Chile's student protests show little sign of abating

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

image captionChlie's main cities have seen repeated clashes between protesters and police

Nearly six months after they began, Chile's student protests show little sign of running out of steam.

Indeed, if anything, they are gaining traction, partly because the students' demands resonate with those of demonstrators elsewhere in the world, from Wall Street to Athens.

Many students here say they now feel part of a wider, international expression of discontent with their rulers.

In Latin America, what has been dubbed the "Chilean Winter" has inspired others to challenge their education systems.

In Colombia, for example, students have been spotted waving Chilean flags during marches.

Last week, Chile's student leaders were in Europe to drum up support. They came back home with a message: "We are not about to give up."

'Red Camila'

The movement's leader is Camila Vallejo, a young communist and president of Chile's main students' union.

image captionCamila Vallejo: Visible and vocal in publicising student demands

Photogenic and articulate, she has become a key figure, with some journalists comparing her to Sub-Comandante Marcos, the leader of Zapatista rebels in Mexico, or even Che Guevara.

While those comparisons may be a little far-fetched for a 23-year-old geography student, "Comandante Camila" has galvanised the students and become a thorn in the government's side. She has thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and a growing fan club outside Chile.

The students are demanding a strictly not-for-profit education system that is free for everyone.

The government says that is unrealistic and that Chile can only afford to provide free education for the poorest 40% of its children. It also says there is no reason why the rich shouldn't pay.

The government has offered concessions like, for example, lowering the interest rates on student loans, but the students say this is simply tinkering with a dysfunctional system rather than overhauling it.

Earlier this month talks between the two sides broke down and there is no sign of a resolution.

Split costs

For better or worse, Chile's education system is one of the most privatised in the world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nearly 40% of all education spending comes not from the state but from households in the form of tuition fees. That is higher than in any other country in the OECD.

Only 16% of higher education spending comes from public sources, compared with an OECD average of nearly 70%. Three-quarters of Chile's universities are privately owned.

The government says this private sector involvement should be welcomed, but the students argue that it effectively turns education into a commodity, governed by market forces.

Even at high school level, the private sector is pervasive. Less than half of Chile's high school pupils go to fully state-funded schools. The rest go to private schools (7%) or subsidised schools (48%), where costs are split between the state and parents.

Pupils have taken over hundreds of schools during this year's protests and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to allow the teachers in.

At some schools, the pupils have jammed chairs and desks into the railings to indicate that their school is under occupation.

At one occupied school, the Liceo Dario Salas in central Santiago, students set up camp inside, with mattresses laid out on the floors of the classrooms. They painted defiant revolutionary murals on the school walls.

"Ever since Chile returned to democracy we've seen how, little by little, they've sold off all of the services that we should have access to, and that includes education," one of the protesters, 17-year-old Fernanda Gonzalez, said.

"Education should be free for all. It should give us the chance to choose different careers and to have a better quality of live."

Missing lessons

But these sit-ins have had a devastating impact on the academic year. Some children have not been to school for months.

"Thousands of children have not been able to continue the process of learning normally," said Fernando Rojas, undersecretary for education.

"Even though it's a low percentage of our student population it is still a significant number of students, so it concerns us greatly."

image captionDepth of feeling: A Senate meeting was interrupted last week by protesters

The other major concern for the government is public order. There have been about 40 student marches in Santiago since May and most of them have ended in violent clashes between masked youths, armed with stones and petrol bombs, and riot police with tear-gas and water cannon.

Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested although almost all were released without charge within hours.

Santiago's municipal government says the riots have caused at least $2m (£1.2m) of damage. Youths have ripped up street signs, paving stones and traffic lights to build barricades. In one incident, protesters forced passengers off a bus and set fire to it.

The next big challenge for the government will be to get its 2012 budget approved by parliament. It has earmarked $11.6bn for education spending, an increase of 7.2% from this year.

And yet the students say that is not enough and the centre-left opposition is threatening to block the budget.

The other big issue for the next few months will be tax reform. Last year, the government raised corporate tax rates to pay for reconstruction after the massive earthquake of February 2010.

In theory, those taxes should be reduced again over the next two years, but the students are urging the government to keep rates high and use the extra money to fund education.

The "Chilean Winter" has given way to spring. But there is little to suggest this conflict will be resolved before the end of the year and the onset of the southern hemisphere summer.

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