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Pinera courts risk in Chile education row

May 18, 2012 at 5:38 AM   |   Comments

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SANTIAGO, Chile, May 18 (UPI) -- Chilean President Sebastian Pinera is courting more political risks to his rule by not doing as much as his critics want him to do to defuse the crisis in education.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in the capital's streets this week to demand an end to inequalities in the state-backed education system. Pinera's critics want the system dismantled and rebuilt to remove vestiges of dictatorial rule by Gen. Augusto Pinochet from the 1970s to 1990.

Chile's education is denounced by its critics as one of the most unequal systems and also one of the most expensive. Chilean education is backed by the state in such a way that it perpetuates inequalities since the Pinochet era, critics said.

Successive Pinochet governments cut state funding for education, apparently in response to youth unrest over the dictator's rule and protests against many years of his human rights abuses.

Student protests began last year and have spread across Chile to become a dynamic and diverse popular movement backed by labor unions, teachers and parents.

However, the protesters are unhappy that they're still marching in the streets with no sign of government action on their demands and recommendations.

Clashes between citizens and law enforcement agents are endemic and soured a presidency that began on an optimistic note with Pinera pledging to guide Chileans into the 21st century through extensive economic and social reforms.

Student leader Gabriel Boric said at least 100,000 people took part in the latest protests, an angry follow-up to more than 40 demonstrations since last year.

He said the protests would continue until such time as all the "excesses" were rectified. Chief among the demands is the introduction of a system that guarantees free education irrespective of class, social standing or family wealth.

So far, Boric said, the government had been unable to "respond to the students' basic requests."

Instead, critics say, the government's tough response has produced more discontent, given criminal records to students arrested during the protests and created a huge social divide between the mass citizenry and law enforcement agents sent to restrain the protesters.

A major demonstration in March led to clashes between protesters and police and led to about 50 arrests.

Pinera has sought to pacify the student protesters with plans for financial incentives all built into a low-interest loan system for students.

Despite the continuing student protests, Congress has yet to begin consideration of the government's proposals. Analysts have called the government politically inept, an opinion that has been reflected in plummeting approval ratings for Pinera.

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