(AFP) – Aug 18, 2011
SANTIAGO — Thousands of Chilean students marched through the rain on Thursday demanding far-reaching education reforms and dismissing the government's latest plan to resolve the weeks-old crisis.
For three months the students have been taking to the streets to demand free public education and an end to for-profit schools, which are seen as fueling high prices and disparity between the rich and poor.
On Thursday, they braved freezing rain in the so-called "March of the Umbrellas" down Alameda avenue in central Santiago, a demonstration attended by some 40,000 people, according to local media.
"With rain, cold and even snow in some parts of Santiago, the students returned to the streets," said Camilo Ballesteros, a student protest leader.
On Wednesday, the government announced a proposal -- its third since the crisis began -- to increase grants and reduce interest rates to help students finance their education.
"We are putting all the meat on the grill," said Education Minister Felipe Bulnes.
The latest plan would extend grants and loans to 60 percent of the most vulnerable students, up from 40 percent, and decrease the average interest rates on loans from 5.3 percent to 2.0 percent.
Bulnes said the government would also present a draft amendment to parliament requiring that a quality education be guaranteed in the constitution.
Ballesteros said the government had made some progress, but had fallen short of the protestors' demand for deeper, structural changes.
There were no reports of violence on Thursday, but past protests have seen youth clash with police. Nearly 1,900 protestors have been arrested and some 260 police and 36 civilians have been wounded since the protests began.
The demonstrations pose a major challenge for President Sebastian Pinera, Chile's first right-wing leader since the dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose military government created the current education system in the 1970s.
Pinera has seen his popularity sink to an all-time low of 26 percent as he has rebuffed the students' demand for free public education.
"We all want education, healthcare, and many more things for free, but I want to remind them that nothing is free in this life. Someone has to pay," Pinera said last week.
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