Tensions were high last night in Santiago as nearly 200,000 people gathered on street corners banging pots and pans in the wake of a massive midday march. The march marked the second and final day of a national labor strike that brought costumed students, families, professors and workers to the streets of Santiago and other Chilean cities.
At first, the protests were peaceful, though they later erupted in violence as hooded vandals set fire to schools, damaging private and public property and leading to inevitable confrontations with the police. In two days of protests, 1,394 people were detained, 153 police officers and fifty-three civilians were injured, and a 16-year-old student was killed by police.
Last night, Deputy Minister of the Interior Rodrigo Ubilla condemned the events. “Chile is not celebrating anything important today,” Ubilla said. “We have to be sad, because we have not been able to peacefully advance to resolve the great problems and challenges facing our country.”
The violence, which regularly flares up at large public protests in Chile, was magnified this week due to the huge number of citizens who took to the streets protesting the current education and economic system. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators participated in marches from the farthest cities to the north and south of Chile, united by the same desire: that the government would commit to working towards a quality, free, not-for-profit education for all students.
In the port city of Antofagasta, which lies 1,100 kilometers north of Santiago, about 12,000 demonstrators in the city of 400,000 filled the streets. Antofagasta police commander Carlos Cubillos said that the students generally don’t let their demonstrations become a problem for citizens. “It has been peaceful in Antofagasta because we have coordinated with the student directors,” he said.
Sebastián Quiróz, a 21-year-old medical student, described the protest environment in Antofagasta as peaceful and apolitical. He said that the movement has a “social consciousness that is trying to recuperate public spaces like education, recuperate it for the people, it will no longer be a private business.”
Lady Tapia marched with a group of female colleagues from a local nursery. “We don’t work today, but it is to help the children’s future,” she said. Tapia explained that many families face the decision as to whether they will purchase a home or send their child to school. Tapia, who said the majority of families who pay for the nursery’s service support the labor strike, had the day’s wages deducted from her government-funded salary. “It doesn’t matter, there is sacrifice in any war, and this is our sacrifice,” she said.
Gabriel Alvarez, an engineering professor at the University of Antofagasta, was already sitting on the steps of his university conversing with two other professors an hour before the march began. “Part of my studies was financed by the State. If I didn’t have that help, I wouldn’t be a professor right now,” Alvarez said.
Some of the majors, he explained, cost up to $650 a month, which is the typical starting salary for a professional. “There are some who, even though they work their whole lives, will never finish paying what they owe to the bank,” Alvarez said.