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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Protest lessons for Chile students
By Jane Chambers
Santiago

Liceo Lastarria pupils Javier Soval (left) Federico Hernandez (centre) and Diego Gustavo (right
Diego (right) and his classmates say their protest is peaceful

Sixteen-year-old Diego Gustavo is at his school, the Liceo Lastarria in the Chilean capital Santiago, every day - but not for lessons.

For the past two weeks, he and high-school pupils across Chile have been staging sit-ins in school buildings to press for a range of educational reforms from the government.

"It's very tiring being here day after day," says Diego. "As a student leader I am always having to think about the others, to go to student meetings, to represent my peers."

The penguins, as school students are known because of their black and white uniforms, are determined to get the government to change the education system and have called a nationwide strike on Monday.

They are pressing for a complete overhaul of the system, but also have specific demands like free bus passes for all and an end to university entrance exam fees.

Three buses

President Michelle Bachelet, in office since March, has said the government cannot afford free bus passes every day for all students as the costs would run to $500,000 daily.

Students asleep on the floor at the Liceo de Aplicacion
The protest has been hard work for the students

But she has said the government will give free passes to the poorest students and also waive the university entrance fee for the most deserving.

The government is also planning to invest an extra $133m a year in education.

But some secondary school students think the reforms promised by Ms Bachelet do not go far enough.

"We, the students, wanted to be part of the process. We are very angry that she hasn't listened to us," says Diego.

Another student, 17-year-old Hernan Perez from the Liceo de Aplicacion, says the question of bus fares is fundamental.

"There are students who need to take at least three buses to get to school. They come from poor families so it's very hard for them to find that kind of money," he says.

"And if they don't have their student pass they have to pay the full fare or sometimes the bus driver doesn't take them."

It is widely recognised that the education system is in crisis, with overcrowded classes and insufficient resources.

Anger has grown because the students feel their demands for change have not been taken seriously by President Bachelet.

'No drugs or alcohol'

In the past two weeks, more than 650 schools across Chile have been occupied by the students and nearly 300 other colleges are on strike.

"We have to think about the school's security, which is difficult, we have to make sure that no-one can get in, we lock the gate and put chairs and tables against it," says Diego.

Michelle Bachelet
President Bachelet has promised some reforms

"It's very difficult having to stay up all night keeping guard. We can only sleep for about two-hour stretches and because it is winter it is very cold sleeping on the floor with only a sleeping bag."

Student leader Federico Hernandez, who also goes to the Liceo Lastarria, says that their protest is peaceful and responsible.

"We are taking our responsibilities very seriously and drugs and alcohol are absolutely forbidden inside the school.

"Instead we drink lots of black coffee and eat food which parents bring us, or we buy with the money we get from street collections," he says.

To combat the boredom, the students have organised dances and music, says Joseph Gonzalez, who attends the Instituto Nacional.

"We've even adopted a stray dog to keep us company which we've nicknamed "Toma", which means take-over in Spanish."

The Instituto Nacional - an exclusive state school which has educated past presidents such as Ricardo Lagos - was one of the first schools to be occupied.

The students still have public support, shown by how taxi drivers toot their horns as they drive by.

Divisions

Last week, scenes of violence which erupted during the demonstrations were shown around the world.

Many students are keen to stress those causing trouble are a minority.

Police officers drag away a student protester in Santiago on 1 June
Some demonstrators have clashed with the police

"We are really angry about it because they are giving us a very bad image," says 17-year-old Victoria Vinal from Liceo Numero Uno.

Student leaders have repeatedly called for peaceful demonstrations - a call echoed by President Bachelet.

"Chile is a democracy and students have the right to protest, but I very much hope they will do it peacefully," she said.

The worry is that Monday's strike will bring more injuries and arrests.

Some students have decided not to participate and divisions are appearing.

"I think the strike should only be for secondary students and I am angry that university students and workers are getting involved, " says Federico.

Diego, like many of his schoolmates, believes there will be a compromise.

"The students will back down on some things, which are very radical like free transport for absolutely all the students. But, I reckon we can get a better deal on other things. Regarding changing the education law and the school day, that is going to be tough."

The penguins may have captured the attention of the whole of Chile but are increasingly divided on the best way to take advantage of it.


SEE ALSO
Chile students reject reform deal
03 Jun 06 |  Americas
Deal offered in Chile schools row
02 Jun 06 |  Americas
In pictures: Chile student protests
31 May 06 |  In Pictures
Chile sees more student clashes
01 Jun 06 |  Americas
Chile students clash with police
31 May 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Chile
16 Jun 05 |  Country profiles

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