Chile: students march as election season starts

More than 100,000 Chileans marched in Santiago on June 26 in the latest massive demonstration for a system of free secondary and higher education to replace the heavily privatized system created under the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. There were similar protests in cities throughout the country, along with walkouts by port workers in support of the students’ demands. In addition to high school and university students, the march drew port workers, teachers, copper miners and municipal health workers.

Leaders of the different sectors spoke at a closing rally after three feeder marches converged on the central Alameda (Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue). “Today the focus is not [just] on Santiago or education,” Federation of Catholic University Students (FEUC) president Diego Vela told the crowd. “It’s on the precarious situations that continue to occur in all regions.” The fact that “port workers are on strike and copper workers have disrupted productivity” is “a reminder that we’re not alone.” Andrés Fielbaum, the president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) and a spokesperson for the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH), called for nationalizing the copper industry to pay for improved education. “Recovering our natural resources is the way in which we will fund our basic human rights,” he said.

Groups of hooded youths confronted the carabineros militarized police before the march in Santiago and at its conclusion. The carabineros reported 98 arrests and said four agents were injured. Media reports focused on the violence rather than on the participation by unionists in the demonstrations, as did the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera. Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick linked the masked youths to the piquetero (“picketer”) movement in Argentina, best known for militant demonstrations by the unemployed. “This coordination still exists,” he said. “There’s contact with the Argentines who operate by surprising [the public] with interruptions in transit and by trying to achieve the greatest disruption.” FECH president Fielbaum told the Associated Press wires service that Chadwick’s remarks “are in line with the logic that we’ve seen in recent weeks: since the government doesn’t know what to do with education, it tries to evade the subject.” (Santiago Times, June 26; Global Post, June 27; AP, June 29, via Terra, Chile)

The demonstrations came just four days before June 30 primaries intended to select candidates for this year’s presidential election, to be held on Nov. 17. Fielbaum had stressed back in April that students could take advantage of the electoral process to press their demands. As it happened, some 70 of the schools that students had occupied to push their demands were among the ones to be used for polling. The government insisted that the schools had to be freed by June 27 so that polling places could be set up. At 3 am on June 27 carabineros burst into 21 schools in Santiago and seven in other parts of the country, dispersing the students and arresting about 150. Protesters said the removals were violent in some cases and several students were seriously injured. Santiago Rebolledo, a former mayor of a Santiago-area commune and the president of the Chilean Association of Municipalities, denounced the government’s move, saying that talks between the association and the students had been progressing. “[W]hat happened this morning, in truth, reminds us of the worst moments of the dictatorship,” Rebolledo said after the police operation. (La Jornada (Mexico) 6/28/13 from correspondent)

The June 30 primaries were Chile’s first ever. Former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), a Socialist seeking a second term, won the nomination of the center-left New Majority coalition with 73.07% of the votes; she was backed by her own party, the For Democracy Party (PPD) and the Communist Party of Chile (PCC). According to opinion polls, Michelet is also expected to win the presidency in November. The other candidates for the New Majority nomination were Andrés Velasco, Michelet’s former finance minister; Claudio Orrego, from the Christian Democratic Party (PDC); and Radical Party senator José Antonio Gómez. Former economy minister Pablo Longueira won the primary for President Piñera’s center-right Alliance for Chile coalition with 51.35% of the vote to 48.64% for former defense minister Andrés Allamand. Nearly 3 million people turned out for the primaries, about twice as many as were expected. (El Universal, Caracas, June 30; Télam, July 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 30.