Teachers Strike Over Spending Cuts
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ The military government’s attempt to apply its pay-as-you-go philosophy to higher education has produced a bitter standoff at the country’s biggest university.
The 17,000-student University of Chile in Santiago has been paralyzed by a professors’ strike since late August. The conflict, marked by occasional violence, has become a focal point for resistance to right-wing Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s regime during a season in which political and labor protest has ebbed significantly.
So far, neither side shows any signs of surrender.
″We are willing to resist as long as is necessary,″ said Patrico Basso, head of the professors’ association at the school. Speaking in an interview, the French-educated mathemetician predicted ″a great mobilization of people on behalf of the university.″
Leaders of the university’s 3,400 educators are demanding that the government rescind the Aug. 24 appointment of a new rector, Jose Federici, and back off from a plan to ″rationalize″ university spending. Under rationalization programs, Pinochet’s economic team has dismantled unprofitable state-run businesses.
A former minister of economy and of transportation under Pinochet, Federici served last year as head of the state railways, firing many employees in a rationalization program. He also briefly managed the state coal company, overseeing mass dismissals in a similar project to make the industry self- sufficient.
His opponents at the university call him the ″terminator,″ after a murderous movie character.
Federici’s appointment triggered the strike, but dissatisfaction among professors has festered for years as the government slashed spending on higher education from about 1 percent of the gross national product in 1980 to 0.6 percent in 1986.
Teachers’ salaries have dropped in real terms by 70 percent, according to the professors’ association, and now range from about $460 to $885 a month.
Once considered one of Latin America’s finest schools, the university produced several of the region’s leaders, including Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi and former Bolivian president Luis Adolfo Siles.
But its prestige has declined significantly since Pinochet siezed power in a 1973 coup, say professors who blame budget cuts and military intervention.
Teachers and students have ignored Federici’s calls for an end to the strike, and he has ordered the dismissal of 120 professors. On Friday, he said teachers who do not resume classes will not be paid.
He also has said students may lose all credits for the semester, which normally ends in December. But the students’ association has vowed to fully back the teachers.
″We would rather lose the school year and save the university,″ said Carolina Toha, the association’s vice president.
Students have held dozens of demonstrations. Most have been peaceful despite police repression, but occasionally violence has broken out.
In the most serious incident, a traffic policeman shot piano student Maria Paz Santibanez in the head Sept. 24 during a protest outside the municipal theater, which demonstrators attacked. Miss Santibanez is recovering.
Government officials charge that the students are being manipulated by the leftist political opposition.
But support for the strike is not limited to the opposition. Several professional associations, including doctors and lawyers, have said they fear a decline in standards at the university and have urged the government to negotiate.
Among the teachers, support has been nearly unanimous, with many politically conservative educations and researchers joining the strikers’ ranks.
They include Fernando Monckeberg, head of the university’s internationally recognized Nutrition and Food Technology Institute. Despite a reputation for supporting government policies, Monckeberg questions Federici’s academic credentials.
″Federici is not the man to run a university,″ Monckeberg said in an interview. ″He is an accountant who specializes in the demolition of companies.″
Monckeberg said the government’s desire to run the university like a business would cripple the country intellectually.
″Chile’s professionals have to be the best possible,″ he said. ″The university has extra obligations, more than in developed countries″ where private funds are more readily available for scientific and academic study.
Several professors say they believe the government has a hidden goal unrelated to finances: an ideological purge of the university.
When Pinochet took power, hundreds of professors who supported the previous elected government of Marxist president Salvador Allende were expelled and teaching of some subjects, such as sociology and political science, was suspended.
Even so, the school remained a center for anti-government sentiment and the teaching of ideas that clash with Pinochet’s rigid, fiercely anti-socialist world vision.
″The university has preserved the traditional republican values of before the coup,″ Basso said. ″This makes it a threat to the govenment’s neo- liberal model.
″They know that, once this government ends, it will be the source of people who will dismantle that model over a period of time,″ he said.
Basso contended that Pinochet is running the same risk as Allende, whose government fell in part because of public outrage over a plan for sweeping, socialist-oriented reforms in education.
″All totalitarian governments have erred when they tried to attack the culture of the people. This is an attack on the people’s soul,″ he said.