Chile: “historic” student march protests school privatization

Tens of thousands of students, teachers and supporters protested Chile’s education policies with a huge demonstration in Santiago on June 16 that the local daily La Tercera said was “the most massive march since the return of democracy” in 1990; the University of Chile radio station called it “historic.” The Carabineros militarized police gave a crowd estimate of 80,000, while organizers said 100,000 people had attended. Thousands more held marches in the cities of ConcepciĆ³n, La Serena, Temuco and ValparaĆ­so. The nationwide protest followed several days of student strikes at dozens of high schools and universities.

The marches were called by the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH) and were supported by the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH), the Federation of Catholic University Students (FEUC), and politicians from the Communist Party of Chile (PCC), the Socialist Party of Chile (PSC) and the Broad Social Movement (MAS).

There were some disturbances during the generally peaceful march in Santiago. Fernando EcheverrĆ­a, the Santiago metropolitan area intendant (a supervisor appointed by the president), said that 37 protesters were arrested during the demonstration, five police agents were injured and two offices were looted. He blamed the organizers, charging that they hadn’t provided enough security. But in general the organizers were delighted with the day’s events. “We’ve demolished the myth that we’re a minority,” FEUC vice president Pedro Pablo Glatz said, “because we’ve shown that our demand is the demand of the majority.”

The protesters were calling for more funding for education and for a reversal of decades of decentralization and privatization. Chile’s schools received the equivalent of 7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1973, and education was free, but school funding fell to 2.4% of GDP by the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship. (It has risen to 4.4% since then.) Administration of the public schools was turned over to the municipalities in 1990, and currently about 40% of the 3.5 million secondary students attend public schools, while some 50% study in subsidized schools, where the government and the parents share the costs. The remaining 10% go to private schools. Scholarships have also been cut back.

About 80% of the one million university students attend private institutions created during the military dictatorship starting in1981.

Rightwing president SebastiĆ”n PiƱera has seen his approval ratings fall to about 36% since he took office in 2010, and his government was clearly worried by the massive protest on June 16. “Today’s march confirms the urgency for changes,” Education Minister JoaquĆ­n LavĆ­n announced that evening, but he didn’t indicate whether he was planning to negotiate with the students. (Radio Universidad de Chile, Santiago, June 16; LT, June 17; La Jornada, Mexico, June 17, from correspondent and wire services)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 19.

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