They called it the “penguins’ revolution” because of the similarity between the navy and white Chilean school uniform and the birds. It was the biggest social movement since Chile returned to democratic control in 1989 and was led by hundreds of thousands of teenagers who didn’t have the right to vote, but were determined to make a huge change in education.
Through two months of demonstrations and sit-ins all over the country teenagers challenged long-held views and managed to change laws regulating their country’s education.
As schoolchildren as young as 12 take to the streets to add their voices to the protest, what lessons in student revolt can be learned from the Chilean experience.
The Chilean movement began in April 2006 when school students protested on the streets of Santiago, demanding transport discounts and free university selection tests. As the days went by, the demonstrations became more and more violent and on May 10 more than a thousand students were detained in cities all over the country. After three weeks of demonstrations, students had accomplished nothing; the violence had tarnished their demands and the government was refusing to negotiate with them.
Karina Delfino, former spokeswoman for the students’ movement, said: “Violence in demos kills social movements, but that’s a risk you take when you organise a massive protest. And the press is always showing any disorder, regardless how small it is; that creates a negative image of your movement.”
The turning point came when state schools – traditionally seen as only providing a poor quality of education – were peacefully occupied by students asking this time not only for economic improvements, but for profound changes that would improve the quality of the country’s education.
In Chile, the education system reinforces social inequalities: good education in private schools for those who can afford it and bad education in free public schools. But until the penguins’ revolution, nobody cared.
César Valenzuela, another spokesman for the students’ movement, said: “One of the biggest achievements of this movement was to make education an issue of public concern.”
One of the most important student demands was the abolishment of the law (LOCE) that regulated education, enacted by dictator Augusto Pinochet on the very last day of his dictatorship. It decreed the state was only a regulatory body and delegated educational responsibilities to private corporations, asking for minimum requirements to open private schools and universities.
As the revolution continued and more and more schools were occupied in almost every city, pupils used the time to repair school buildings and paint walls, as well as thinking about their demands and how best to achieve them. They created a group called Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (Assembly of Secondary Students) – an apolitical body that had delegates from every school. There were no hierarchies and decisions were taken democratically.
“This way of organising the movement and peaceful occupations was the key to getting everybody’s attention and sympathy,” said Mr Valenzuela.
With 250 schools striking and two massive protests that had the support of teachers, university students and several trade unions, the then president Michelle Bachelet took to the airwaves to announce a series of changes. In a nationwide broadcast she announced that the LOCE would be abolished and economic improvements made.
Ms Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, created a commission to draw up a new law to replace the LOCE. Although students were not satisfied with their low representation on the commission, their movement was losing strength after months of striking and they decided to end all the schools’ occupations at the same time, in one last display of unity.
The new law (LGE) was passed in 2008. Although it was weakened after discussions with right-wing parties that supported private education, its introduction was still hailed as a success for the student movement.
Mario Waissbluth, director of the education project Educación 2020, explained: “Without the penguins’ revolution we wouldn’t have the LGE. This law, in the end, wasn’t the big change that it was supposed to be, because the political discussion was very hard. But thanks to it, we achieved two very important things: to lay the foundations for a quality agency and a supervision office, and to forbid the selection of students in primary schools.”
“We put education as a central issue of public discussions and we won our right to participate in that debate as an important social factor, despite how young we were,” says Ms Delfino.
When asked if she has advice for student protestors today, she says: “I would recommend to English students to be organised, to have a strategy to win the press sympathy and to have a clear proposal in order to win legitimacy.
“If you legitimate your movement, you can achieve everything.”