Thousands of protesters flooded Plaza Italia in downtown Santiago yesterday at 11:00 AM to protest the educational system. Protesters, the majority of them high school students from Santiago, planned to march west along Alameda avenue, the central avenue that divides Central Santiago north-south, to the Los Heroes Metro stop. According to organizers (ACES and UMCE), the march was planned to inaugurate the new school year by showing the Piñera government that the student movement has not lost sight of its unanswered demands for free and quality education over the summer break. However the Chilean police or carabineros arrived, and prevented the march from starting.
Permits to march were denied by the Intendencia Metropolitana, the governing body in charge of the Santiago metropolitan area. Police also announced this fact over the intercoms on their vehicles, saying “this protest has not been authorized”. According to Radio U. Chile , Maximiliano Salas, official speaker for the protesters, attempted to negotiate with police, but before an agreement could be reached police began spraying protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Protesters scattered down side streets like Vicuña Mackenna, Melgarejo, and over the Mapocho towards Bellavista, with police in pursuit, spraying tear gas and water indiscriminately.
As it became clear protesters would not be allowed to march, incidents increased between police and protesters. Protesters responded by hurling stones and paint balls at police vehicles, and police responded with more water and tear gas. There were no official incidents of police brutality, however several journalists were detained and are being held on unknown charges.
Though often praised by Chileans as incorruptible, the Chilean carabineros have gained a reputation for heavy-handedness with protesters, and have been condemned for excessive use of force by numerous human rights groups including Amnesty International. Almost ironically, Executive Director of Amnesty International Chile Ana Piquer sent an open letter to President Sebastián Piñera just two days prior to the protest, voicing human rights concerns for 2012, among those the use of indiscriminate police force. Piquer says, “The government has to take responsibility for recent police violence towards students and Aysén protesters. Here it’s a normal procedure for police to use gases and water indiscriminately on demonstrators, but it should only be used as a last resort.”
Despite not reaching Los Heroes metro station, students like Susan Reyes, a University of ARCIS History student, believe that public protesting is the right strategy to create change, “We could use other strategies, which we do, for example some people organize cultural activities, fairs, and distinct artistic events, but the problem is the media isn’t going to pay attention to that. The march brings people together. There needs to be a lot of people.”
Organizers estimated that close to 10,000 protesters gathered in Plaza, much less than the reported 100,000 that protested during what has become known as The Chilean Winter last year, but enough to satisfy students like Ana, “There are a ton of people here. That this is the first (protest of the year), and that the school year just begun…I’m very content.”
That said, not all students are in agreement that public protesting is the right strategy to achieve their demands for an equitable and quality education system in 2012. Students at Santiago’s most prestigious public High School, Instituto Nacional, decided not to participate in Thursday’s protest. Pablo Zepeda, Vice President of the Student Council said of the decision, “Our students believe that this time, the protest is not well organized, and they also think it’s time to change the form by which we express our ideas.”
The march occurred in the midst of turbulent protests in other parts of Chile. Several kilometers east of Plaza Italia, members of the Juventudes Comunistas or Young Communists, including Camila Vallejo took control of one of the headquarters of the Unión Demócratica Independiente (UDI) in support of the the Aysén movement. For the past two months the population of the Aysén region, led by the Movimiento Social Aysén, has used road blocks to call attention to what they call an unfair centralization of economic and legislative power in Santiago. Similarly residents of Chile’s northern region Arica and Parinacota have been protesting the absence of government action to improve employment and various unfinished government projects in their region.