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The Chilean Winter and Return of Student Activism

While the United States and Europe stagger around blindsided by their self-inflicted economic wounds, the rest of the world has been enthralled by the dramatic events occurring in the Middle East, where the long oppressed peoples of many Arab nations have taken to the streets to register their discontent with their autocratic, corrupt governments, from Morocco to Bahrain. An element common to all these events is the population’s rising anger over governments’ perceived ineptitude and even outright corruption, inflicting financial misery on all but a privileged elite, who call for increasing sacrifice from the middle and working classes even as they reap record profits, zealously guarding their tax breaks and loopholes.
 
While Latin America remains for the most part off the English-speaking world’s media radar, in Chile rising discontent is being fuelled by student activism, which, far from pushing leftist and subversive demands, is simply asking for a more equitable educational system. This Chilean Winter, as some analysts have dubbed it, will doubtless find many echoes across the western world as many governments, pleading the necessity for fiscal austerity, simultaneously cut back education funding while raising student tuition fees. Students have long insisted for-profit universities and schools should receive no government subsidies.
 
While the protests up to now have had a peaceful and artistic flair (a massive student “kiss-in” in front of the presidential Moneda Palace), on Thursday night the government sent in the riot police with their water cannons and tear gas canisters. The inevitable melee ensured, with the government subsequently claiming that downtown Santiago suffered $2 million in damages. Hundreds of students later occupied a Chilean TV station until producers agreed to air their message.
 
The government’s Minister Secretary General spokesman Andres Chadwick confirmed that a total of 874 students were arrested, stating, “There are limits, and we've gone past them. The students do not own the streets.” Warming to his theme of governmental restraint, the minister pointed out that the constitutional right of assembly of demonstrators was not violated, as it depended on the Metropolitan Intendant’s Office giving permission for the demonstration, which it did not and even though the government was aware that imposing limits on the demonstrators would cause incidents, continued that "sometimes the authority (the government) has to show that it is also protecting everybody's rights." Ending on a rhetorical flourish, Chadwick stated that no demonstrators had been reported wounded, even as Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla confirmed that 31 were injured in clashes.
 
University student leader Camila Vallejo, in tears after being tear-gassed said, "This is unacceptable, the center of Santiago is a state of siege. The right to assemble has been violated."
 
Students in Chile want the national government to take over the public school system, where 90 percent of the country's 3.5 million students are educated, charging that the system is under-funded and deeply inequitable. Chile currently dedicates 4.4 percent of the country's GDP to education, far below the 7 percent recommended by UNESCO.
 
The protest movement, organized largely through Facebook and Twitter, has unsettled Chile’s political establishment as up to 100,000 students, usually costumed and peaceful, have marched. Besides the tumult in the capital Santiago, on Friday demonstrations occurred in 11 other Chilean cities.
 
It is not as if the government is short of money - Chile's economy grew 9.8 percent at an annual rate for the three months ended 31 March.

Protests have been mounting since earlier this year President Sebastiàn Piñera announced wide-ranging education spending cuts despite the country having one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. In the last two months teenage students have seized hundreds of high schools, demanding teenage students an end to for-profit educational institutions, lower interest rates on student loans and a bus pass valid year round.
 
Piñera's has become Chile’s most unpopular president since 1990, when democracy was restored. After 21 years of democratization, citizens are no longer afraid to take to the streets. Students have been mobilizing since 12 May and they now have 72 percent citizen approval while the Centro de Estudios Públicos reported only 26 percent of citizens approve of Piñera's government, while 53 percent reject his administration. Chilean congress member Tucapel Jiménez called for sanctions against government officials who authorized what he called "brutal repression" by riot police.
 
For the moment, President Piñera seems to have taken the country’s motto to heart, “Por la razón o la fuerza” (“By reason or by force.”) Unfortunately, he has a dreadful predecessor he might emulate, General Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in a 1973 coup. Here’s hoping that “la razón” triumphs over “la fuerza” and that Piñera, in effort to boost his sagging poll numbers, spend some government revenues to meet at least some of the student demands, perhaps even finding an additional 2.6 percent of the country's GDP to reach UNESCO’s recommendations.

By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com


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