After a six-hour meeting on Aug. 13 at the University of Concepción in Chile’s central Biobío region, leaders of the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH) announced their rejection of a government proposal for talks to resolve more than two months of militant protests for reform of the educational system. Instead, CONFECH leaders said they would push ahead with a series of actions they had announced the day before: a nationwide one-day school strike on Aug. 18; participation in a 48-hour general strike on Aug. 24 and 25 called by the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), the main Chilean labor federation; and continued pressure on the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera at least until Sept. 11, the anniversary of the bloody coup that started the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Camila Vallejo, president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH), denied rumors that there were splits in the movement. “It’s been ratified by many organizations, not just in universities but also in secondary schools, that the mobilizations will go on,” she said.
The students refused to participate in a proposed three-way dialogue—to include the government and members of the National Congress—because they felt the administration hadn’t given specific answers to their proposals. The protest movement has been calling for a reversal of policies passed at the end of the Pinochet era that drastically decentralized and privatized the public educational system. The students have proposed a national plebiscite on the issue.
On Aug. 11 President Piñera signed the Education Quality Assurance Law, a package of reforms that had been developed over several administrations. The new law establishes an agency to oversee the quality of the educational system, allows more scholarships for poor students and refinancing for the overdue debts of some 110,000 students, and lowers interest rates on student loans from 5.3% to 4%. But Piñera rejected any major overhaul, especially the students’ demand for a return to free public higher education. “Nothing is free in this life,” he said, “since in the end everything is implemented through taxes, paid by society as a whole… [S]omeone has to pay.” (Radio Universidad de Chile, Aug. 13; La Jornada, Mexico, Aug. 12, from correspondent and unidentified wire services, Aug. 13, from correspondent )
The push for education reform has produced the most powerful mass movement in Chile since the restoration of democracy in 1990. The students showed their strength again on Aug. 9 in a nationwide strike, with demonstrations in Santiago and many other localities, including Valparaíso, Concepción, Puerto Montt, Arica, Iquique, Calama, Antofagasta, Copiapó, La Serena, Talca, Coyhaique and Easter Island. This was the movement’s fifth major action since the beginning of June. Police estimated that 70,000 protesters turned out in Santiago, while the organizers claimed 150,000 participants, with some 40,000 more in other cities. By the organizers’ count, this protest was only surpassed by a march of as many as 200,000 people on June 30, easily Chile’s largest demonstration in the last two decades.
In contrast to a much smaller march on Aug. 4, the Aug. 9 march in Santiago was authorized by the government and it remained peaceful until near the end, when dozens of masked youths attacked cars and buildings. Similar disturbances broke out in Valparaíso. Students charged that the rioters were police agents in civilian clothes, and they produced some evidence: protesters had discovered a plainclothes agent in the march in Valparaíso. The commander of the carabineros (militarized police) who guard the National Congress, Hernán Silva, admitted that the man was a police agent.
Just as they had done after the Aug. 4 march, in the evening of Aug. 9 people in Santiago neighborhoods beat on pots and pans—a type of protest called a cacerolazo in Spanish—to express support for the students. (La Tercera, Santiago, Aug. 9; EFE, Aug. 9, via Terra.es, Spain; LJ, Aug. 10, from correspondent and unidentified wire services)
Some 5,000 Argentine students marched on Aug. 9 to support the actions in Chile; there were also reports of support demonstrations in Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. (Adital, Brazil, Aug. 11)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 14.