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November 2011, Week 5

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Tue, 29 Nov 2011 21:25:25 -0500
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Student Protests Spread Throughout Region 

Chile's student protests are catching on throughout the
region.

By Pamela Sepúlveda*
Inter Press Service
November 25, 2011

http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=105969

SANTIAGO, Nov 25, 2011 (IPS) - In support of Chile's ongoing
student protests, and voicing their own demands, thousands of
people took to the streets in more than a dozen cities in
Latin America Thursday demanding quality public education.

The Latin American March for Education was called by the
Chilean students' confederation, and demonstrations were held
in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador,
Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and
Venezuela.

Some 10,000 protesters - according to the organisers -
marched through the streets of Santiago once again demanding
reforms of the educational system. And again, there was a
crackdown by the anti-riot police, who arrested some 60
people.

The demonstrations in other cities in the region were
peaceful, with the exception of an incident in Bogotá,
Colombia where the police fired tear gas.

"Today is a very special day because we are marching
throughout Latin America," Esteban Miranda, president of the
University of Chile law students centre, told IPS.

Solidarity Colombia-style "Today we are mobilising for all of
Latin America because we are suffering from governments that
do not recognise education as a fundamental right," Gladys
Ríos, a social science student at the University of Antioquia
in northwest Colombia, told IPS.

Under a steady drizzle, tens of thousands of young people
poured onto the streets in the main cities of Colombia in
response to the region-wide call to march for quality public
education for all.

It was a smaller but no less enthusiastic demonstration than
the one held on Nov. 10, when around 200,000 students and
teachers protested and managed to press the rightwing
government of Juan Manuel Santos to withdraw its
controversial bill to privatise education and to engage in a
new round of talks with students and teachers.

Although the government's announcement was welcome, it was
met with scepticism. "This is just pouring oil on troubled
waters," said Ríos.

"Santos, like most of Latin America's political leaders,
wants us to study to just become semi-skilled workers, while
we are fighting for education that enables us to think
critically and speak out about what affects us, to improve
things," she said.

Chilean activist Isabel Carcomo took part in the protest in
Bogotá. "We are demonstrating in favour of public, secular,
non-sexist education," she commented to IPS.

"The participants in the 12th Latin American and Caribbean
feminist conference are taking part in this demonstration
because we want to contribute to this movement that is
demanding equality, justice and access to education," said
Carcomo, who was attending the women's meeting Nov. 23 to 26
in the Colombian capital.

"We will continue the struggle because the Piñera government
is not willing to give in, and continues to insist that
education must be governed by the market," said the Chilean
activist. Ríos said "Santos is heading down the same path
that Chile took.

"Now he hopes things will calm down, everyone will forget,
and then he'll pull out his script again, just like he did
with the free trade treaty with the United States," she said.

"We will win this by sticking together and staying alert,
without letting our commitment wane," said Ríos, as the
demonstrators marched towards Bolívar square, after
overcoming scuffles with the police, who tried to disperse
them with tear gas. Similar marches were held without
incident in the rest of the country.

He said the region-wide mobilisation was a demonstration of
the similarity of demands by students in the region, as well
as of the support for the movement in Chile.

"They are hanging in there with us, because we still have a
long road ahead," the student leader said.

José Barrera, a civil engineering student at the Catholic
University, said that what is happening in Chile "is an
example of what education is like when it's privatised, when
it is no longer defended as a right of everyone."

An education law enacted by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of
General Augusto Pinochet set off a process of
decentralisation and privatisation that gave private schools
free rein to pursue profit and use entrance exams to select
their students.

The Chilean system is not just divided into paid private
education and tuition-free public education, but is split
into three: municipal schools run by local governments, which
are publicly funded and free, state-subsidised private
schools, and private schools that charge tuition.

Within the sphere of state-subsidised private education,
students get free tuition at some schools, while at others
families pay monthly fees, an arrangement known as "shared
financing."

The protest movement is calling for an end to the freedom of
private schools receiving state subsidies to levy fees at
will. Instead of the current system, under which
administrators of these institutions rack up profits, the
demonstrators want school fees to be invested in under-funded
public schools.

They also want public primary and secondary schools to be
directly managed by the Education Ministry, instead of by
local governments, because the decentralisation accentuated
the inequality in education quality between rich and poor
districts.

"Countries that see the Chilean model as an example, and that
are moving towards privatisation, have to realise how harmful
this kind of system can be for education in general," he
argued.

The march in downtown Santiago was supported by organisations
of students from secondary schools, technical, vocational and
arts institutes, as well as trade unions and teachers.

Luis Garrido, a representative of the Sindicato Único de
Trabajadores de la Educación (SUTE) teachers union, said the
protest was against the rightwing government of Sebastián
Piñera's insistence on continuing to apply the logic of the
market to the educational system.

"Capitalism is profits, business, buying and selling, and
that is not what educators are about," said Garrido. He added
that the movement in which teachers and students have come
together is demanding a "social transformation."

The participants in Thursday's march say the student protests
have become a broader social movement that will continue to
fight for structural changes above and beyond the educational
system, such as reforms to the free-market, neoliberal
economic system inherited from the dictatorship.

"We want to tell the Chilean government that even though this
has dragged on, we can continue, because we are still
strong," Alfredo Vielma, spokesman for the Asamblea
Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios assembly of secondary
school students, told IPS.

"We want to change the system, we want to change this life
for a life that is much more fair, and return to free
education," he said.

Bogged-down negotiations

After six months of conflict, including more than 40 marches
in Santiago and other cities around Chile, there is no sign
of an agreement with the Piñera administration. The
government says the debate should be left to Congress, which
is currently discussing the share of the national budget to
be assigned to education next year.

Presidential spokesman Andrés Chadwick said the
demonstrations were "absolutely unnecessary."

"If this really is about education, the march is completely
gratuitous; it is only causing problems for people," said the
minister, who blamed Congress for the failure to reach a
solution.

But the students said the conflict is not limited to the
debate on the education budget, which is merely discussing
whether to offer fewer or more scholarships or student loans,
without addressing the need for reforms.

"What they are doing in Congress is whitewashing the system
by providing a lot of scholarships. But they aren't
responding to our demands," said Miranda. "What we want is
direct financing of the institutions; we want free quality
public education for all."

The university student leader said the debate on the budget
may make some progress, but the problems underlying the
conflict cannot be solved by the same politicians who have
protected the system for decades.

"We don't agree that this can be resolved in parliament; we
want it to be resolved by consulting with the citizens,
through a plebiscite or people's assemblies," he said.

"The problem is Chile's institutions, and education is a
symptom of that larger problem," said Loreto Fernández,
president of the social science student centre at the
University of Chile.

She told IPS "we need a more democratic country, where the
voices of society are really heard. It can't just be the same
old political class reaching decisions between four walls."

* With additional reporting by Helda Martínez in Bogotá.

___________________________________________

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