Friday, August 5, 2011

Chile Rocked by Massive Student Protests

In Chile, thousands of students and education professionals throughout the country defied a government ban and took to the streets yesterday in order to call for a series of wide-ranging education reforms. Although the protests have been going on for more than two months now, fueled by widespread discontent with President Sebastian Piñera, the latest round of demonstrations appears to have taken the conflict to a new level.

As AFP and TeleSUR report, the government is attempting to delegitimize the student movement, stepping up its crackdowns on protestors.  Yesterday Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter issued a warning that his office would deny students permission to protest in downtown Santiago, saying: “The march will not be approved by our government due to the damage caused to property, bystanders and police. We will take all necessary measures to enforce the decision. It is time for the demonstrations to end,” Hinzpeter said. 

But the protests occurred anyway, resulting in harsh crackdowns in cities across Chile. According to AP, authorities detained more than 550 students yesterday, and at least 14 people were injured in clashes with riot police.

The students are demanding that the federal government dramatically increase education spending and resume control over public schools, which are attended by 90 percent of the country’s 3.5 million students, according to BBC Mundo. Control over education was handed over to the municipalities during the Pinochet dictatorship, which, along with the encouragement of private for-profit universities, was undertaken in an attempt to “streamline” the Chilean education system. As Chilean education expert Maria Olivia Monckeberg told the New York Times, this has produced an education system that is “chaotic and broken-down.” She added that with students and their families burdened by massive debt, educational “quality is totally debatable.”

La Jornada pointed out back in June that Chile spends only 4.4 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on education, while UNESCO recommends countries spend at least 7 percent.

In response to protestors’ demands, President Piñera has offered a 21-point reform package, and invited his critics to sit down with him in the presidential palace to resolve the conflict. The proposal offered an increase in funding, improvements to teacher training, as well as measures to ease the burden of student loans and increase access to university scholarships. However, so far opposition lawmakers have rejected the invitation, and students say that the offer falls far short of their demands. TeleSUR reports that the students are expected to respond to the proposed reforms later today, offering a counter plan of their own.

Meanwhile, a new survey conducted by Chilean polling firm CEP (Centro de Estudios Públicos) puts support for Piñera at only 26 percent, making him the least-liked president in Chile’s history. The poll also found widespread discontent with the political class in the country as a whole, with more than 45 percent of respondents expressing discontent with both Piñera’s conservative Alliance for Chile and the center-left Concert of Parties for Democracy. 

With Piñera less than halfway through his four-year term, and student protestors vowing to continue demonstrating, it seems fair to say that the country is facing a major political crisis. For Chile’s student movement, the challenge now will be to counter the governments’ efforts at casting them as unreasonable fringe elements. If they manage to maintain support among the Chilean population, their movement has potential to fundamentally alter the country’s unequal education system.

For more on the student protests, see El Ciudadano, which offers a play-by-play of yesterday’s protests in Santiago.  The Times article mentioned above also provides an interesting summary of the tactics used by protestors so far.

News Briefs

·         A legislative committee in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies passed a version of the controversial National Security Law on Tuesday, despite concerns by civil society groups in the country over provisions which make it easier for the executive to deploy the military. In response, CNN Mexico reports that the country’s peace movement –led by poet Javier Sicilia– canceled a dialogue with Mexican lawmakers scheduled for Thursday, claiming that the vote represented a betrayal. Leaders of the country’s major parties have defended the law’s preliminary approval, noting that it has not been fully passed, and that several reservations have been made in the bill due to human rights concerns. Sicilia has called for a massive protest on Sunday in Mexico’s Zocalo, where he is expected to call for a more “humane” alternative to the law.

·         AP reports that the entire police force of Ascension -- a town of about 13,000 people in northern Mexico -- have left their posts, after a series of attacks have killed five officers and a police chief over the past three months.

·         AFP interviews Guatemala’s likely future president, Gen Otto Perez, who claims that his success in opinion polls is due to widespread public disenchantment with the Guatemalan left. The news agency also conducted a separate interview with outgoing President Alvaro Colom, who says he is cracking down on drug cartels’ financial structures.

·         La Prensa has published the results of a recent CID-Gallup poll which indicates that the opposition in Nicaragua is gaining on President Daniel Ortega, with Fabio Gadea only seven points behind (41% to 34%).

·         The director of a Catholic NGO in Venezuela has challenged the Colombian government’s recent assertion that the FARC and ELN do not operate in his country, detailing to Caracol various incidents of kidnapping and extortion against poor farmers and ranchers alike.

·         Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim resigned last night, after Folha de Sao Paolo published comments in which he criticized Institutional Relations Minister Ideli Salvatti and cabinet chief Gleisi Hoffmann. As AP notes, Jobim is the third cabinet chief to resign since President Rousseff took office in January.

·         The Washington Post profiles the 33 Chilean miners who were rescued in a much-publicized event last year, noting that most of the men now live in poverty, despite their fame.