SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students marched Thursday to demand an end to the educational system inherited from late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet as Chile prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power.
Police estimated the size of the crowd at 25,000, while organizers said some 80,000 people filled Santiago’s main thoroughfare to call for free, quality public education.
Seven people, five of them police, were injured in minor disturbances at the end of the march.
Similar protests took place in other Chilean cities as part of a nationwide mobilization convened by groups representing high school and college students and the educators’ professional association.
“Forty years ago, education became a product. And it continues to be that way to this day,” Andres Fielbaum, leader of the University of Chile Students Federation, told reporters.
Pinochet, who led the bloody Sept. 11, 1973, coup that removed elected President Salvador Allende, pursued free-market fundamentalism and privatization during his repressive 17-year rule.
He reshaped Chile’s education system in 1981, slashing government support for public schools and giving municipalities control over how to spend the reduced amounts coming from Santiago.
Private schools mushroomed under the military regime and the trend continued after democracy was restored in 1990.
In 2011, Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times to denounce a system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.
After a relatively subdued 2012, the Chilean student movement is hoping to exert influence on this year’s presidential and congressional elections.
Students want the elimination of school fees, an end to for-profit universities – technically illegal but able to operate thanks to loopholes – and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many to take on crushing debt.
“I’m going to end up paying 20 years for my degree. It’s a debt that enslaves us,” college student Carolina Araya told Efe at Thursday’s rally.
Polls show that roughly 85 percent of Chileans support their demands.
“We are making public opinion aware of a common platform of all the actors – the collegians, the high school students, the educators and the parents,” the president of the teachers guild, Jaime Gajardo, told Efe.
The candidate favored to win the November presidential election, former head of state Michelle Bachelet, says she would make college education free within six years.
But many students and their supporters are skeptical, given that Bachelet’s center-left 2006-2010 administration made no moves to overhaul the education system. EFE