Just Don’t Call Her Che
By William Moss Wilson, January 28, 2012
Late last month the British newspaper The Guardian asked readers to vote for its person of the year. The candidates included household names like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Egyptian techno-revolutionary Wael Ghonim and the Burmese pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. All placed far behind a striking, nose-ringed student from Chile named Camila Vallejo.
Though far from a familiar face in the United States, the 23-year-old Ms. Vallejo has gained rock-star status among the global activist class. Since June she has led regular street marches of up to 200,000 people through Santiago’s broad avenues — the largest demonstrations since the waning days of the Pinochet regime in the late 1980s. Under her leadership, the mobilization, known as the Chilean Winter, has gained nationwide support; one of its slogans, “We are the 90 percent,” referred to its approval rating in late September.
Ms. Vallejo’s charismatic leadership has led commentators to make the obligatory comparisons to other Latin American leftist icons like Subcomandante Marcos and Che Guevara. Yet “Commander Camila,” as her followers call her, has become a personality in her own regard. She skewers senators in prime-time TV debates and stays on message with daytime talk-show hosts hungry for lurid details about her personal life, while her eloquence gives her a preternatural ability to connect with an audience far beyond her left-wing base.
In perhaps the most poignant set piece in the year of the protester, Ms. Vallejo addressed a dense ring of photographers and reporters in August while kneeling within a peace sign made of spent tear-gas shells, where she calmly mused about how many educational improvements could have been bought with the $100,000 worth of munitions at her feet.
Ms. Vallejo, like many of her fellow student leaders, is an avowed communist. But while she has publicly commended other regional leftists like Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, she and her generation have little in common with the older left of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez. They are less ideological purists than change-seeking pragmatists, even if that means working within the existing political order.
Still, there’s no question that the movement is upending Chilean society. True, it is centered on a policy question, namely reforming an educational system that disproportionally favors the children of wealthy families. But the earth-shaking Paris protests in 1968 also began with calls for university reform — before spiraling into street battles between radicalized students and truncheon-wielding gendarmes, opposing symbols in the culture war between old and new France.
The same process is under way in Chile. As the protests increasingly devolve into rock and tear-gas exchanges between students and the police, it’s becoming clear that more than education policy is at stake: a nonviolent social revolution in which disaffected, politically savvy youth are trying to overthrow the mores of an older generation, one they feel is still tainted by the legacy of Pinochet. It is not just about policy reform, but also about changing the underlying timbers of Chilean society.
It’s no surprise that the movement should be led by someone as charismatic as Ms. Vallejo. Paris 1968 had its celebrity protesters, handsome faces that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, photogenic young men like Jacques Sauvageot and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Chile has Ms. Vallejo.
Chile is perhaps Latin America’s greatest success story. After decades of authoritarian rule, it has spent the last 20 years building a thriving economy with a renewed democratic culture and a booming, educated middle class. But it is also confronting a dangerous imbalance: While the liberalization of higher education has led to improvements in access, tuition has consistently outpaced inflation and now represents 40 percent of the average household’s income.
At the same time, protesters say that wealthy students from private and expensive, co-pay charter schools have unfair access to elite universities, while the rest struggle to meet entrance standards at under-financed public institutions.
Criticism of the university system has been growing for years, but it was only in April that, energized by protests against a dam in Patagonia, students finally took to the streets. The protests grew over the winter; by the first press conference held by the national confederation of student unions, known as the Confech, Ms. Vallejo had emerged as its leader.
Echoing 1960s street activism, the Chilean Winter dabbled in the absurd, but with a high-tech, social-media twist. Thousands gathered in front of the presidential palace in June dressed as zombies, then broke into a choreographed dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In July, students again gathered in front of the palace for a huge “kiss-in.”
Though the ideas came, said Giorgio Jackson, former student president of Chile’s Catholic University, from “everywhere, absolutely every local space,” the movement’s success hinged on the leadership’s ability to channel such creativity while maintaining a unified front to government and the media. The organization used a Web site to gather ideas and disseminate content for placards and posters. And it has used Ms. Vallejo’s 300,000-plus Twitter followers to quickly initiate huge “cacerolazos,” a form of dictatorship-era protest where people walk the streets banging on pots and pans.
While they vow to continue until all their lofty demands are met, the students have already scored some political victories. The government’s proposed 2012 budget has a $350 million increase for higher education, with promises to finance scholarships for qualifying students from families up to the 60th percentile in household income. Meanwhile, the year began with the naming of Chile’s third education minister in six months.
It was only a matter of time, perhaps, before the movement’s focus on education began to broaden. As more support for the movement came from outside the universities, its interests changed accordingly. “This year we have already started talking about political reforms and tax reforms, and we think the students and youth in general play an important role in profound reforms in the country,” said Noam Titelman, the new student president at Catholic University.
Tax reform is, not coincidentally, now at the top of the government’s agenda. And rightly so: though it has the largest economy in Latin America, Chile is the 13th most unequal country in the world.
“Something very powerful that has come out of the heart of this movement is that people are really questioning the economic policies of the country,” Ms. Vallejo said. “People are not tolerating the way a small number of economic groups benefit from the system. Having a market economy is really different from having a market society. What we are asking for, via education reform, is that the state take on a different role.”
The movement has also begun to spread regionally. Ms. Vallejo lent her star power to Brazilian student protests in August, while in November students demonstrated in France, Germany and several other countries in support of Confech’s Latin American March for Education.
“The student movement here is permanently connected to other student movements, principally in Latin America, but also in the world,” Ms. Vallejo said. “We believe this reveals something fundamental: that there is a global demand for the recovery and defense of the right to education.”
But the students clearly have a lot to learn about real-world politics. Ms. Vallejo and other student leaders spent weeks lobbying in Parliament, only to be left out of the final budget negotiations.
Frustration with Ms. Vallejo’s strategy propelled a rival leftist, Gabriel Boric, to challenge her in the latest round of student-government elections. On Dec. 7, national TV news crews lingered past 5 a.m. outside the University of Chile to cover a stunning defeat for the world’s most famous student leader.
Yet even in her early-morning concession speech, Ms. Vallejo claimed victory, recognizing that the movement was greater than any one figure. Indeed, her rise has barely broken stride. She just left for a speaking tour in Europe, while her first book, a collection of her speeches and essays from the last year, is rising through the best-seller ranks. And she is being heavily courted by the Communist Party to run at the top of its list for the Chilean Congress in the 2013 elections.
For all its recent stumbles, the movement’s prospects of getting a woman under 26 elected to Congress would help fulfill one of its underlying aims, to kindle young people’s interest in traditional politics. This may be Ms. Vallejo’s greatest contribution: to restore faith in a discredited system by showing a new generation that politics can be responsive to the people’s demands.
William Moss Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Chile.