Students Protest in Chile Over Education Reform Inaction

(Photo: Claudio Santana, AFP)

(Photo: Claudio Santana, AFP)

Students rallying for free university education in the streets of Santiago, the capital of Chile, were met with police resistance, resulting in a clash that lasted more than four hours after security forces denied the students the ability to hold an unauthorized protest march.

Participating students, who included both university and high school students who feel the government is not moving quickly enough on planned reforms, were trying to walk along the main road in Santiago with the plan to stop in front of La Moneda presidential palace to protest there.  However, police officers armed with water cannons and tear gas broke up the crowd while protesters threw stones and created flaming barricades.

“We occupied the street peacefully, but unfortunately the police pushed us back brutally,” high school student union president Jose Corona, soaking wet from police water cannon, told local media.

According to police, 117 people were arrested and 32 officers were injured as a result of the protest.

The event is the latest in a string of protests in the country that have occurred over the past few weeks.  Student unions say the protests were organized as a response to what they say is a lag in the time it is taking for government of President Michelle Bachelet to go through with reforms, specifically with regards to education.

“We the students have adopted a position of offense,” Marta Matamala, head of the University of Santiago student union, said in broadcast comments.  “We are going to stay on the streets. From today onward, we expect that the protests will only intensify.”

Before beginning her second, non-consecutive presidential term in 2014, Bachelet promised citizens that a number of reforms would take place in the country, including some to the education system, which is currently highly privatized.  The reforms would make university available to students for free.  Her first term as president was served from 2006-2010.

Students have been asking for close to a decade for a change to the educational system put in place under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled between 1973 and 1990.

However, those reforms have seen a variety of setbacks in the last year due to several issues including an unwilling Congress, corruption scandals, and a slow economy.

Many have become frustrated over the delays, sparking the recent eruption of protests.  One protest earlier last week made it past security into the courtyard of government headquarters.

“We are tired of waiting,” read the slogan on their banners as they marched on Thursday.

A similar protest occurring last week near the national Congress in Chile’s second-biggest city, Valparaiso, found one security guard dead due to the amount of smoke released from gas bombs as masked protesters burned a pharmacy and supermarket there.

According to Marcelo Correa, spokesman for the national students’ grouping CONES, more protests can be expected.

“They are growing and getting stronger. If they do not listen to us we will give it everything we have got,” he told CNN Chile.