SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 153 - November 2011

Chilean students defy government ban

CONTINUING REPRESSION against the student movement is creating an explosive situation in Chile. On 6 October, students demonstrating for free education were met by savage attacks from riot police. Water canons, tear gas and police horse charges were deployed before students could even finish assembling.

The massive student movement against the for-profit nature of the Chilean education system has been taking place for over six months. Dozens of universities have been shut down for months and over 100 high schools are occupied by students. Families must cover 85% of university costs for their children in Chile. Schools are often sold in the classified sections of Chile’s newspapers as ‘very profitable’ businesses.

Talks held between student leaders and the government on 5 October "made no major progress", according to Chilean education minister Felipe Bulnes. This announcement came as no surprise. On the one hand, student representatives demanded a hike in taxes on the rich and nationalisation of the copper industry to pay for universal free education. On the other hand, president Sebastian Piñera’s government of billionaires prepared laws to criminalise demonstrations and to put students who occupy schools in jail for three years.

Student leaders called for a protest outside La Moneda (the presidential palace in the capital, Santiago) on the following day. Piñera’s government banned the demonstration in a move that echoed the days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Despite the ban and the merciless violence carried out by riot police, the students marched on La Moneda. The protestors even managed to block the main street in Santiago, for five hours between ten o’clock in the morning and three in the afternoon. On top of the police attacks, 250 students were arrested by the end of the day.

Polls have shown that around 70% of the population supports the students’ demands, and find the government’s response inadequate, according to Chile’s leading newspaper, La Tercera. Piñera has only 22% of public support, a record low in Chile.

Despite this, the government is seeking to turn public opinion against the student movement by provoking confrontations and then portraying the movement as vandals and looters. While the strategy of violent repression against the students may provide some results, it is very dangerous for the government. It is leading to an extreme and rapid radicalisation of a generation of Chilean youth.

The response of the student movement to the extreme violence of the police was to call a general strike. The CUT (a major trade union federation) backed the call and has declared a two-day national general strike on 18 and 19 October.

There is a deep questioning of the ‘market’ system taking place among this new generation. Chile was the first country in the world to suffer the effects of neo-liberalism. Almost 40 years after the crushing defeat inflicted on the Chilean working class by General Pinochet’s coup, young people are attempting to re-win the gains that were lost. They are beginning to challenge the idea of a profit-driven system and have already recognised the need to link their movement with the power of the organised working class.

Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Chile)

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