Chile: student movement regains momentum

Chilean students held marches in Santiago and about a dozen other cities on April 11 to step up their two-year campaign for free, high-quality education to replace the heavily privatized system that started during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. While the first march of the new school year, on March 28, drew about 20,000 people, some 150,000 participated in Santiago alone on April 11, according to organizers; the authorities put the number at 80,000. Local media said this was one of the largest marches in the capital in two decades. As usual, small groups confronted the police—109 arrests were reported—but in general the march was described as peaceful and even festive.

"This symbolizes that the student and social movement didn't go home, and that that the movement is here to stay," Camila Vallejo, one of the leaders of the protests since 2011, told ADN radio. After evaluating the demonstration in a meeting in the southern Araucanía region the weekend of April 13, student leaders announced plans for another national march on May 8, and for student participation in a National March for Water on April 22 and in the traditional workers' demonstrations on May 1.

The revival of the student movement comes as the country prepares for a presidential election scheduled for Nov. 17 and as the Senate focuses attention on educational issues by considering a vote on the possible suspension of Education Minister Harald Beyer. "Understanding that it's an electoral year, the student movement needs to remain tremendously active," Andrés Fielbaum, the president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) and a spokesperson for the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH), told Radio Cooperativa. Former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), a Socialist who is planning to run in the election, has promised to try to end the privatization of the education system, although she failed to make significant changes during her previous time in office; Chilean households currently pay more than 75% of the costs for higher education, compared to more than 40% paid by US households and less than 5% paid by Scandinavian households. Student leaders have asked the candidates not to "appropriate" their proposals. (Aljazeera, April 12, from AP; EFE, April 14, via Terra Chile)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 14.