SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students held a march on Thursday to protest the high cost of education even as Chile was officially in mourning for former President Patricio Aylwin, who died earlier this week.
More than 120,000 people took part in the mobilization in Santiago, according to the Confech confederation of university students, who organized the march in cooperation with groups representing secondary students.
Authorities had asked Confech to postpone the demonstration in deference to the mourning for Aylwin, who died Tuesday at the age of 97.
“We respect the pain of the (Aylwin) family, but we also seek respect for our comrades who are going into debt, for those who are seeing liens put on their houses. This is a mobilization that was scheduled more than three weeks ago and we decided to do it,” Camila Rojas, leader of the University of Chile student federation, said.
The march was peaceful, though – as usual on these occasions – small groups of hooded militants broke away from the column to challenge police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.
Confech and the other organizations convened the first major student demonstration of 2016 to express opposition to President Michelle Bachelet’s proposals for education reform, which the students see as not going far enough to overturn the legacy of the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Camila Rojas said the president’s initiative does not address the students’ long-standing demand for free, quality public education.
“There is no reconstruction of public education or regulatory framework for private institutions,” she told EFE. “There is nothing. What it does is deepen the (existing) model and what we want is to put on the table the issues we have been fighting for.”
Bachelet’s administration has launched a plan to make college free and said the initial phase would aid 70 percent of the poorest students.
But a sluggish economy led the government to retreat from that target and the implementation of the plan has been rocky.
Rojas said only 13.9 percent of university students will benefit from free tuition this year, while 700,000 students have taken on debt to pay for their courses.
College was free in Chile until 1981, when the Pinochet regime opened the door to a proliferation of for-profit private universities and decided that tuition rates should be set by the market.
It was five years ago that Chilean students first began taking to the streets in massive numbers to demand the overhaul of a educational system still largely stuck in the Pinochet era.