Chile: students defy government, copper workers strike

Tens of thousands of Chilean students and supporters marched through downtown Santiago on the central Alameda avenue on July 14 in their fourth massive demonstration demanding a reversal of the system of privatized education instituted under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. As in previous days of action, there were also large marches in other major cities.

The latest protest was only about half the size of the previous march, on June 30, which was said to be by far the largest demonstration since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Santiago area authorities estimated that 30,000 people marched on July 14, while the organizers put the number at 80,000. The Santiago daily La Tercera reported that 20,000 people participated in Valparaíso and 4,000 in Concepción. Many students may have stayed away from the Santiago march because it proceeded through the downtown area in open defiance of the government, which had authorized a route that would have kept the marchers away from some important government buildings.

Violence broke out at the end of the demonstration when masked youths—considered provocateurs by some protesters—began throwing rocks and at least one Molotov cocktail at Carabinero police agents in front of the La Moneda presidential palace. The otherwise peaceful action then ended in the worst violence of the student protests to date, with the police using water cannons and tear gas and youths smashing windshields and setting one car on fire. The authorities reported that 32 agents were injured in Santiago; a total of 133 people were arrested in Santiago, Valparaíso and Concepción. (LT, July 15; La Jornada, Mexico, July 15 from correspondent)

The protest appeared to mark a decisive rejection of efforts by rightwing president Sebastián Piñera to slow the protests by announcing a “Great National Agreement on Education” (GANE) on July 5. Accompanied by Education Minister Joaquín Lavín, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1999 and 2005, Piñera proposed a $4 billion fund for the improvement of higher education, more scholarships for poorer students, a lower interest rate for student loans, and more supervision of the education system by the central government. But the president rejected the students’ demands for ending education for profit. (La Nación, Santiago, July 5)

After a nine-hour meeting at the University of Biobío in Concepción on July 16, the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH), the main student organization, decided to continue the mobilizations while also seeking ways to create a political platform for their demands. Camila Vallejo, president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH), denied that the protesters were wearing out. “There’s a greater conviction that it’s necessary to make a social accord, since the GANE doesn’t represent us,” she said. (Radio Universidad de Chile, Santiago, July 17)

On July 11, three days before their own mobilization, student organizations participated in another protest calling for a return to policies from before the dictatorship. Some 17,000 workers held a 24-hour general strike against the National Copper Corporation of Chile (Codelco), the state-owned copper enterprise, to mark the 40th anniversary of Socialist president Salvador Allende’s 1971 nationalization of the copper mines.

The original goal of the nationalization was to use the proceeds from the copper industry for education, heath care and industrial development, and the students have been pointing to copper as a possible source of funding for public education. The Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC), the main union in the industry, says the military dictatorship that overthrew Allende in 1973 worked to reverse this policy, with “the result that Codelco just controls 30% of the copper that’s mined and leaves the country, while the remaining 70% has stayed in the power of companies like Phelps Dodge, Anglo American, BHP Billiton and other big transnationals.” The July 11 protest marked the start of a campaign to get two million signatures by October on a petition calling for a plebiscite on returning control of copper mining to the government. (Adital, Brazil, July 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 17.

See our last posts on Chile and the mineral cartel..