May hasn’t been an easy month for Chilean president Michele Bachelet: wracked by corruption scandals and falling popularity, she reshuffled her cabinet and has struggled to defend her much-touted education reform – but Chilean students aren’t buying it. During last Thursday’s annual address to the nation in Valparaíso, approximately six thousand people gathered to protest her remarks, in which she announced changes to the health insurance system, better pensions for the retired and “a new constitution for every Chilean.”
President Bachelet also promised that by 2016, 60 percent of the poorest students attending accredited universities and professional institutes will be guaranteed “complete and effective cost-free education, without scholarships or loans.” Bills regarding the creation of two new state universities and a network of state technical professional institutes are also underway.
“The second semester of this year we will present a bill that will deal with a new regulatory framework, financing and cost-free higher education that will lay down a path so that no one will have to pay,” said President Bachelet.
Outside the congressional building, 37 people were detained and two were severely injured in confrontations with the police. While Paulina Estay, 19, was violently shoved to the ground by special forces and suffered a blow to the head, Rodrigo Avilés, 28, was smashed into the pavement by a gush of polluted water shot by police water cannons. Estay was released from the hospital earlier this week, but Avilés has had four operations and remains in critical condition.
Escalation in violence during protests has already claimed the lives of two students. Two weeks ago, Valparaíso was the stage of the murder of Diego Guzmán, 24, and Exequiel Borvarán, 18, allegedly at the hands of civilian Giuseppe Brigante, 22. Brigante supposedly killed them at gunpoint because they were hanging posters outside of his house and refused to stop arguing with his father about it. He already had a criminal record for assault.
In the wake of these incidents, student leaders have called for another protest on Thursday, May 28 to condemn police brutality and show their disappointment with the president’s speech. They also expressed concern regarding increasing violence in a joint statement, saying that these “are not isolated cases.”
Even though most of the initial demands of the student movement are now fully incorporated in the government’s agenda, student leaders are not satisfied with the slow results. Current president of the Universidad de Chile’s Student Federation (FeCh), Valentina Saavedra, criticized Bachelet’s speech for being “a recount of the same promises and processes that have already occurred”.
“This is the president’s second speech and she still hasn’t shown us a roadmap of the reform. The reform will carry on just as it has and this shows us that there are very few ears willing to hear the student movement; because of that we thinks it’s difficult that a meaningful project will come of this,” Saavedra told CNN Chile.
With the wave of violence, corruption on the rise and public approval of the government rapidly decreasing, Chile will likely see many more protests this year.