Chilean Students Demand Education Reforms
MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Chile, high school and university students have staged roaring protests for three full months now. The demonstrations have rocked this normally peaceful and prosperous Latin American country and they have weakened President Sebastian Pinera. As NPR's Juan Forero reports, the students want an entirely new and free education system.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS, WHISTLES)
JUAN FORERO: The Alameda, Santiago's signature avenue, is once more full of tens of thousands of students - waving flags, banging on drums, chanting. They're demanding what they've demanded since May - that the government do away with the for-profit university system and improve the quality of state subsidized secondary schools.
PALOMA GRUNERT: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: We want what's our right, says Paloma Grunert, a student at the University of Chile: a free and good university education. Her classmate Richard Sandoval says the cost of paying for tuition, driven by high interest rates on student loans, means he'll be saddled with onerous payments for years.
RICHARD SANDOVAL: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: We don't want to go into debt to study, Sandoval says. We want an educational system that'll create a more just society.
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FORERO: The protests have been astonishing in what is widely considered Latin America's most developed country, a country that instituted a range of market reforms starting in the 1970s, when the dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled. Pinochet was driven from power in 1990. Since then, Chile's economy has grown fast and poverty has been dramatically reduced, but there's still a serious income inequality gap and people who feel left out of the system.
Patricio Navia, a Chilean scholar at New York University, says the protests are not spearheaded by the poorest Chileans.
PATRICIO NAVIA: They are those who aspire to be part of the system, to get an education, but feel that they do not receive sufficient funding or help from the government.
FORERO: The protests have hurt President Pinera, whose approval rating has fallen by more than half, to 26%. The government has tried to placate the protesters, firing an unpopular education minister, vowing to create a $4 billion education fund, and pledging to drop interest rates from 5.6% to 2%.
FELIPE BULNES: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: We've been listening, says the new education minister, Felipe Bulnes, in a televised speech, and I want to stress we're closer on this than it appears.
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FORERO: In the streets, though, the protests continue - and student leaders like Camila Vallejo contend the government hasn't gone far enough.
CAMILA VALLEJO: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: The discontent, she says, is rooted in broken promises. Indeed, in Chile today, there is an undercurrent of resentment about the few who've grown fabulously rich while others struggle to make a living. But as Oscar Faneo watches the protests go by his hardware store, he focuses his complaints squarely on the country's education system.
OSCAR FANEO: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: I'm paying off two student loans for daughters in med school and law school, he says. The interest rates, he stresses, are sky high. And so, Faneo says, he supports the marchers as they go by his store day after day. Juan Forero, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.
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