Chile: student movement faces more repression

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After a winter and spring of protests, strikes and demonstrations, the Chilean student movement faces new challenges. Tens of thousands of people were mobilised for two days of national strikes on 16/17 November, protesting outside the National Congress building in Valparaiso. Yet six months of struggle have not moved the millionaire government of Sebastien Piñera, who spares no effort to praise the movement when out of the country but presents a very different face on his return. Now the ruling class, which for much of the time has been on the back foot, has started a counter-offensive with a time-honoured mixture of repression and bribes to split the movement.

The government is trying to secure approval of its 2012 education budget in Congress. This involves playing a political game with the majority opposition Concertacion, in order to find enough money to buy off the university students. Concertacion wants an extra $1bn beyond that proposed by the government ($11.8bn, a mere 3.8% increase in real terms on the 2011 budget); the government has offered a miserly $350m. Even if the Concertacion proposal were accepted, the budget would remain the lowest as a proportion of GDP amongst OECD countries. Part of the proposed increase would subsidise a reduction of interest on university student loans from 6% to 2%, and the introduction of a system of grants for the poorest university students. There is however nothing of consequence for the three million secondary school students. At present families have to find an average of $400 per child a year to pay for secondary education, 40% of the annual cost, in a country where 60% earn less than $500 a month. Students are not just demanding free secondary schooling but an end to a system where 30% of schools are run privately, most of them for profit.

Having missed the first semester of the year through strikes and occupations, many university students are returning to study at the beginning of the second semester. La Tercera reports that classes have resumed in 21 out of 25 state-run universities. Special forces ended an occupation of Valparaiso Catholic university on 10 October, and the Technical university nine days later. Throughout October carabineros (military police) were used to clear secondary school occupations in Santiago. The government is now proposing a bill which would criminalise school occupations, punishable with gaol terms of up to three years, and ban the wearing of hoodies – essential protection against the tear gas routinely used by the carabineros.

The ruling class has no intention of fundamentally changing a system where the majority of universities and a large proportion of secondary schools are run for profit. Its current strategy is to make some limited concessions on funding to university students in an attempt to split the movement. Other than that it will rely on repression. On 17 November, a military court released former carabinero officer Miguel Millacura, who shot and killed 16-year-old Manuel Gutierrez during a national strike in August. On 21 November, carabineros used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters outside a dinner being held in honour of convicted torturer Miguel Krassnoff, serving 144 years for crimes committed under the Pinochet dictatorship. The principal organiser was Providencia Mayor Cristian Labbé, responsible for many of the secondary school evictions over the past weeks. President Piñera declined an invitation to attend the event in a letter which offered ‘congratulations and best wishes for success’. The government later withdrew the letter, but it revealed how close the ties are between the ruling class and the Pinochet era.

While the government may be making progress in limiting university student protests, it has had less success in dealing with the far more numerous and working class secondary school students whose organisation ACES has organised a series of high-profile protests. These include an attempt to occupy an area on the banks of the Mapocho river in central Santiago on 28 October, broken up by the carabineros, and an occupation of Santiago municipal hall on 7 November. These protests will extend as tens of thousands of students are denied access to a new education year. University student leader Giorgio Jackson warned that ‘there is a level of desperation for transformative changes in Chilean society. We see that in students from the peripheries of ACES, who live in precarious situations and who are no longer prepared to wait forever.’

Robert Claridge

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 224 December 2011/January 2012