May 30, 2006

Chilean police tear gas student marchers

By Fiona Ortiz

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Police used tear gas and water
cannons to try to break up Chile's biggest student protests in
decades on Tuesday as thousands of students marched to demand
the government spend more of its fat budget surplus on

Dozens of students were arrested in the capital and protest
leaders said half a million students occupied hundreds of
schools all over Chile calling for free bus fare, free college
entrance exams, more teachers and improved school buildings.

"We are protesting on behalf of our school. The bathrooms
are disgusting, you can't even take a shower in the locker
room, and they don't do anything about it," said Bernardo
Ferrada, 15, his nose and eyes burning from tear gas.

Ferrada said he and 25 other students from the Arturo Prats
high school in the middle class neighborhood of Puente Alto
joined a march headed to the national palace before police
sprayed them with tear gas from armored vehicles.

Protests began two weeks ago when students took over a few
schools in the capital -- sleeping overnight in classrooms and
eating food brought in by sympathetic parents.

The movement spread all over the country and has turned
into the biggest street protest faced by new President Michelle
Bachelet. Local media said Chile hasn't seen student protests
on this scale since the early 1970s when Socialist President
Salvador Allende was in office.

Bachelet is highly popular and her center-left coalition
has been in power for 16 years in Chile, one of Latin America's
wealthiest countries. But students say schools should be seeing
more government funding at a time when profit from high-priced
copper, Chile's main product, has handed the government
billions of dollars of budget surpluses.

"Copper sky high and education in the gutter," read a
banner at one school.


Bachelet initially said her government would not negotiate
with students who had occupied schools but on Tuesday Education
Minister Martin Zilic said he would meet with student leaders
to hear their demands.

Students and parents have criticized what they have said
was heavy-handed police reaction to peaceful marches.

"The police did what they had to do to dissuade the
students from marching, so that they don't interrupt traffic
and disturb the peace," Santiago city administrator Victor
Barrueto told TVN television.

Santiago's main avenue was closed all afternoon and into
the evening as protesters regrouped after repeated bouts of
tear gas and water cannons. Bus service was interrupted in some
areas and some subway stations were closed.

Protesters said they want the $40 college entrance exam fee
and 20 cent student bus fair both to be eliminated.

While protesters marched in the capital, students in
Valparaiso, Concepcion and other cities held demonstrations and
college students stayed away from classes in sympathy.

Students at elite private schools -- including the school
Bachelet's youngest daughter attends -- went to school but held
solidarity events on Tuesday instead of classes.

The well-organized student leaders in their grey-and-blue
school uniforms have taken over the nightly news and the public
agenda in the last two weeks.

In recent decades, Chile has expanded school coverage to
most of the population, but students say quality has lagged.

"We have not improved the quality of education as we
wanted. The big new challenge for us is closing the quality
gap," Deputy Education Minister Pilar Romanguera acknowledged
in a recent radio interview.

(Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara)