July 6, 2011 / 1:40 AM / 8 years ago

Beset by protests, Chile offers $4 billion for education

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, beset by mass student protests over education standards and costs seen threatening his legislative agenda, proposed on Tuesday a $4 billion fund for higher education.

Demonstrators hold a banner depicting (L to R) Education Minister Joaquin Lavin, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet, former President Michelle Bachelet and former President Ricardo Lagos during a rally in Santiago city, June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

“It’s time to stop the protests and recover the paths to dialogue and agreements,” Pinera said in a televised national address, announcing the fund and promising more grants and cheaper student loans.

He said the plan would be funded in part from earnings from the country’s top export, copper, state savings held in a sovereign wealth fund, and the public treasury.

Defying police water canon and tear gas, hundreds of thousands of protesters led by students have marched in Chile’s capital and main cities in recent weeks. The protests have provided pressure on Pinera’s center-right government already grappling with protests against energy projects and a looming strike at state copper giant Codelco.

Analysts say the protests are diverting attention away from negotiations in Congress over legislation from the minimum wage to maternity leave, hampering their passage.

Student protests have plagued successive governments in a country where they must pay toward their state education.

Pinera’s approval rating hit a new low of 36 percent in May, a survey by pollster Adimark GfK showed last month, punished for his government’s approval of a controversial hydro electric project and despite the strong economic recovery from the ravages of last year’s devastating earthquake.

A billionaire, Pinera has also been buffeted by a scandal over credit irregularities at retailer La Polar that have rocked the stock market.

Conservative Pinera took power in March 2010, pushing a raft of labor, health, energy, electoral and environmental reforms, although his first year was consumed with reconstruction after a massive quake in February 2010.

Analysts say many Chileans feel he has failed to deliver on pledges to reduce poverty and raise living standards.

However Chile’s center-left opposition is in disarray after losing last year’s presidential election, and its own approval rating is far lower than Pinera’s, at just 23 percent.

Reporting by Antonio de la Jara and Simon Gardner; editing by Philip Barbara and Jackie Frank

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