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September 30, 2014
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Chilean students put Bachelet on back foot

Demonstrators run from tear gas during a demonstration against the government to demand changes to the education system in Santiago, yesterday.
Thousands of protesters in Santiago demand faster reforms to education, tax, health systems

SANTIAGO — Thousands of students filled the central streets of Chile’s capital city, Santiago, yesterday, in a march to remind President Michelle Bachelet that their patience is running out with the pending education reform she promised.

Authorities estimated that 25,000 people took part, while student leaders claimed about 80,000 participants. Smaller marches also took place in other towns around Chile.

Most of the march was peaceful, police said, but there were some violent clashes between dozens of young people dressed with hooded sweatshirts, who joined the crowd of protesting students shortly before the protest ended. As the group started throwing stones and destroying traffic lights, signs and rubbish bins, the security forces dispersed them with water canons and teargas.

The students are calling for more active participation in and clarity on education reforms that the centre-left government is trying to push through Congress.

Bachelet, who took office in March, has pledged to make major changes to Chile’s education system, which was privatized under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and is in many cases of poor quality and expensive, favouring the wealthier.

Regular demonstrations by Chile’s well-organized student movement that sometime erupt into violence had blighted the previous conservative administration of Sebastián Piñera, weighing on his approval ratings.

In May, Bachelet sent the first part of her education reform to Congress, a bill that seeks to change the way schools are funded, ends state subsidies of for-profit schools and eliminates selective entrance policies.

The measure is still being debated in the lower house, with Congressional committees looking into its more technical aspects and gathering opinions.

Plans to make university education free are scheduled for a second round of reforms later this year.

Although Bachelet has a majority in both houses of Congress, the rules of Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution make it difficult for her to make significant changes without gaining some support from the right.

Student movement organization Fech said in a statement ahead of the march that Education Ministry announcements were “ambiguous,” adding, “We need a firm stance on structural changes to build a national system of public education.”

They say they want more participation in talks on the reform, fearing “deals behind closed doors” or agreements that would benefit education businesses.

Bachelet plans to partly finance her education changes with a tax reform that, among other changes, will gradually increase corporate taxes by seven percentage points to raise some US$8.3 billion.

The president’s flagship tax reform is one step closer to becoming law, as the Senate overwhelmingly approved modifications to the bill late on Tuesday, sending it back to the lower house of Congress for discussion.

The reform aims to boost tax revenue by around US$8.3 billion, equivalent to nearly three percent of gross domestic product, to pay for an education overhaul and profound changes to Chile’s health care system.

Last month, the Senate’s five-member Finance Committee introduced changes to the reform, including increasing corporate taxes to 27 percent by 2017 from the current 20 percent. In the bill as initially presented to Congress, corporate taxes were to increase to 25 percent.

“We’re moving towards a structural reform... and we’ve done it with ample support, which precisely gives it stability and sustainability,” said Finance Minister Alberto Arenas.

With 33 votes in favour and one against, the Senate approved the changes. The bill will now head back to the Chamber of Deputies. If approved there with no new changes, it will be sent to Bachelet to be signed into law. If new changes are introduced, it must then pass to another congressional committee for review.

Herald with Reuters, AP

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