Chile: Mass protests in support of students

Central Santiago streets a ‘battleground’

Monday 5 June was a national day of protest in Chile, called by the leadership of hundreds of thousands of secondary school students who are now in the fourth week of struggle. This magnificent movement of youth, as many commentators correctly state, questions the entire neo-liberal programme of the government. The Chilean neo-liberal "model" was held up as an example throughout Latin America. The consequences of this struggle will be felt throughout the continent.

One of the central demands of the movement is an end to the hated LOCE (Organic Constitutional Education Law) which was incorporated into the constitution. This was introduced under the Pinochet dictatorship and was used to hand over education to local councils, with few resources, and to encourage the privatisation of schools.

The day of action followed an assembly called by the students from social organisations involved in the mass struggle. These young fighters won the support of the overwhelming majority of the Chilean people. According to the latest opinion polls, 84% support the students’ struggle, and a mere 14% support the government’s handling of the crisis.

One million join strike

According to reports, over one million students, teachers, medical workers and others joined the strike. This was despite the treacherous role of the majority of the CUT [union federation of unions] who opposed the students strike call. Reports from outside Santiago indicate there were more strikes outside the capital in support of the students in those towns and cities where the influence of the trade union bureaucracy was less.

 Unfortunately, the students’ assembly did not call for a central demonstration to unify all those who opposed the government. They mistakenly decided to organise a day of "reflection", with events organised in occupied schools and colleges and they held concerts and other events. However, they refused to criticize other organizations that called a demonstration in Santiago.

Official permission for a march was requested by the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriquez, the former armed wing of the Communist Party, and other organizations called for a demonstration in early afternoon. Thousands of youth and other activists came to the city centre to protest against the government and to support the students. One group of university students, from the history faculty, arrived with a banner that read, "History is made on the streets". This reflects their awareness of the significance of this struggle. They were confronted by the brutal special riot police. The previous evening, there were reports that police were seen dressed in military helmets, which was a clear attempt to intimidate people from going to the city centre to protest. Massive water cannons (‘guanacos’), groups of heavily equipped riot police, trucks carrying tear gas canisters and, ominously, busses evidently waiting to be filled with anybody arrested, were seen from the early morning in the centre of the city, on all the main junctions approaching the Universidad de Chile, and beyond.

Water cannons

By early afternoon scuffles broke out between youth and the riot police around the Universidad de Chile and the neighboring Instituto National. Groups of youth emerged from the university and confronted the hated riot police and water cannons with bricks and stones. In response, other groups of students emerged on top of the roof of the university and pelted the squads of riot police below. These squads would drive forward in a pincer movement and try to seize one or two youth and then withdraw. One policeman fell over while attempting this, drawing hoots of derision from the crowds. A cat and mouse game developed which lasted for more than an hour. Some more audacious youth began running towards the snatch squads throwing railings, stones, and anything they could get their hands on.

Groups of youth and their supporters congregated in front of the university. Members of Socialismo Revolucionario (SR – the CWI in Chile) led protesters’ chants, including, "Estudiantes, obreros, adelante en la lucha" (‘Workers and students together in the struggle’). The police then emerged in front of the university building to clear away groups of students and their supporters. More water cannon appeared from nowhere, speeding past the front of the university and turning the water on students in front of the building. The water used in the cannon evidently contains chemicals which react with the air, causing sore throats and burning. During these clashes, seemingly out of nowhere, street sellers appeared in the middle of the mayhem with sacks of lemons to sell (They are never slow to see an opportunity!). The lemon juice counteracts sore throats. When the first tear gas was fired provoking groups of youth to run away, regroup and reassemble.

Cat and mouse battles

By then, thousands congregated on other thoroughfares, on both sides of the Alameyda – the main six lane highway which runs though the centre of this area of Santiago. Rocks were hurled at the police snatch squads. Throughout the city centre clashes broke out. The youth were utterly fearless and out for revenge. Time and again, they would be dispersed, only to regroup and to return to hurl rocks and other objects at the police. One with a large rock in both hands ran into a snatch squad and just threw it at the helmeted head of one of the hated riot police – the same force which one week earlier battered young students of 15 and 16 years old in the street who peacefully marched demanding, book, teachers, showers, and canteens in their schools. Many students felt the police were now getting at least a little taste of their own medicine.

These cat and mouse clashes continued for some time and then the battle escalated, as a contingent of protesters formed further up the street and tried to march. "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido", was one of their chants. This provoked the riot police to unleash a vicious attack all along the Alemeyda. Three or four water cannon drove up and down unleashing high pressure water. Small military-style wagons sped past, firing tear gas canisters. As the day wore, the city centre was awash with tear gas.

Members of the CWI and Socialismo Revolucionario were among those tear-gassed, and dowsed in water, three or four times, while in the thick of the conflict. Caught near the point of impact, the gas will burn and can temporarily blind people. It is evident, confirmed by our discussions with other protesters, that the riot police now use high strength tear gas intended for use in war zones – which, in a sense, was what central Santiago became, during the afternoon of 5 June.

Up and down Alemeyda went the water cannon and tear gas wagons unleashing their load, while the crowds surged in the other direction. And so it was repeated, time and again. Some protesters took shelter, crouching behind an entrance to a metro station or moving around newspaper kiosks, as the water cannon drove by. A squad of riot police approached one such group with the intention of dragging some of them off into the awaiting police bus. In one inventive display of quick thinking, a young woman dropped to the floor, and two men stood over her explaining to the police that the women was injured and they were aiding her. The riot police, on this occasion, seem satisfied and waved the three protesters down the street. In and mayhem like this, the bizarre often mixes with acts of heroism. Through the tear gas and flying rocks on 5 June, walked what appeared to be two businessmen in suits, carrying brief cases and casually chatting, as though what was taking place was a normal daily occurrence.

Unfortunately, during this struggle some looting also broke out, as the temptation on the part of some youth to get computers, CD players, televisions and other goods proved too great. This was seized on by Chilean television channels, and was featured on the news, along with graphic scenes of the street battle, which lasted well into the evening.

The street fighting in Santiago, where permission for a central demonstration was refused, was in marked contrast to the day’s events in Valapariso where a mass demonstration passed without incident.

Subsequent reports indicate that there were 300 arrested in Santiago and 250 were hospitalised including 32 riot police.

Splits in movement

The events in Santiago were preceded by attempts by the government to try and split the student movement. Immense pressure was put on the leaders not to call a mass demonstration or to appeal for a strike by the rest of the population. In protest at the acquiescence of the student leadership, one of the student leaders resigned from the movement’s leadership. As the movement developed, more militant and more moderate wings emerged.

As the movement became experienced it began to embrace new forms of organization. An assembly of all social organizations in support of the movement, which was called by the students, on the Saturday prior to the strike, attracted 600 representatives. The assembly was in combative mood and reflected the maturity of these young fighters. Delegates were admitted into the meeting place, on the production of an ID card. The cards were held by stewards until the end of the meeting. The press and media were excluded. Unauthorized filming and tape recording was stopped by the students’ security commission. As delegates gave greetings to the meeting, or made suggestions, any attempt to interrupt speakers was stopped by a universal "sschh" that came mainly from the students in the audience.

The most enthusiastic response went to militant speakers from workers districts, who pledged support to the students, and also to a representative of a group of state employees. This workers declared his co-workers would strike on the following Monday. However, he also went further, and called for the formation of a ‘council of struggle’ in work places and workers districts and added the need for these to link up with the students’ committees.

Example of France

This was a theme supported by a representative from Socialismo Revolucionario (SR – CWI), who drew on recent experiences in France, where mass students’ protests took place. The SR speaker urged students to go to the workplaces to win active support for their struggle.

There is massive support and sympathy for the students from the wider population. Some students are frustrated by the apparent lack of mobilization by older workers. On one college wall hangs a banner with a cartoon of an older person in an armchair watching the television. Below the picture, reads the slogan, "Wake up! Don’t you know your children are involved in struggle?"

The degree of organisation by the students is reflected in the schools occupied by school students. After a small right-wing group of neo-nazis organized attacks on some of the schools, students set up ‘security commissions’ armed with metal bars and clubs. In some areas, like Maipu, the schools’ committees have begun to link up on an area basis.

Youth want their share

The students represent a generation in struggle. They were born, not under the iron heel of the former right wing Pinochet dictatorship, but during the ‘boom’ years of the Chilean economic ‘Tiger’. The Chilean ruling class no longer refers to the Tiger but claim Chile is now a "developed country". The youth want their share of the "development"!

But they are fighting more than that. They are also in revolt against the "consumer society", even if this is possibly a rather naïve concept at the moment. The idea that education is a business and that it should be run as such, aroused an ingrained hostility to such ideas. It is reflected on many banners hung around Santiago, which include the slogan, "No to the market in education". Ironically, one massive poster on a bridge reads, "If education is a business the customer is always right"!

In the course of the movement, the students humiliated the government and its ministers. They compelled President Bachelet to make a special television address to the country. Twice they forced government ministers to the negotiating table. Student leaders told the ministers that if the government is incapable of making proposals to run the education system then the students would draft proposals to re-draft the laws.

Any hope that Bachelet would be different to her predecessors, and more radical, are beginning to fade amongst more students. Posters recently appeared in Santiago, stating "Bachelet – speeches for the poor – government for the rich".

It is possible the students will suspend their action in the next few days and agree to a commission to review the education system and the hated LOCE. They already won some concessions. Bachelet announced an extra US$135 million for the education budget, including the provision of tens of thousands of extra school meals, a change to the university entrance exam payment scheme, and some smaller concessions.

This struggle has, however, represented a turning point in the struggle against capitalism in Chile. It has opened a new chapter following the years of dictatorship, the transition period, and the "development" of the economy. The last weeks of mass struggles provides big possibilities to build support for the socialist programme defended by Socialismo Revolucionario (SR – CWI).

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June 2006