Student protests erupted in Santiago, Chile, yesterday when an estimated 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets to demand free, high-quality public education for all Chileans. The organization that convened the demonstrations, Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (ACES), contends that steps taken by the Chilean government last year to quell similar protests are insufficient. Shortly after protesters began leaving a designated area, police intervened with tear gas, water cannons and crowd control horses, which prompted demonstrators to retaliate by throwing tree branches, bottles and rocks. The street conflict and demonstration lasted for approximately three hours and resulted in 50 arrests and three police officers injured.
Although yesterday’s demonstrations were the first major education-related protests of 2012, widespread protests have forced President Sebastián Piñera to replace two education ministers since 2010. Student demands also include requests for interest rate reductions on loans and a break on university fees, which have saddled many graduates with overwhelming personal debt.
Human rights organization such as Amnesty International have expressed concerns about the Piñera government’s crackdown on protesters, saying there have been complaints “by demonstrators about the use of excessive force and mistreatment of tear gas and water cannons by the police, arbitrary arrests and reports of torture and mistreatment, including beatings and threats of sexual violence.” In 2011, there were more than 40 major protests during which an estimated 5,000 people were detained.
Colombian Minister of Education María Fernanda Campo announced today that the ministry will scrap the controversial higher education reform, Ley 30, which is currently in the hands of Congress. The government’s concession on the issue marks a major victory for public university and high school students and labor unions that have banded together to stage nationwide protests. Their actions have paralyzed major streets in the nation’s capital; activists have also occupied several public universities in opposition to the law.
During a press conference last month, Minister Campo maintained that the government “will not revoke the reform because it will only bring benefits.” But responding to sustained pressure from students, the minister said on Tuesday that the government would officially kill the bill in Congress within the next 24 hours and called for a meeting as soon as this week between the government, students, professors, and school directors to discuss new higher education reforms.
President Juan Manuel Santos and Minister Campo have vigorously defended Ley 30 over the past several weeks, saying that the reforms will strengthen the university system by investing $3.5 billion into higher education over the next decade, boosting enrolment by 600,000 and offering scholarships to top students. But students fear that the reforms will undermine the autonomy of universities and raise the cost of education; another concern is that an influx of students will overwhelm already cash-strapped universities. The student opposition to Ley 30, led by Colombia's National Student Round Table (MANE), responded to Tuesday’s announcement saying they will only return to the negotiating table once the bill is officially withdrawn.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera sent a bill to congress on Tuesday to reform Chile’s penal code and allow harsher sentences for certain forms of popular protest. According to the proposed legislation, protestors could receive prison sentences of up to three years for offenses such as occupying educational, religious or office buildings, impeding foot or vehicular traffic, and interrupting the delivery of public services.
The bill is a response to more than five months of student-led demonstrations to oppose greater privatization of secondary- and post-secondary schools—a process that began during the 17-year rule of former President Augusto Pinochet. Since May, protesters have occupied more than 200 educational institutions and drawn considerable international media attention. The ongoing demonstrations have also affected Piñera’s approval ratings, which dropped to 30 percent in September, down from 63 percent following the rescue of 33 miners one year ago, according to Santiago-based research group Adimark Gfk.
The bill has already drawn criticism from the opposition Concertación coalition as well as human rights groups. In a letter to the president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Associación Chilena de Organinismos No Gubernamentales (Chilean Association of Nongovernmental organizations-ACCIÓN) said the new penalties “violate the principles of rule of law that should govern in a democratic system.”