Protesting for change: the student movement in Chile

Education - Health

Throughout history students across the world have been a constant source of pressure to change the status quo. From sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. to students behind the Otpor Revolution that overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, to the current Umbrella Revolution in Hong-Kong, students revolting for change represent an immutable pattern across societies in the last centuries. Chile is no exception and similar student-led movements have emerged with the explicit goal of reforming the rules of the game. The beginning of the twenty-first century brought a particularly strong movement that was not willing to take no for answer. By combining insights from previous and existing research in the social sciences with the Chilean experience to change the market-based educational system, we can learn about the difficulties faced when trying to change institutions. 

In 2006, high-school students in Chile organized demonstrations that caused hundreds of thousands of people to protest against the prevailing educational institutions. These street protests were the first massive student-led demonstrations since the beginning of the 1980s and were a direct consequence of the lack of changes in the system since Chile’s return to democracy. After months of demonstrations the incumbent president from the left-wing coalition Michelle Bachelet came to an agreement with students and a formal transitory institution was formed to write a plan to reform the system. After years of failed attempts, another student-led movement, now stronger and bigger, emerged in 2011 to try to change the system once again. If this new social movement will lead to a successful reform of the system only time will tell, but it has already accomplished significant changes.

The study of organized groups of individuals exerting pressure to change the status quo has a long tradition in the social sciences. To understand both the 2006 and the 2011 movements a simple theory of change is particularly useful (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2006). At the beginning of the 2000s, the incumbent coalition in Chile had been in power for a decade. Their capacity to change the status quo, however, was constrained by the opposition coalition. The opposition was politically aligned with the former Pinochet regime, at least in their preference for a market-based educational system. After years of no significant changes and increasing inequality in educational opportunities, students decided to exert pressure on the incumbent coalition with the goal of reforming the existing rules of the game. The options for the incumbent government were either to repress the movement, to offer temporary reforms, or to completely reform the system. In 2006 the government was successful in offering temporary reforms that students considered enough of a promise to obtain change. This prove to be the wrong strategy from the point of view of students as no significant changes were made in the following years. The 2011 movement seemed to have learned the lesson and students were more committed to obtain permanent reforms.

Three important questions arise in this framework and the answers to these shed light on the difficulties of reforming a system after a policy has been implemented. First, when are citizens able to organize massive demonstrations to exert pressure to reform? Second, what could be the response of the incumbent government? And third, what can citizens do after observing a response from the government? 

The organization of massive demonstrations is by no means an easy task, but it seems that the increasing connection among citizens will be crucial to share information, enhance coordination, and foster collective action. A nascent research agenda is illuminating ways in which citizens organize demonstrations, and information communication technologies such as the internet and cell-phones seem to indeed be crucial to facilitate demonstrations (Manacorda and Tesei 2016, Enikolopov et al. 2016). At the core of these communication technologies as intermediating factors is the fact that the protest behavior of other people is a critical piece of information when an individual decides to participate in collective action (González 2016, Cantoni et al. 2017). More connected and politically engaged citizens living in more dense networks that connect different geographic places seem to inevitably lead to more accountability of government actions.

When citizens are able to organize demonstrations, the next critical step is to understand the potential responses of the incumbent government. On the one hand, a government may decide to repress a movement, but this is not really an alternative when a movement is strong and arises in a democracy - although we have certainly seen attempts at this strategy, with police brutality appearing in many demonstrations in the US and elsewhere. Temporary reforms, on the other hand, can take many different forms, from a transitory change in the speech of incumbent politicians, to the proposal of particular reforms that offer “patches” to the system and have uncertain approval by the Congress. The incumbent government rarely offers radical reforms that completely satisfy the demands of the movement, especially at times in which partial reforms are enough to dismantle demonstrations. This seems to be the most important challenge for emerging and established democracies: what to do when the incumbent class of politicians are unwilling to offer radical changes to the prevailing system despite citizens’ demands.

What can citizens do if the government is unwilling to reform? One alternative is to become the government, and this seems to be the path taken by social movements in Chile. After the failure of the incumbent class of politicians to radically reform the system, the 2011 social movement attempted to enter the political arena to change the status quo from the inside of prevailing institutions. Some of the leaders of the movement founded political parties, ran in elections to become mayors, congressmen and congresswomen, and some have even showed interest in running for president in the near future. The ability to radically reform the status quo after becoming the incumbent is yet to be seen, but it surely offers a long path to replace a policy that was implemented in the 1980s with a promise to improve the system.


Acemoglu, D., Robinson, J. (2006). “Economic origins of dictatorship and democracy.” Cambridge University Press.

Cantoni, D., Yang, D., Yuchtman, N., Zhang, Y. (2017). “Are protests games of strategic complements or substitutes? Experimental evidence from Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement.” University of California Berkeley, Working Paper.

Enikolopov, R., Makarin, A., Petrova, M (2016). “Social media and protest participation: evidence from Russia.” Working Paper.

González, F. (2016). “Collective action in networks: evidence from the Chilean student movement.” University of California Berkeley, Working Paper.

Manacorda, M., Tesei, A. “Liberation technology: mobile phones and political mobilization in Africa.” Working Paper.

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