May 30, 2006

Chilean police meet student protest with tear gas

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 marched to demand the
government spend more of its budget surplus on education.

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.

Officials said more than 700 people were arrested during
Tuesday's protests across Chile, and some nine police and five
civilians were hurt in the capital Santiago.

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 hadn'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 export, has handed the government billions
of dollars in 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 met with student leaders and
said he was optimistic of a resolution.

"I want to ask that we don't make a war of this," Zilic
told reporters after the meeting. "Lets make this an
opportunity to take the big step that Chile needs."

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

After local television showed scenes of police beating
protesters and journalists, government and police said they
would investigate allegations of excessive use of force.

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 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.

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)