Santiago: Riot police battled high school and university students in the streets of Chile`s capital on Thursday, firing water cannons and tear gas and using officers on horseback to break up flaming barricades. Police detained 552 students and at least 14 police officers and two young people were injured.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and other Chilean authorities had warned that Thursday`s marches were considered illegal and would be met with force.
The students, pressing for major changes to Chile`s underfunded and unequal public education system, marched anyway, setting up barricades of burning tires at a dozen points around the city and paralysing traffic. While many tried to peacefully hold their ground, some hooded demonstrators threw rocks at police cars and passing buses.
"Everything has its limit," President Sebastian Pinera said, warning against the demonstrations.
Hinzpeter added that "the time for marching has run out”.
"This seems like a state of siege. I imagine it must have been like this 30 years ago," responded Camila Vallejos, a spokeswoman for the striking university students, referring to Chile`s 1973-90 military dictatorship. "Even the right to congregate in public places isn`t assured."
Despite the crackdown, Vallejos called for protesters to keep up the demonstration and bang pots "against the repression" through Thursday night. The sounds of pans bashing together could be heard in various parts of the capital late into the night.
Students, teachers and other education workers have participated in huge street demonstrations in recent weeks, with as many as 100,000 people joining their call for more government funding and a fundamental change in a system set up under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that largely left public schools at the mercy of underfunded municipalities.
They are demanding improved quality as well as free education, including an end to profit-making at private universities.
Pinera offered a 21-point package of reforms on Monday and invited centre-left lawmakers to sit down with him in the presidential palace to resolve the strikes.
The President would increase overall funding and gradually and partially shift education responsibilities from underfunded municipalities to new government agencies. Other reforms would aim to improve teacher training, increase university scholarships and help resolve unpaid student loan debts.
Opposition lawmakers declined the invitation and the students held out for more changes. There are about 33 high school and university students on a liquid-only hunger strike, and some of them raised the stakes by saying they may stop drinking fluids as well.
Chadwick suggested that the measure will be sent to Congress even without support from the students and leftist lawmakers.
Its fate will be uncertain. The ruling centre-right coalition has a narrow majority in the lower house, but the centre-left coalition it replaced still controls the Senate, so compromises are key to getting any laws passed in Chile.
A key student demand is that private universities granted tax breaks as non-profit institutions reinvest more of their income, which they say is required under a 1981 non-profit law. Pinera`s package didn`t directly address this problem.
As dawn broke on Thursday, Santiago Governor Cecilia Perez mobilised the riot police and called on parents to rein in their children. Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla later said 552 students were arrested and 16 people suffered injuries.
"The students are not the owners of this country," declared Andres Chadwick, the government spokesman. "We cannot be held prisoner as a society by the idea that the only rights that matter are those of students to protest."
About 1,300 police officers prevented the marchers from reaching the presidential palace. Hundreds of young people tried to break through barriers to converge on Santiago`s Plaza Italia, a traditional gathering place. Other large groups came together at other points in the capital. Each time police dispersed a large mass of demonstrators, they would regroup, only to be struck with water or tear gas again.
In various parts of the city, people could hardly breathe from the tear gas. Metro stations and were closed and public transportation paralysed. While many of the demonstrators tried to remain peaceful, other covered their faces in hoods and threw rocks at buses and police cars.
"I think the government has committed a grave mistake," Vallejos said. "They wanted to wipe out and make invisible this demonstration. With this the people will only come out in greater force because there`s huge discontent."