Photo: Student protest in Chile
Tens of thousands of students marched in this capital and other Chilean cities on Thursday to renew demands for free, quality public education in their first demonstrations since Michelle Bachelet returned to the presidency in March.
Organized by the main organizations representing university and high school students, the mobilization was aimed at re-invigorating a movement that captured global attention in 2011.
The march was conducted peacefully amid a festive atmosphere until the very end, in downtown Santiago’s Almagro Park, where groups of masked rowdies staged incidents and clashed with police.
Gen. Ricardo Solar of the Carabineros, Chile’s militarized police, reported Thursday afternoon that “we have 101 people under arrest in different stations, minors and adults.”
“In addition, there are at least 20 police officers injured, three of them burned with incendiary bombs,” said the general, denying that the Carabineros had attacked anyone first.
Solar called the march “calm and orderly” all along its route, but he said he regretted the serious disturbances that “a minority group of organized masked men” were responsible for at the end of the demonstration, saying that they “attacked the Carabineros in an aggressive manner.”
Bachelet, who previously governed Chile from 2006-2010, promised during the 2013 campaign to significantly overhaul an educational system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.
She also pledged to move in the direction of eliminating school fees, though at a measured pace.
The students, however, remain skeptical and want to hear more details of the center-left administration’s program.
“We know the government will not respond to us in a concrete way and that it will not attack the fundamental problem in education, which is its market logic,” Lorenza Soto, spokesperson for the ACES association of secondary students, told Efe.
Education, she said, should be a “social right.”
Students leaders have come away from meetings with Education Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre complaining of a lack of clarity in the government’s position on what they see as the key issues: making education free and eliminating for-profit schools.
Naschla Aburman, president of the Universidad Catolica Student Federation, said the student organizations intend to be part of the process of designing the reforms.
Police estimated the size of Thursday’s march in Santiago at around 40,000 people, while organizers gave a figure of 100,000.
Students also mobilized in the cities of Iquique, Calama, Copiapo, Valparaiso, Temuco, Valdivia, Osorno and Punta Arenas.
The demonstration in Valparaiso, where Chile’s Congress meets, included student leaders-turned-lawmakers Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola and Giorgio Jackson.
In 2011, Chilean college and high school students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times to press the right-wing government of President Sebastian Piñera to improve education.
The scale and persistence of the protests turned the leaders into national and - in the case of the charismatic Vallejo - international figures.
Students want the elimination of school fees, an end to for-profit universities - technically illegal but able to operate thanks to loopholes - and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many to take on crushing debt.
Chile’s current educational regime is a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet, who slashed government support for public schools and encouraged privatization.