Chilean forces use tear gas and water cannons to quell student protesters

A protester is hit by a jet of water during a clash with riot policemen during an anti-government rally as Chile's president delivers a speech inside the national Congress at Valparaiso city, May 21, 2014. — Reuters pic
A protester is hit by a jet of water during a clash with riot policemen during an anti-government rally as Chile's president delivers a speech inside the national Congress at Valparaiso city, May 21, 2014. — Reuters pic

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VALPARAISO, May 22 — Chilean authorities used tear gas and water cannon today to disperse crowds of students who protested as President Michelle Bachelet promoted her education reform bid to lawmakers.

Bachelet, who took office for a second non-consecutive term in March, made revamping the education system a key campaign promise in last year’s presidential election. The system strongly favours for-profit private schools.

But many students in the South American country aren’t convinced her efforts will fully satisfy their demands for free and quality education.

Soldiers let loose tear gas and water cannon to disperse some 2,500 often hooded students and others who came within a few meters of Congress located in the port city of Valparaiso.

Valparaiso Police Chief Julio Pineda told local media that 33 people were arrested for disorderly conduct during the clashes.

In the capital, Santiago, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) inland, students occupied a school overnight and blocked parts of the main street downtown.

Chile’s education system has roots in free-market policies promoted during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

It has been a target of mass protests since 2011, with students seeking free education from elementary school through university.

“The fundamental reform will be a structural change in Chile education at all levels,” Bachelet said during her two-hour address to Congress, an annual ritual for the country’s head of state that also touched on tax and constitutional reforms.

About 52 per cent of Chile’s students are enrolled in the for-profit schools, financed with a combination of state subsidies and “family co-payments.”

Bachelet unveiled a reform bill Monday that would eliminate the co-payments and replace them with increased subsidies—but only to non-profit educational institutions.

Some 3,470 for-profit schools would have two years to switch to a non-profit status or lose their state subsidies.

The bill also would bar selective admissions to schools receiving state subsidies.

The Valparaiso demonstration, which took place despite driving rain and chilly temperatures, also included victims of a massive fire that tore through the historic city in April, killing 15 people and leaving 12,500 homeless.

The victims who took to the streets criticised the government’s slow response in helping them build new homes. — AFP

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