Chile’s violent reaction against student protests is undemocratic

The interruption of the recent student demonstrations against President Bachelet’s General Education Law (LGE) have threatened the right of Chileans to express opposition toward government policy (“Chilean Education Debate Explodes in Nationwide Protests,” June 19 2008).

Though LGE promotes more equitable selection processes for public schools and establishes a Council for Higher Education to advance school autonomy, students claim the bill does not allocate sufficient monetary resources to combat growing inequity in schools, nor does it go far enough to help poor students attain a quality education.

Months of protest have culminated in violent crowd dispersal methods, demonstrating the government’s willingness to utilize scare tactics to quell public opposition. Although the March student protests instigated the current Congressional debates, the violent manner used to disband the student protests against official policy severely limits the government’s ability to dispassionately consider both sides of the education dispute. For example, the mass arrests of student leaders has weakened the opposition’s ability to unite against the LGE and lent a negative image to their position within Congress.

The long-term impact of the carabineros forceful separation maneuvers not only raises doubts over the direction of future Chilean education in the post-Pinochet state, but also raises concerns regarding the freedom of opposition groups to express dissenting opinions through peaceful and democratic means.

The freedom of public expression regarding governmental policy remains a defining feature of democratic regimes. Thus, as long as open demonstration is restricted through coercive means, the public’s concerns toward LGE will ominously continue to be ignored.