|Students and teachers have participated in huge street demonstrations in recent weeks [Reuters]
Riot police have battled high school and university students in the streets of Chile’s capital, firing water cannons and tear gas and using officers on horseback to break up flaming barricades.
Police detained 235 students and at least two police officers were injured during Thursday’s rallies, which Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and other Chilean authorities said were illegal.
The students, pressing for major changes to Chile’s underfunded and unequal public education system, set up barricades of burning tires at a dozen points around the city and paralyzing traffic.
While many tried to peacefully hold their ground, some hooded demonstrators threw rocks at police cars and passing buses.
“Everything has its limit,” President Sebastian Pinera said, warning against the demonstrations.
Hinzpeter added that “the time for marching has run out.”
“This seems like a state of siege. I imagine it must have been like this 30 years ago,” responded Camila Vallejos, a spokeswoman for the striking university students, referring to Chile’s 1973-90 military dictatorship.
“Even the right to congregate in public places isn’t assured.”
‘Fight against the repression’
Despite the crackdown, Vallejos called for protesters to keep up the demonstration and bang pots “against the repression” through Thursday night.
Students, teachers and other education workers have participated in huge street demonstrations in recent weeks, with as many as 100,000 people joining their call for more government funding and a fundamental change in a system set up under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet that largely left public schools at the mercy of underfunded municipalities.
Pinera offered a 21-point package of reforms on Monday and invited center-left lawmakers to sit down with him in the presidential palace to resolve the strikes.
About 1,300 police officers prevented the marchers from reaching the presidential palace. Hundreds of young people tried to break through barriers to converge on Santiago’s Plaza Italia, a traditional gathering place. Other large groups came together at other points in the capital.
Each time police dispersed a large mass of demonstrators, they would regroup, only to be struck with water or tear gas again.
In various parts of the city, people could hardly breathe from the tear gas. Metro stations and were closed and public transportation paralyzed.
While many of the demonstrators tried to remain peaceful, other covered their faces in hoods and threw rocks at buses and police cars.
“I think the government has committed a grave mistake,” Vallejos said. “They wanted to wipe out and make invisible this demonstration. With this the people will only come out in greater force because there’s huge discontent.”