“This has been one of the most violent marches” after four months of demonstrations, newspaper La Tercera quoted Santiago Mayor Pablo Zalaquett as saying. Chilean police used water cannons and tear gas to break up the student march demanding free public education. A huge deployment of riot police surrounded students in the Plaza Italia, Santiago’s traditional gathering place, where student leader Camila Vallejo tried to lead the march while holding a sign saying “United and Stronger,” only to be pummelled by water cannons and forced to retreat by tear gas.
Protesters hurled rocks at police and set blockades ablaze in the streets as officers on horseback chased students onto nearby campuses. Vallejo said officers shot tear gas into their student government offices in “a direct attack against our organization.”
Students occupied the Alameda, one of Santiago’s main avenues, by dancing in large numbers, but were blasted with water from police. Small groups managed to elude officers and approach the presidential palace before being beaten back by police.
The regional governor, Cecilia Perez, said 132 people were arrested and 25 officers and five civilians were injured. At least half-dozen journalists were arrested. She called this “lamentable” and said their arrests would be investigated.
Thursday’s march was the 37th weekly protest since the movement against Chile’s largely privatized education system in began in April, demanding more spending and higher taxes on the wealthy so that quality public education can be free for all.
With both sides accusing the other of intransigence, Chile’s government has focused on criminalizing the protests, proposing tough new penalties including up to three years in prison for occupying schools and other public places.
Vallejo called the police crackdown unprecedented, even for a movement that for five months has seen initially peaceful mass marches dissolve into isolated but violent confrontations between hooded demonstrators and helmeted, baton-wielding police.
“We’re sure that we represent the great majority of Chileans,” Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said Thursday as he defended the government plan to penalize the peaceful occupation of schools and other places, and enable police to demand images taken by photographers and camera crews without a judicial warrant.
Polls show 89% of Chileans support the students’ call for reform, and only 30% support President Sebastian Piñera performance. The president finally agreed to let the students sit down with his education minister, Felipe Bulnes, to discuss their core complaint: that private institutions benefit from public funding while public institutions are starved for resources.
Bulnes said the protesters’ proposal was regressive and would mean “that the poor subsidize the education of the richest.”
“Neither do we want the poorest to finance the richest, but that the richest finance the poor and middle class. How? Through tax reform,” Vallejo countered.
The government has proposed increasing scholarships for the poorest Chileans, but Vallejo said that won’t solve this as long as taxpayer money flows unequally to profit-making institutions
The student federation, known as Confech, will vote Oct. 8 whether to continue talks with the government after its leaders disagreed with Education Minister Felipe Bulnes.
“I’ve told students on numerous occasions that working under the logic of all or nothing, will not lead to progress,” Bulnes said in images transmitted on state television. “They can’t base structural reform on free education for all students.”