SANTIAGO, Chile – Hundreds of students occupied high schools and blocked traffic in Chile's capital on Tuesday to demand education reform. Police in riot gear evicted students from several schools but at least seven remained occupied.
Student leaders met with Santiago Mayor Pablo Zalaquett, who has threatened to remove scholarships from students who join the school takeovers, but the talks ended after two hours without an agreement.
Zalaquett's scholarship threat was called an abuse of power by other mayors, but it received public support from Education Minister Harald Beyer.
"I think it's sensible for a mayor who has limited resources to use these recourses on students who are committed to education," Beyer told reporters. "We have to look out for the right to education."
The changes sought by students who have been protesting and boycotting classes all week would fundamentally overhaul a school system that has been privatized since the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Mass demonstrations initially raised expectations for profound changes, but more than a year after the first protests, few students have seen any real benefits. Protesters say the system still fails families with poor quality public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and banks that make education loans at high interest rates that most Chileans can ill afford.
The government plans to raise about $1 billion in taxes for education, but students say that's not enough. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, Beyer said the government would not cede to their demands for free education, calling it an unfair, backward-looking policy.
Last week, police used water cannons to break up a march by thousands of students in a protest where hooded vandals set three city buses on fire, 75 people were arrested and 49 policemen were injured. The government criticized student leaders for allowing the march, which had been banned by Santiago's municipal government.
Gabriel Boric, the president of the University of Chile student federation, initially said the burning of the Transantiago mass transit system buses had been staged. But on Tuesday, via Twitter, he said he regretted the "unfortunate" comment. Boric also said he disapproves of violence, but supports the takeover of schools and the university students that he represents could soon join high school students in the occupations.
"If we're coming to this extreme, this level of anger among students, it's because this government has been unable to have a dialogue and give us any answers," Boric told local TV late Tuesday. "The arrogance of (Education) Minister Beyer is one of the main reasons why students have taken control of high schools and we're studying similar measures for next week."
Although the government quickly came out to praise Boric's retraction about the bus burnings, it condemned the demonstrations.
"I think it's good that he recognizes that it was a mistake," presidential spokesman Andres Chadwick said. "But the true mistake that he should recognize is the violence."
President Sebastian Pinera's approval ratings have plunged with the protests making him the most unpopular Chilean leader since the country returned to democracy in 1990.
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, which passed the lower house and is being debated in the Senate, would allow more promising students to attend the best schools in Chile and slash the financial burden on their families.
Student leaders say real change will only come when the private sector is regulated and education is no longer a for-profit business.
Associated Press writer Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao