Free Tuition and Free Speech: A Guide to Chile's Student Protest Movement

What began as a demonstration against university officials taking illegal profits is expanding as the government struggles to respond.

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Riot police detain a student protester during clashes in Santiago. (Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile -- A scandal over for-profit education sent over 100,000 Chilean students into the streets of Santiago to protest this Thursday. The Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (Confederation of Chilean Students, known as CONFECh) called for the march after a government commission reported on June 18th that officials at seven universities nationwide had been taking home some of the profits from their institutions.

For-profit education is illegal in Chile. Several of the implicated university officials have formerly worked in the Chilean government, and one is the cousin of Chilean president Sebastian Piñera.

Piñera and his ministers seem, understandably, less than thrilled to have the country's powerful student movement back in the streets. The new confrontation between students and government could have consequences not only for Chile's education system, but also for freedom of speech, which is still a sensitive topic 22 years after Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship ended.

Thursday's rally saw college students, high school students, and sympathizers march through the city's heart, pausing in front of La Moneda, Chile's presidential palace. They carried banners and placards, some of which read "Chao, lucro!" (goodbye, profits), the new slogan of the revivified student movement.

The protests were largely peaceful, although El Mercurio, Chile's right-leaning paper of record, reported a handful of acts of looting by anarchist elements. In response, perhaps, the police went heavy on the tear gas. A train pulling into the Universidad Católica metro station, near the beginning of the protest route, received several dozen red-faced high-school-aged protesters and a smaller number of weeping businessmen. The latter had, apparently, been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were followed into the train by seeping tear gas.

At the end of Thursday's march, the leaders of CONFECh delivered a letter to La Moneda detailing their demands, including a more aggressive response to the lucro scandal and stronger regulation of Chile's education system. Other items -- such as the call for greater student representation in university governance, or the renewed demand for free university education -- hinted at the student movement's leftist roots. Free, public, university-level education, incidentally, is common in Latin America. On this issue and others, the Chilean government has an unusually strong free-market orientation.

The Piñera government has, it says, considered the students' proposals. But it's also considering a new law that might somewhat deter future protests, holding the leaders of any protest criminally liable for acts of violence or vandalism that occur in the course of that strike or march. Over the weekend, Piñera's Undersecretary of the Interior, Rodrigo Ubilla, and Fech president Gabriel Boric traded dueling sound bites over what Ubilla called attempts by Boric to incite protestors to violence.

Piñera's approval rating scraped 26 percent this April, according to a poll conducted by the Chilean research firm Adimark. Many pundits here see the student movement, which participated in protests last year, as having helped push it to that low. Unsurprisingly, the government seems eager to quiet CONFECh and its sister organizations. Still, as the debate here expands from the price of education to the right to protest, Chilean students don't seem to be going anywhere.