2006 – Penguin Revolution in Chile

In 2006, a million Chilean high school students protested their government’s running of the public education system. Wearing black and white school uniforms – a move that led the movement to be called the Penguin Revolution – they forced their government to fund free lunches and transport for students in what was the most significant protest since those that overthrew the Pinochet regime.

In April and May 2006, Chilean high school students organized protests against rises in student transport costs and examination fees. By 19 May the first of hundreds of school occupations began, and three days later, 14 schools went on strike, 22 were occupied and 70,000 students were actively engaged in the struggle.

The high school students gained the support of the university students’ union and the most prominent teachers’ union. They demanded, among other things, free bus passes and a waiver of the university admissions test fee. Soon, private schools joined the protest, displaying solidarity banners that read “private, but not silent” and “education is a right, not a privilege.”

Protest organisers arranged to meet Chilean education minister Martín Zilic on 29 May, threatening a national student strike for the following day if he did not agree to demands. When he failed to turn up, the students called the strike. On 30 May an estimated 790,000 students took to the streets. Police met demonstrators with violence that shocked the nation. Nevertheless, students marched through tear gas to the centre of Santiago with their arms held high. An estimated one million students went on strike.

The next day, President Bachelet condemned the police brutality and made an offer to the students that included reorganizing the Ministry of Education, establishing a special council to identify ways to improve the quality of education, funding free lunches for half a million new students, improving infrastructure in 520 schools and replacing school furniture in 1,200, free transport for the most needy students, extending passes to be valid 24/7 for each student, and free university entrance exams for 80% of applicants.

Students initially rejected the President’s offer because she failed to include free bus fares and did not give students enough representation on the Education Commission, but by June 9, the movement had accepted the government’s offer, justifiably declaring victory.

In 2011, a fresh wave of protests would unfold across Chile in protest at then President Piñera’s policies of privatization, led by students but supported by their families as well as teachers and other unions. A national student strike in June 2011 attracted 600,000 Chileans; a demonstration in August saw one million people in support of students.

Along with demanding free, public education, the emerging left movements also called for nationalization of the copper industry and a Constituent Assembly. These movements swept some of the prominent student activists, including young Communist Camila Vallejo, into the Congress in 2013 and helped the left secure significant gains in 2017’s presidential election.

Students protest by dragging their desks into the school quad during the 2006 “Penguin Revolution.” Photo by Antitezo