A strong protest movement is catching fire in Chile. Initially started by students demanding better access to education, the unrest has grown into a nationwide call for reform – uniting workers, students and citizens from across the country.
After more than a year of tumult, the government is fighting back, pushing for a new law that would harshly punish unauthorised protests and could greatly limit freedom of assembly in Chile.
A dictator's rules
Chile’s constitution dates back to 1980, a relic of the notorious dictator and human rights abuser Augusto Pinochet. Access to free public education was also removed in 1981 under Pinochet’s rule, and today citizens use vouchers to pay for primary and secondary education.
The only way to get quality higher education is through private colleges, which come with hefty price tags, forcing many to incur large debts. Today, Chile ranks among the lowest countries in the world for its public funding for higher education, and has no proper system for student grants or subsidised loans.
Over a year ago, students began to organise on a large scale in protest at this long-standing injustice. By July 2011, thousands came out in support of a fairer education system. The same month, the government’s plans to restructure Chile’s profitable copper industry prompted miners to go on strike.
Together, these protests sparked calls for broader changes to Chile's unjust and outdated constitution. As the movement gathered momentum, thousands starting taking to the streets.
Unrest spreads; crackdown mounts
In August 2011, 600,000 workers went on strike, demanding major changes to social security, tax reform and more money for education and healthcare. Polls found that 76% of Chileans supported the protests, but the police responded brutally, detaining up to 1,400 people and even killing a teenage boy.
Unrest has now spread beyond major cities and, last month, 200,000 citizens took to the streets of the capital Santiago once again. In response, the government has cracked down harder, using tear gas against crowds and reportedly sending undercover police into the protests, where they are accused of inciting violence.
It is also pushing to pass laws that would land anyone occupying public property with up to three years in prison. The Hinzpeter Law – named for Chile’s interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter – will soon be debated after being approved by the Civil Security Committee. Human rights groups warn that the law would greatly limit freedom of assembly and could even result in the prosecution of peaceful protesters.
In mid-August students occupied eight schools to demand reform and protest the proposed law. At least 139 people were arrested when police pushed protesters out of three of the schools, but the movement continues to stand strong. It seems that the harder the government pushes back, the louder and stronger the calls for change become.
Read more: The Guardian has an excellent analysis of how students and workers have come together to challenge the country's social order. And find out more about the Hinzpeter Law by watching this short video:
Sources: Guardian, Economist, BBC, PBS, Global Voices, Santiago Times, Argentina Independent