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Students in Chile Are Demanding Free Tuition, and Protests Are Turning Violent

The students are angry at President Michelle Bachelet for not fulfilling promises she made to overhaul Chile’s education system during her 2014 election campaign.
Photo par Max Radwin/VICE News

Chile's radical student movement says it can no longer contain its frustration and impatience at the government's failure to fulfill promises to deliver universally free college tuition.

"We have to protest for better education," 15-year-old Javier Viablanca said at one of a number of recent marches through the country's capital, Santiago, some of which have turned violent. "Students have been fighting for this for years. Our generation wants and needs change."


The students are demanding that President Michelle Bachelet fulfill promises she made to overhaul Chile's education system during her 2014 campaign for a second four-year term in office.

They were particularly unhappy about the president's State of the Nation address on May 21, in which she said education reform was "underway" but also "a gradual process." In the speech, given in Valparaiso, the location of Chile's legislature, Bachelet said an education reform bill will be sent to congress in June, but didn't elaborate on what the bill would contain.

Demonstrations turned violent across Valparaiso, protesters threw molotov cocktails, and a security guard suffocated to death in the smoke of one of the two buildings that were set on fire.

"President Bachelet failed to speak about our main demands on May 21," Marcelo Correa, a leader of the National Coordination of Secondary Students, known as the ConNes, told CNN Chile several days later. "The people will respond in the streets."

The Chilean student movement's main concern is the rising cost of a college education, which increased by 87 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the OECD.

Related: Two Student Demonstrators Shot to Death in Education Protests in Chile

Higher education in Chile is one of the most burdensome in the world, requiring families to pay 75 percent of costs, as opposed to the 40 percent paid by families in the United States, according to World News and Education Reviews.


The government maintains a scholarship program that has paid the tuition costs of 55 percent of students this year, Bachelet said in her speech. But not all universities are eligible, many students say, and it still leaves almost half without help.

Bachelet made a campaign promise to allocate $15 billion to overhauling the education and healthcare systems during her term, but only $765 million of the 2016 budget will go towards education.

Part of the problem is that the money is simply not there for the government to spend. Though Chile has had one of the fastest growing South American economies over the last decade, the country's fiscal deficit has increased since Bachelet took office in 2014, while the GDP has begun a gradual decline — resulting in a mediocre 2.1 percent growth last year.

Last week, with the disappointment sparked by Bachelet's speech still reverberating through student communities across the nation, members of CoNES dressed up as tourists in orange hats before busting into La Moneda, the main government building in Santiago. The students, who were carrying a list of grievances for the president, were wrestled to the ground and dragged off the property.

Related: Chile's President Bachelet's New Constitution Plans Face Obstacles

(Photo by Max Radwin/VICE News)

Education reform has also been slow-going because Chile's legislative system is not conducive to making such extensive change, according to Fernando Atria, a professor of law at the University of Chile.


"The constitution we live under — which is [Dictator Augusto] Pinochet's constitution of 1980 — was designed to prevent significant change to the economic and political model," he said.

Atria compared the Chilean constitution to a "straight jacket" when faced with large reforms. That might explain why a 2007 movement advocating quality education for all and an end to for-profit universities made little impact on the actual state of Chile's education system.

The failure in 2007 prompted a new wave of student activism in 2011 to fight for both a new progressive constitution as well as free college education. The students achieved neither of their goals, despite their reform movement being the largest since Chile's return to democracy in 1990. The Chilean government ultimately came up with the scholarship program currently being protested.

Last year, Chile's constitutional court rejected large portions of Bachelet's plan to offer free college education to half of the nation's poorest students on grounds that requiring them to attend certain schools participating in the program could be considered discrimination. However, what remained of the plan allowed Bachelet to send 200,000 students from low-income families to college free of cost.

Related: Chile Is Prosecuting a Group of Suspected Anarchist Subway Bombers

The fatalistic tone of Bachelet's State of the Nation address last month appears to have been the straw that broke the back of student patience.


The violence of the subsequent demonstrations reached a height at the end of last week, in which one protest in Santiago reportedly ended with 117 arrests and 32 injured police officers.

Students began an unauthorized demonstration in a central plaza one block from the University of Chile, and then obstructed traffic on one of the city's main roads while holding a massive sign that read, "we are tired of waiting."

Police intervened by spraying the crowd with water cannons and launching tear gas from armored vehicles, while hundreds of students threw rocks in return.

"The students in Chile have been protesting many years to change the educational system," said Matías González, 20, a student at the University of Chile, who had just run from a new wave of tear gas, and stood drenched from a water cannon beside his friends. "And we will continue to demonstrate with or without official authorization."

The likelihood of more demonstrations to come was underlined by Camila Rojas, President of the Student Federation at the University of Chile, in an opinion piece she wrote in the Chilean paper La Tercera.

"We are mobilized, we have proposals, and we want to win," she wrote. "Let's hope old politics doesn't keep running from necessary changes."

Related: Two Soldiers Who Set Two Chilean Protesters on Fire in 1986 Will Finally Face Charges

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