SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students marched in Santiago and other Chilean cities on Thursday ahead of a meeting between the education minister and leaders of the Confech university students federation.
Anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 students – depending on the source of the estimate – turned out in Santiago to reject what they see as half-measures to reform an educational system still marked by the legacy of the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
From the start of the march, groups of hooded militants clashed with police.
Pelted with rocks, cops in full riot gear responded with tear gas and water cannon. Authorities reported an undetermined number of arrests and injuries, as well as significant property damage.
The most dramatic episode took place at a historic church on Santiago’s main thoroughfare, where hooded assailants stormed into the sanctuary and emerged again with an image of Christ on the cross which they then destroyed in the middle of the street.
Interior Minister Mario Fernandez visited the church to convey “the concern and solidarity of the government.”
“We must make a distinction between the right to demonstrate and express ideas in peace and make use of freedom of expression, and the acts of vandalism that have nothing to do with that expression of opinion in our democracy,” he told journalists.
Thursday’s march was the latest actions by students in rejection of the form and some of the content of an education overhaul bill promoted by President Michelle Bachelet’s administration.
Young activists oppose the slow pace in implementing some of the measures, such as tuition-free university education for hundreds of thousands of low-income students, the transfer of the administration of high schools from the municipalities to the Education Ministry and the mechanisms for financing some of the measures.
On the question of financing, Education Minister Adriana Delpiano said Thursday that “it will be the next administration that can see where the resources will come from.”