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Student activists change Chile

Chilean 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.
Riot police detain a high school student during a demonstration in downtown Santiago on Oct. 18. The protesters were demanding that the government accelerate promised reforms of Chile's dictatorship-era education laws.
Riot police detain a high school student during a demonstration in downtown Santiago on Oct. 18. The protesters were demanding that the government accelerate promised reforms of Chile's dictatorship-era education laws.Roberto Candia / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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."

What comes 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.

Emphasizing participation
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."

The movement began last year with inconclusive petitions to the government of President Ricardo Lagos. After the January election of Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who won by campaigning for social justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable, many student leaders began the new academic year with optimism. They waited for Bachelet to address education reform during a May state of the nation speech; when she didn't, a new sort of protest movement immediately blossomed.

"I'd leave school in the afternoons and go to the national student assembly," Delfino said. "Other days, when I had tests, I'd study at night and sleep three or four hours, then go to class in the morning and do the same thing again. My friends talked about 'The Ghost of Karina.' "

The day after Bachelet's speech, an all-girls public school was taken over by pupils. Thousands of students boycotted classes. Soon private school students joined in the protests, while university students and teachers unions also voiced support. The Education Ministry soon began holding negotiations with student leaders, and Bachelet eventually promised more funding to help the poorest students and created a panel, which included student representatives, to discuss broad reforms of the national educational system.

The strain of juggling all that with academics took a toll on some students, which they are confronting now. María Huerta, a movement leaders who attends a technical school here, isn't sure whether she will be able to get into a university next year.

"My mother was bothered by this, because I was spending so much time with the student organizations and not in class," said Huerta, 19. "We have a very close family, but they're all worried about me. My mom is worried about my future, my cousin is worried about my safety, and my uncle doesn't talk to me anymore -- he doesn't agree at all with what I'm doing."

Students such as Huerta and Delfino, who got a strong taste of civic involvement this year, are trying to figure out whether they want to make a career of social involvement. Both said they are considering studying sociology or public administration, but they still aren't sure how they will apply what they learned outside of class.

"The decision I have to make is whether I want to try to make changes through working directly with the community, or through politics," Huerta said. "If I work in the community, I can change the lives of a small group of people. With politics, you can do it on a macro level. But I don't want to join a political party."

Huerta continued to debate the advantages and disadvantages of each choice, coming to the conclusion that she'll have to give it more thought.

Like most leaders of the Penguin Revolution, she has more time to think about such questions now: Tensions have eased considerably as the end of the year approaches. Some students continue to periodically occupy schools because they believe the government is implementing its promises too slowly.

Public opinion of the students isn't as high as it was a few months ago, when polls indicated that about 75 percent of the country backed them, but it is still generally positive. Huerta said she hopes the movement she helped start will be able to regain its strength next year, as a new class of students takes over leadership posts.

"My age group started it, with the idea that you can be supportive of Chile and democracy without having to agree with everything the government does, that it's okay to be critical," Huerta said. "Now we have to see where the students in the first and second years of the high schools take it. I'm eager to see it."