South America: Chilean and Colombian students plan simultaneous demo

Chilean students are planning to join with Colombian students in a binational demonstration on Nov. 24 as part of ongoing protests in defense of education in the two countries. Leaders of the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH) made the announcement after a 12-hour meeting in the Catholic University of the North in the city of Antofagasta; the leaders also called for local demonstrations in Chile on Nov. 14, 17 and 18.

Chilean students have been on strike for six months around demands to reverse the privatized and decentralized higher educational system put in place under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet; a similar strike began in Colombia on Oct. 11 and 12 to protest proposed legislation that students said would lead to privatization of their universities. These are the second and third major strikes by students in Latin America in the past two years; the first came in the spring of 2010, when students shut down Puerto Rico’s public university.

In both Chile and Colombia there are signs that the student strikers and the right-wing governments may be able to work out compromises. In Chile, Confech and secondary school leaders met with opposition senators and deputies on Nov. 9 in the port city of Valparaíso, where the National Congress holds its sessions; some 30,000 students and teachers marched there later in the day. Opposition politicians are now calling for free education for 70% of the poorer students at public universities, and possibly a similar measure for private universities; these politicians also propose returning control of the primary and secondary schools to the central government.

Under pressure from both students and the opposition, the government of Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has offered to increase the share of education by 7.2% in the budget for 2012—to $11.65 billion out of a total budget of $60 billion. The students have rejected this as “insufficient,” but political observers see a significant shift in Finance Minister Felipe Larraín acknowledgment that there may have to be changes in the tax structure. Previously the government insisted that it would not increase taxes. (La Tercera, Chile, Nov. 13; EFE, Nov. 13, via El Nuevo Herald, Miami; La Jornada, Mexico, Nov. 10, from correspondent)

Chilean students too may be under pressure to settle after six months of protests. Public support for their demands remains high but seems to be slipping. Support for the demands fell to from 79% in September to 67% in October, according to a survey of 1,110 people by the Adimark GfK research group, while opposition to the students’ tactics rose from 45% to 57%. Support for President Piñera remained around 31%. (Bloomberg, Nov. 7)

In Colombia the government moved toward a compromise after less than a month of strikes and mobilizations. On Nov. 9 President Juan Manuel Santos offered to withdraw his proposed changes to Law 30, which governs higher education, if the students ended the strike. The Broad National Student Panel (MANE), the strike’s national coordinating group, met on Nov. 12 to discuss Santos’ offer. The next day student leaders announced that they would lift the strike if the government met three conditions: it would need to suspend discussions of the proposed legislation in Congress, agree to a dialogue with the students on building a new educational system, and give guarantees that the academic period would be completed. (LJ, Nov. 11, from AFP, DPA, Notimex; Europa Press Nov. 14)

Even while apparently considering a compromise, the two governments have continued to use force against the student movements. In Chile the carabineros militarized police arrested 57 protesters for “disorders and illegal occupation” at the Santiago de Chile University. Police agents claimed they found six Molotov cocktails during the raid, along with some acid and fuel. The university rector’s office said the protesters had maintained an occupation of school facilities despite a decision by a majority of students to end it while continuing the mobilization. (Adital, Brazil, Nov. 11 from TeleSUR)

In Colombia, police agents from the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) and the Mobile Carabinero Squad (Emcar) used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a demonstration on Nov. 11 in Popayán municipality in the southwestern department of Cauca. Ten students were arrested. According to participants and local grassroots organizations, the demonstration, part of a national day of protest by students and unionists, had been peaceful until police agents intervened. The Isaías Francisco Cifuentes Human Rights Network of the Colombian Southwest said letters of protest could be sent to President Juan Manuel Santos (, Attorney General Viviane Morales, ( ) and other officials, along with a copy to (Adital, Nov. 11)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 13.

See our last posts on Chile and Colombia.