Allende unpublished: The return of Patricia Espejo

Five decades after the election of Allende’s Unidad Popular government, Patricia Espejo Brain, Salvador Allende’s private secretary, publishes her memoirs. She writes about the events and anecdotes of the president’s inner circle, but also about her years of exile and the Resistance Committee that she formed with Tati Allende in Cuba. “The [2019] social uprisings and the crisis the political parties are going through, made me feel that it was necessary to shine a light on the inner workings of the Allende government”, she confesses.

By Victoria Ramírez

Patricia Espejo Brain remembers very clearly the last time she saw General Augusto Pinochet. He was coming out of the Presidential office and walking to the lift with Salvador Allende. It was September 10th 1973, and in the private offices everyone was hard at work. Patricia, who had been at La Moneda since the beginning of the Unidad Popular, recognises that while she’s forgotten a lot things in life, she remembers perfectly those thousand days with Allende. On that occasion the President called her over to say goodbye to the General, who assured Allende that the army would support him “to the bitter end”. With that, he said goodbye and the gates of the elevator closed. Then she and the President –Chicho– his hand on her arm, walked along the corridor, where he turned to her and asked in a low voice, “Will that be the betrayal?”

The book is rich in these intimate moments, plucked from the memories of Patricia Espejo, who was a private secretary and adviser within Salvador Allende’s closest circle that also included her friend and colleague Miria “Payita” Contreras and the President’s daughter Beatriz “Tati” Allende who both worked in the private offices. After 25 years in exile –in Cuba and Venezuela– and a stoical silence about her past, her book Allende inédito. Memorias desde la secretaría privada de La Moneda (“Allende Unpublished. Memories from the Private Officesof La Moneda”, Aguilar) was published in October. A sociologist, Patricia returned to Chile in 2002 and worked for ten years as the Executive Director of the Salvador Allende Foundation. She began writing the book in July 2019, inspired by a promise she had made to her friend Víctor Pey, ex-Director of the newspaper Clarín, but also because she wanted to pass on to younger generations what she had seen. “I couldn’t not tell this story; I’m almost the only one still alive”, she explains calmly over the telephone.

Patricia Espejo Brain, Salvador Allende’s private secretary.

In her memoirs she reveals Allende’s warmth and humanity, his enormous talent as a public speaker, and what he was like as a father and a friend, demystifying him through anecdotes that show his sense of humour and his down-to-earth side. Like the time that one weekend at the house on El Cañaveral he played a trick on General Prats, pretending to fait. Or those days at the Presidential Palace on the Cerro Castillo hill in Viña del Mar during the summer of 1972, when Chicho, wearing a loose-fitting shirt, played host to children who had received excellent grades at school. Or the marathon movie-watching sessions –Westerns– when he’d enjoy two films back-to-back. Or those evenings when, on a whim, Allende would put on his white coat and visit hospitals without telling anyone beforehand. She also writes about his sadness: the deepening isolation in the second year of the government, the disloyalty, the deceptions, the constant tension with the political parties.

The historic events that mark the Unidad Popular government are there: The night that a sea of people listened to the new President speaking to them from the balcony of the FECH (University of Chile Student Federation) building, the day the copper industry was nationalised, the construction of the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) building, Fidel Castro’s polemical visit to Chile, the negotiations between the parties from the left and right-wing, the coordination of the GAP (Group of Personal Friends), the shortages, the threats made by Patria y Libertad (“Fatherland and Liberty”), the constant changes of cabinet and the myriad other things that happened during those years and that Patricia Espejo witnessed first-hand.

“I’ve always kept a low profile, not only because it’s in my nature, but also because of my beliefs. I wrote the book because history doesn’t say much about what Salvador Allende was like as a person. There’s a lot of enthusiasm nowadays and it’s important to show just how hard it is to govern a country. You’re not only confronted with your closest allies but also with your enemies within. Governing means having lots of qualities, different ways of thinking and behaving, and being able to empathise with what others feel. These are values that have been eroded and nowadays the relationship between a president and the people is distant, and marked by authoritarianism and domination. The social uprisings and the crisis the political parties are going through made me feel that it was necessary to shine a light on the inner workings of the Allende government”.

The private offices were on the second floor of La Moneda, across from the Regional Government Offices and the Plaza de la Moneda, at the crossroads of the streets Moneda and Morandé. Patricia Espejo Brain would arrived first, sometimes at the same time as Allende, when she managed to coordinate with the “Toromanta1”, the car that brought the President from his house in Tomás Moro Street, always protected by members of the GAP. Payita would arrive at ten-thirty and Tati at midday. There were established routines, the doctor –as Patricia called him– had lunch at two o’clock in the big dining room, usually a working lunch. Then he’d sleep a ten-minute siesta on a sofa bed that had been set up in the presidential office. “It was a ritual, he’d put his pyjamas on in the adjoining bathroom, open up the bed and go to sleep”, she says. Over time a connection of trust developed between them: “Because I was never anything more than a colleague, he came to think of me as someone whom he could confide certain secrets in”.

Decades later, during her first government, President Michelle Bachelet asked Patricia to try to rebuild Allende’s presidential office as a sort of homage, but it was impossible. While Pinochet was in power everything had changed. “They changed the physical structure of the place. Perhaps it was a way of forgetting”, she thinks, and comments that even today she finds it uncomfortable going to La Moneda, not only because of the rigid protocol, but also out of nostalgia for the simplicity she no longer finds in the ostentatious public rooms.

Allende would leave her messages and little gifts on her desk. One of the most memorable was a note he wrote on a day she arrived late, because she’d slept in after looking after her sick daughter all night. The notes said: “Kid: / The clock stopped, it’s nine forty-five, and, oh well/ I feel lonely / Dr Allende”. Funnily enough, Patricia took this scrap of paper across the border with her on the 12th September 1973 when she went into what would be a long exile. Apart from her book of contacts, which would later on prove to be invaluable, it was the only thing she managed to take with her. She didn’t have a suitcase or even a change of clothes, only what she had on.

Patricia Espejo’s contact book. It helped to contact Chilean exiles in Cuba.

Disagreement between the parties

Looking back, Patricia believes that some of the political parties in the Unidad Popular coalition had no idea of how to understand the revolutionary and democratic project that Salvador Allende was trying to undertake, or else, in her words “they weren’t up to it”.  

“There was so much disagreementbetween one sector and another. The most powerful parties were the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, the latter being probably the most important. The Socialist Party in particular sinned by omission. But on the other hand the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) couldn’t understand that it wasn’t possible to govern like they wanted to. Political processes take their time – even if you’re going to expropriate twenty estates you’re not going to solve the problems for the farmers.Allende had to depend more on the opinions of his friends and politicians than on the members of the political parties”.

Although Patricia was a militant in the Young Communists while she studied sociology, and during her exile she was a militant in the MIR until 1976, after that she stopped being a militant. “I’ve never left politics, I stopped being a militant, it’s different”, she states.

“We were naive and thought that the Armed Forces were a coordinated and vertical institution. Nobody imagined it would be possible to bomb La Moneda. The President’s last gesture was to call for a plebiscite on the 11th September, which shows his common sense, his commitment and his loyalty. The President was not going to let a bloodbath take place”.

Returning to Havana

She had been in Havana for three days when she was taught how to shoot. Training started at 6am and finished at 6pm. Then there was time to sightsee and meet up with friends. It was May 1971. “I’m quite short and at the time I was skinny, so I held the AK to my waist to be able to shoot and the kickback was so hard that it made me spin to the right where Blanca was, and I missed her by a hair’s breadth”, she writes in her memoirs. The Blanca she’s writing about is Blanca Mediano, who would also work in the Presidential private offices.

Patricia had seen people waving the Patria y Libertad flags on the streets of Santiago, their armbands and their hostility. She was afraid and when she saw old friends they’d yell “bloody commie” at her. That was the beginning of a journey that took her to Cuba to learn about personal defence and intelligence. “Then you know what precautions to take at home, how you can prepare”, she explains. Her aunt, Paz Espejo, had already been in Cuba for twenty years, having gone there to support the 1959 revolution.

After Allende’s government was overthrown Patricia returned to Cuba, but this time unattached to any party. During those years she would receive other exiles, and with Tati Allende she heard the first accounts of torture. This would also be where she would join the MIR when Jorge “the Trosko” Fuentes –later kidnapped during Operation Condor– would invite her into the organisation on the express wishes of Miguel Enriquez, who passed on a message during a meeting on a boat out to sea.

During the first week after the 11th September coup Patricia and Tati Allende established the Solidarity Resistance Committee in the Chilean embassy in Cuba, which is today known as the Salvador Allende Memorial House. It was a particularly difficult time, coordinating as quickly as possible the escape out of Chile via diplomatic routes for those people in danger, and receiving early direct information about the atrocities of the torture being inflicted. “The violence of those testimonies was almost unbearable”, confesses the writer, as she remembers the first accounts of terror.

“Sometimes when I think about it I wonder how we were able to do what we did. Tati was the strong one. We arrived in Cuba on the 13th and Fidel wasn’t there. We got straight to work, finding as many people as possible with the help of third-party countries. My contact book was invaluable to understand where the focus was, how the military were operating, who was in the greatest danger. Every day we heard of another companion who’d fallen. Immersing ourselves in the work helped us bear the pain, and we received constant support from the [Cuban] revolution”.

From left to right: Isabel Jaramillo, Beatriz «Tati» Allende and Patricia Espejo, in the Communist Party’s Escuela Superior Ñico López, Havana.

Towards the end of 1973 Patricia and Tati wrote the first human rights report and presented it at the UN in a session where Mercedes Hortensia Bussi (“Tencha” – Allende’s wife) was also present. After a while the accounts they were reading took their toll. At one point Patricia broke down and had to stop working. “I was reading an account and I started to laugh hysterically. I decided I had to stop or I’d go crazy”, she explains. She told Tati that they’d have to take care of themselves to avoid getting ill, but Tati felt she had to carry on with the work.

“Tati never got over the fact that she left Chile on the 11th September. The Cubans are very careful about the role everyone plays and she had links to diplomats and other people, so she must have had more information. I think that afterwards the emotional and family side of what happened caught up with her, and destroyed her. She also wanted to get back into medicine and wasn’t allowed to. Then she wanted to go back to Chile and they wouldn’t let her, and she just couldn’t see a way forward. Tati’s death was like the death of a sister. I don’t think she ever got over her father’s death”.

Tati had been a militant in the section of the Socialist Party allied tothe ELN in Bolivia, the “elenos” who supported Che Guevara in the Latin American revolution. Although Tati had close ties to revolutionary groups, she supported the Unidad Popular’s democratic project. “She loved her father deeply, she was his favourite, she anchored him. She respected and admired his tenacity and his commitment to the poor. She knew that the path they’d chosen was difficult and maybe impossible”, remembers Patricia, adding that Tati didn’t give herself the space or the time for tiredness or sadness. Over recent years books have been published focusing on her story, most recently Tati Allende: una revolucionaria olvidada (“Tati Allende: A Forgotten Revolutionary”, 2017) but for a long time she was all but forgotten.

“She’s forgotten because she’s troublesome, she’s a revolutionary who says things as they are, she can fight, she’s critical of the political parties. It would have been incredibly hard for her to live in such a selfish and class-ridden society, because she was, as a person, the complete opposite. She’s not a figure that invites consensus. Nowadays you have to be so much more cautious and acquiescent; you have to forget that the Christian Democrats made our life impossible. All sorts of things that Tati wouldn’t have done. She was an extraordinarily affectionate woman, always very understated, always very hard on herself”.

After Tati’s death Patricia maintained her links to the Allende family. She became very close to Tencha, and in her later work at the Salvador Allende Foundation she tried to draw attention to the work of Allende’s government and of those who accompanied him to the end. One year after the social uprising, she has no doubt about Allende’s legacy and the current political processes.

“I believe that his legacy is political coherence. During those one thousand days that he governed he was committed to his people, including the political parties that didn’t always support him. The social uprising of today shows us just how abnormal the social differences are. There’s corruption at every level and the people have had enough of politicians. What really struck me about the uprising last October 18th is that there wasn’t a single party flag to be seen. What I did see, from a distance, two or three blocks from the Plaza Italia, is a flag with Allende’s face on it”.

Maristella Svampa: “Being a feminist and not an ecologist is practically a contradiction in terms”

One of the organisers of the Southern Ecosocial Pact, an initiative promoting a “socio-ecological transition that articulates social and environmental justice” as a way out of the crisis unleashed by the pandemic. Svampa argues that it is a challenge which demands that we recognise the limits of Latin American progressive political movements in their efforts to overcome the installation of an extractivist and neo-dependent Latin America on the world scene. We already export commodities, surely we’re not going to start exporting pandemics as well…

By Francisco Figueroa

The question of which direction society should take out of this pandemic isn’t something that Maristella Svampa debates from a position of abstract and isolated erudition. The Argentinian sociologist and researcher at the National Council of Scientific Investigation in Argentina (Conicet) writes from the Latin American perspective and the many achievements and frustrations the continent has experienced throughout its emancipatory struggles. She quotes Celso Furtado, Rita Segato and Manfred Max-Neef, the supporters of dependency and the grassroots feminists, using a wealth of references to conceptualise the conflicts across the region, from the River Atrato in Colombia to the fracking industry in the Argentinian Patagonia.

Maristella Svampa is a sociologist and researcher of the Argentinian National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet).

The 568 pages of Debates latinoamericanos. Indianismo, desarrollo, dependencia y populismo (“Latin American Debates. The Indigenous, Development, Dependence and Populism”, 2016) earned her the National Prize for Sociological Essays in Argentina. And with her latest book El colapso ecológico ya llegó. Una brújula para salir del (mal)desarrollo (“Ecological Collapse is Happening. A Compass for Finding Our Way Out of (Mis)Development”, 2020, with Enrique Viale) is an important addition to the conversation about the unsustainability of current models of development. She warns that the socio-ecological transition that countries in the northern hemisphere are pushing towards mustn’t come at the cost of land and dignity in the southern hemisphere.

What do you mean by misdevelopment? And why do you use this concept and not others from critical discourse, such as neoliberalism or underdevelopment?

It’s a concept that has its own history within critical thinking. It was coined by Celso Furtado when he was no longer such an enthusiastic proponent of the CEPAL, and had become aware of the huge social and territorial inequalities in his country, Brazil. It’s a term that was also used by Vandana Shiva, among others, to signal the many dimensions of the unsustainability of the current dominant models of development. In this line we took up the concept in 2014 (with our book Maldesarrollo. La Argentina del extractivismo y el despojo “Misdevelopment. The Argentina of Extractivism and Plunder”) because, as well as signalling this multidimensionality in order to analyse the impacts of models of development, it seems to us a concept that has a powerful impact. When people read the word “misdevelopment”, they ask themselves what it is.

Does it imply that it is possible to think in terms of good development?

It isn’t. In the frame of critical and post-development thinking the idea is to leave behind the concept of development and move towards a society that is resilient, solidary and allows for the sustainability of life. In the compendium of Latin American critical thinking there are different concepts that deal with this: neo-extractivism, consensus of commodities, a move towards the eco-territorial. But I’m not interested in speaking only to academics or preaching to the converted, but also in connecting with those sectors that are increasingly aware of socio-environmental issues but that have an epistemic blindness stopping them from questioning the hegemonic models of development.

Ecuador and Bolivia incorporated wellbeing into their constitutions but both countries developed their extractivist industries. What is the state of this paradigm after the cycle of progressive political movements?

There’s no doubt that the beacon concept of the progressive political cycle was wellbeing, which promotes the communitarian and harmonious relationship between society and nature that indigenous societies strive for. But the concept was starved of all meaning by successive progressive governments. It was also a challenge to give it real substance. I think it didn’t work because it was disassociated from another powerful concept which is the concept of the rights of nature. This is a more complicated concept that’s harder to distort because it implies a relational paradigm that aims to displace the binary paradigm of modernity in which mankind is considered as external to nature, that is the basis for the models of development that we currently follow and for a particular understanding of science, and which is responsible for the ecosystem collapse that we are currently undergoing. Even though Ecuador was the first country to include the rights of nature in its constitution, it’s not been very proactive in the respect of nature. There’s interesting legislation in Colombia, a country that isn’t part of the progressive political movement but that has a rich vein of social movement defending rural and indigenous rights, and a progressive Supreme Court that has just, for example, declared that the River Atrato should be granted rights.

This is a paradigm that seems to shock not only large multi-national companies but also the expectations of the urban classes. How critical is the tension between potential popular allies in Latin America?

It’s definitely a central issue. A major obstacle for progressive governments in their attempts to undertake transformative measures in development, was the model of inclusion based on the expansion of consumption, that some like to call the “democratisation” of consumption, which is a debate that, to be honest, left-wing progressive movements had no desire to get into. In the seventies, when the Meadows Report came out about the limits of growth, sectors of Latin American critical thinking replied that it was a very centrist perspective and that the problem isn’t scarcity of resources but rather the universalisation of the unsustainable models of consumption. Until that moment the Latin American left-wing had betted on another model of consumption, one which would, in the terms of Max Neef, attend to the needs of all people. But in the heat of neoliberal globalisation, what was adopted globally was an unsustainable model of consumption that demands the constant exploitation of energy and natural resources, which necessarily increasingly despoils lands and the communities that inhabit them. Progressive governments did not promote an alternative economic model but rather reinforced that model, as well as the subordination of Latin American countries in the international process of the division of labour, all of which are extremely short -sighted models. Even though poverty was reduced, the inequality gap widened, especially if we look at the dilemma in terms of concentration of wealth. This leads us to a paradoxical situation because clearly these progressive governments were better and more democratic than other more conservative and neoliberal ones that we have known.

Feminism is showing an impressive capacity for articulation. Do you see a new “beacon concept” in the ethics of care?

Yes, I’m one of those that promotes the paradigm of cares –and I use the plural after having been corrected by a group of grassroots Colombian feminists– as the basis for the possibility of articulation between social and environmental justice. When we speak about the paradigm of cares we’re talking about the necessity of transforming our relationship with nature into one of a relational cosmovision that places interculturality, reciprocity and interdependence at its centre. And as the feminists of Ecologists in Action say, there are different dimensions. There is the dimension of grassroots feminists focusing on the cycles of life, on ecosystems, on the relationship between bodies-territories-nature. And there’s also the dimension that economic feminists have emphasised: the invisibilisation of work linked to the development and reproduction of social life, which falls on families and within families on women, becoming another vehicle for greater inequality. Having said that, there are still connections to be made between these strands of feminism. There is no emancipatory movement of feminism that doesn’t have a message of defence of the territory and of life as a core message. To be a feminist and not an ecologist is a contradiction in terms these days.

Given that restarting the economy has now become a priority, will it be more difficult to produce a change of paradigm? Can Latin American thinking contribute in this sense?

The problem for socio-environmental movements is that they require the left-wing to move out of its comfort zone; they need the relationship between society, nature, and models of production to be re-thought. It’s also a question of political loyalties. In Latin America the opposition between the social and the environmental is still at the centre of politics,as though we hadn’t understood the consequences of the commodities boom. It’s urgent that we dismantle this fake dichotomy with a serious and wide-reaching debate. In the selective progressiveness that developed here in Argentina after Kirchnerism there is some room for discussion, but at the same time politicians are talking about reactivating the economy by stimulating the extractivist industries. Here’s an example: There’s going to be a discussion about the imposition of a special tax on large fortunes. What does the government plan to do with the money? Health and education are on the list, but 25% will go to support gas fracking. It’s completely insane, we haven’t learnt anything! Instead of thinking about a political agenda of transitioning away from fossil fuels, of opening a democratic discussion about what on earth we’re doing with lithium, the government is once again placing all its bets on fracking. It’s so discouraging, sometimes you get the feeling that even progressive politicians have learnt absolutely nothing.

And what do you think about the role of China, the all-important new partner in this region?

Instead of strengthening regional ties, association with China has always been undertaken via bilateral agreements, which have consolidated the structure of new international relationships of dependence. In Latin America and Argentina the Chinese have, above all, invested in the extractivist industries, and in the frame of an asymmetric exchange. Add to this the fact that the Argentinian government, through the Chancellor’s Office, promotes the installation of pig mega farms that will export pork to China. Argentina, in the grips of a zoonotic pandemic, is promoting a model that will have powerful socio-environmental impacts that could play out as future pandemics, and which obeys the need of certain countries to outsource risk by looking for “healthy” territories uninfected by African swine flu. It’s crazy, whichever way you look at it. We’re always chasing the wrong solutions, and that’s very much linked to the concept of misdevelopment.

Supporters of dependency claimed that dependence produced our dominant middle classes. Is that principle still viable?

Of course, as Teotonio dos Santos and Cardoso said, you have to look at dependence from an internal perspective, in terms of the correlation between social forces and the emergence of a sector of local bourgeoisie that doesn’t put in place autonomous development but rather greater transnational association in order to obtain a place of privilege in the economic structure. Speaking of the national bourgeoisie, here in Argentina we have Hugo Sigman, CEO of a pharmaceutical lab, one of Argentina’s super-rich, who’s culturally progressive, has financed a string of very important films, and whose laboratory was chosen to produce the Oxford-developed vaccine here. But at the same time he promotes the pig mega-farms. So we’re offering a vaccine in the front of the shop, but we’re letting a new pandemic in through the back door. It’s madness.

The pandemic seems to be giving new strength to a way of living that is more aware of our interdependence, which had already been gaining traction in the region. Do you think that Latin America can be a compass for the world after this pandemic?

I hope so, and I believe that the emancipatory narrative that has developed in Latin America at the heart of eco-territorial, indigenous and feminist struggles, has a lot to contribute to the process of re-thinking possible worlds, based on resilience, democracy, solidarity, and the paradigm of the ethics of care. But at the same time, we don’t have broad enough shoulders to really face the challenges that this re-thinking presents us with. We’re not Europe, there’s no central bank here in Latin America that’s promoting tributary reform or a universal income; there’s almost no funding and the individual countries are alone in facing a devastating situation. So if there’s no move at an international level towards such a transition, then it’s practically impossible for us to open up that agenda ourselves. What could happen is that Europe turns to an increasingly socio-ecological transition but that in Latin America we continue to contaminate the lands and oppress the local populations in order to finance that transition of the northern-hemisphere countries. Our eco-territorial experiences and languages would be left as witnesses to the process. That’s the danger that I foresee.

In your last book you mention the 2019 uprisings in Chile as a source of inspiration. How do you interpret what happened in Chile last October?

Rita Segato writes that this is a world of owners, of dominion, in which the word inequality is inadequate. Rita’s right, and Chile shows it in a quite striking way: Chile is a country of owners. In 2019 Forbes magazine published a list of the richest people in the world and it included ten Chilean families. What happened in Chile last October moved us for several reasons: it revealed the incredible process of cognitive liberation of the masses who questioned a country of owners in a world of owners that is increasingly unbearable and unsustainable. It immediately became part of the cycle of struggles across Latin America, adding novelty by virtue of its intersectionality, the graffiti, the murals, the tearing down of monuments – so many new things. I don’t think that Chile is moving towards a process of cognitive closing down; the conditions are there for the process of change to be strengthened by the writing of the new constitution which really could engender a new social pact, a reorganisation and a new impulse for society.

Beatrice Ávalos: “La educación de mercado chilena ha sido la más extrema”

En medio de una época de paradojas, la profesora titular e investigadora del CIAE de la Universidad de Chile recorre una parte del mapa estructural del país, apostando por la profundización de una enseñanza mixta y no sexista. En esta entrevista se refiere a la meritocracia como un concepto sobre el que no se puede edificar una sociedad tan desigual como la chilena.

Por Ximena Póo | Fotografías: Alejandra Fuenzalida

Justo al lado de la Federación de Estudiantes, en la calle que lleva el nombre del periodista asesinado en dictadura, José Carrasco Tapia. En el centro de la capital de Chile, un país donde las estructuras educacionales se han movido en los últimos años bajo la presión de una calle que ha movilizado a escolares, familias, universitarios, mujeres. Ahí está el edificio del Centro de Investigación Avanzada en Educación (CIAE), desde donde Beatrice Ávalos, profesora titular de la Universidad de Chile y Premio Nacional de Educación, observa el devenir de la historia, siendo protagonista de una época de paradojas.

El diálogo se da entre viajes, en abril, justo antes de recibir de parte de la Asociación Norteamericana de Investigadores en Educación (AERA) un premio a la trayectoria que honra el compromiso de largo plazo con la comprensión de la vida y la carrera de los docentes. AERA es la asociación de investigación interdisciplinaria más grande del mundo dedicada al estudio científico de la educación y el aprendizaje.

En el CIAE, que cumple una década de existencia, Ávalos hace un mapa de estos días en que el Instituto Nacional —al menos la mayoría de sus estudiantes— puja por ser mixto; el Ministerio de Educación insiste en no otorgar gratuidad a quienes se atrasan en la educación superior; el gobierno asume una discusión que merece una densidad estructural —y que no se está dando— sobre lo que el Ejecutivo llama Aula Segura y Admisión Justa; y el financiamiento a la gratuidad se fragiliza si no se aumentan los impuestos a quienes reciben mayor renta en Chile. El mapa de Ávalos —profesora de aula de Historia y Geografía y doctora por la St. Louis University— conecta cada uno de estos puntos con un concepto que de tanto ser nombrado se normaliza: la meritocracia, una idea confusa, ya que no se puede hablar de méritos cuando las condiciones de base no son las mismas para todos.

El derecho a la educación debería estar garantizado ahora que ésta se observa culturalmente como un derecho y no un privilegio. Pero ese giro “está en crisis porque no alcanzan los recursos”, sostiene la investigadora. Por ejemplo, y en relación a quienes se atrasan en la duración de su carrera universitaria, ese derecho se quiebra. “Cuando se discute la gratuidad se asume que quien recibió plata para estudiar gratis la va a usar responsablemente, va a estudiar al máximo y va a terminar a tiempo. Con ese presupuesto se empieza a discutir y se aprueba la ley. Es el perfecto concepto meritocrático. Pero ahora nos damos cuenta de que aunque el o la estudiante se haya esforzado mucho, entró con una base inferior y no logra competir bien con los otros. Resulta que su vida familiar es compleja, entonces queda rezagado. Antes, atrasarse hablaba incluso de buena formación. Pero no funciona así. Tenemos, además, una formación universitaria larga comparada con otros países. En ese presupuesto se funcionó con una ética sostenida en la responsabilidad del estudiante”, explica, apelando a que se logre avanzar en otorgar financiamiento de uno o dos años más a quienes se atrasen por razones que no tienen que ver con el mérito.

Luego de una vida en el Programa Interdisciplinario de Investigaciones en Educación (PIIE), en el Ministerio de Educación y en las universidades de Gales, College Cardiff y Papua New Guinea, Beatrice Ávalos se incorporó en 2008 al CIAE como una de sus fundadoras, donde realiza estudios sobre docentes y sus trayectorias. A lo largo de todo ese recorrido ha visto que el mérito es un concepto tramposo en Chile.

“Tenemos una concepción socioeconómica heredada de la dictadura que no pudimos cambiar en los primeros años, y más tarde ha sido demasiado difícil, quizás por lo arraigada que está en el modo de vivir y entender la sociedad. Esta concepción tiene su expresión educacional en el gran valor que se le da a la meritocracia, en el sentido de que le damos la oportunidad a los mejores para que logren lo que se merecen. El problema está en el concepto de quiénes son los mejores, porque éstos pueden ser los que se esfuerzan, los que tienen una base sociocultural y familiar que les da un punto de partida más alto y logran llegar más allá. Y sobre el resto, quedamos sin saber si pueden o no pueden en términos educacionales”.

Esta reflexión comenzó a ser desarrollada a partir del libro The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), del sociólogo británico Michael Young, en tiempos en que en Inglaterra se instalaba la escuela básica abierta, sin paredes, aunque fue una realidad que no se mantuvo. “Yo no tengo nada en contra del principio de que nos esforcemos y podamos caminar hacia adelante. El problema es la base desde la que podemos hacer ese esfuerzo. Y ese problema se mantiene en Chile y no ha logrado modificarse en forma importante en términos educacionales, porque seguimos teniendo un sistema segregado”, enfatiza Ávalos. 

“Chile está acostumbrado a un sistema en el que se cree que lo que se paga es lo bueno (…). Ese cambio de mentalidad no es tan fácil. El concepto de sociedad meritocrática está ahí, pero sabemos que las oportunidades no son las mismas para todos”.

Y agrega: “Sabíamos eso hace tiempo, pero por alguna razón los distintos gobiernos no lograron cambiar lo que había hasta que llegó la crisis de 2006, con los pingüinos en la calle. Bachelet movió algo en ese momento, pero luego vino otro gobierno y no se avanzó. Luego, otra vez con Bachelet, se tomó la decisión de que sí se iba a hacer un cambio, porque había una postura política más clara sobre dónde estaban los puntos críticos”. 

Es así cómo, reconociendo que las presiones ciudadanas posibilitaron que la aguja se moviera algo, “los problemas hoy se ven principalmente como estructurales: hay que transformar un sistema educativo donde el 60 por ciento de los niños y las niñas están asistiendo a colegios donde pagan, aunque no debieran pagar; y donde son seleccionados. El otro cambio importante fue que se decidió que había que reformular la educación pública, siendo algo a lo que nadie le prestó atención de manera seria en los veinte años posteriores al fin de la dictadura. Hubo planes de mejoramiento, pero no se podía modificar la estructura. Creo que ahora hay una sensación de que sí se puede transformar, o si no todo iba a ser peor”. 

El obstáculo radica en que la población chilena, dice, “está acostumbrada a un sistema que funciona de tal manera que se cree que lo que se paga es lo bueno: ‘vamos a hacer el máximo esfuerzo para tener a nuestros hijos en el mejor colegio’. El problema es por qué no tenemos una educación buena pública o gratuita, y por qué dejamos que la educación que estábamos subvencionando cobrara extras. Ese cambio de mentalidad no es tan fácil. El concepto de sociedad meritocrática está ahí, pero sabemos que las oportunidades no son las mismas”.

Lo anterior tiene una condición de base que Ávalos se apresura a definir: “Claramente, la educación de mercado chilena ha sido la más extrema”. Extrema y no enfocada en las causas profundas, y es por eso, según explica, que “estas leyes que van apareciendo, como Admisión Justa, son voladores de luces, porque hemos ido instalando en la ley un sistema que debería ser más justo y aún no lo es. Hablamos de un sistema en que la educación particular subvencionada sea gratuita de verdad, que no seleccione y que lo mismo ocurra con la educación pública. Pero hay un tema complejo detrás: esto plantea tremendos desafíos a los docentes y a las escuelas”.

De ahí que la investigadora insista en que el gobierno debe esperar a ver cómo avanzan las leyes y no deconstruir: “Frente a una estructura que se cambió, lo esencial es hacerla funcionar ahora, no cambiarla ni echar abajo partes de una ley que nunca le gustó a la derecha”.

Estado responsable

Dada esta escala de los mapas, la consigna que debería primar, afirma Beatrice Ávalos, es la de avanzar para que en el aula —escolar, técnica y universitaria— exista diversidad étnica, de clase, de tipos de familia y de género; y eso implica reconsiderar qué se entiende por sociedad, país y Estado, porque la “responsabilidad que (éste) tiene hacia sus ciudadanos y ciudadanas es central, y para eso necesitamos descentralización y administraciones locales que representen a las comunidades”.

Ávalos valora que el movimiento feminista haya generado cambios y haya enriquecido el debate en torno a la diversidad y los derechos humanos, lo que se expresa en la urgencia de que la educación sea mixta y no sexista en Chile. Algo que, a la luz de la votación en el Instituto Nacional (IN), requiere de una discusión política y pública sobre clasismo, racismo y sexismo; un debate que permita entender por qué existe un miedo al Otro —hoy expresado por algunos apoderados del IN— que parece enquistado en la república, pero cuyo destierro, dice la investigadora, es posible. 

“Como decía (el teórico de la educación) Paulo Freire, tenemos que trabajar para desarrollar una conciencia crítica, que no es automática ni resultado de una ley. Debemos idear otras maneras de pensar y enseñar; ver opciones distintas para ir deconstruyendo un sistema de rendición de cuentas expresado a través del Simce y otras evaluaciones; aunque lo increíble es que nos va bastante mal en las pruebas internacionales”, dice Beatrice Ávalos. Un sistema que —méritos más, méritos menos— aporta una buena cuota de violencia simbólica y material en la sociedad chilena.