Chile: The Rise of the Penguin Revolution

It was every adolescent revolutionary’s dream: schools throughout the country were occupied and the gates were barricaded.

Tens of thousands of uniformed pupils on the streets defied police brutality, support came in from across adult society and, to top it all, the education minister prevaricated hopelessly in the face of coherent, well articulated demands. 

"Chile’s secondary school pupils have scored the highest marks in history," wrote the University of Chile historian, Sofia Correa, in a recent newspaper column. "Their organization, media management, awareness of civic duty and timing, have all been outstanding."

But this was about more than student proficiency. What started in April, as a gripe against school bus fares and university entrance exam fees, rapidly grew into a nationwide movement demanding quality education for all Chileans, irrespective of class, ability or spending power. Since Pinochet stood down sixteen years ago, no other mass movement has so successfully challenged the legitimacy of the neo-liberal state the General left behind him. 

No one took much notice at the start of May when the Coordination Assembly of Secondary School Students was formed and students in several of Santiago’s public schools walked out of classes. Protests and walkouts are a rite of passage for public school students in Chile. The movements usually fizzle out.

But this time it was different; the protests spread. President Michelle Bachelet fanned the flames by not addressing education reform in her state of the nation speech and the next day, May 22, pupils seized the first all-girls school. Within three days, 22 schools were occupied, 14 more were on strike and a total of 70,000 students mobilized. Furthermore, the university students’ union and the main teachers’ union were openly backing the high school students’ movement.

Camera crews and reporters ventured into the occupied schools to find classrooms under student control for weeks, all in pristine condition with no signs of graffiti or vandalism. Everyone was searched for drugs, alcohol or weapons at the school gates and students from other schools turned away. Meals were served in communal kitchens, with cleaning duties shared. Decisions were made in meticulously democratic assemblies.

On May 26, pupils at Altamira de Peñololen School walked out, the first private students to take action. Within days, dozens of exclusive private schools were on strike or occupied. Playground fences were draped with banners reading "Private, but not Silent" and "Education is a Right, not a Privilege."

The Assembly was now meeting daily and had elected a negotiating team: German Westhoff and Julio "Gordo" Isamit, both 17, and identified with Chile’s rightwing parties, ensured the movement’s political neutrality.  César Valenzuela, a 17-year-old member of the Young Socialist Party, instantly became a national heartthrob and the movement’s principle spokesperson. Maria Jesus Sanhueza, 16 and a militant young communist, was nick-named ‘little Gladys,’ after the historic Chilean communist leader, Gladys Marin. And Juan Carlos Herrera, a lanky 17-year-old whose rebellious discourse and large front teeth earned him the nickname of Comandante Conejo (Commander Rabbit). By the end of May they were household names. 

The leftwing movement, Surda, offered the students advice on how to organize the Assembly but, according to one of their coordinators, Rodrigo Ruiz, neither they nor any other adult movement was behind the student uprising. "These kids have proven to be more creative than all of us," Ruiz told me. "They have taken things further than the Surda or any other political organization in Chile today."  

The Assembly agreed that a meeting with the education minister, Martín Zilic, on Monday, May 29, would be the government’s last chance to avert a national schools strike, planned for the following day. Inexplicably, the minister didn’t turn up at the meeting and there was nothing left but to work cell-phones, blogs and chat rooms to get the word out across the country.

The blanket strike on May 30 may be remembered more for the police violence than for the seven hours of heated discussion between Zilic and the negotiating team or for the closing down of almost all of Chile’s schools and universities. In addition to scores of wounded children, three journalists, two cameramen and even an undercover police officer ended up in hospital with truncheon wounds. Students responded to police violence by marching through clouds of tear gas in the centre of Santiago with their arms held high, as if surrendering.

Next day President Bachelet broke her silence. Flanked by Alejandro Guillier, the leader of the Chilean journalists union, Bachelet said: "I manifest my indignation at the excessive and unjustified violence inflicted on journalists, cameramen and students." She dismissed the head of Chile’s riot police, Osvaldo Jara.

President Bachelet finally made the Government’s first and only public offer. She pledged grants for university entrance exams, half a million free school meals, emergency funds to repair dilapidated buildings and free bus passes for the poorest 20% of municipal school pupils. Furthermore, she would send a reform of the Pinochet era constitutional law on education (the LOCE) to parliament, and would set up a Presidential Education Commission.  

In addressing student demands, only free bus passes were not included in the Government offer. President Bachelet said these "would have cost 300 million dollars a year, the equivalent of 33,000 low cost houses or hospital attention for thousands of poor children." By another measure, as one Chilean journalist pointed out, the cost was also equivalent to one of Chile’s nine recently purchased F-16 fighter jets.

The Student Assembly rejected the President’s offer on two grounds. First, free bus fare was non-negotiable. Second, students wanted more representation on the newly formed Education Commission. Students called for another national strike for Monday, June 5.

After Bachelet’s intervention, however, public support for the movement, which peaked at 76%, began to ebb. Monday’s strike was solid, nevertheless, and police showed restraint, despite being attacked by masked infiltrators.

But things were starting to get complicated. Annoyed by César Valenzuela’s high profile, the Assembly demanded he stand down as spokesman. Two of Santiago’s biggest public schools returned to class. Bickering broke out in the previously disciplined meetings, as increasing numbers realized that the government had given its best and wouldn’t return to the negotiating table. Furthermore, every political sector from the far right to the communists was trying to manipulate the students for their own ends. The penguin revolution was on thin ice.

On June 9, a plucky Maria Jesus Sanhueza, dressed in trademark navy blue pinafore and school tie, addressed reporters: "On Monday we return to classes. This isn’t the end of our movement, just a change in the way our demands are articulated. We go back incredibly happy with what we have achieved. We know full well that our victory is historic and hard earned."

The students had won a resounding victory. The government offer was generous. Moreover, the student movement placed education at the top of the political agenda and paved the way for reform of the Constitutional Law of Education (LOCE), one of the remaining cornerstones of Pinochet’s political legacy.

The LOCE: "Inequality from Infancy" 

On March 10, 1990, the last day of his seventeen-year dictatorship, General Pinochet signed the LOCE. In keeping with the General’s neo-liberal tendencies, the LOCE decentralized and deregulated Chile’s education system and left schooling to the whim of market forces. Three types of schools were created – municipal, private and subsidized private. 

Professor Patricia Muñoz Salazar, Director of Sociology at Playa Ancha University, Chile’s principle teacher-training college, explained the difference, "The State pays municipal and subsidized private schools US$50 a month per student. On top of this, subsidized schools can charge a modest fee. Private schools tend to charge between US$250-$400."

The average class size in private schools is 20 pupils, in Municipal (public) schools it’s often as high as 45. The net result is that Chile, with one of the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, scores lower than some African countries in comparative education tests.

Huge disparities in school funding exist between the rich and poor municipalities, since local governments with cash can invest in municipal schools and/or attract private sponsorship.

Private schools are free to reject pupils at will, which has created an intense competition for admission to better schools. It has become an obsession for many parents and youth. Given the structural pressures, it’s no wonder that Chile has the highest rates of adolescent stress and juvenile suicide in Latin America.

A 2004 OECD report found that the Chilean education system is "consciously structured by social class." This sentiment was recently echoed by Guillermo Teillier, General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, "It has been clearly established that "educational freedom," as established by the LOCE, transforms education into a business and generates inequality from infancy."

Munoz Salazar and other Chileans speak highly of the lessons learned from the recent Chilean student movement.

"This eruption of a new social actors has laid low a number of sociological myths," says Salazar. "First, the assumption that school children can’t speak for themselves or articulate clear coherent demands is evidently incorrect." The second myth to be overturned, she adds, is that young people are not interested in politics.

The third, and perhaps most striking conclusion, is that the emerging generation is far less individualistic. "They have to a point restored our faith in humankind," laughed Salazar. "The level of solidarity has been amazing. The movement’s organizers all come from the better-off municipal schools and have largely acted on behalf of the poorer kids. Furthermore, all these children are in their last years of school, any changes in educational policy are not going to benefit them directly." Support from private school students is further evidence of the new camaraderie.

"This is clearly a post-Pinochet generation born without fear," says Salazar. "They openly declare their party affiliations. They are aware of their rights and are not afraid of criticizing the establishment."

Justin Volger is an writer based in Santiago, Chile. Photo from