Chile: student strikers occupy congressional budget meeting

About 50 Chilean students and their supporters took over a congressional budget subcommittee’s meeting in Santiago on Oct. 20 to demand that the government hold a binding plebiscite on their demands. A massive student movement has paralyzed universities and secondary schools for nearly six months around calls for reversing the privatization and decentralization of the education system that started during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Various polls show about 80% of the population supporting the students’ demands, which won some 87% of the more than one million votes case in a nonbinding grassroots plebiscite students and teachers held Oct. 7-9.

Bursting into a meeting attended by Education Minister Felipe Bulnes and some university rectors along with senators and deputies, the protesters unfurled a banner reading “Plebiscite now” and drove Bulnes from the room. The activists remained for eight hours, live-streaming the occupation on the internet and calling for supporters to gather at the building. Senate president Guido Girardi, a member of the opposition to the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera, promised not to bring in the police to remove the demonstrators, as had happened to protesters earlier in the day at a session of the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress building in the city of Valparaíso.

The protesters ended the occupation in the evening after a group of senators and deputies agreed to the protesters’ demand that they introduce a constitutional amendment to allow an official plebiscite on education. The current Constitution, ratified in 1980 under the Pinochet government, limits plebiscites to special cases, such as clashes between the executive and legislative branches. In a sign of the students’ distrust of politicians, the occupiers required the legislators to sign a written agreement.

The takeover of the budget meeting followed two days of student mobilizations. The first day, Oct. 18, brought burning barricades to the streets of Santiago and an incident in which a bus was set on fire and the driver was injured. The police reported 61 arrests, but President Piñera’s spokesperson, Andrés Chadwick, insisted that the country was “in absolute normality” and that “there is no strike.” Tens of thousands of protesters marched in a national mobilization on the second day, Oct. 19. The media estimated the crowd in Santiago at 60,000, while the police gave the number as 25,000. The organizers—the Teachers Association of Chile and the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH)—said 300,000 people had participated nationwide. The police reported 263 arrests.

“The struggle we’re in isn’t easy,” student leader Camila Vallejo Dowling said. “The government has closed the door on us, it doesn’t want to listen, it isn’t capable of seeing the situation Chile is living through: an historic moment for making structural changes in education.” She added that the struggle might have to go on past this year. (InfoBAE, Argentina, Oct. 20, from, Chile, and La Tercera, Chile; TeleSUR Oct. 20, via YouTube; La Jornada, Mexico, Oct. 19, 20)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 23.

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