Chile: Talks broken, police move in on students

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Police uses a water cannon against a demonstrator during what has been a 37-week-long student demonstration in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chilean police used water cannons and tear gas to break up a student march for free public education on Thursday, hours after protesters’ talks with the government collapsed.

A huge deployment of riot police surrounded students in the Plaza Italia, Santiago’s traditional gathering place, where student leader Camila Vallejo tried to lead the march while holding a sign saying “United and Stronger,” only to be pummeled by water cannons and forced to retreat by tear gas.

Protesters hurled rocks at police and set blockades ablaze in the streets as officers on horseback chased students onto nearby campuses. Vallejo said officers shot tear gas into their student government offices in “a direct attack against our organization.”

Students occupied the Alameda, one of Santiago’s main avenues, by dancing in large numbers, but were blasted with water from police. Small groups managed to elude officers and approach the presidential palace before being beaten back by police.

The regional governor, Cecilia Perez, said 132 people were arrested and 25 officers and five civilians were injured. At least a half-dozen journalists were arrested. She called this “lamentable” and said their arrests would be investigated.

Thursday’s march was the 37th weekly protest since the movement against Chile’s largely privatized education system in began in April, demanding higher taxes on the wealthy so that quality public education can be free for all.

With both sides accusing the other of intransigence, Chile’s government has focused on criminalizing the protests, proposing tough new penalities including up to three years in prison for occupying schools and other public places.

Reporters Without Borders, among other journalism groups, condemned the proposal as an attack on freedom of expression.

Polls show 89 percent of Chileans support the students’ call for reform, and only 22 percent support President Sebastian Pinera’s performance. The president finally agreed to let the students sit down with his education minister, Felipe Bulnes, to discuss their core complaint: that private institutions benefit from public funding while public institutions are starved for resources.

But Pinera, who has said that “nothing in life is free,” ceded no ground, and the talks quickly broke down Wednesday night.