Students shed clothes and burn debts as push for reform continues

Published On : Fri, May 16th, 2014

Activist burns debt papers ‘freeing’ students of loan payment, Arcis students protest outside La Moneda as government re-opens financial investigations.

Students shed clothes and burn debts as push for reform continues

All that allegedly remains of US$500 million in debt papers for student loans at a failed university, stolen and burned by artist and activist ‘Papas Fritas.’ Photo via Fabián Navarrete / Twitter

Police on Thursday confiscated a heap of ashes displayed at a Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (GAM) exhibition — allegedly all that remains of US$500 million in “pagarés” — or debt paper — stolen and burned by artist and activist Francisco Tapia, aka “Papas Fritas.”

A video by Tapia went viral in student circles earlier this week wherein he confessed to burning the legal papers certifying debt owed by Universidad del Mar students and had thus liberated the students from their debt obligations. The video and its widespread circulation no doubt prompted the police raid at the art exhibit.

“It’s over, it’s finished,” Tapia said in his impassioned five minute video. “You don’t have to pay another peso [of your student loan debt]. We have to lose our fear, our fear of being thought of as criminals because we’re poor. I am just like you, living a shitty life, and I live it day by day — this is my act of love for you.”

Although authorities began shutting down Universidad del Mar last year for financial irregularities and encouraged students to seek out alternative universities, the university is still collecting on its student loans.

The destruction of the documents occurred during a “toma” — student takeover — of the campus and means the embattled university owners must now individually sue each of its students to assure debt payment — a very costly, time-consuming process.

The video comes in the wake of a student march last week involving tens of thousands of students and a petition last Friday by the National Association of High School Students (ACES) that the National Comptroller’s office investigate whether or not Education Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre is carrying out his legal responsibility to seek out and sanction profit-making educational institutions.

The “Papas Fritas” escapade, the student demonstrations and ACES’ petition are the latest examples of the kind of pressure facing Eyzaguirre as he works to deliver on President Michelle Bachelet’s campaign promise to radically restructure Chile’s entire education system by putting an end to profit making and by emphasizing quality public education.

Even though profit making in education is explicitly outlawed by law, Eyzaguirre faces a daunting task: More than half of the nation’s students now attend publicly-subsidized high schools and universities which are private and for profit.

As a response to growing student pressure, the education minister has recruited former student leaders into his ministry and has fast-tracked legislation in Congress to create a special “administrator” position in the Education Ministry to oversee suspect universities that have their accreditation yanked because of irregularities — as was the case in Universidad del Mar.

El Mostrador reports that Eyzaguirre will also soon “reopen” investigations of four universities that were reviewed during the previous administration of President Sebastián Piñera but over which no action was taken: Uniacc, Pedro de Valdivia, Universidad SEK and Universidad Santo Tomás. These investigations relate either to alleged illegal profit making, poor record keeping or for allegedly bribing certification authorities.

These four institutions would join with the seven universities currently under review by the Education Ministry: Andrés Bello, Las Américas, San Sebastián, Iberoamericana, La República, Gabriela Mistral and Arcis.

On Thursday, several students from the latter university stripped down to their underwear and leapt into the fountain outside the presidential palace in a protest that garnered much attention on social networks and in mainstream media. The students revealed writing scrawled across their skin drawing attention to the “crisis” at their university and warning that the Arcis was on a path to becoming the “next Universidad del Mar.”

Legal counsel for Tapia note that Chilean law calls for a one to five year jail term for stealing property in an unoccupied space, but that Tapia’s self-admission for his criminal activity opens the door for probationary sentencing that could result in zero jail time for the artist. Alternatively, attorneys representing Universidad del Mar’s beleaguered students are seeking to void all the loan contracts signed by students, arguing that the contracts were fraudulent in origin.

By Steve Anderson
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Steve Anderson
Publisher and journalist Steve Anderson hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas – where he once served as a VISTA volunteer, taught school, practiced law and involved himself in community affairs as a JP on the local Quorum Court and then in national affairs as an aide to Arkansas Congressman Bill Alexamder (1st District). While busy making other plans, force majeure took him to Chile in 1987. In 1991 he launched the Chile Information Project (CHIP) and The Santiago Times as a hobby and spin-off from a project that he began while working at the Catholic Church's Vicaria of Solidarity. After stringing for various international mining and fruit export publications, he now lives outside of Puerto Montt on his farm in the community of Panitao with his media naranja María Loreto and their son Ray.