Chile: students end protests, plan for 2012

After eight months of mobilizations, strikes and campus occupations, on Dec. 22 Chilean university and secondary students held their last protest of the 2011 school year, a march through the streets of downtown Santiago. As in previous demonstrations, there were clashes with the carabineros militarized police, who said the students didn't have a permit for the protest; some 10 youths were arrested. With an estimated 1,000 to 4,000 participants, the final mobilization was tiny in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and supporters that had marched in the months before.

The protest came one day after students in Santiago ended their occupations of the University of Chile's main building and of the José Miguel Carrera National Institute, the country's oldest institution of public education. The occupation of the Darío Salas high school, also in Santiago, ended on Dec. 22, the day of the march.

With the mass protests winding down, commentators noted that the students had only won small concessions from the rightwing government of President Sebastián Piñera and had failed to achieve their main goal, the reversal of the privatization of the educational system that started under the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But as Santiago University professor and analyst Bernardo Navarrete told the Associated Press wire service, "the students succeeded this year in changing the agenda of a government of the right." The movement in fact produced the largest mobilizations since the restoration of democracy in 1990 and won wide support from the general population, as was shown when more than a million people voted in a grassroots plebiscite that students and teachers organized in October. The Chilean protests also invigorated student movements in Colombia and other parts of Latin America.

Chile's main student organizations will have new leaders in March when schools reopen after the summer break. Gabriel Boric has been elected president of the Federation of University of Chile Students (FECH), replacing Camila Vallejo Dowling, who will be vice president. Vallejo, a member of the Communist Youth of Chile (JJCC), became the best-known student leader in both local and international media; readers of the British daily The Guardian made her the paper's "person of the year" for 2011. The new president of the Federation of Catholic University Students (FEUC) is Noam Titelman, replacing Giorgio Jackson.

Student leaders insist that protests will continue next year in a new form. One of their goals is to expand the Chilean Student Confederation (CONFECH) in 2012 to include student groups from private universities and from secondary schools; student leaders have announced a conference for recreating the movement, to take place in February or March. At the Dec. 22 protest, new FECH president Boric said that next year the student movement will work together with other social movements around common demands. Boric is an independent. Although he denies that he is more radical than Vallejo, he emphasizes the importance of social movements acting outside the traditional political parties. (TeleSUR, Dec. 22; AP, Dec. 23, via Univision; Noticias, Chile, Dec. 23; La Jornada, Mexico, Dec. 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 25.

See our last posts on Chile and the Latin American student movement.

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