Chile: 874 arrested in latest student protest

Aug. 4 brought the most violent day yet in more than two months of protests by Chilean students determined to end a system of heavily privatized and decentralized education instituted during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. According to official figures, there were 874 arrests nationwide by the end of the day, and 90 militarized police agents had been injured.

The government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera virtually assured the violence when it refused to issue permits for planned student marches in Santiago on Aug. 4, using a decree from the Pinochet era. This wasn't enough to stop the demonstrations, although they were much smaller than the peaceful marches of 100,000 or more the movement mounted in June: the government reported some 2,000 participants in a march by secondary students in the morning and 3,000 in a separate evening march by university students and professors. Right from the start militarized carabinero police used tear gas and water cannons to block the marchers, while protesters built barricades and fought back against the agents. Masked youths vandalized stores and banks. In the evening a fire was started in the La Polar department store, which was also looted. A little earlier, at least 80 protesters occupied the Chilevisión television station, insisting that the station run a live broadcast of their demands. After 40 minutes of negotiations, the two sides agreed that a taped version would run with the regular news program.

As night fell the students' supporters took to the streets in different Santiago neighborhoods for a cacerolazo—an action reminiscent of the Pinochet era in which people protest by beating loudly on pots and pans.

The next day, on Aug. 5, Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) president Camila Vallejo Dowling, representatives of the Chilean Professors Association, attorney Hugo Gutiérrez and members of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared of Chile filed a complaint against Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and Santiago intendant (city supervisor) Cecilia Pérez for illegal detentions and for violation of the constitutional right to assemble. The Chilean section of the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) issued a call for the government to investigate what Executive Director Ana Piquer said were a "number of reports of the excessive use of force, the undue use of tear gas, arbitrary detentions and possible mistreatment during the detentions."

The student protests have cut sharply into President Piñera's popularity. His approval rating fell from 45% last November and December down to 26% in the June-July period, according to an opinion poll by the Centro de Estudios Públicos. This was the lowest approval rating for a president since the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Piñera has tried to win back public support by introducing his own education reform proposals, and on July 18 he reshuffled his cabinet, moving Education Minister Joaquín Lavín to Planning and Development and replacing him with Felipe Bulnes, who had been justice minister. But the government and the students remain far apart. Giorgio Jackson, president of the Federation of Catholic University Students (FEUC), has suggested that the only way to settle the dispute is to let the population vote on education reforms in a national plebiscite. Meanwhile, students are calling for another day of strikes on Aug. 9. (La Tercera, Santiago, Aug. 5; La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 5, Aug. 6, from correspondent; The Guardian, UK, Aug. 5, from correspondent; Adital, Brazil, Aug. 6; Xinhua, July 19, from People's Daily, China)

Some 2