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Chile Protests: Education Minister Felipe Bulnes Steps Down

Chile Protests

By FEDERICO QUILODRAN   12/29/11 07:57 PM ET   AP

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile's student protest movement claimed its second education minister on Thursday as Felipe Bulnes stepped down, citing personal reasons, and conservative President Sebastian Pinera named a replacement.

Chile's government also confirmed that Agriculture Minister Jose Antonio Galilea was stepping down as well and would be replaced by National Agriculture Association chief Luis Mayol. Bulnes will be replaced by economist Harald Bayer.

The resignations come as a new poll shows that Pinera's approval rating has plunged to 23 percent, partly due to a long and bitter strike by students for reforms to Chile's education system. The rating was the lowest since democracy returned to Chile two decades ago.

The poll by the Center for Public Studies surveyed 1,559 people across Chile with a margin for error of 3 percentage points.

A poll by the same company a year ago showed Pinera with a 44 percent approval rating.

Bulnes, who said he is resigning for personal reasons, is the second education minister to step down since Pinera took office in March 2010. He took over from Joaquin Lavin in July, two months after protests began closing hundreds of schools and led to sometimes violent clashes with police.

Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, who announced the resignations, expressed regret and called Bulnes "one of the most brilliant figures I have known."

As education minister, Bulnes failed to end the long protest by high school and university students. A negotiation process he initiated broke off shortly after it began when the government said it would not discuss free education for all students.

Students leaders appeared ready to give Bayer the benefit of the doubt, though they expressed concern that he is an academic without political experience.

Student leader Noam Titelman at Chile's Catholic University said "what matters is not changing faces, but changing government policies."

Chile's university students returned to classes in late November, pressured by a government threat to cut funding to state universities, but protest leaders said they would continue demonstrations in the new year.

The student protests have succeeded in getting the government to increase scholarships and lower interest rates on student loans. But Pinera's government has refused to consider the deep reforms, including the elimination of for-profit universities and free tuition, that protesters had demanded.

The appointment of Mayol as agriculture minister generated criticism from farm groups who said he represented agri-business interests.

Mayol's appointment shows that "this is a government of businessmen for businessmen," said Socialist Party President Osvaldo Andrade.

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Filed by Clare Richardson  |