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.
He also explained the connection between the quality of education and employee benefits. “There are professors who are really old but they have no incentive to leave the university because retirement pensions are really low,” he said. “They don’t actually want to work. They don’t even know how to send an attachment in an e-mail.” By increasing retirement benefits, older professors will have an incentive to retire, which will help create spaces for new, younger teachers.
The large demonstration in Antofagasta was an important step in reclaiming the city’s social spirit that has been lost because of the dictatorship and neoliberalism influence, said civil engineering student Cristián Daza. Antofagasta has both a high cost and high standard of living due to its distant desert location and the availability of high-paying jobs in the mining industry. “It’s hard to see that things aren’t as pretty as they try to make them appear,” said Daza.
Yet this education movement has taught Antofagasta residents that they need each other, he explained. “There is an error in the concept that says that a love for solidarity motivates people. That’s not true. It’s mutual help,” he said. He explained that the citizens of Antofagasta don’t come out to march because they like to march but because they need each other’s help in achieving education and economic reform. “We are here for future generations, which could include my brother, or my son,” said Daza. “That’s what motivates us.” His generation is the first to mobilize since the dictatorship without fear of government suppression.
Student organizer Alexandra Kala said, before the march even began, that she felt exhausted from the constant mobilization. But then she arrived and heard people yelling outside and was immediately energized. “One wakes up with the energy they don’t have, and they give it all,” said Kala.
The original six hunger-striking students, whose radical protest sparked much attenton for the movement, have put an end to their protest while nearly thirty students continue with a second hunger strike. Meanwhile, the government submitted its most recent reform proposal to students on August 18, hoping that lowered interest rates on loans and an increase in the number of scholarships available to families would placate the protesters.
This morning, First Lady Cecilia Morel made a comment that was far from what the mobilized population of Chile was hoping to hear. On the popular morning show Good Morning Everyone, she defended the Piñera administration’s argument that education could not be free for everyone in Chile with a populist feint. “Why should we use everyone’s resources to finance the richest 10 percent?” she questioned.
Camila Vallejo, president of the National Student Federation and the face of the education movement, tweeted a response to Piñera’s idea of economic justice. “Piñera is right. The richest should pay, but through a redistribution of revenue: tax reform now!”