"Education and health is the best investment that a society can make." Credit: Brittany Peterson
The first raindrops began to leak from the menacing gray sky over Plaza Italia, in the heart of Santiago, by 9:00 am. Aside from hurried professionals and a few special force police officers patrolling in pairs and politely conversing with small groups of students who should have been in classes, everything appeared calm.
Two hours later, the scene was unrecognizable as a massive crowd swelled. High school and college students had marked this national strike, Thursday, June 28, in their calendars weeks ago. The strike came in the heated aftermath of four consecutive marches last week, which included a march by high school students, private university students, opponents to lithium extraction, and supporters of sexual diversity.
In addition to high school and college students, the College of Professors and the United Confederation of Workers (CUT), among many other groups, colored the streets with their flags and songs. The march, which according to its student organizers summoned around 150,000 people, was held to demand an end to profiteering in education and to call for free and quality education to all Chilean students–the mantra of the education movement that has reverberated over the last year.
Last year’s movement regularly drew marches the size of Thursday’s demonstration and involved nationwide university occupations that lasted up to seven months at some schools. Teams of students intensely researched financing methods and student leaders dialoged directly with President Sebastián Piñera on several occasions in an attempt to find a solution to reform the education system.
It came as a shock to students that these months of mobilization failed to bring significant policy change. The proposal in April by Education Minister Harald Beyer for a new university funding plan that would remove private banks from the loan process and decrease interest rates from six percent to two percent was something, but too little, too late, according to the President of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) Gabriel Boric, who dismissed the reform: "We don’t want to trade debt for debt, which is what the government is offering us."
Pedro Ciudad, a member of the College of Professors and a teacher at a public school in the humble Santiago neighborhood Conchalí, joined Thursday’s march. Ciudad said he has seen the quality of education worsen since he first began his career in public education 14 years ago. "Fewer people register in the [public] schools and the State does not concern itself with public education," he said. "We have to buy our own pens that we use in the classroom."
"I never miss class, but this is the moment to miss it and to be conscious of what is going on in our country and make the youth conscious. That is the job I have as a professor," said Ciudad.
María Fernanda Quilaleo, a third year industrial design student of the Metropolitan Technical University, stood dressed in costume with her entire family beside her. "Just like last year, we all come together," said Quilaleo, who described the march as a cultural carnival. "I hope some solution will be reached," she said. "[The government] should invest more resources, because they are there. They are just mis-distributed."
Camila Vallejo, vice president and former president of the Federation of Chilean Students (FECH) gives an interview during the march. Credit: Brittany Peterson
While a peaceful, colorful march took place on one side of Alameda, the main road that passes in front of the presidential palace, a few police vehicles began to speed threateningly down the other side of the street. FECH Vice President Camila Vallejo tweeted during the march, "Police provocations have already begun on Mc Iver [street name]…we have to keep advancing and not fall into their game."
Soon after, "encapuchados," or delinquents, began to destroy public property and police responded with water canons, tear gas, and mass arrests. The march continued and eventually arrived at a final destination where student leaders addressed the crowd and Chilean folk singer Manuel García performed. However, delinquents caused disruptions there as well increasing tensions between their ranks and the organized student movement.
A group of young people attempt to tear down a traffic light. Credit: Brittany Peterson
After the march, student leaders drenched from the relentless rain arrived at the presidential palace, La Moneda, where they presented a letter to President Piñera that highlighted a five-point list of demands.
"Before a government that appears to cede to the will of businesses that are robbing thousands of Chilean families and stealing their dreams, the united student movement has come today to deliver the horizons of the movement as well as a series of concrete measures which we believe can be advanced," said Boric to the press.
One of the movement’s main problems is that not all universities support the CONFECH, the confederation of all public universities in Chile, which began and propels the education movement. Particularly, private universities have felt left out, since many demands focus on improving public education.
Rodrigo Vergara, President of the Student Federation of the Silva Henríquez Catholic University, is among the dissenters. Students at his university, among many others, occupied their campuses for months and participated in numerous inter-university discussions and marches. But, since the few proposed government reforms largely addressed concerns relevant to the public universities, Vergara and his peers were left feeling deeply deceived.
This year, they are focusing their energy on internal issues rather than continuing collaboration with other universities. We want to make structural changes inside," said Vergara. "If we are not able to change anything inside [the university], what can we achieve outside of it?"
Regardless of his university’s new introspective strategy, some of their students attended Thursday’s march. Vergara acknowledged that despite this past semester’s latent period for the nationwide education movement, "this semester there is chance for something larger, but that depends on how the [police] forces respond."
Vergara explained that one visual clue of a revitalized movement is police repression. When this occurs, he said people feel like there is a crisis in the education system, but when everything is calm, then the urgency for change is not felt. "If the government is frightened by this march, it is evidence that the students are really committed. If they let them march on and everything is nice, it is because they are not worried, they are not uncomfortable, and it is because the kids aren’t committed to the cause–they see it as just a game."
Time will tell how uncomfortable the current generation of student activists will make Chile’s elite. But, judging by the sentiment in the streets yesterday, these students do not intend to go away quitely.