Thousands march, challenge presidential candidates on education

By Sam Edwards
Published On : Fri, Oct 18th, 2013

March

Students protest in Santiago just one month before Chile goes to the polls, insist the movement is the answer to the education crisis, not any one candidate.

More than 50,000 students, teachers and union members marched in Santiago on Thursday in a mass protest calling for education reform only weeks ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections.

Looking beyond the fraught relationship with President Sebastián Piñera’s administration, student leaders instead sought to send a message to the next government: protests will continue until their demands are met.

“There is no way this social outcry will stop next year,” Moisés Paredes, spokesman for the highschool student association Cones, said.

The largely peaceful protest ended in violent clashes with Carabineros, Chile’s uniformed police, who reported one officer was injured after being hit in the face by a thrown object. Police say four arrests were made.

Although led by the umbrella university organization Chilean Student Confederation (Confech), high school student groups Cones and Aces also participated, as well as several teachers groups and striking union workers. While student groups claimed protesters numbered 50,000, police estimated only 18,000 attended.

The movement’s demands for a new education system — which remain loyal to those of 2011’s original mass protests — can be summarized in five basic points: free, public, autonomous and democratic education, guaranteed as a right by that state and not operated for-profit.

Protesters wield anti-Bachelet posters.

Protesters wield anti-Bachelet posters.

Paredes called on the winners of next months elections to embrace these education reforms but, echoing other speakers at the march, emphasized the need for change to come from the grassroots and not from the top down.

“The message we want to send to the next government is that it can’t pretend there won’t be demonstrations next year, that this is all settled, that everything can be resolved with discussions of their education programs,” Paredes told The Santiago Times. “On the contrary, it is crucial to understand that next year the movement will be more present than ever.”

‘Change can only come with the student movements’

Education has been central to presidential debates, a state-of-affairs student leaders credit to the success of the movement in forcing a debate on the current system.

While the students’ calls for free education and an end to profit-making have been ignored by the governing right-leaning Alianza coalition, the majority of the nine presidential candidates are in favor of overhauling the current education system to varying degrees.

Current presidential front-runner and former President Michelle Bachelet of the left-leaning Nueva Mayoria pact, says she will make university education free within six years — backpedaling on comments made in April qualifying the abolition of fees as for all “unjust” — but still suffers from accusations she failed to address the problem in her first presidency.

FireAlthough the movement rejects the education policies of both the Alianza and those of the Nueva Mayoria, it remains unclear whether this repudiation of the two dominant political factions will translate into votes for any of the independent candidates claiming to represent them.

Marco Enríquez-Ominami of the left-wing Progressive Party (PRO), Humanist Party (PH) candidate Marcel Claude and right-leaning independent Franco Parisi have all included free education in their presidential platform and are polling 7 percent, 3.8 percent and 10.6 percent respectively as of Thursday.

In comparison Bachelet is polling at 37.7 percent, while Alianza candidate Evelyn Matthei is at 12.3 percent. If no candidate wins more than half of all votes, a second round is held between the top two candidates.

Protestors at Thursday’s march seemed to hold a range of voting intentions. Independent Parisi was the first choice among some protesters, while several people said they would vote for Bachelet in a pragmatic move to beat the Right. The most common choice of presidential candidate was Marcel Claude, whose reforms are the most far reaching of the candidates in contention for a run-off spot. Some protesters, however, were in a quandary whether to vote at all, seeing it as a vote of confidence for an illegitimate system.

Andrés Fielbaum, president of the Student Federation of Universidad de Chile (FECH), said protesters will not accept any governmental reforms drafted without the input of students and teachers.

“A space for participation and direct influence of social movements is key for educational reforms,” Fielbaum told The Santiago Times. “Nothing good will be achieved if governments try to change the system within its own ranks and with its traditional advisors. Demonstrators are going to keep making demands.”

Photos and article by Sam Edwards (sedwards@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times

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