On Thursday 6 October students demonstrating for free education were met by savage attacks from riot police. Water canons, tear gas and police horse charges were deployed before students could even finish assembling. Continuing repression against the student movement is creating an explosive situation in Chile.
The massive student movement against the for profit nature of the Chilean education system has been taking place for six months now. Dozens of universities have been shut down for months and over 100 high schools are occupied by students. Families must cover 85% of university costs for their children in Chile. Schools are often sold in the classified sections of Chile’s newspapers as ‘very profitable’ businesses. (For previous reports and analysis see articles on socialistworld.net)
Talks held between student leaders and the government on Wednesday 5 October “Made no major progress” according to Chilean education minister Felipe Bulnes. This announcement came as no surprise. On the one hand student representatives demanded a hike in taxes on the rich and nationalisation of the copper industry to pay for universal free education. On the other hand President Sebastian Piñera’s government of billionaires prepared laws to criminalise demonstrations and to put students who occupy schools in jail for three years.
Student leaders called for a protest outside ‘La Moneda’ (the presidential palace in the capital, Santiago) on the following day. Piñera’s government banned the demonstration in a move that echoed the days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Despite the government ban and the merciless violence carried out by riot police the students marched on La Moneda. The protestors even managed to block the main street in the capital, for five hours between ten o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon. On top of the police attacks, 250 students were arrested by the end of the day.
Polls have shown that somewhere around 70% of the population supports the students demands, and find the government’s response inadequate, according to Chile’s leading newspaper, La Tercera. Piñera has only 22% of public support in the polls, a record low in the history of Chile.
Despite this the government is seeking to turn public opinion against the student movement by provoking confrontations and then portraying the movement as vandals and looters. While the strategy of violent repression against the students may provide some results for the government it is very dangerous for them. It is leading to an extreme and rapid radicalization of a generation of Chilean youth.
The response of the student movement to the extreme violence of the police was to call a general strike. The CUT (a major trade union federation in Chile) backed the call and has declared a two day national general strike next week, on 18 and 19 October.
"Education not for sale"
There is a deep questioning of the ‘market’ system taking place amongst this new generation. Chile was the first country in the world to suffer the effects of neo-liberalism. Almost 40 years after the crushing defeat inflicted on the Chilean working class by General Pinochet’s coup, today’s youth are attempting to re-win the gains that were lost.
They are beginning to challenge the idea of a profit driven system and have already recognized the need to link their movement with the power of the organised working class. Next week’s strike will be the key in determining further developments.