Chile: general strike adds to pressure on the government

Tens of thousands of Chilean workers, students and teachers participated in a 48-hour strike on Aug. 24 and 25 initiated by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), the country’s main labor federation, to call “for a different Chile.” The demands included changes to the Labor Code, a reduction in taxes on fuel, and reform of the Constitution, created in 1980 during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The strike also backed the student protest movement that has paralyzed schools for three months to push for a reversal of the Pinochet-era privatization of education.

Aug. 24, the first day of the strike, was marked by confrontations between the carabinero militarized police and strike supporters, including students attempting to block roads in Santiago and other cities. Police and protesters also clashed in the poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital. The government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera reported that at least 348 people were arrested during the day and 36 were injured, including 19 police agents. According to the government, the strike call was only respected by 14% of employees in the public sector, where the unions are strongest, while union sources put the number at 80%. In the evening thousands of people took to the streets to bang on pots and pans in a cacerolazo protest to support the strike.

The second day, Aug. 25, brought massive marches throughout the country. Organizers estimated that 250,000 to 300,000 people marched in Santiago, and an equal number took part in the mobilizations in the rest of the country. Jaime Gajardo, president of the Teachers Association of Chile, called the Santiago march “the largest of this year’s mobilizations”—which are generally considered the largest since the restoration of democracy in 1990. But according to Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Urbilla, only 50,000 people participated in the Santiago march and a total of 175,000 protested nationwide; the Labor Ministry reported that most public employees were at work, with just 9.1% observing the strike. Despite the disturbances by masked youths that have routinely accompanied recent demonstrations, President Piñera’s spokesperson, Andrés Chadwick, conceded that in general “the [Santiago] march was peaceful and orderly” and “there were no major problems.” The government reported that 153 police agents and 53 civilians were injured nationally and almost 1,400 people were arrested.

There was one fatality: 16-year-old Manuel Gutiérrez Reinoso, who was shot in the Villa Jaime Eyzaguirre neighborhood in Macul, a commune in Greater Santiago. He was walking with his brother and a friend to observe what was happening, according to his brother, when carabineros passed by in a truck and three shots were heard. Other witnesses confirmed this. Manuel Gutiérrez died in a hospital in the early morning of Aug. 26. (La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 25, Aug. 26, Aug. 27, from correspondent and unidentified wire services; La Tercera, Santiago, Aug. 27)

Students and their supporters were engaged in a number of protests in addition to the general strike. On Aug. 23, the day before the labor action, a group of artists and performers sat in at the Santiago office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in support of some 35 students who were on hunger strike to push their demands for education reform. Three of them—students at High School A-131 in the city of Buin, in Maipo province, part of Greater Santiago– had been fasting for 36 days. These three students ended their strike on Aug. 24, along with three others from the same school. “We’re suspending our strike but not our struggle,” one of the strikers, 19-year-old Gloria Negrete, said at a press conference. She was hospitalized after losing some 26 pounds and contracting a respiratory infection. (LJ, Aug. 24, Aug. 25)

The president of Brazil’s National Student Union (UNE), Daniel Iliescu, visited Chile to participate in the general strike and also to announce a Continental Day of Struggle by Latin American Youth, a day of protests to be held in March 2012 around public education issues. Camila Vallejo, president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH), was planning to reciprocate by visiting Brazil on Aug. 31 to join a student march in Brasilia (DF) calling for the government there to allocate 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to education, along with 50% of the Pre-Salt Social Fund, a special government fund financed by profits from Brazil’s sub-salt oilfields. (Adital, Brazil, Aug. 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 28.

See our last post on Chile.