Chile: students march, support Quebec strikers

Tens of thousands of Chilean students demanding education reform held their second large national demonstration of the 2012 school year on May 16, continuing a movement that shut down many of the country’s secondary schools and universities with a strike last year. Protesters marched in Santiago, ValparaĂ­so, ConcepciĂłn, CopiapĂł and other cities; student leaders estimated the total turnout nationwide at about 100,000.

The students continued to call for a return to free higher education, dismissing as inadequate the concessions made recently by rightwing president Sebastián Piñera, who proposed raising the corporate tax rate so that the government can provide low-interest student loans. “We’re going to go on being rebels, because the student movement isn’t going to settle for corrections to a few excesses,” Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH) president Gabriel Boric said. “We’re here to fight for a new type of democracy. This struggle isn’t going to come to an end this year.” (La Jornada, Mexico, May 17, from correspondent)

The Chilean student movement is the largest and the best known of a number of such movements that have sprung up in the Americas over the past two years, starting with a 62-day strike at the University of Puerto Rico in the spring of 2010 and continuing with protests in Honduras, Colombia and other countries in 2011. In February this year some students in Canada’s Quebec province began boycotting classes to protest a plan by the provincial government to raise tuitions at public universities. The movement has now grown to include tens of thousands of students in what they call “Maple Spring” (Printemps Ă©rable, a play on Printemps arabe, French for Arab Spring).

On May 24 a number of Chilean academics and student leaders, including FECH president Boric and vice president Camila Vallejo Dowling, signed a declaration of support for the Quebec movement. The signers strongly denounced Law 78, which the Quebec government passed on May 19 in an effort to end the student strike by criminalizing many types of protest and penalizing calls for these protests. “The people of Quebec have stood with the people of Chile during long years in active solidarity,” the Chileans wrote. “It is for this reason that we feel called upon to express and demonstrate our broadest solidarity with their student organizations and their leaders, with their union federations and with the whole citizens’ movement.

“We do this in solidarity, but also because we understand that any attack against freedoms anywhere in this globalized world is an attack against our freedoms. The so-called ‘Hinzpeter law’ promoted by the Chilean government [an effort by Chilean interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter to limit student protests last year] follows the same repressive and anti-democratic perspective. The struggle of the QuĂ©bĂ©cois students, academics and workers is also our struggle.” (“Nous Sommes Tous des QuĂ©bĂ©cois! ¡Todos Somos Quebequenses,” declaration, May 24)

Tens of thousands of QuĂ©bĂ©cois have responded to Law 78 by taking to the streets in the evenings and beating on pots and pans; Chileans responded the same way last year to Hinzpeter’s repression. Some of the more than 10,000 Chileans living in Quebec province pointed out that this form of protest—the cacerolazo—was first popularized in Chile. In the early 1970s upper middle-class Chileans beat on pots and pans to protest the socialist government of then-president Salvador Allende, paving the way for the military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973. But Pinochet’s opponents took up the tactic in the 1980s as a broad section of society began protesting his brutal military regime–although as Chilean-born University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) history professor JosĂ© del Poso pointed out, anti-Pinochet protesters held their cacerolazos indoors, because “they risked blows from nightsticks and could even have been killed” if they had demonstrated in public.

Cacerolazos have also been used in Bolivia, in Uruguay and in Argentina, notably during Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic crisis, and have spread to European countries, including Spain and Ireland. (Le Soleil, Quebec City, May 26; Revue EuropĂ©enne des Migrations Internationales, vol. 20, #1, 2004)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 27.

See our last post on Chile.