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Chileans march to pressure Bachelet on reforms

Chilean Congresswoman Camila Vallejo (l), one of the leaders of the 2011 student protests, walks next to her colleague Karol Cariola (r) during a rally against the government to demand changes in the public state education system in Valparaíso, Chile, yesterday.
Students demand more clarity, participation in education overhaul promised by president

SANTIAGO — Tens of thousands of students marched through the Chilean capital yesterday in the largest demonstration since President Michelle Bachelet took power, ratcheting up the pressure on her to fulfill her campaign pledges to overhaul education in the country.

The previous administration of conservative Sebastián Piñera was blighted by dozens of angry and sometimes violent protests by students demanding that changes be made to the privatized education system established under former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Centre-left Bachelet, who took power in March, built her electoral campaign around promises to provide better and free education, paid for by a tax reform currently passing through Congress.

Student leaders say the government is finally on the right course after years of staging massive marches demanding free, quality education. But they say it’s still not enough and they want to be part of the reform.

“I think these projects are aimed in the right direction, but it’s unfortunate that there is no process of participation and debate,” said Naschla Aburman, a student leader at Universidad Católica.

Other activists believe there hasn’t been enough clarity on what changes would be made.

“It worries us that of the announcements they have made to date the only thing that they have done is to inject a little more money into this system of segregation, this same system that generates education for the rich and education for the poor,” student leader Melissa Sepúlveda told journalists.

Student groups, chanting and waving flags, filled the streets of central Santiago. Police estimated that around 40,000 people took part, while organizers claimed the number was around 100,000.

Although the march was largely peaceful, there were some violent incidents towards the end. Police fired tear gas as some protesters threw missiles and set fire to a car. Five police officers were injured, local newspaper La Tercera said yesterday.

Former leaders, ReNovación lawmaker attend march

Some of the student leaders from the 2011 wave of protests were elected to the Lower House of Congress last year. They include the Communist Party’s Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola — who ran on Nueva Mayoría ticket — and independents Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric.

Provisionally supporting Bachelet, the former student leaders retain links to the current generation of activists and attended yesterday’s march.

But reporters and students were surprised to see Renovación Nacional (RN) lawmaker Gaspar Rivas at the march. Piñera’s party, part of a rightist coalition, is against the educational overhaul that would make education free for all.

Asked about his participation in the march, Rivas said that “I believe in Parliament, but I also think that peaceful, legitimate and democratic pressure should be put (on the government) on the streets” and even left a sign at his seat in Parliament explaining his absence. (Absent today, I am the march for education,” read the sign).

Rivas said he “doesn’t have a problem” with free education and supports students’ demands.

US envoy’s comments spark controversy

Meanwhile, Communist Party lawmaker Daniel Núñez criticized the comments made by US Ambassador in Chile Michael Hammer regarding the proposed tax reform in the country and underlined that the US diplomatic mission “doesn’t legislate or rule” in the country.

On Tuesday, Hammer told a group of Chilean businessmen that the country needs “stability and clear rules.”

“Ambassador Hammer’s words offend the Chilean democracy. The US Embassy doesn’t legislate or rule in Chile, we have Congress and La Moneda for that purpose,” Núñez warned, according to Chilean newspaper La Nación.

The US envoy had said that when important changes are made — such as the tax reform — “all the stakeholders need to be consulted,” in reference to US companies with presence in Chile.

The Chilean Communist Party is part of Bachelet’s ruling coalition.

Herald with Reuters, AP

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