SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – Police used water cannons to break up a protest in Chile’s capital Wednesday by thousands of students demanding free education, and hooded vandals set ablaze three city buses amid violence that left dozens arrested and injured.
The crisis over education reform in Chile remains unresolved despite more than a year of demonstrations by students, teachers and families. The marches have mostly been peaceful but often end with clashes between police in riot gear and groups of vandals armed with sticks that loot shops and hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Chile’s government said student leaders cannot be exempt from responsibility for the burning of the Transantiago mass transit system buses in Wednesday’s protest, during which 75 people were arrested and 49 policemen were injured.
“The leaders are opening the doors to vandalism and delinquency,” presidential spokesman Andres Chadwick said. “How much more should we put up with these illegal marches that call on school takeovers and that threaten a violent August? What does that have to with education?”
Santiago’s municipal government had banned the students from flooding the streets of the capital, fearing the protest would turn violent. The transportation ministry said damages to the public buses would cost Chile’s capital about 400 million pesos ($836,000).
“It’s unacceptable,” said transportation minister Pedro Pablo Errazuriz. “There are millions of people who use the Transantiago and these heartless ones are taking the wrong attitude by burning the buses and putting at risk passengers and the driver.”
Raw footage shot with a cellphone camera of an attack on one bus showed passengers crawling on the floor while hooded vandals hurled rocks at the windows.
The government has said the previous most recent protest in late June turned out to be the most violent, with 472 demonstrators arrested and 36 police officers injured.
Mass demonstrations initially raised hope across Chile for education reform. But more than a year after the first protests, few students have seen any real benefits.
Politicians and students have toughened their stance, but the system still fails families with poor quality public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and banks that make education loans at high interest that most Chileans can’t afford.
“I deeply regret what is happening today in the streets of Santiago, but the government is responsible for this because of its indolence and silence to all the proposals of the student movement,” Gabriel Boric, the president of the University of Chile student federation, told local TV. “We’ve tried all ways to reach out and have a dialogue,”
President Sebastian Pinera’s approval ratings have plunged with the protests that have focused Chileans’ attention on academic and economic inequality.
Pinera has refused to radically change the education system. Instead, he has proposed to spend about $1 billion on thousands of new scholarships and lower student loan interest from an average of 6 percent to 2 percent. He says the plan would allow more promising students to attend the best schools in Chile and cut the financial burden on their families.
Student leaders want to change the tax system so the rich pay more. They also want the state back in control of the mostly privatized public universities to ensure quality. They say change will come only when the private sector is regulated and education is no longer a for-profit business.
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