Student protests rock Chile; Mapuche suspend hunger strike

On May 29, some 600,000 public and private high school students went on strike throughout Chile, and thousands took over school buildings. On May 30, at least 500,000 students marched in the streets around the country. The protests were met with intense repression: riot agents of the militarized Carabineros police arrested 725 people and beat up two television camera operators and a news photographer. At least two students and nine police agents were also injured. The mobilization, called by the national Coordinating Assembly of High School Students (ACES), is the largest student protest in Chile since 1972. The movement, which picked up intensity in mid-May, is being called the “Penguin Revolution” because of the uniforms the students wear. (AP, June 4; Europa Press, May 31; Adital, June 6)

The students are demanding that university entrance exams and student bus passes be provided free of charge, and that Chile’s Constitutional Organic Law on Education (LOCE), which dates from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, be reformed. The students say the education law leads to a quality gap between public and private high schools. (Diario de Cuyo, Argentina, June 3)

The protests continued on May 31 and June 1; at least 20 people were injured and 1,000 arrested over the three days. (Diario de Cuyo, June 3) Organizations including Amnesty International expressed concern about the repression, noting that most of those arrested were minors, and that female detainees reported being sexually assaulted Carabineros agents. (Adital, June 1) ACES agreed on May 31 to bring legal action against the Carabineros for using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators. “We have videos, we have pictures, we have no problem handing over these images to public opinion,” said student leader Maria Jesus Sanhueza. (Notimex, May 31)

On May 31, after meeting with Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, national police commander Gen. Jose Bernales announced that Carabineros Special Forces chief Osvaldo Jara had been removed from his post because agents under his command committed “unacceptable excesses” during the May 30 march. Jara was replaced by Col. Patricio Reyes, director of the School of Noncommissioned Carabineros Officers of Chile. (AFP, Notimex, May 31)

On June 1, Bachelet proposed making the university entrance exam free, and the bus pass free for low-income students, and pledged to promote a reform in the law. Early on June 3, after a day of intense meetings, student organizations agreed to reject Bachelet’s offer and proceed with a general strike on June 5. University students and professors say they will support the strike. ACES called on all of Chile’s social organizations to join with students in what is being promoted as a “day of peaceful reflection.” The government “will not accept any kind of pressure,” insisted Bachelet on June 3. (DdC, June 3; ABC Color, Paraguay, June 4) The National School and Tourism Transport Guild Federation (Fentetuch) has called on all its members to observe the June 5 strike in solidarity with the students. (El Mostrador, Chile, June 4)

Meanwhile, on May 26 four imprisoned Mapuche rights activists decided to end their hunger strike at a Temuco hospital after a committee including prisoners’ family members and traditional Mapuche authorities (lonkos) engaged in intense negotiations with Socialist senator Alejandro Navarro. The prisoners’ health is failing after some 70 days on hunger strike; they were transferred to the hospital’s intensive care ward on May 26. (Adital, May 29)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 4

See our last post on Chile and the Mapuche struggle.

  1. An update
    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 11:


    On June 5 some 600,000 Chilean high school students began the first day of an open-ended strike. They were joined in the action by 300,000 university students and many professors. The first day of the strike was supposedly scheduled as a “day of reflexion,” without marches or demonstrations. (Adital, June 6) But in the center of Santiago, some 500 students–mostly from universities–ended up clashing with police, who sprayed them with water cannons and tear gas. At least 40 people were arrested. In the city of Valparaiso, some 12,000 high school students and union members marched peacefully after reaching an agreement with the militarized Carabineros police. In the northern city of La Serena, some looting and attacks on stores were reported, and 12 people were arrested. In Concepcion, 23-year old Silvia Lobos was injured and nine people were arrested in a clash with Carabineros agents. (La Jornada, Mexico, June 6) Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Harboe said a total of 439 people were arrested and 35 injured nationwide over the course of the day on June 5. (LJ, June 7)

    The students had been protesting for weeks, demanding significant representation on a commission charged with promoting changes to the Constitutional Organic Law on Education (LOCE). The LOCE was promulgated by dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte on March 10, 1990–a day before Pinochet handed the government over to his elected sucessor, Patricio Aylwin. Among other things, the law provided state subsidies for private schools and handed public schools over to municipal control under a “decentralization” plan. The students were also calling for free university entrance exams and public transport subsidies for the poorest students; these demands were partially granted by the government of President Michelle Bachelet on June 1. The protest movement, dubbed the “Penguin Revolution” because of the uniforms the students wear, began on Apr. 26 when 1,000 students protested a delay in bus pass subsidies. (Adital, June 6; Inter Press Service, June 9; LJ, June 6, 7; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, June 8 from AFP)

    On June 7, just before leaving on a trip to the US and the Caribbean, Bachelet created a Presidential Advisory Council to propose measures to improve the education system. At the same time, Bachelet named representatives of academic, professional and social organizations to fill most of the Council’s 73 seats, leaving open six slots for high school students and six for university students.

    The strike began losing steam following Bachelet’s June 7 move, and on June 9, the National Coordinating Assembly of High School Students (ACES) announced an end to the strike and to the occupations of school buildings. ACES spokesperson Maria Jesus Sanhueza said the 700,000 striking high school students would return to classes on June 13, the first day of school after a long holiday weekend, but that they will stay on alert to make sure the accord is fulfilled.

    ACES spokesperson Juan Carlos Herrera admitted that the students ended the protests because they were worn down, but said “we feel victorious, we feel we have won.” He said that although the Presidential Advisory Council is not “truly representative,” ACES will send representatives to the Council’s first meeting on June 13 and will try to form a bloc with representatives of social organizations. (IPS, June 9; LJ, June 10; ENH, June 10 from AP)