Thousands of students in cities all across Chile hit the streets on May 14 to demand free education. Chilean students, frustrated with President Michelle Bachelet and the government’s lack of progress on the issue, want to have more of a say in how education is reformed.
“They don’t listen to us on the reforms,” Maria Jose, a 17-year-old student at the Santiago protest, told AFP. “We want to be heard. We’re disillusioned. It’s the same every time, the reforms get gridlocked before they accomplish anything truly good.”
On May 21, Bachelet is set to make a speech addressing her plans for how she will go about making changes to Chile’s education system, and the students hoped to make a statement ahead of that speech.
“This march has a direct relation with the fact that we are a week away from May 21,” Valentina Saavedra, president of the Confederation of Chilean Students, or ConFECH, told La Tercera. ”And we hope for an explanation from the government of their real intentions in terms of educational reform.”
Chile’s education system was largely privatized during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. Since the end of the dictatorship, students have been fighting to reform the country’s poor-performing and highly unequal education system into one that provides free, quality education to everyone. The current left-leaning president promised to reform it during her presidential campaign in 2013, but has moved too slowly for many students. She has also recently seen a drop in popularity amidst multiple corruption scandals within the government, including one involving her son, Sebastian Davalos, using political influence to make $5 million on a shady real estate deal.
In the capital, Santiago, about 150,000 people participated in the protest, according to organizers. Chile’s police, known as carabineros, estimated that the number of people marching was closer to 50,000. Demonstrations also took place in the cities of Antofagasta, La Serena, Valparaíso, Concepción, Temuco, Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt.
The marches were mostly peaceful, but in what has become a common feature of Chilean student protests, clashes between masked protesters, known as encapuchados, and police broke out in Santiago and Concepción. Tragedy also struck in Valparaiso, a port-city located about 75 miles west of Santiago, as two students were shot and killed during the march. Ezequiel Borbaran, 18, and Diego Guzman, 24, were both shot after allegedly trying to put graffiti and posters on the outside of a building. The 20-year-old son of the building’s owner was taken into custody by police for killing the two men, both of whom were students at Santo Tomas University.
Students set up vigils for the two young men later that night after the protests. ConFECH also expressed their anger and sorrow over the killings. “We want to send support [to the families of the students killed] and we believe this kind of thing cannot happen again,” Saavedra told SoyChile. “Private property can not be above life.”