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More Chileans Want the Benefits of Living in Latin America’s ‘Tiger’

Hugo and Daniel Hurtado are bucking the trend in Chile: it is not common for a waiter’s son to attend the university. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

SANTIAGO, Nov 19 2013 (IPS) - Hugo Hurtado, 47, is a chef. Anyone would say that in his country, Chile, the Latin American “tiger”, his profession would be synonymous with success and even fame. But unfortunately that’s not true.

Hurtado works as a waiter. “I studied a profession that is too elitist, because if you don’t have contacts or your own restaurant, the only choice is to be a cook, which means earning 500 dollars a month and working eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week,” he told IPS.

“As a waiter the hours are exactly the same, but between the wages and the tips, I earn 700 dollars a month,” he said.

Half of all workers earn less than 500 dollars a month in this country of 17 million people, which has seen economic growth above six percent a year in the last 20 years.

Hurtado, a father of three who is separated from his wife, lives with two of his children in his new girlfriend’s house in Puente Alto, a working-class neighbourhood on the south side of Santiago. Daniel, the oldest, an excellent student, decided to study medicine.

But he didn’t manage to pass the university entrance exam known as PSU, and his family couldn’t afford to send him to a private prep school – a big business in a country where tuition-free higher education does not exist, in contrast to most of Latin America.

At the age of 18, Daniel won a scholarship because of his good grades and his family’s limited income, and completed the first year of studies in science at the University of Chile. After a second year of studies he will qualify to apply for medical school, without having to take the university entrance exam again.

“If he didn’t have a scholarship, he wouldn’t be able to study at the university,” his father said.

But things could become difficult if his dream of making it into medical school actually comes true.

“Medical school costs between 900 and 1,400 dollars a month, plus the study materials, food, locomotion and other expenses,” Daniel’s father says. “So we’re thinking that it would be better if he went to [neighbouring]Argentina [where university education is tuition-free], to study there.”

Neither father nor son are typical.

“We’re swimming against the current….The normal thing would be for Daniel to work at a call centre, as a bag boy in some supermarket, in construction, or as a waiter like me,” Hugo Hurtado said.

“There’s no way a normal family can afford to send a child to med school,” said Daniel.

The Hurtados are an example of the segment of Chileans who are fed up but hopeful that the results of the Dec. 15 presidential runoff vote will help them to finally share in the benefits of living in a Latin American “tiger”.

The danger is that the sense of being fed up is growing.

In the Sunday Nov. 17 elections, turnout was low, with nearly half of all voters staying at home.

Former socialist president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) took 47 percent of the vote, against 25 percent for her right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei. They will face off in the second round.

Today, Bachelet and Matthei are the faces of the centre-left and the right which, since the end of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship, have maintained a socially fragmented status quo characterised by growing inequality.

“People can still remember a state that was more inclusive, that was part of a process of social participation, that accepted the presence of representatives of lower-income sectors in its administration, and that was toppled by the military” in 1973, anthropologist Juan Carlos Skewes from the Alberto Hurtado University told IPS.

The incomes of the richest five percent of Chilean families are 270 times the incomes of the poorest five percent, according to statistics provided to IPS by the Fundación Sol, a think tank that specialises in labour and social issues.

Daniel Hurtado believes that “the state should assume the role of guaranteeing education for society as a whole, rather than handing out crumbs.”

He said the country’s economic development model “is reflected in the fact that a very few have the means and are the owners of everything. That is another world; they govern, they progress. All the majority of us can do is swim against the current, pick up the scholarships that they toss our way, so we can study.”

Tuition-free education is one of the central demands of protests held in the last few years, especially since the massive student demonstrations that began to rock the country in 2011.

In Sunday’s elections, four former leaders of the student movement won seats in Congress, some of them by large margins, including Camila Vallejo of the Communist Party.

To achieve their demand for universal tuition-free education, they will have to negotiate with the next government, which will almost certainly be headed by Bachelet.

Bachelet, who pushed through an educational reform that fell short when she was president, has promised tuition-free university education within six years.

Edilia Rojas, a 69-year-old pensioner, told IPS: “If she says it, I believe her…I hope she lives up to her promise. I would like my grandson to study, to have opportunities.”

Rojas, who has one son and is a grandmother, works as a full-time domestic to cover her basic needs.

“I have been working since I was 16. I thought I would stop when I retired, but since my pension is small [300 dollars] I had to keep working,” she added.

Monday through Friday she cleans a family’s house, for less than 500 dollars a month. “That means I’m a slave to work,” she said.

Thanks to her hard work, her son went to the university, and didn’t have to fall into debt to do so. “My entire wages went towards tuition. We managed to eat thanks to the fact that I rented out some rooms in my house, and because I eat lunch in the house where I work. But it was very difficult nonetheless.

“My life has been kind of hard, but I’ve had good health,” she said. If her life had been different, Rojas added, she would have loved to live in the countryside, together with her two brothers who don’t have decent housing.

So in response to the question of what is most urgently needed in Chile, she doesn’t hesitate: access to affordable housing and a decent pension.

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