From Santiago Streets to Parliament Seats, Chile’s Student Revolution

December 16, 2013

After years of protests against an education system established by Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Chile has elected student activists to Congress and returned Michelle Bachelet to the presidential office. What’s next for the nation’s student movement?

Federico Zukerfeld filmed one of the largest student demonstrations in Santiago, Chile in April 2013, highlighting how Chilean youth have used art and creative actions to assert their rights.

Chile’s student revolution has been going strong since 2006, and with the addition of several of its members to Congress, it has become an even more prominent force. As a result, the newly elected president, Michelle Bachelet, who also led the nation from 2006 to 2010, is now tasked with seriously reforming the education system. Her first term coincided with the “Penguin Revolution,” in which hundreds of thousands of students—referred to as “penguins” because of their black-and-white uniforms—took to the streets demanding free public education.

The student movement, a nationwide phenomenon led by college and high school students, is considered one of the largest since the country’s return to democracy. Coupled with other uprisings, it laid the groundwork for substantial reforms to the political and economic model inherited from Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, which ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990.

Demands for a free and high-quality education, under the slogan “No to Profit,” have become a core tenet of Chilean social movements. The slogan targets not only the nation’s banks and private universities, many of which lend money to students at high interest rates, but also the wider political system that privileges the private sector over state support. In Chile, only 25 percent of the education system is funded by the state, while students and their families pay 75 percent of the costs.

The financial burden on students is a legacy of the military dictatorship that has proved hard to eradicate. On March 10, 1990, during his last day in office, Pinochet signed the Organic Constitutional Law of Education (known as LOCE, for “Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza”), which solidified his government’s neoliberal transformation of the education system. The legislation relegated control of education to the private sector, leaving the state in the role of a mere regulator. In 2009, on the heels of the Penguin Revolution, Bachelet replaced LOCE with the General Law of Education, but, despite some modifications, the new law did not bring significant changes to the education system.

The unprecedented situation of student activists in government has raised the expectations of serious legislative change for a large segment of society. Yet, despite the movement’s newfound representation in Congress, students still feel the urgency to continue pressing their demands for structural transformation to the education system. Some of their concerns now include the risk that activists will abandon or shift away from their principles as they enter the world of parliamentary politics. Education reform will certainly top the agenda of the next government, with Bachelet promising to revamp the school system by hiking corporate taxes. But will her government’s reforms, this time, reflect the demands from the street?