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Chile Student Protests Rock Santiago

Staff Reporters |
October 19, 2011 | 1:34 a.m. PDT

 Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Chilean police used water cannons and fired tear gas as student protests turned violent Tuesday and shook the capital of Santiago. As thousands of students and trade union supporters marched to demand a more equitable education system, burning barricades mushroomed throughout the city and a small group of hooded demonstrators set a bus ablaze and tossed stones at police.

Heavily armed riot police responded with water cannons, tear gas and scores of arrests.  Student leaders condemned the violence but vowed to stage a second day of protests Wednesday backed by the leading university student organizations and the national federation of trade unions.

The BBC reports the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera is planning to invoke emergency security laws to quell the protests which rocked the capital Tuesday and that have been simmering and flaring for the past months.

The protest movement - which started in May - is the biggest in Chile since the return to democracy in 1990. The students, backed by teachers and trade unions, called the latest two-day national strike after talks with the government broke down earlier this month.

The violence began early on Tuesday as protesters set up burning barricades on several main avenues across the capital, blocking rush hour traffic. Masked assailants set fire to a city bus, and police raided university buildings in pursuit of suspects.

As part of Tuesday's protests, student leaders sent a delegation to the La Moneda presidential palace to present the results from an unofficial plebiscite in which 88 percent of 1.7 million participants said they were in favor of free and equal public education.

The Chilean education system, established during the period of the Pinochet dictatorship, was semi-privatized and has been criticized for being sharply discriminatory on class lines.  The Chilean state pays only 60 percent of education costs with tuition funds from student families making up the other 40 percent, according to the BBC.

Currently, less than half of Chilean students qualify for free education, according to Al Jazeera:


Alameda Avenue, an iconic area, faced massive gridlock after protesters set fire to barricades near the University of Chile and the University of Santiago.
The massive traffic jams in the city of six million were met by tear gas and water cannons being fired by the police.

Outside the humanities faculty of the University of Chile, a bus driver was injured when his vehicle was set alight by protesters; all the passengers managed to escape unharmed.

The relaunched protest movement is the biggest the nation has seen since previous negotations for sweeping educational reform in 1990 with the then president, Augusto Pinochet, broke down.

Calling for two days of protest, the Chilean Students Confederation along with 70 other organisations, including the nation's largest labour confederation and a teachers' organisation, aim to coincide their calls for educational reform with the larger youth-led Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread globally.


The government has responded to the growing movement with increased scholarships but protesters say it is too little too late and are demanding a wholesale reform and modernization of the educational system.

The protests come at a time when the popularity of the Pinera administration is at an all time low.

A similar wave of student rebellions shook the government of former Socialist President Michelle Bachelet in 2005.  The protesters were dubbed "penguins" --- penguins-- because of the black and white uniforms common to public schools.

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