Protests In Chile: Riot Police Clash With Demonstrators Protesting Spending Cuts

On Tuesday August 9, after months of relatively peaceful protests in Chile, riot police clashed with protesters as thousands of students, teachers, and activists, crowded downtown Santiago to call for widespread constitutional reforms from conservative president Sebastián Piñera. 

Over the past three months, both university and high school students have staged ongoing protests after Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing president since the country returned to democracy in 1990, presided over vast spending cuts for higher education cuts earlier this year. Since their inception, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in the massive demonstrations, drawing some of the largest crowds for Chilean protests since the early 1990’s.

The protests have been dubbed the “Chilean Winter,” by various media outlets keen on cooking up similarities between the South American protests and the “Arab Spring.” But the Chilean protestors, unlike those in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, are not flooding the streets to overthrow a maniacal, despotic tyrant: they want wholesale change in their constitution and policies regarding transportation, education, and energy policy. 

The protesters, many of whom are young students, are principally demonstrating against the country’s education system, which, alongside healthcare and pensions, was almost entirely privatized under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1973-1990. In 1981, Pinochet decreed a system that reduced government funding for public universities and led to the development of private, for-profit universities. Since neglect and low funding cripple Chile’s public university system, many students are forced to enroll in private, for-profit universities that saddle them with long-term debt. 

Many protesters, confronted with seemingly insurmountable loans, are demanding constitutional change that would guarantee free high quality education from preschool to high school, and a state-financed university system.

But demonstrations fueled by social grievances didn’t stir the waters of a calm and egalitarian society overnight. Chile’s boasts the highest per capita income in Latin America, as well as some of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the hemisphere. The protests, and the socioeconomic issues driving them, have dealt Pinera’s already-precarious approval rating a harsh blow, which, at 26 per cent, is the lowest it has been since he took office last year. 

 Last week, Piñera, cognizant that the country’s pronounced discontent necessitated governmental action, proposed a package of 21 reform measures. Protestors have rejected the reform package, saying it doesn’t meet their key demand for reform— the elimination of the for-profit motive from private universities—and investing income in educational improvement.

Protestors, like their “Arab Spring” counterparts, are mainly young, active, socially networked, and most importantly, organized. The latter is something that mainstream media outlets, in their coverage of the unrest, have largely ignored. Unlike the riots currently setting London ablaze, protests weren’t sparked by a singular incident overnight. Chile’s protests are the result of years of strategic planning and community organizing by student activists. The country’s youth in particular have shed their layers of political apathy and are greatly responsible for the country’s carefully mediated mobilization.

Camila Vallejos, the president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (FECH) and leader of the protests, remains relatively unknown in English media coverage of the protests, though her presence is smattered across the Spanish-speaking newspapers and blogs. 

According to El Chileno Newspaper Vallejos said the ongoing protests are part of “a political movement” that has been maturing for many years. Activists, she added, are fighting to receive better education in the present, while thinking pragmatically about the country’s development in the years to come.  

“I think the government has committed a grave mistake,” said Vallejos in an interview with Al Jazeera, “They wanted to wipe out and make invisible this demonstration. With this the people will only come out in greater force because there’s huge discontent.”

AlterNet / By Erica Hellerstein

Posted at August 11, 2011, 4:37am

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