Chile: government meets students with repression

In what appeared to be a sudden increase in repression, Chile’s militarized carabineros police used water cannons and tear gas to break up an unauthorized march by student strikers in Santiago on Oct. 6. Many protesters responded by throwing rocks and sticks at the agents. More than 130 people were arrested during the confrontations, and 25 police agents and dozens of civilians were injured. The police action came one day after student leaders and the rightwing government of President Sebastián Piñera broke off talks they had been holding on education reform.

The weekly student demonstrations in favor of reversing the country’s highly privatized education system have frequently resulted in violent clashes at the end of the route, but on Oct. 6 the police moved against the marchers almost as soon as they began walking from the Plaza Italia along the central Alameda (Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue) toward the La Moneda presidential palace. Student leaders—including Camila Vallejo Dowling, president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) and a spokesperson for the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH)—were hit by the water and were affected by the tear gas. Two journalists were injured: CNN reporter Nicolás Oyarzún and Megavisión camera operator Jorge Rodríguez. Chilevisión reporter Luis Narváez was arrested when he asked for the identity of an agent who had beaten a Chilevisión camera operator.

In another sign that President Piñera is moving towards increased repression, on Oct. 2 the government proposed legislation with harsher penalties for people who occupy schools or public or private buildings, or who cause damage in protests. Students have occupied many universities and secondary schools during more than four months of strikes for education reform.

Student leaders accused the government of sabotaging the negotiations by refusing to consider the strikers’ demand for free public education and instead continuing to push for subsidized education for the poorest 40% of students. “We, the students and social actors, weren’t the ones who wanted to break off the discussion,” FECH president Vallejo said on Oct. 8. “It was the government itself, because they don’t have the political capacity, they don’t have the will to take into consideration the demands of the great majorities of our country.” At a meeting on Oct. 8, CONFECH decided to call for two days of strikes and protests on Oct. 18 and 19. (Prensa Latina, Oct. 6; La Jornada, Mexico, Oct. 7; Radio Universidad de Chile, Oct. 8)

As of the afternoon of Oct. 9, 1,032,803 Chileans had voted in the National Plebiscite for Education, a three-day grassroots referendum on the demands of the student strikers, organizers of the voting said. According to Jaime Gajardo, president of the Teachers Association of Chile, preliminary results showed 89% to 95% of participants supporting the demand for a free public education system administered by the national government. Organizers said 723,614 people voted at 1,711 tables set up on Oct. 7 in public spaces throughout the country, and 309,189 more voted on the internet; the tables closed down after the first two days, but internet voting was to continue through the end of Oct. 9.

Plebiscite organizers admitted that they didn’t have the ability to prevent people from using false taxpayer identification numbers (RUTs) to vote more than once, but they said they would use data base analysis to try to determine the percentage of fraudulent votes. Gajardo noted the lines at the voting tables and the festive mood among the ten thousands of voters. “Could anyone question that there was a high rate of participation?” he asked. (Radio Universidad de Chile, Oct. 9)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 9.

See our last post on Chile.