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General strike

August 26, 2011

A 48-hour national strike turned violent in Chile as protesters demanded reforms in the education and other sectors. They say that despite Chile's economic success, the society is plagued by stark inequality.

protests in Chile
The wider protests were sparked by demonstrations for education reformImage: FECH

Demonstrators who participated in a two-day nationwide strike this week in Chile demanded far-reaching changes to the country's highly centralized and privatized form of government, which critics say has led to severe inequality and a lack of opportunity for large sections of the population.

The general strike was called by the CUT trade union federation, which has demanded tax decreases, pension reform, resource redistribution and constitutional reform.

Civil servants, transport and dock workers, teachers, students and copper miners all joined in the demonstrations, some of which turned violent as protesters erected burning barricades and threw stones.

Union leaders said 600,000 people joined protests around the country although the government of President Sebastian Pinera played down the strike's impact, saying only 50,000 marched in the capital Santiago and that 14 percent of government workers stayed off the job. However, the head of the government employees' union put that number at 80 percent.

protests over education reform
Critics say the educational system makes profits while students go into debtImage: FECH

Sparked by students

The strike came on the heels of vocal protests by students, who have been demonstrating for months over education reform, demanding more government investment in education and improvements at state schools.

In Chile "there is a scandalous social and economic inequality, whose ugly face is the tremendous concentration of wealth: the richest 20 percent of the population own more than 80 percent of the resources," said a statement by the CUT calling for the wide-reaching reforms, including a new constitution to replace the one put in place in 1980 by dictator Augusto Pinochet that is still in effect today.

Chile has enjoyed strong economic growth for some time now and the country, which has some of the world's biggest copper mines, has benefited from high metal prices. The country's GDP expanded by 10 percent in the first quarter of this year, the strongest growth in more than 15 years and far exceeding rates in other Latin American countries.

The global economic crisis appears to have missed this long, narrow band of a country squeezed between Argentina to the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west.

In 2010, the economy grew by 5.3 percent and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates overall 2011 growth at 6.2 percent, far over the expected 2.3 percent average rate from all OECD countries. Chile became the first South American member of the OECD last year.

Economic growth, but growing social tensions

But the social reality of the country is far removed from its glittering economic performance and many feel they have missed out on Chile's economic miracle.

"The neoliberal system has failed when it comes to creating the basis for social harmony," Stefan Rinke, a Latin America expert at Berlin's Free University, told Deutsche Welle.

"These protests are an expression of the dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. In a rich country like today's Chile, it's crucial that politicians engage in a dialog with people about solving allocation problems," he added.

"If a society neglects its young people, the tensions can quickly turn into violent protests."

That appears to be the case. On the first day of the strike, some protesters threw stones and burned tires in several cities, including the capital, Santiago. Officials said 348 people were arrested and dozens injured. On the second day, police said they arrested more than 450. The interior ministry reported sporadic instances of looting.

police and protester on the ground
Violence broke out during the two-day strikeImage: ap

Education crisis

Critics of the Chilean educational system complain that it is expensive, opaque and lacks quality. By international standards, Chile invests little in public education - less than a fifth of public expenditures are set aside for schools.

University students must cover a large share of their educational expenses on their own. At the same time, according to the OECD, Chilean universities are relatively expensive. That has forced many young people to look abroad for affordable schooling, and thousands of Chilean students go to Argentina every year where state universities are free.

boy protesting
Public-sector schools are underfunded, critics sayImage: FECH

While Chilean law prohibits public schools from making a profit and requires that all revenues be reinvested in the educational sector, in practice, schools have found ways around those restrictions.

Protesters say it is unacceptable that universities, which receive state funding, make profits which are then paid out to shareholders while students go into debt financing their studies.

"Young university students begin their professional lives carrying a mountain of debt that can often only be paid off after 15 or 20 years," said Juan Eduardo Garcia-Huidobro, dean of the private Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago.

Children from lower socio-economic groups, who often go to low-quality public schools, have a difficult time getting access to a university education.

In an effort to get the best education possible for their children, almost half of parents opt to send their kids to private or semi-private schools. The quality of these schools is closely linked to the amount of tuition they charge.

On national university admissions tests, called the PSU, the average score of public school students is 472 points. Graduates of semi-private schools, where school fees are required but moderate, score around 501. The average jumps to 611 points for students educated at expensive private institutions.

Rigid positions

While the dissatisfaction has spread beyond students to other sections of society, the government has not shown much willingness to address their concerns. Pinera, the country's billionaire president and a conservative, accused strike organizers of "trying to hurt Chile."

President Sebastian Pinera
President Sebastian Pinera said the protesters were "trying to hurt Chile."Image: DW-TV

His government initially responded to the calls for a general strike by threatening to use a law concerning domestic security that dates from the Pinochet era.

"These youth protests are a sign of hope. In the past, Chile's young showed little interest in political matters," said Rinke of the Free University in Berlin. "The young generation is showing that they have the ability to get organized and make themselves heard. After all, it's about the future of the country."

According to university dean Juan Eduardo Garcia-Huidobro, many demonstrators feel they have the wind behind them since large parts of Chilean society support their demands.

However, he does not see a solution to the country's problems on the near horizon, since both sides - the protesters primarily on the left and the government on the right - do not appear to be in the mood for compromise.

"The protesters are demanding structural reforms in a market-oriented system where the state plays a central role. And the resistance to these demands is at the core of a conservative, right-wing ideology," said Garcia-Huidobro.

Author: Victoria Dannemann (jam)
Editor: Rob Mudge