Chile’s University Students Take To The Streets

Around 3,000 students raised their voices in Chile’s capital Wednesday and around the country to protest the Education Ministry’s handling of students affected by the Feb. 27 earthquake.

Post-secondary school students came from institutions all over the country with signs and bullhorns, angered primarily by the failure to properly help students affected by the earthquake.

The protest comes in the wake of an unanswered student petition in April regarding the low amount ofgovernment funds being spent on students in the regions affected by the earthquake.  The current stipend for students is US$57; protestors demand that it be raised to at least US$214 (ST, May 12, 2010).  There was also anger expressed at the announced increase in the student BIP (public transportation) card prices.

“I want to support those who were affected by the earthquake,” Daniel Andrand, a student at Universidad de Chile, told the Santiago Times. “That is why I am marching.”

The students began the march Wednesday morning in the central Plaza Italia near the Baquedano metro station and marched to Plaza Los Heroes, where a large stage was set up.

Groups of Carabineros were stationed in the Plaza Los Heroes awaiting their arrival by early afternoon.

“We want to show them that there are no second-class students,” said Adrian Pricto, president of La Universidad Central’s branch of the National Confederation of Chilean Students in his speech. “Here stands the future of Chile.”

After the presidents of each university group gave their speeches, the students were told they could exit peacefully.  A fight then broke out which evolved into a bout of violence between the protestors and police.

“We are doing this because they aren’t listening to us” said Juan Pablo Saauerdra, a student at the Instituto Profesional. “[The violence] is a way for them to understand us.”

Protestors threw rocks and glass bottles at the police, who countered with teargas, water cannons and, eventually, by making arrests.  Police officers on foot began making their way through the plaza, shields in hand, throwing tear gas canisters, and making arrests along the way.

Minister of Education Joaquin Lavin denounced the march in an interview with local media.  He claimed students’ reasoning was not justified and that their methods were too extreme. “They can do whatever they want,” he said, “but I want to call to attention the fact that these arrests will cause them to miss classes, this is not what Chile wants today.”
The earthquake on Feb. 27 caused thousands of students to miss at least one month of classes, which usually begin in March following the end of the summer holiday. Education institutions, including Universidad of Concepcion, suffered millions of dollars in damage and at least 500 teachers in the most devastated areas lost their homes (ST, March 16, 2010).

The government said making sure students did not lose a year of schooling was a priority and helped establish an exchange system for students to study elsewhere while school infrastructure was restored. Earlier this week, however, it was revealed only a small portion of students were taking advantage of the program, because of the lack of accompanying financial support (ST, May 11, 2010).

More than two months on, many students are continuing their studies. Still, some must live in tents or temporary housing, with unpredictable electricity and running water.

Wednesday, however, just as many university groups supported their fellow students by organizing aid and helping to rebuild homes in affected areas, the protests also had a hint of hope and solidarity.

“We will overcome today,” said Pricto. “We will overcome tomorrow, we will overcome always.”

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