Chilean student movement reignites despite winter rain

28 Jun

Up to 120,000 defy winter rains and violent confrontations in Santiago as Chile’s students regain momentum.  

Beneath sporadic rain that became a steady drizzle by days end, tens of thousands of high school and university students – accompanied by teachers, families and workers – took to the streets in Santiago today, in the second nation-wide march of the Chilean student movement in 2012.

Triumphant student leaders announced that 120,000 marched in the Chile’s capital alone, in what was dubbed la segunda marcha de los paraguas, (“the second march of the umbrellas”) in reference to the protest held under similar conditions last winter.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For more photos see Sitio Quiltro’s Flickr account.

Despite temperatures as low as 7°C  (45 ºF), acts of vandalism – including the destruction of a bus and the defacement of a bank branch – and the reprisals of caribineros,  the march recaptured some of the energy of last years massive protests, with the numerous marching bands, dancing troupes, costumes and sheer numbers.

Beginning at Plaza Italia, the traditional meeting point for demonstrations and celebrations in Santiago, the march wound its way down the city’s main street, Alameda, and through the heart of downtown, before coming to an end on the corner of Blanco Encalada and Abate Molina, beside the Club Hípico racecourse.

[vimeo 44914064]

A stage was set up for folk singer Manuel García, who warmed up the crowd as it assembled, before student leaders from across the country took to their soapboxes for a series of fiery speeches.

Gabriel Boric, president of the Student Federation of the Universidad de Chile (Fech), the country’s most prestigious public university, kicked them off by celebrating the release of  Pedro Quezada, a student from Valparaíso, who was held without any conviction for over two months after being accused of throwing a molotov cocktail at carabineros.

The Fech president also hailed last nights protest in newly opened Costenera Center, in which a group of around 100 students, lead by Boric himself, entered the mega-mall and draped an enormous Chilean flag with the slogan “Free and Quality Public Education” from the buildings sixth floor.

Popular spokesperson of the  Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (Aces), Eloisa Gonzalez, was midway through her speech when a plume of thick, black smoke suddenly began billowing just meters behind the stage. Put off momentarily, the young student leader soon resumed her speech following chants of Sigue! Sigue! from the crowd.

The noxious looking fumes continued streaming upward behind the stage, as indigenous student leader José Ancalao, who was brutally beaten by carabineros in January, denounced the government’s legislative agenda to control Chile’s outbreak of protests as “a declaration war.”

The scene on-stage became even more bizarre when traffic signs behind the stage began wildly swaying as encapuchados began the habitual post rally distraction destruction.  

Representatives of Chile’s powerful copper workers union, as well as the Coca Cola workers and teachers unions, addressed the crowd, as did the brother of Manuel Gutiérrez, the 16-year-old boy who was killed by a stray police bullet while walking near a protest in August last year.

Current Fech vice-president and international symbol of the Chilean student movement, Camila Vallejo, gave a salute to the students of Quebec, in a speech that was interrupted by a group of protesters chanting against political parties. Vallejo is a member of the Communist youth wing.

An interview with Gerson Gutiérrez and footage of the speeches, including those of Vallejo and Boric, will be embedded in this article in the coming days.

For updates, follow the Sitio Quiltro on Twitter.


May Day, Chile

1 May

Thousands of workers, students, families, immigrant rights, artists, indigenous and families march in Santiago as the ‘Día del Trabajador’ ends in violent confrontations.


The varying factions of social discontent in Chile converged in the streets of the capital on Tuesday, May 1st, in a march convened by the country’s Central Workers Union (CUT).

Starting from Estación Central at 11:00 a.m. and culminating at the intersection with Avenida Brasil, the march was characterized by a relaxed family atmosphere and comparatively light police presence.

The column passed down Santiago’s central artillery, La Alameda Bernardo O´Higgins, broken into social movements, human rights groups and workers organizations.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Early on the march was festive, with indigenous dancers from Chile’s northern Altiplano region bringing colour and music to the red flags of the socialists and communists, black standards of the anarchists, and workers’ chants.

Though the number of marchers was not insignificant, it did not achieve the turnout of some of last year’s student and environmental protests.

Carabineros cited a figure of 8,000 while the CUT claimed that, from the march’s beginning until its chaotic final scenes, up to 100,000 participated.

This kind of discrepancy is standard at Chilean protests, though for once, I would hazard that police figures, while undoubtedly an underestimation, were closer to the mark.

An explanation for the lower turnout could have something to do with widespread ambivalence to Chile’s political institutions, including those of the left and the “people.”

I ran into one Chilean workmate who was marched with her family, but assured me she had no intention of listening to the “mafiosos” of the CUT soap-boxing at the culmination of the event.

That culmination included a speech by CUT president Arturo Martínez, who called for improvements to labour laws, public health, an end to profiteering in education, a state run pension system, and an increased minimum wage.

“We need a real minimum wage,” Martínez told the crowd, “we want to say to the Government and the Parliament that the minimum wage this year should be CLP250,000 (US$518) [per month], and we’ll go from there.”

A band followed up the speech, but even as the upbeat rhythm of cumbia filled the street, just metres away a different pack formed as masked encapuchados clashed with riot police, set fire to a bank and private university and were bombarded with tear gas and water cannons.

“That’s just the way these things go at big events in Chile,” one demonstrator told me.

After talking a few snaps of the violence I walked away, having already seen these scenes plenty of times before, and sure that they would be amply covered by local press.

Just blocks away from the smoke and panicked crowds, my friend Rodrigo and I were struck by how peaceful things were. Kids were kicking a football around, parents played with there children in parks. The area of Santiago is full of traditional houses, bars and street murals.

Then I walked into one of the only stores open and saw the live footage of “rioting” in the streets, images that are sure to fill the front pages of tomorrow’s papers.

I guess it’s just the way things work.

Santiago’s Silent March

8 Sep

Students don black and light candles in honor of the victims of the Juan Fernández plane crash.

At 7 p.m., in days fading light, thousands of students gathered at the gates of the Universidad de Chile’s architecture faculty in downtown Santiago.

The majority dressed in black and light candles as night set in.

“We wanted to make this peaceful and beautiful in memory of the people who died in Juan Fernández,” explained Priscila Hudson Saravia, education student at the Universidad de Chile,  referring to the plane crash of Friday Sep. 2, in which 21 died.

“They were doing something important,” she said of the victims, which included government workers, entrepreneurs and journalists who were going to oversee and report on reconstruction on the island following last February’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami.

The march — called for earlier by the student federation of the Universidad de Chile (Fech) —  began at around 7:30 p.m., going down Santiago’s main thoroughfare, Alameda, and winding its way through the capital’s downtown.

There were some banners, occasional chants and even a few horns, but in general the mood was sombre, standing in stark in comparison to the carnival atmosphere that has characterized previous marches.

“We are also commemorating the death of the boy who was killed not long ago by a police officer,” said Priscilla.

The evening she was referring to is August 25, the second day of a nation wide two-day strike, in which 16-year-old high school student Manuel Gutiérrez was killed by a stray bullet fired by Carabineros police officer Miguel Millacura.

Riot police formed barriers at various points that kept the marches to a prescribed route, and although students pointed at them and chanted “They are the ones who kill without reason,” there were no physical confrontations.

Pictures of the March

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In contrast to some earlier marches, the evening passed without any major incidences of violence or vandalism.

“Much of the media only shows the worst images [from student protests]; of encapuchados (masked vandals), of people throwing rocks and causing damage,” said Priscila, “but tonight wasn’t like that.”

Chile’s students have been on strike for nearly four months now, demanding free university and quality education. Despite many peaceful and highly creative protests, violent minorities and confrontations with carabineros have drawn much of the media attention.

Representatives of international human rights organizations were on hand to keep an eye on proceeding. “We’re here to make sure that there is no police repression” said one, who claimed to have witnessed police violence against minors at previous marches.

People of all ages were present at the march, including an elderly couple who each wore a sign that read, “We grandparents support our grandchildren.” The couple received rousing cheers from the crowd.

The march ended at the main campus of the Universidad de Chile at around 8:30 p.m., when students placed hundreds of candles on the facade of the university, illuminating signs that outlined their demands, along with messages of condolence to the victims of Juan Fernández and images of Manuel Gutiérrez.

After half an hour the crowd began to disperse of its own volition, although after 10:00 p.m. — with most of the crowd gone — a police water cannon extinguished a large fire of cardboard boxes and plastic on the courtyard of the university.

Thursday morning also saw student marches in Puerto Montt, Valparaíso, Valdivia and Concepción, many of which were also ‘silent.’

Students Hold ‘Kiss-a-thon World Cup’

1 Sep

Mass kissings in Santiago and around the world demonstrate students passion for education reform.

This afternoon hundreds gathered in the Santiago’s Plaza de Armas, on the steps of the cities greatest cathedral. The plaza was originally designed as an assembly point for citizens in times of strife but today it hosted an entirely different gathering.

At 17:00 university and high school students locked their partners into a passionate embrace that lasted 30 minutes.

Dubbed the Besatón Mundial por la Educación – or kiss-a-thon world cup for education – the event was announced last week by student leader Camila Vallejo on her twitter account. It was one of a new wave of creative and peaceful protests that have characterized this movement, as students try to distance themselves from the images of vandalism and conflict that have marred some of their larger protests.

Photos of the Event

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The besatón’s 1,800 second duration was symbolic of the amount in millions that students say would be required to fund a free education system per annum.

It is a figure that has been prominent in student protests. In perhaps the most high profile, students ran the Chilean flag around the presidential palace – La Moneda– for 1,800 consecutive hours, or 75 days. Another social media based campaign is the ‘1,800 drawings for the education,’ a site on which a selection of the work of artists and designers is hosted.

It was the second besatón so far, the first of which was held on the 6th of July.

Chile’s Students Going Global

As well as being held in other cities all over Chile, the event had offshoots in countries throughout Latin America and Europe.

The global campaign – organized on Facebook – is part of an effort by Chilean students to raise the profile of their movement internationally and forge alliances with similar causes in the region.

Camila Vallejo – the 22 year old student of Geography who has become an icon of movement – was in Brazil this week to take part in a demonstration organized by the Brazilian Students National Union (UNE)  for education reform in South America’s largest country. While there Camila – along with delegates of the UNE – met with President Dilma Rousseff.

The invitation was extended by UNE President Daniel Iliescu who was part of a delegate of representatives from trade, student and teachers unions from countries throughout Latin America that attended Santiago’s  two day national strike last week.

Massive Marches on Second Day of National Strike

25 Aug

Enthusiastic crowds give the second day of el paro the feel of a street party, although the day was marred by familiar scenes of vandalism and confrontation between Carabineros and violent minorities. 

Upwards of 600,000 people took to the streets across the nation with 300,000 of them in Santiago, according to CUT figures, Chile’s central workers union. In contrast Government spokesman Rodrigo Ubilla put the numbers at 175,000 nationally and 50,000 in the capital.

Obviously both parties have a vested interest in exaggerating the figures one way or the other and with few other sources from which to gauge the amount of people at the marches its hard to give them a definitive number.  But for those who were there, one adjective comes easily to mind – massive. There is no doubt in my mind that 100,000 people- at a bare minimum – marched on la Alameda, the capitals main artillery.

The marches marked the final day of a two day strike – called for by CUT – in solidarity with the student movement and to protest for industrial relations and constitutional reform and the creation of a “new economic model.”

In the capital 4 main marches took place at 10 in the morning from different points of the city’s downtown, with all of them converging on la Alameda. They were given last minute approval by governor Cecilia Perez, although they were not allowed to march down Alameda itself, as originally planned. Organizers consented to this proviso.

Smaller marches took place at various points on the cities outskirts.

Diverse and Enthusiastic Crowd

The crowd was distinguished from previous marches by its diversity. Union groups swelled student numbers and mixed with protesters of a variety of causes including public transport and health reform, indigenous recognition and animal rights. People of all ages were present.

Like many previous marches the event had a festive vibe. People dressed up and groups preformed choreographed dances and musical and theatrical performances.

As the marches wound there way through the streets of downtown some waved flags, held up banners and threw confetti from the balconies of their apartments. Maids cheered on the marchers by beating on pots and pans of the apartments they were cleaning with wooden spoons, a symbolic form of protest – called a cacerolazo – that has its roots in the period of the dictatorship.

Those who were at work watched on from their offices – many cheering or taking photos – while store owners and security guards looked on warily.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Things Heat Up

Though the march had the atmosphere of a street party, it was carefree and without incidents of violence. However when the four marches merged at la Alameda, the intensity was ratcheted up. Several police helicopters flew low over the crowd, drawing jeers and chants from the crowd.

Scenes of Violence

After a few hours – as the crowd was dispersing – small groups of encapuchados started to light fires and tear down street signs. Instantly the crowd tried to prevent any damage, by forming mobs around the perpetrators. Some tried to dissuade them, while others chanted abuse.

When this failed to dissuade them, the crowd began throwing lemons and bottles. Violence ensued when the encapuchados started attacking people who tried to stop them. At this stage there were no Carabineros at the scene to prevent violence, nor news crews to report the confrontation.

After 15:00, with the majority of the crowd gone, Carabineros moved into la Alameda to remove the violent minority that remained. They used the familiar techniques of tear gas, water cannons, dogs and batons.

Cacerolazo Ends el Paro

The two day strike was drawn to a conclusion with cacerolazos in plazas and street corners all of the city. In Plaza Ñuñoa –  an affluent inner city  barrio – hundreds gathered at 8 p.m. and took over the street. The sounds of them beating pots and pans mixed with drums and car horns reverberated throughout the streets of the barrio.

Plaza Ñuñoa Caceroloa: Photograph Courtesy of Oscar Pesce.

The atmosphere was relaxed and police presence minimal. Ages were even more varied then at the marches and costumes and puppets gave the plaza – known for its many pubs – the feel of a party.

However even in Ñuñoa – a 20 minute drive from where the protestors gathered on la Moneda – I could faintly taste the acrid sting of teargas in the air. “All of Santiago is probably a little spicy tonight,” said Sitio Quiltro photographer Oscar Pesce.

Journalists call for TV Blackout

24 Aug

Chile’s Association of Journalists calls on viewers to switch of the TV at 9 o’clock, the traditional news hour.

The blackout is a protest against concentration of a media ownership and a demand for a constitutional guarantee for the right to information. It comes amidst nation wide union strikes that began today.

“Our intention is that the demands of the journalists are part of a movement that could extend democracy in Chile. To achieve this objective it is essential to grow pluralism, through the incentive of the creation of new means of communication,” said the president of the association, Marcelo Castillo, in a press statement.

Photo provided by Blackout Medíatico por mi Derecho a la Información / Facebook.

Freedom of the Press in Chile

Reporters Without Borders puts Chile at 33rd in the world rankings of media freedom. The RWB report on Chile for 2010 acknowledges that “the Chilean media are exposed to fewer security problems than other countries in the region.”

However it goes on to say that “the Chilean media suffer from an extraordinary concentration of ownership, in fact, most of them are owned by just two companies.” In an interview with CNN Marcelo Castillo put the percentage of the print media owned by these conglomerates – El Mercurio and Copesa (La Tercera) – at 90%.

Through a system established during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, these two companies are given state subsidies of $5 million per year.

According to the report “half a dozen opposition magazines. . . that were tolerated during the latter years of the dictatorship have all had to close for lack of funding and assistance.”

Meanwhile, 60% of the countries radio stations are owned by Spanish media conglomerate Prisa.

The report likens President Sebastian Piñera to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, saying that Mr. Piñera “has no interest in any changes because of his links with the mainstream media.”

Association journalists have vowed to use alternative outlets, such as social media to report the strikes today and tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Sitio Quiltro is expecting a sharp spike in hits as people seek alternative news sources.

Country Paralyzed as Unions Join Movement

24 Aug

Unions launch two days of national strikes to demand better working conditions and show solidarity with students.

Another cacerolazo last night marked the beginning of a two day paro which could shut down Chile’s public transport system,  ports and airports, energy, health and public services.

Central Workers Union (CUT) President, Arturo Martínez said in a press conference yesterday that it would be a strike that “will express the demands of all sectors of society for the respect of social and civil rights and will reiterate the need for a new economic model, a new constitutional policy and a new labor code in this country.”

The CUT also said the strikes were to support improving public health care, environmental regulation, tax reform and free public education.

Unions are urging people to stay at home and to avoid using transport, sending children to school and other tasks.

However, according to a report by The Clinic, the government has sent out a letter to all senior ministers and heads of public departments urging them to note all absences, to make regular checks of offices and interrogate people who are absent for more then 10 minutes.

President Piñera has publicly criticized the strikes, saying the intention is to “cause harm to Chile.”

In contrast Concertación – the centre left coalition which governed Chile from the end of the dictatorship in 1990 until the last election in 2010 – has publicly supported the unions.

The stikes are set to continue until tomorrow night, when another cacerolazo will signal their end – for now.

Schools Taken Over by Students

23 Aug

At Manuel Barros Borgoño Boys High hundreds of chairs form a barricade around the perimeter of the school. Students guard the entrance. Inside, the teachers have gone. The boys have left their uniforms at home and invited girls from a neighbouring school to join them in their make-shift camp. They hang out in groups, play table tennis, jam on instruments, skateboard. . .

If you think this sounds like every high school students dream, then you’re wrong. These kids aren’t rejecting school, they are demanding it. “Education is our right,” said one student.

Chair legs bristle from the fence of a school ‘en toma.’ Photography courtesy of Oscar Pesce.

The school is one of hundreds of schools and universities across the country that are en toma.Walking through the streets of the capital you pass them every few blocks; banners draped from their entrances, fences bristling with chair legs, music blaring into the street, and out the front, kids dressed up, dancing, hanging out or rattling donation cups.

They are part of a student movement that has thrown the education system into chaos and threatens to cancel the academic year of 2011 completely.

It’s a risk that students are willing to take. “We aren’t afraid of losing the year,” said one, “it’s for a cause.”

But though these kids might lose their official academic year, they are keen to continue their education. At Manuel Barros Borgoño students have organized their own classes, taught by volunteer university students.

Sergio Vicencio – who is doing a thesis at the University of Chile’s faculty of medicine – has been teaching a class in biology for 4 weeks now.

Sergio has taught at schools before, but says that his current class is much easier. “They are here because they want to be,” he said, “so they participate a lot more, they are a lot more open.”

Another University of Chile student, Rodrigo Avaria, is teaching Maths class. Though normally not a favourite amongst students, Rodrigo’s pupils are fully engaged in class, answering questions and collaborating on problems.

Rodrigo and Sergio at the entrance to Manuel Barros Borgoño High.

Both Sergio and Rodrigo were invited to teach by some of the most committed students at Manuel Barros Borgoño, who have formed a leadership group. They always keep a presence on campus, sleeping in classrooms – with beds pushed together to stay warm – and eating meals together.

I spoke with Marcelo and Alexis, two of the main organizers of the group. Marcelo had a toothbrush and razor protruding from his pocket, a mug in his hand and a folder under his arm. They told me that they were going to stick with the toma until they have achieved their demands.

“No one knows how long this will go on for, but from what I’ve heard it could be for the rest of the year,” said Sergio.

It’s a scenario that he and Rodrigo are willing to commit to. “I took this as a job, its part of my schedule now. I’m going to stay for as long as its necessary,” said Sergio. “It wouldn’t be fair to leave these kids without a teacher.”

“What worries me is to loose the year for nothing,” said Rodrigo, “but to loose the academic year now and to win (the right to free and quality education), that is much more important.”

Indigenous Support for Student Movement… and Indpendence

22 Aug

I don’t like Chile,” Ariki told me, “sure the streets are clean, it looks rich, but only 10% of the country is rich. The other 90%, they are poor.”

Technically Ariki himself is Chilean, and one of the 90%. He is from Isla de Pascua, Easter Island in the English language, Rapa Nui in his.

Ariki had been traveling the world, but returned to Chile days earlier. He had heard of the student movement and wanted to show his support, and to demonstrate for the cause of his people, who seek independence from Chile.

I met Ariki in Parque Forestal, a thin park that stretches the length of downtown. He had a Roma football scarf wrapped around his head. His companion was a huge quiltro, he called “Cabro Chico,” or Little Boy.

He introduced himself to me and proposed an intercambio, wanting to share his story, the story of his people, and the story of Chile with me – a foreigner. He also wanted to tell me about the movement in Chile, what it stands for and against.

“It is part of a global problem,” Ariki said. “In some places – like here – it is more forceful, in others it is more subtle, but it is a global problem.”

“But there is a movement against it,” he said. “I’ve seen it in Spain, I’ve seen it in France.

“And now it’s time for Latin America to wake up.”

President’s school joins protests

19 Aug

It didn’t draw thousands of protesters to the city center and it wasn’t reported by the mainstream media, but a protest in front of an elite Catholic school in Santiago is just as ominous a portent as any for Chile’s under-pressure President.

It was just like any other afternoon in Santiago’s upscale communa of Las Condes as the students of the Colegio del Verbo Divino(“College of the Divine Word”) were being picked up by there parents. As a private school, El Verbo is still holding classes, unlike its public counterparts.

 Then a small group of boys emerged from the school, rallying behind a banner that read “El Verbo is also Chile.” The beat pots and chanted, marching past the bemused parents picking their kids up from school and into the street, backed up with afternoon traffic.

This little protest happened a daw after thousands of protesters, undeterred by sleet and chill, took to the streets in protest. Unlike what happened yesterday, and what has been happening for three months now, today’s won’t go viral online and it probably won’t get picked up by local media – let alone by international publications.

But this little protest was hugely significant, not least because of where it took place – in one of the most affluent communas and elite schools in the country, a school whose alumni includes current President Sebastián Piñera and Secretary General, Andrés Chadwick.

Santiago is a city in which economic divides takes stark, geographic form. If the young protesters’ slogan was not explicit enough, the fact that this march happened where it happened clearly demonstrates that the student movement is going beyond the traditional divides of ideology and class that are so prominent in Chilean society.

Protests are happening everyday now, on suburban blocks, quiet streets and, in the case of cacerolazos, even in people’s homes. No longer can it be said that this is just a movement of the left, or the disadvantaged or the young. This is an uprising that is endorsed  by the majority, it is an uprising that has energy and a momentum that – at least for now – feels unstoppable.