Bloomberg News

Chile’s Student Protests Claim Their Second Ministerial Victim

December 29, 2011

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Chile’s student protest movement claimed its second ministerial victim today when President Sebastian Pinera named Harald Beyer to replace Felipe Bulnes as education minister.

Bulnes took over from Joaquin Lavin in July, a month after the start of protests that shuttered hundreds of state schools and led to almost weekly clashes with police in the streets of Santiago in the second half of the year.

While the scale of protests has subsided, Beyer will face an increasingly radicalized student movement. Earlier this month, University of Chile students ousted Communist Party member Camila Vallejo as president in favor of Gabriel Boric, who advocates a harder line against the government. The protests helped push Pinera’s approval rating to 23 percent, the lowest for any president since the return of democracy two decades ago, according to an opinion poll released today. Pinera also named Luis Mayol as the new agriculture minister today.

“This was motivated by resignations for personal and private reasons and not political factors,” government spokesman Andres Chadwick told reporters today in Santiago. “The president decided to make the replacements immediately after resignations were submitted.”

Bulnes had responded to student protests by proposing increased access to credit and improved supervision of universities.

‘Good Job’

“Generally speaking, Bulnes did a pretty good job,” Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, said today. “He brought some order to the mess.”

Protest leaders have suspended demonstrations as Chile enters its summer vacation period. Students last week abandoned a seven-month occupation of the University of Chile’s central campus in downtown Santiago, vowing to resume protests in 2012 for lower cost and higher quality schooling.

“At the end of the day, it seems that the student movement was more defeated -- it sort of fizzled out -- and the government didn’t really hand over very much,” Funk said.

That success came at a political cost and not only for the education ministers. Pinera’s approval rating fell to 23 percent in a poll conducted between Nov. 11 and Dec. 11 from 26 percent in June and July, Santiago-based pollster CEP said in a report today. The survey of 1,559 people has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Radicalized

“Chile needs deep educational reforms that are cost- effective and build on the system already in place,” Beyer wrote in an article published last week in Que Pasa magazine and reprinted on his think tank’s website. Education is key to a more equal society, he said, advocating the greater use of income-assessed student loans to finance university education for pupils who cannot afford it.

Student leader Boric said the movement would resume in March, after taking the summer to come up with new tactics.

“There’s a perception among citizens that we haven’t done enough to come to agreements, and we have to be capable of asking ourselves what more we must do and to evaluate ourselves critically,” Boric said in an interview on CNN Chile. “We’ll be in that process in January and February so in March we can start with all our strength and energy renewed to take up topics that remain unresolved.”

While the election of new student leaders will further polarize the dispute, their capacity to mobilize students is in doubt, said Mauricio Morales, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago

“I don’t know if students are willing to miss a second school year,” Morales said by phone. “We’ll likely see a very active movement that probably won’t have the extended number of activities we saw this year.”

--Editors: Philip Sanders, James Attwood.

To contact the reporters on this story: Randall Woods in Santiago at Rwoods13@bloomberg.net; Sebastian Boyd in Santiago at sboyd9@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net.


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