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Chile police arrest 70 protesting students

Chilean police arrest a student during a protest seeking an overhaul of the education system (© 2009 AFP)

Chilean police arrested 70 protesting students late Wednesday as thousands took to the streets of the capital seeking an overhaul of what they call one of the world’s priciest and most unfair education systems.

The students, joined by some parents and professors, thronged the Plaza Italia square, following up on more than 40 demonstrations last year against the system which is a legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

They marched, singing and chanting, through Santiago streets in a protest that during the night saw demonstrators confront police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon, and made at least 70 arrests — a familiar sight in recent months in the fight for education reform.

“We will keep on being rebels, because the student movement is not going to settle for a few excesses having been corrected. We want to fix all of them,” said Gabriel Boric, head of the students’ union.

The union said 100,000 people had joined the demonstration while police put the figure at around 20,000.

Students, backed by professors and labor unions, are demanding that President Sebastian Pinera’s conservative government overhaul the education system to guarantee free, quality public education for all Chileans.

“This government has been unable to respond to the students’ basic requests,” Boric said.

The Pinochet regime, which ended in 1990, slashed the government’s funding of public higher education by more than half.

Last year some of the protests drew more than 100,000 people, making them the country’s largest rallies since the end of the dictatorship.

Some of the protests last year were marked by violent confrontations between students and police.

A March 15 demonstration in Santiago ended with the arrest of at least 50 people after some of the roughly 5,000 students reportedly became violent.

Pinera has proposed taking private banks out of the student loan system and creating a state organization to admininster the loans.

Until now, student loan interest rates have topped six percent but the government has pledged to reduce them to two percent and allow students to have to pay back a maximum of 10 percent of their salary a year once they are in the working world.

Congress has yet to take up the government’s proposal, which also includes a 15-year maximum repayment timeframe, after which remaining student debt would be forgiven.

Signature : SANTIAGO (AFP)

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