‘Stop privatization of education’, General strike in Chile unites students, workers

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Chile supported the second day of a general strike on Aug. 25 as protests against the privatization of education escalated into demands for sweeping governmental and social change.

The government of right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera responded to the two-day general strike with repression and violence. This included mass arrests and the killing of at least one youth.

The 14-year-old boy, Manuel Gutiérrez Reinoso, died early Aug. 26 from a bullet wound in the chest. Witnesses said he had been shot by police. Dozens of others were injured and as many as 1,400 detained or arrested.

Police in full riot gear have used tear gas and water cannons against blockades that protesting youths set up. Cops also shot 18-year-old Mario Parraguez Pinto in the eye; he is in critical condition at a hospital in Santiago, the Chilean capital.

Gutiérrez Reinoso’s death followed a demonstration of some 600,000 in Santiago and protests in other cities throughout the country. Protesters are demanding free public education, increased taxes on the corporations and the wealthy, and better pensions and health care for workers.

The Workers’ United Center of Chile (CUT) and the Chilean Student Confederation (Confech) called the two-day strike, the first of its kind since the end of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule in 1990.

In addition to being large, the demonstrations were militant. Some protesters burned barricades and blocked major streets, while other strike supporters danced and sang on sidewalks. The police used water cannons, tear gas and mass arrests at both confrontational and peaceful protests.

“It’s time to change the political system, the economic system, so there is a fairer redistribution of power and of wealth,” said student leader Camila Vallejo. “All this development model has done is make a few grossly rich.” (juventudrebelde.co.cu, Aug. 26)

Demand to nationalize copper industry

Among the demands of the students is the nationalization of the copper industry with part of the proceeds being used to finance a free public education system. Chile is the number one copper producer in the world and sells $40 billion of copper each year.

The Pinochet dictatorship encouraged the proliferation and dominance of private education, encouraged by U.S. economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago boys.” This neoliberal approach was continued and nurtured by successive governments. Profit-making universities run by big businesspeople, including establishment politicians, dominate the educational scene.

The former minister for education, Joaquín Lavin, who attempted to pose as a “neutral” moderator between the student movement and the universities and whom Piñera removed in a desperate “re-shuffle,” has huge shares himself in a major Chilean university. Education has become a profitable field of investment for capitalists, with rising fees and worsening standards.

The current movement responding to this situation is three months old. Weeks of mass mobilizations culminated twice in massive days of protest both in June and in August, when 500,000 took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations since Pinochet fell. The overwhelming majority of public universities and secondary schools have been occupied.

The movement has rocked the regime, which responded first by suspending classes and then beginning “negotiations” with the movement’s representatives. The government has offered some concessions, including an increase in the funding of education. But the movement, with its radical central demand for free education, rejected, a week before the strike, a third government attempt to end the protests, this time by pledging to lower the interest rates on student loans.

Students are not the only ones expressing grievances. Earlier this year, a rebellion over rising natural gas prices shut down the southern Magallanes region. In April, demonstrators marched against a planned hydroelectric dam in Patagonia.

Piñera, who is possibly the richest man in Chile, was the first billionaire ever sworn into office in Chile. He won a narrow runoff election in 2010 with $13.6 million of campaign spending, The current political crisis has seen his popularity decline precipitously to 26 percent according to a recent poll. By contrast, 80 percent support the demands of the students and workers. (Santiago Times, Aug. 7)

The Chilean workers and students deserve international support and solidarity.

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