Monday, 8 August 2011

Chile: Student protests rock the government

by Marcelo Diaz, Santiago de Chile, 08 August 2011.

On Thursday 4 August tens of thousands of secondary school and university students defied a government ban on protests to march in cities and towns throughout the country. The centre of the capital Santiago was closed off as riot police used water cannon, tear gas and horses in a vain effort to disperse the youth. Over 800 were arrested yet the police were completely unable to control the situation as barricades appeared on major intersections in Santiago. The students have overwhelming popular support, and through their actions are giving birth to a new movement. Billionaire President Sebastian Pinera has the lowest ratings ever for a president since General Pinochet relinquished power in 1990 with only 20% support.

The revolt has been led by students from the University of Chile, the largest and most important university in the country. The issues at stake are little different from elsewhere in the world: the level of student fees and the drive to privatisation. On top of this are five demands of the secondary school students which includes the nationalisation of the education system. In 1980, Pinochet had handed over control of secondary schooling to local municipalities which meant that richer areas provided a better education than poorer areas.

The demand for nationalisation is a demand for equity. On top of this are demands for free education and for a greater proportion of GDP to be spent on the education system as a whole from the 3.1% at present to the UNESCO-recommended level of 7%. The students are also calling for an end to government subsidies to private schools, for improved school lunches, and for the extension of transport subsidies. University students are supporting these demands, and an end to university privatisation, and for basic rights to student and worker organisation. To finance these developments they are insisting the government imposes a massive increase in the royalties paid on copper extraction by multinationals such as BHP Billiton which pays only 4% at present compared to 30% for similar extraction rights in Australia. This has been frustrated by the Pinera government and previous Concertation (centre-left) governments. The students and teacher unions are now insisting on putting all these issues to a referendum.

The government move to ban the 4 August demonstration – on the grounds that it would disrupt city life – completely backfired and its heavy-handed approach has consolidated popular support for the demands of the students. The leadership of the main student union, FECH, has refused to back down and called for further mobilisations for the evening of 4 August. Attempts to undermine the principal FECH leader Camila Vallejo because of her membership of the Communist Party have failed. On Sunday 7 August tens of thousands of people marched through Santiago again, and in the local municipalities people protested with pots and pans as they had done in the years of the Pinochet dictatorship. There are now calls for a general strike on Tuesday 9 August and a further mass demonstration in Santiago. It is not clear whether this will be allowed.