Chile's Student Activists: A Course in Democracy

Chilean police detain a high school student during a demonstration for education reforms last month in Santiago.
Chilean police detain a high school student during a demonstration for education reforms last month in Santiago. (By Claudio Santana -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 25, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile -- When the Class of 2006 graduates in a few weeks, its members will look back at a year in which some of the most important lessons took place outside the classroom.

In their black and white school uniforms, they launched what became known here as the "Penguin Revolution," filling the streets, calling for educational reforms, occupying school buildings and sparking a nationwide debate that was quickly labeled a milestone for the nation's young democracy.

Extracurricular activities for student leaders this year meant negotiating with senior government officials. When they text-messaged friends, at times it was to organize rallies that attracted as many as 800,000 people. A few became nationally known public figures in their own right.

"Graduation will be hard, and there are going to be a lot of emotions that come back from this year," said Karina Delfino, 17, who became one of the voices of the student movement during her senior year. "All the friends made, the difficulties and the successes -- this was one stage in life that has been good, but very tough. The only thing I can do now is to try to end this stage as best I can and get ready for whatever is next."

That's the question many high school-age Chileans face, as the school year winds down with the approach of a Southern Hemisphere summer: How do they follow a year like this one?

The students' actions turned them into the most powerful social movement since the strict military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet was replaced by democracy 16 years ago. They forced the government to increase education spending and -- more important for many of the protesters -- prompted it to reexamine the roots of an educational system flawed by vast inequalities between the country's rich and poor populations.

Not everyone has approved of the students' methods at all times, but it's difficult to find anyone who hasn't come to accept them as a significant part of the country's social and political landscape.

"I believe their greatest achievement was to change the way people think of the youth of the country," said Rodrigo Cornejo, with the Chilean Observatory of Educational Policy at the University of Chile. "A lot of people thought the young people were simply individualistic, selfish consumers. But the long-term changes the students were pressing for this year weren't going to directly benefit them -- it was for their younger brothers and sisters."

Many of the students don't think of the past year in such epic terms. As Delfino's school day ended on Wednesday, the 3,000 students at her school poured onto the sidewalks of central Santiago and lingered at bus and subway stops, naturally dividing themselves into the broad cliques that their school uniforms can't erase: jocks, Goths, drama kids, Barbies, hard-cores. Some sat on curbs and lighted cigarettes. Some jammed the headphones of MP3 players into their ears. Most talked, and the conversations did not, as a rule, address weighty matters of social justice.

They are all too young to remember Pinochet's dictatorship, which subdued opposition groups with tactics that ranged from intimidation to murder and torture. All their lives, their teachers, parents and government leaders have emphasized that they live in a hard-won democracy, where everyone has a voice.

Instead of plotting a grand revolution, the students said, they simply decided to take what they'd been taught at face value. If Chile's economy was so good -- as they had been hearing repeatedly during the presidential election campaigns in 2005 -- why did some schools lack essential supplies, like books and desks? Why should public schools be managed at the municipal level when that system encourages disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods? If Chile is a participatory democracy, why not participate?

"As the movement started to grow, we had everyone involved -- hippies, evangelicals, all the groups," said Delfino, who belongs to her school's social circle of organizers, those drawn to student government and academic organizations. "We all wanted the same thing, which was change. So we were trying to respect different opinions while at the same time working for consensus. That's all."

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