Violence Overshadows Student Demands

A "guanaco" — tear gas and water cannon used by the police — clears a side street of student protestors outside the Universidad Alberto Hurtado. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Chilean police use water cannons to deter student protestors outside the Universidad Alberto Hurtado as stray dogs frolic. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

A hooded encapuchado throws rocks at the Chilean Carabineros. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Encapuchados, stray dogs, and students flee tear gas and water cannons in Santiago, Chile. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

The Carabineros are quick to arrest any lingering encapuchados. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Students outside of Universidad Alberto Hurtado protect themselves from tear gas being sprayed by the police. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Police chase students who were throwing rocks aimed at officers, while using the water cannon and tear gas to control the protest in downtown Santiago, Chile. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Police sprint across the main roadway in downtown in pursuit of encapuchados. Image by Shirley Coenen. Chile, 2013.

Chile has Latin America's highest per capita GDP, one of the strongest middle classes, and is rated as the most likely to be the first to achieve developed status in the southern hemisphere.

So why has this same nation been the scene for some of the region’s most violent and persistent street protests since 2011?

Chile's stellar economic performance has raised incomes and living standards, but it has also raised awareness about discrimination, government abuses and a faulty, divided education system.

“Today Chile is a giant mall and people’s pastime is education,” says Dr. Juan Eduardo, dean of the School of Education at Universidad Alberto Hurtado.

While politicians build new malls to create a robust society, the public is slowly turning away from consumerism. Youth are demanding a better educational system.

President of the Federation of Education at Universidad de Alberto Hurtado, Pablo Flores complains that the corrupt elite dominate politics, the economy, and all mediums of communication. Although they may become doctors, teachers, or lawyers, many students cannot afford Chile's few select private universities without taking out loans only offered by the state.

At each student protest, hooded figures called Encapuchados appear grasping rocks in their hands, tearing down stop lights, street signs, destroying bus stops, and throwing Molotov cocktails.

One Chilean film student, Vicente Moreno Acuña, who attended the marches with his classmates last year, believes the Encapuchados are most angered by the extreme inequality and discrimination against the poor.

“They [Encapuchados] don’t have access to anything; they have no mode to escape their problems. They have no education, no health system. They are destined to live and die in their situation, so they are living with no hope and are frustrated,” Moreno Acuña says.

“For example, I remember we were visiting cousins outside of Santiago and in the country where a lot of poor people live. We were playing outside with some neighbors and there was this girl who told us, ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up.’

“I was so sad because I knew that she wasn’t going to be a doctor, ever. I was only ten-years old but I cried because I knew she’d grow up to be a housemaid or something and no matter how much she wanted she would never be able to be a doctor,” the 20 year old said.

When asked if people become stuck in a cycle of poverty because they cannot afford private schools and must attend public schools, Moreno Acuña answered, “It’s funny you say they have to go public schools because what the student movement believes is that it shouldn’t be a bad thing to have to go to public schools. But the problem is that public schools are so bad — it shouldn’t be like this.”

“There is the education that the wealthy receive and then there is the education that poor people receive – they are two completely different educations – we need to integrate the schools for the rich and the poor,” Dr. Eduardo explains.

A small group of violent protesters present at the student marches cries out against the inequality and unjust treatment of the poor, a pandemic outside of the education crisis itself. Meanwhile the newspapers in Chile focus on this violence, providing the government with reasons to ignore the legitimate demands of the student leaders, professors and workers – those who believe that a quality, free education is a right for all Chileans.