Chile is bracing for a nationwide, two-day shutdown as unions, students and a center-left coalition of political parties demand fundamental changes in society.
They want to replace Chile's dictatorship-era constitution, which concentrates vast power in the presidency, with a new charter that enables popular referendums and makes free education a right for all citizens. They also want pension reforms, a new labor code and more investments in health care.
Chile's largest union coalition, representing about 13 percent of the work force and many government employees, called the strike for Wednesday and Thursday to join forces with high school and university students who have boycotted classes for three months now. The strike also is supported by the center-left coalition that governed Chile for 20 years before President Sebastian Pinera brought the right wing back into the presidential palace last year.
Public transportation workers and providers of state-run day care also said they would strike, stranding millions of other Chileans.
"It's painful to see those working so hard to paralyze Chile," Pinera complained Tuesday as he called for a peaceful resolution. "We are perfectly conscious that our country has many unpaid debts, that there are many problems that remain unresolved, many of which were caused decades ago."
Chile's economy could lose $400 million, Treasury Minister Felipe Larrain estimated Tuesday, and Pinera warned that the strike could set Chile back, "especially now with huge storm clouds appearing in the global economy."
Chile's GDP is growing at a healthy 6 percent, and the government has saved up billions in mining revenues, but Pinera has warned against "the temptations of populism and irresponsibility."
"Nothing is free in this life; somebody has to pay," Pinera said when he proposed a 21-point education reform package to Congress this month.
The package includes $4 billion in new education funding, more scholarships, more teacher training, help for students who can't pay their loans and a reduction from 5.6 percent to 2 percent in student loan interest rates. He also proposed a new government agency to take over and fund failing local schools, and an effort to make private universities comply with Chile's law requiring non-profits to reinvest their gains.
But Pinera has drawn the line at more fundamental changes, flatly rejecting the idea of popular plebiscites or other constitutional changes. Providing free education for everyone would mean forcing the poorest to help subsidize the most fortunate, he added.
Chile currently spends an average of $2,000 annually per schoolchild, compared to $7,500 in the most-developed countries, according to the multinational Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, which Chile recently joined as part of its effort to leave its third-world status behind.
Chile's 3.3 million schoolchildren include 54 percent who attend local schools, whose quality depends on municipal funding, and 31 percent who attend state-subsidized private schools, whose quality largely depends on parent income. A luckier 9 percent attend nonprofit schools, often subsidized by corporations, and 6 percent attend private schools.
Pinera's ministers have called protest leaders intransigent, but polls suggest most Chileans support their call for deeper reforms.
University of Santiago Student Federation President Camilo Ballesteros said students would deliver a letter to the presidential palace on Tuesday asking to meet with Pinera and his education and finance ministers.
Government spokesman Andres Chadwick dismissed the demands as "more than utopian," but said the palace doors "have always been open" to those seeking dialogue.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter accused opposition leaders of "acting like victims when many of them have been the cause of the citizen's anger."
The center-left lawmakers then declared that "this government doesn't know how to listen. It only has ears for business executives and not for the students."