Chile: police repress latest student and Aysén protests

In the first student demonstration of Chile’s new school year, some 5,000 youths marched in Santiago on March 15 in support of the student movement’s demand last year: free, high-quality education. The Santiago authorities hadn’t issued a permit for the action, and carabineros militarized police, including some on horseback, blocked the marchers at Bustamante Park. The police used tear gas and water cannons, and hooded protesters responded by hurling sticks, rocks and bottles. Traffic was blocked with barricades in some parts of the city, and a bus was set on fire. By evening, 105 people were detained and three agents were injured, according to the authorities.

Agents also invaded the University of Chile campus at Vicuña Mackenna Avenue, using tear gas and hitting students with nightsticks, according to Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) president Gabriel Boric, who said he was among those hit. The police also detained Ricardo Uribe, a Colombian video journalist, during the day’s events, the Association of International Press Correspondents (ACPI) in Chile reported.

Along with their own demands, the students also expressed support for protests that started a month earlier in southern Chile’s isolated Aysén region to demand subsidies and other aid to compensate for the high cost of living in the area. A group from the Communist Youth of Chile (JJCC), headed by FECH vice president Camila Vallejo Dowling, briefly occupied the Santiago headquarters of the rightwing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) to denounce repression by President Sebastián Piñera’s government and to show solidarity with Aysén residents. The UDI is the largest party in the ruling coalition.

In Aysén itself negotiations with the government broke down once again, leading to more protests and police repression the night of March 14 and the early morning of March 15. (La Tercera, Chile, March 15; La Jornada, Mexico, March 16, from correspondent)

While 2011 was dominated by massive student protests in Chile, some local media have suggested that 2012 is starting to look like the real “year of the protest.” In the country’s southernmost region, Magallanes y Antártica, a Citizens’ Assembly has raised demands similar to those of Aysén residents, saying it was ready to initiate protests. In Calama, a city in the arid Antofagasta region in the north, there are plans for a demonstration on March 20 to demand that proceeds from the region’s important copper mines be used to benefit local residents. Workers in the nation’s ports held a three-day strike in January, while independent fishing people in the Los Ríos region announced a demonstration for March 15 against proposed legislation on fishing.

Protests also continue around environmental issues. Activists demonstrated in Santiago on March 14 as part of the International Day Against Dams (also known as the International Day of Action for Rivers), which was first observed in 1997 in Curitiba, Brazil. In Chile the main focus of environmental protests has been the HidroAysén project, a plan to build five dams in the south. Several opinion polls taken in 2011 showed opposition to the project running at more than 70%. (Prensa Latina, March 14, March 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 18.

See our last posts on Chile and regional struggles over minerals.