Student protests rock Chile ahead of soccer tournament

Protesters vow ‘indefinite’ marches to highlight lingering resentment over education system

A series of powerful tremors, the strongest measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, shook northern Chile on Wednesday, fraying nerves in the Andean nation as it welcomes foreigners ahead of Copa América, Latin America’s biggest soccer tournament.

But as the continent’s attention shifts to President Michele Bachelet, who inaugurates the tournament on Thursday, she will be eyeing another type of groundswell: Students who have vowed to stage “indefinite” protests during the competition to highlight longstanding resentment with the country’s education system.

Students, who began protests earlier this week, launched larger demonstrations on Wednesday by setting fire to barricades on Santiago’s Alameda Avenue, the capital’s central artery, snarling traffic. Marches also took place in the port city of Valparaiso and Concepción, in the country’s south.

Organizers in Santiago were “profoundly happy with the massive amount of people who took to the streets, among them professors, students, workers and citizens,” Nicolás Fernández, a spokesman for Confech, a confederation of students, told news website Emol.

Millions of students have protested for education reform since 2011. They demand fundamental changes to an education system that was rejiggered during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, in the 1970s and 80s, to favor privatization and end central control of funding. In the following decades, billions of dollars flowed to private high schools while public schools in poor neighborhoods floundered.

Bachelet made education reform a pillar of her 2013 reelection campaign. And she recently delivered, in part, on her promise when she enacted an initial measure to ban for-profit enterprises at state-funded schools and progressively end family copays for schools that receive public funding. The bill, which the president called the most significant reform in Chile in the last 50 years, came on the heels of a corporate tax increase designed to raise $5 billion annually to fund education.

But student groups say that is not enough. Led by the Confederation of Chilean Students, or Confech as the group is known, students have again taken to Santiago’s streets to lambast reform as insufficient.

“We're still a very long way from achieving our dreams,” student leader Claudia Arevalo told Agence France-Presse last week. “The reforms are very inadequate.”

A central student demand is about costs. Chilean universities and technical schools are among the world’s most expensive when per capita income is factored in. University tuition has increased 60 percent in the last decade, with middle-class families spending the bulk of their incomes on higher education. And wealthy students represent an overwhelming percentage of student bodies at the country’s most prestigious universities. That amounts to educational “apartheid,” according to Educación 2020, a nonprofit that promotes improved education.

Last month Bachelet unveiled a measure that would provide free university education to 60 percent of the poorest students starting in 2016. Under the bill, 100 percent of students would benefit from free tuition by 2020.

Students, though, want more. They demand a more democratized decision-making process — one where students have greater say in education policy. It’s part of a wider call to improve economic opportunity in a country that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently found to have among the highest rates of inequality in the world.

A series of corruption scandals have only added to student indignation, with Bachelet squarely in the crosshairs. Bachelet’s son, Sebastián Davalos, stepped down as director of a government foundation in February after it was revealed that his wife benefited from their political connections to secure a bank loan on property they flipped to earn millions.

And in March, executives from the financial holding company Banco Penta were arrested amid accusations of tax fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors say it was a scheme to illegally finance the campaigns of several political parties, including the right-wing Independent Democratic Union party.

Both cases have infuriated Chileans—and further mobilized students—amid a sense of increasing corruption in a country typically considered among the most transparent in Latin America.

“This democracy is not the democracy that we deserve,” Valentina Saavedra, Confech’s spokeswoman, said last month.

With news services

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