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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 3: Campus Party Politics

Although all Universidad de Chile campuses are non-residential, on certain Fridays I’m at Campus Gómez Millas from eight o’clock in the morning until midnight.

What keeps me and hundreds of other students students entrenched in the same square kilometer where we spent the whole week when we could spend our Friday night at home, yelling at the soccer match on TV, or at a bar, drunkenly yelling at the soccer match on TV?

There are at least two reasons: Parties and politics.

campus-politics

If these two aspects of student life are still alive and well at U.S. liberal arts colleges, at flagship Chilean universities they are alive and kicking. Each Friday the student-made cocktail of asambleas (assemblies) and carretes (parties) quenches my thirst for first-hand knowledge of a present-day constitutional process and red wine in one fell swoop. It is now something I look forward to all week.

My Fridays begin at 8:30 a.m. with a three-hour seminar about the privatization of public education, which is the foremost political conflict in Chile today. By the time I rush out of my afternoon lecture on nineteenth-century Latin American history, my pedagogy compañeras are already congregating in the Humanities Department agora. (Yes, there is an “agora,” as in the ancient Greek open space used for assemblies and marketplaces. And yes, the students actually use it for those reasons.)

The pedagogy compañeras are frying sopaipillas and brewing navegado — a hot winter beverage with red wine, orange slices and cinnamon sugar — to sell for group trip money. They set up shop in the agora because some peers start pre-gaming there by three o’clock. A few history compañeros are among the day drinkers; a few others are among the vendors selling cigarettes and rolling papers.

agora

Throughout the afternoon various student assemblies meet in the agora or nearby auditoriums to discuss, for example, a project against sexual assault on campus or the latest motion to strike. Students operate these assemblies according to the principles of horizontal, participative democracy in which each member has a vote, there is no elected representative and decisions are only made with a quorum. Study abroad students are not voting members of any class, campus or university assembly, so I simply listen and briefly chime in if my friends, be it in jest or out of curiosity, ask my opinion on the matter.

At five o’clock I meet with my research advisor to discuss the findings from my latest round of interviews, but I soon return to the agora. The second-year pedagogy students who I have come to know are now joined by the first-year compañeras. A circle sitting crisscross applesauce, we sing each reggaetón hit to which someone can pluck out the chords on a beat-up classical guitar. Yes, the scene might resemble pre-school and, no, I don’t know all the words, but I get a warm, fuzzy feeling from acoustic karaoke (or maybe the left-over navegado) that I rarely experience on campus in New York City.

Friends from other universities flock to Campus Gómez Millas as the sun sets. They catch a whiff of something — Friday’s marijuana mixed with Wednesday’s tear gas — and make a beeline for el cenicero, the campus center named for its ashtray-shaped plaza. Overhead floats the collective exhale of a few hundred chainsmokers. Below stand circles of students, chatting about anything — favorite rappers, least favorite professors, revolución — as they pass around boxes of wine.

cenicero

There’s a circle of biology students, a circle of anarchists, a circle for each carrera and political collective. Sure, the groups are divided, but to cross that divide one need only take two steps to the left, as opposed to, say, being accepted by a fraternity or signed into a dorm suite at a U.S. university.

Sitting at the top of the cenicero with some new acquaintances from the film department, I can spot each cluster — pedagogy compañeras, history compañeros, those sociology students I met this time last week. I’m a bit weirded out when I realize that any number of friends or strangers could be keeping an eye on me without me knowing, but the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of harmoniously sharing a public space trumps the panopticon vibe.

By ten o’clock it starts to rain, but few have umbrellas. We seek shelter on the bottom floor of the Humanities Department where Cata keeps her speaker for this exact moment. She plugs in her phone, and we form a circle again, but this time with backpacks and coats piled in the middle because we are dancing. Whenever the music cuts out as Cata receives a WhatsApp message, the first-year compañeras fill in with freestyle rap.

speaker

The festivities continue in this fashion until 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. or, if it’s welcome week, 6:00 a.m. Then, and only then, the police come to break up the party with their cocktail of choice: chemical water. The majority of Fridays, however, conclude with nothing more than munchies.

Some study abroad students assume Campus Goméz Millas is able to sustain this weekend tradition without too many drunken brawls because almost all the students are leftists, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. The campus left is so divided that the satirical conservative campaign won the student election a few years ago and the Socialist candidates stop partying with their Communist rivals during election season.

It seems that students who value political engagement and a communitarian lifestyle self-sort into the Universidad de Chile and especially this campus. Plus, the administration respects the fact that the students are so well-organized that they will do as they damn well please. If the admin started calling the cops every Friday night, the students would probably vote to occupy the campus until the right to public space — including for recreation — was restored.

political-debate

The cenicero, like the Universidad de Chile as a whole, is a public space that is political and pluralistic at the same time. That spirit of mobilization and dialogue, which I believe is crucial to learning, does not disappear when the sun sets and the students turn up. For that reason not only the politics but also the parties at Campus Gómez Millas are, at least for a gringo raised on late-night talk shows and indie rock, so invigorating.

La Universidad Católica, in contrast, does not permit the after-hours use of university grounds. This private, elite, conservative and above all Catholic institution is inclusive in that it hosts queer affinity groups and volunteer projects, but the student body only assembles for the occasional university-sanctioned event, which is usually of a formal and depoliticized nature.

According to a political science major working behind-the-scenes in the current student government, the only students you can find in La Católica’s sprawling campus past 9:00 p.m. are the politicians. The “en reunión sign taped to the student center door may lead you to think the elected officials are in an important budget meeting, but they’re probably just lighting up a doobie and butchering “Friday” by Rebecca Black on Wii Karaoke. Whiskey is poured into office coffee mugs so that these representatives can coyly sip their poison when the security guard comes to check how much longer they’ll be “working”. In exchange for beer, the guard ends up letting the young politicians stay as long as they’d like, so sometimes they crash there for the night, crawling onto office sofas and tucking each other in with political banners as blankets.

sleeping-politicians

Generally speaking, La Católica parties are like Ivy League parties: invitation-only. This semester I got the shoulder-tap to attend the joint birthday of two right-wing law bros living in Santiago’s richest neighborhood, and it turned out to be one of the most disorienting nights of my life. It wasn’t the boozing. (I didn’t even drink.) What made my head spin was the schmoozing. There, standing poolside in the backyard, were La Católica’s bleeding heart liberals raising a toast to the birthday boys along with diehard conservatives who they kicked out of office last semester.

To Americans sick of congressional deadlock, this party may seem like a promising example of reaching “across the aisle,” if only to pass the weed. However, to a critical Chilean (and considering Chile’s two leading alliances of left and right achieve only a combined 31 percent approval rate, the majority of Chileans are critical of their government) this bipartisan bacchanal is a damning scene of how La Católica is the training ground for the country’s corrupt political class. There’s a Chilean phrase combining whisky and izquierdawhiskierdathat describes the liberal elite who clink glasses half-full of the finest liquor as they ponder the revolution from afar, armchair-in-armchair with their right-wing counterparts.

This school-to-senate pipeline is institutionalized by the alignment between national and campus political parties. For example, both the Communist Party and ultraconservative UDI frequently have candidates in Chilean student elections, whereas at Columbia I have never even seen a wannabe Class Rep publicize their affiliation with either the Democratic or Republican party. Most national parties in Chile also have escuelas de formación, which are student-run weekend workshops meant to familiarize new students with the party line and train them in organizing strategies. If this seems like “indoctrination”, remember that these schools of political formation are voluntary, unlike the primary schools from which the Pinochet dictatorship eliminated civic education in order to, well, indoctrinate the youth.

schools-of-political-formation

To sum up, partying and politicking at top Chilean universities are like happy roommates: at first they shared the space out of necessity but now they do it for fun and because it works.

The difference between the Universidad de Chile and La Católica is which space. While students at Campus Gómez Millas tend to come together in public spaces like the agora or cenicero, their private-school rivals can be found (or, more accurately, not found) behind closed doors.

In general, each school is a reflection of the society it wants to form. Read the actual statutes, rules and bylaws of a university to discover the ideological project behind its glossy publicity. Maybe the way U.S. colleges regulate campus parties says something about their politics too.

Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.

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