The controversy which almost brought down the government of conservative President Sebastian Piñera promises to be probably the main issue of the coming presidential candidate.
Thursday’s was the first joint protest this year by Confech, representing the majority of collegians, and the various organizations of high school students, with support from organized labor.
A crowd estimated by organizers at around 150,000 gathered in Santiago’s Plaza Italia and marched down the Alameda, the capital’s main thoroughfare.
The procession unfolded in a peaceful, even festive, atmosphere, with music and brightly colored banners, though the end of the formal demonstration was followed by isolated clashes between police and hooded militants.
Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times in 2011 to denounce a highly stratified education system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.
After a relatively subdued 2012, the student movement is hoping to exert influence on this year’s presidential and congressional elections.
The leading presidential hopeful and supported by all public opinion polls former president Michelle Bachelet has already announced a plan to finance public opinion by taxing the rich and gradually dismounting the current for-profit system.
Chile’s public schools and universities were neglected during the 1973-1990 rule of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who embraced doctrinaire free market policies.
Private schools mushroomed under the military regime and the trend continued after democracy was restored, even during the 1990-2010 tenure of the center-left Concertacion coalition.
Students want the elimination of school fees, an end to for-profit universities – technically illegal but able to operate thanks to loopholes – and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many to take on large debts.
“When we say we want free education for all, it is because we understand that education is a right, and rights are for everybody or they are not rights,” Andres Fielbaum, leader of the student organization of the University of Chile, said Thursday.