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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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.

Snow Fails to Dampen Students’ Enthusiasm

18 Aug

Tens of thousands defy oppressive weather and government ban in Santiago and take to the streets.

CNN put the number of marchers at around 50, 000, organizers at 100,000, but there was no disputing some figures. Below 6°C, sleet, patches of snow, wind and rain.

Marchers chanted and danced to raise spirits and ward of the cold, giving the event a festive feel. As they danced, thousands of umbrellas pulsated in unison, leading to the protest being dubbed ‘the march of the umbrellas.’

Student organizers had stressed that they wanted the march to be a peaceful and they were largely successful. Sitio Quiltro saw no clashes between police and protestors.

Police Presence

However there was a heavy police presence and moments of high tension, and there were still people selling lemons, which are used to ward of the effects of teargas.

The march was only permitted until 2 p.m. After that the crowd began dispersing, but the streets were still full of chanting for hours afterwards.

At least 50 fully armed riot police stood at Metro O’Higgins, forcing the thousands of commuters entering and leaving to do so in single file.

Hundreds – possibly thousands – more riot police were in the streets, with upwards of 50 armoured trucks, water-cannons and vans. Mounted police patrolled the streets and a helicopter hovered above the scene.

In contrast to the march on August the 4th – when it seemed that anyone who raised a banner was teargas target practice for Caribineros –  the police were restrained, claiming that they only fired one tear gas canister and made 6 arrests. For this they congratulated the students.

Perhaps it was a victory for student organizers – who managed to control the protest and avoid violent clashes- or perhaps it was a result of the growing criticisms of heavy handed police tactics.

An alternative explanation for the absence of violence was put forward on Facebook this afternoon by Cristóbal Cordóva Duránon – “The encapuchados clearly demonstrated their convictions today: a little cold and they stay at home.”

The peaceful nature of the march stood in stark contrast to scenes that took place in the early hours of the morning. Radio Cooperativa reported that up to 20 encapuchados erected barricades and set tyres on fire in front of the University of Chile.

The President of the Association of Teachers, Jaime Gajardo, said that 240, 000 people marched across the whole country.

Isabel Allende Endorses Chile’s Students

16 Aug

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende throws her support behind growing calls for education reform in her home country.

Photo: martu_mq / Flickr

Speaking in an interview published by La Tercera yesterday, Allende endorsed the movement for free and quality education and a ban on profiteering in schools, saying that it “is part of a neoliberal system that no longer works.”

She warned that the protests were “the tip of the iceberg, because the core issue is the inequality of opportunities.”

The author drew parallels between the movement of students in Chile, the “Indignants” in Spain and recent events in Britain, saying “young people are making a cultural revolution, “ because “there are no political leaders today.”

Student Campaign To End Use of Tear Gas

11 Aug

Students construct peace sign with 500 empty canisters that have been used against them by Caribineros.

 

Photo provided by Camila Vallejo Dowling / Facebook.

Today protestors gathered at the government palace, La Moneda, to draw attention to the tactics to break up student demonstrations.

Riot police – known as “ninja turtles” for their khaki uniforms and body armour – often use tear gas to disperse public gatherings. On Thursday the 4th of August, so much gas was used to break up demonstrators – the majority of them high school students – that it infiltrated the metro system. By the evening an acrid cloud had enveloped the city that was visible for miles, illuminated by the flare of ever more canisters being fired.

Protestors have also set up a Facebook site, called NO more Teargas in Chile.


World Moves For Chile’s Students

11 Aug

International solidarity for the students movement with marches on Chilean embassy’s and messages of support on social media.

People around the world have responded to Tuesdays massive protests by staging marches in support of the Chile’s student movement.

Uruguay’s El Pais reported that on Wednesday at least 2,000 students marched on the Chilean Embassy in Montevideo. The march ended in a street party and occurred without any incidents of violence or vandalism.

Similar marches took place in Germany, Spain, Argentina and the United States.

Video of demonstrators in Montevideo.

Video: Periodicoliberarce / Youtube.

World Media Coverage

The number of protestors at recent marches and the response of Caribineros have begun drawing the attention of the world’s media to this movement, now months old. The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and The BBC, have all published articles on the issue.

Social Media Solidarity

International support has also come in the form of social media campaigns. “Make the world move for Chilean education,” a Facebook site that encourages people to send digital postcards of support from around the world has received over 200 photos so far.

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All photos provided by Haz que el mundo se mueva por la educacion chilena / Facebook.