvajal. "It has been exhausting, but if you want something in life, you have to fight for it."