"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."