Chile faces a two-day national strike this week called by student organizations, labor unions and several center-left political parties who are demanding a new constitution, education and labor reforms and increased health care spending. The last time any civic or political groups called for a national strike was during the Pinochet regime in 1983, and for obvious reasons today’s protesters are less easily intimidated.
But things are already getting ugly. One student protester on a hunger strike is in critical condition, and Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Camila Vallejo, president of the University of Chile’s student federation, and her family. Vallejo has received death threats through social networks and earlier this month a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Culture sent a Twitter message with a phrase used by General Augusto Pinochet: If you kill the bitch, you get rid of the litter. The official was quickly removed from her post, though she denied the message was referring to Vallejo.
Inflammatory language has also surfaced in statements by some in the protest movement. The president of Chile’s teachers union, Jaime Gajardo, compared police measures to control demonstrations to “Zionist methods of apartheid” and that they were typical of “Zionist movements.” Gajardo’s comments were interpreted as reference to Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who is Jewish, and came under heavy fire from both conservatives and protest organizers. The president of the Catholic University student federation said Gajardo’s statements “did not represent the student movement,” while a right-wing congressman said the statements demonstrate why Chile’s public education system is so bad. Gajardo later apologized.