Rubber bullets fly in fees protest

March 1, 1996

Riot police using armoured cars, rubber bullets and tear gas ended a student demonstration and arrested 240 people in Argentina last week.

Officers allegedly opened fire without warning and shot indiscriminately into the crowds. Among the handful of people injured was Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights group for the detained/disappeared.

Television pictures showed scenes reminiscent of military rule in the 1970s with police firing volley after volley of plastic bullets from the roof tops into the screaming crowds below.

The students were protesting against an education law passed by congress late last year which will end free university education as a right for all. At present most universities are state-run, and the right to higher education, paid for by the government, has been open to everyone. The only stipulation has been that students must have completed their final year at school and have a high school diploma.

The new law will introduce fees and university entrance exams making it much tougher to gain a place.

Financial analysts in Buenos Aires say the changes are primarily a government cost-cutting exercise. Last year Argentina's budget deficit was $2 billion (Pounds 1.3 billion) following the collapse of the Mexican peso. As a result President Carlos Menem's government is under intense pressure from the World Bank and the International Investment Commission to make savings.

The government's higher education costs are seen as a prime target for cuts. Many middle-class people are critical of the number of perceived loafers and hangers-on at the state universities.

It has been known for students registered for a degree for ten years never to have graduated. But the right to free university education is a matter of national pride and the law has caused a lot of controversy.

Last week a large gathering of students, university officials and representatives of political groups held a mock funeral for "state education" in front of the Buenos Aires Palace of Tribunals, complete with a hearse, wreaths and a flag draped over a large ornate coffin.

Popular television actress Raquel Pardo joined the funeral cort ge, dressed in white, weeping for "the death of public education".

There have been student protests and demonstrations since the middle of last year when the bill on which the new law is based was first introduced. Tension rose in recent weeks as the universities began incorporating the changes in time for the new academic year which begins in the first week of March.

It was this that led to the protest and shootings outside the huge University of La Plata. La Plata is capital of Buenos Aires province and 60km south of the federal capital.

Police say the students disrupted a teachers' and officials' assembly debating reform of the college's statutes in line with the new law. The police said the demonstrators threw stones and petrol bombs.

Television pictures from La Plata showed little aggression on the part of the marchers. What the pictures did show were heavily armed police chasing demonstrators through the woods near the university soccer stadium, knocking students down with clubs and firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Some journalists were hurt including prominent television reporter Hern n Ramos, who allegedly suffered leg injuries after being pushed to the ground by police and shot at close range with rubber bullets.

Trouble flared again when students began protesting outside the police station for the release of their colleagues, many of whom appeared on television as the police arrested them, shouting their names before they were driven away. This was common practice during the military junta to ensure a message would somehow get through to family and friends that a person had been take by the authorities.

Outside the police station human rights activist Mrs de Bonafini was seen with her traditional white head scarf smeared with blood. "I was beaten by police in there," she told reporters.

One of the released students alleged that a policeman had threatened him saying: "Watch it or your mother will be wearing the white head scarf (of the mothers of the disappeared group)."

Many Argentines were shocked by the television images. Newspapers compared the police action to the violence and repression of the armed forces under military rule.

Most of those arrested have since been released and Pedro Klodzick, chief of police for the province, said all allegations of police brutality would be investigated. Any officer found to have used excessive violence would be punished, he said.

Provincial governor Eduardo Duhalde also acknowledged that police used too much force but said they were provoked by organised trouble makers in the protest.

As President Menem and his beleaguered economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, take the country towards a user-pays university system, more protests look likely. A student union spokesman at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina's top state university, said the new higher education law would always be unacceptable. "It violates the principles established in the constitution and compromises the autonomy of higher education institutes," he said.

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