By Ricardo Israel Zipper (for Safe Democracy)

Ricardo Israel Z. discusses the recent series of student protests in Chile and how their onset has rattled the claims of the Chilean government that the country is living a period of stability. The protests have demonstrated the urgent need for improvement in the quality of Chilean education, and the importance of equal access to education for all citizens of Chile. Israel Z. believes that if Chile really wants to make progress towards improving its society, it must compare itself not only to countries that are worse off, but also to more successful countries. He explains how the penguins (high school students) have influenced public opinion in Chile and how they have rallied for better education through protests, cell phones, and the Internet.

Ricardo Israel Z. is a lawyer and a political scientist. He has a PhD and a master’s in Political Science from the University of Essex and is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chile. He is the Director of the International Center for Quality in Democracy and of the School of Juridical and Social Sciences at the Autónoma University of Chile. Israel Z. also presides over the Committee on Armed Forces and Society, which is a part of the World Association of Political Science.

THE MOST OF THE WORLD, THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is the title of an Oscar-winning documentary, yet in Chile, the phrase refers to recent student protests, which have changed the face of Chilean society. High school students in Chile, between ages 13 to 18, are known as penguins, because of the black and white uniforms that they wear.

Despite the childish name, these penguins have become major players in Chilean politics. Their protests have gone above and beyond the usual success of protests typical in all democracies, to heighten social awareness about the problems facing Chile.


There are five basic mechanisms contributing to the success of the student movement in Chile: first, is the immediacy of their goal, which is to improve the quality of their own education; second, the students are calling upon society as a whole to mobilize; third, they have completely cornered the government; fourth, they have obtained large amounts of public support and identification; and fifth, they have been using modern methods of communication (such as the internet and cell phones, that young people understand better than anyone else) in order to spread their message.

A few weeks ago, the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet gave her annual speech to the country. Everything seemed to be going well in the new government and in Chilean society. Chile was being blessed with a period of political stability, economic growth, scarce political opposition, and prosperous public finances (thanks to an increase in taxes). But within a few days, everything changed.

How could adolescents alter the stability of Chile? How is it possible to explain the outpouring of public support in a country afraid of its social movements because of the empty violence and vandalism that they usually bring?

The debate about education is nothing new in Chile. Only a few months ago, during the presidential elections, all four candidates agreed that Chile’s education system was in a deplorable state, and that Chile would never be able to enter the developed world without first bettering its education.

Yet, the problem is not solely based on resources. In the last few years the amount dedicated to education has more than quadrupled, without much effect. Nor does it have to do with equality of opportunity, since high school in Chile accepts almost all of the Chilean youth, and the augmentation of quotas in Chilean universities has been overwhelming. In fact, many of the students now protesting in the streets are the first members of their family to go to college. And yet the Chilean education system continues to disappoint. Politicians must seek innovative ways to reform education in order to improve its overall quality.


The march of the Chilean penguins has exposed serious problems plaguing Chilean society, as well as the poor organization and operation of President Bachelet’s government, despite Bachelet’s personal popularity.

Chile has suffered greatly from globalization, leaving many people behind on the margins of society. Not everything has been as rosy and stable as the politicians claim.

Students, above everyone else, know the consequences of insufficient education in reducing a person’s future opportunities. Even private school students have joined in the fight for better quality of education, and equal access.

The peacefulness and persistence of the student protests have done much more to influence public opinion and provoke change than any violent clashes with police could ever accomplish. They have rattled the arrogance and complacency of the Chilean government.

If Chile really wants to make progress it must compare itself to more advanced countries as well as underdeveloped ones.

The students have made a great achievement in getting their government to listen to them.

We are witnessing, without a doubt, the first step forward in Chile’s development as a successful democracy.

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