Chile: Worker protests join student rising

Santiago, August 21.

What began several months ago with students taking over their high schools and universities has swelled into one of the largest protest movements in Chile’s history.

Student protests, involving tens of thousands of students and teachers, have dovetailed with angry demonstrations of workers in other sectors.

The education protests swelled to 600,000 on August 25, the second day of a 48-hour general strike called by a confederation of 80 unions.

Officials estimate the Chilean economy may be losing up to US$200 million a day, prompting Chilean President Sebastien Pinera to complain: “It’s painful to see those working so hard to paralyse Chile.”

But the discontent runs deep.

Chile’s schools have been a laboratory for privatisation — with terrible consequences for most students.

Fewer than half of high school students in Chile attend public schools.

Despite a growing number of university students, no new public universities have been built since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship at the end of the 1980s.

The education demonstrations come alongside other struggles.

This year, there have been strikes and occupations against gas price hikes in the frigid Magallenes; against an environmentally unsound hydroelectric dam in southern Chile; and against pay cuts for workers in the copper mines.

Many of these protests have shared a common demand: Renationalise the copper mines that were privatised under Pinochet.

Then there wouldn’t be a need to raise the cost of utilities or build dangerous dams, and there would be money to finance quality public education for every Chilean.

Pinera, a millionaire with vast business interests, has often responded to students by saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

But in a country with the highest per-capita gross domestic product in Latin America and the most unequal distribution of wealth, students have begun to see Pinera’s statements as less a free-market truism than sneering contempt.

In the first half of the year, Chile enjoyed 8.4% economic growth. Finance minister Felipe Larrain predicted at least 5% growth for 2012.

But despite this positive economic picture, education spending remains low.

Only 4.4 % of Chile’s gross domestic product goes to education.

This is far less than United Nations’ recommendations for developed nations, which call for at least 7% of GDP to be devoted to education.

What some are calling “the Chilean Winter” — a reference to the “Arab Spring” — is in many ways a continuation of mass protests in 2006. More than half-a-million protesters forced then-president Michelle Bachelet to concede millions in spending demands and promise reforms.

Those reforms never appeared.

Students and workers have increasingly worked together to fight back.

Weeks into the latest round of protests, student leader Camila Vallejo said that after shoring up “all the actors of education”, the protests would take a political turn to allow them to “converge with the rest of the social actors”.

The protests have since embraced demands for a new constitution that ends privatised education and guarantees quality education at all levels.

Other calls include rewriting the tax system and renationalising important mines.

The increasingly political character of the student protests is helping to bring together their grievances with those of many workers.

As the protests have continued, so has the fall of Pinera’s public approval.

Each month in the past three has represented a new low for the right-wing president.

His current popularity — 26% — is the lowest level of support for any president since Pinochet’s fall.

Yet popular disgust with the opposition to Pinera’s conservatives puts them even lower on the approval scale, at 24%.

But while popular discontent with both sides of the political mainstream grows, a counterweight has emerged from the student leadership.

Most prominent among these leaders is Vallejo, only the second female leader of the student union at the University of Chile in more than 100 years.

Also a member of the Chilean Communist Party, she has been able to effectively articulate the student agenda.

Vallejo’s sudden rise to prominence over the past few months has also made her a target.

The Chilean Supreme Court recently ordered police protection for her and her family after she received death threats.

Perhaps the ugliest of these came from a high-ranking government official, Tatian Acuna, a senior minister of culture.

The Associated Press reported on August 23: “[Acuna] invoked the famous phrase General Augusto Pinochet used while toppling President Salvador Allende in 1973. Pinochet was recorded telling his troops: ‘If you kill the bitch, you do away with the litter.’”
Students and workers have been facing increased repression from security forces, which freely use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

During the 48-hour strike alone, about 1400 people were arrested and many injured.

The eagerness of police to destroy any perceived threat resulted in the tragic killing of 16-year old Manuel Gutierrez Reinoso on August 26.

Gutierrez was not involved in any protests. He was walking near the barricades at midnight when three shots were fired from 300 metres away.

Struck in the chest, Gutierrez died several hours later in hospital.

Seeing no end to the protests, Pinera has invited student leaders to meet with him personally.

Confech students met late into the night to discuss the offer, emerging after 10 hours to announce they would attend.

Vallejo assured reporters the meeting wouldn’t result in a compromise of their demands, nor an end to the movement.

Instead, students saw it as an opportunity to get the president’s reaction to their grievances, face to face.

But the millionaire president and communist student leader will have little in common.

As Vallejo described the goals that students and workers alike are beginning to struggle for: “It’s time to change the political system, the economic system, so there is a fairer redistribution of power and of wealth …

“All this development model has done is make a few grossly rich.”

[Abridged from]

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