Chilean artist steals and destroys $500 million worth of student debt papers

Here’s one inventive way to deal with the student debt problem. Late last week, Chilean police arrived at Santiago’s Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral and removed a white bin of gray ash — allegedly all that remained of $500 million worth of student debt notes.

The case of the destroyed student debt traces back to a hastily shot home video, a half-smoked cigarette, and a disheveled artist named Papas Fritas. In the video, which went viral last week in Chile, Papas Fritas confessed he had recently stolen the documents from the for-profit Universidad del Mar. Then he set them ablaze in a defiant, brazen act of art.

“It’s over,” declared Papas Fritas, which means “french fries.” “It’s finished. 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 sh—y life, and I live it day by day.

French Fries finished his screed: “This is my act of love for you.”

Matters of love aside, the artist’s destruction of the loan documents illustrates a years-long opposition to Chile’s for-profit universities, a remnant of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Before his tenure, education was considered a public good, but after he came to power in 1973, education was commoditized and privatized. Soon, the per capita cost of education in Chile was among the highest in the world.

It fostered a highly-stratified education system, with incredibly expensive schools geared toward the wealthy and “leaving public schools with shrinking budgets to educate the country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged students,” according to this staggering Boston Review analysis on Chile’s education.

“Everyone in Chile can recite the following facts: adjusted for income, Chile has the most expensive higher education in the world,” the essay begins. “Per student, the country spends less than any other, and the student spends more. These facts were once a point of pride.”

But pride quickly gave way to desperation. Student protests ripped across the country in 2006, demanding education reform in the face of crippling debt. “We have to say once again that education is not a consumer product, education is a right,” one student leader told Fox News Latino in 2012. “And to make it so, we need a state that ensures adequate regulation of the private sector and which also permits the strengthening of the public sector.”

President Michelle Bachelet entered office in March promising to radically reform Chile’s education system and stop universities from profiting too much. At the same time, the government was continuing its shutdown of the Universidad del Mar following a discovery of “financial irregularities,” according to the Santiago Times.

Fueling the existing discontent was a student march two weeks ago that incorporated thousands of students and bolstered a petition to the government to sanction for-profit schools, which today are technically illegal but manage to work around the law.


Thousands of Chilean students march in front of La Moneda presidential Palace during a protest against the education system, in Santiago, on May 8, 2014. (MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/GettyImages)

Enter Papas Fritas, whose real name is Francisco Tapia. Fritas claims he was involved in a recent student takeover of Universidad del Mar, where he devised a piece of artwork that he says would strike back at student debt and free its prisoners. So he allegedly stole the documents, burned them and poured their ashes into a bin for an exhibit.

The theft has created a bevy of headaches for the embattled university, which must now sue each student individually to secure a repayment of the debt, reports the Santiago Times. Students, meanwhile, argue the incurred debt was illegal anyway and are refusing to pay it.

And what’s to become of Papas Fritas? According to the Santiago Times, he may be going to jail for one to five years for lifting the documents.

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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