Chile's Commander Camila, the student who can shut down a city

Camila Vallejo's call for better and cheaper education has seen student protests transform into a two-day nationwide shutdown

Not since the days of Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos has Latin America been so charmed by a rebel leader. This time, there is no ski mask, no pipe and no gun, just a silver nose ring.

Meet Commander Camila, a student leader in Chile who has become the face of a populist uprising that some analysts are calling the Chilean winter. Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run, and now even has police protection after receiving death threats.

Yet six months ago, no one had heard of Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old spearheading an uprising that has shaken not only the presidency of the billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, but the entire Chilean political class. Opinion polls show that 26% of the public support Piñera and only 16% back his recently ousted Concertación coalition.

Wednesday saw the start of a two-day nationwide shutdown, as transport workers and other public-sector employees joined the burgeoning student movement in protest.

"There are huge levels of discontent," said Vallejo in a recent interview. "It is always the youth that make the first move … we don't have family commitments, this allows us to be freer. We took the first step, but we are no longer alone, the older generations are now joining this fight."

Elected as only the second female leader in the 105-year history of the University of Chile's student union, Vallejo, who is also a member of the Chilean Communist party, is the face of a movement the likes of which has not been seen since the last years of Augusto Pinochet in the 80s.

Hundreds of thousands of high-school and university students have refused to go to lessons since early June, calling for better and more affordable education and an end to a two-tier system that creates a few wealthy, elite colleges amid many underfunded public ones. Vallejo has organised several cacerolazos – protests in which participants bang pots and pans. Some demonstrations have turned violent.

"We don't want violence, our fight is not versus the police or to destroy commercial shops … our fight is to recover the right to education, on that we have been emphatic and clear," said Vallejo as she stood outside the presidential palace.

The government has rushed out a number of initiatives to try to head off protests, promising to amend Chile's constitution to include a guarantee of quality education and cutting interest rates on student loans from 6.4% to 2%. But the promise of an extra 1.9 trillion Chilean pesos (£2.5bn) in education spending has done little to quell the uprising. Few analysts believe the students will back down despite a heavy police presence at recent demonstrations.

As she spoke, Vallejo was surrounded by students laying out a huge peace sign made up of hundreds of empty teargas canisters that had been used against students.

"Here we have more than 50m pesos' worth of teargas bombs," said Vallejo. "Imagine how much was used on the regional or the national level? This is unacceptable, we want to reiterate our demand that we made to the minister of the interior that he step aside."

Tatiana Acuña, a government official in the ministry of culture, was recently fired for suggesting that the assassination of Vallejo would end the protests. On Tuesday, Chile's supreme court ordered police protection for the student leader.

Vallejo has become a cult figure – with odes on YouTube and predictions that her charisma may well catapult her into Chilean politics. "We are all in love with her," said the Bolivian vice-president, Álvaro García Linera.

At a recent gathering of Bolivian youth leaders he urged students to follow the example of the youth movements in the rest of South America. "You need to talk about what is happening in Argentina, Brazil or Chile, where there is a young and beautiful leader, who is leading the youth in a grand uprising," said García Linera.

Vallejo said on the subject of her looks: "You have to recognise that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarised in such superficial terms.

"We do not want to improve the actual system; we want a profound change – to stop seeing education as a consumer good, to see education as a right where the state provides a guarantee.

"Why do we need education? To make profits. To make a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute."


Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Chile's student protest leaders hope to dismantle the system from the inside

Camila Vallejo among those expected to elected to congress two years after free education call precipitated nationwide shutdown

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

25, Oct, 2013 @2:33 PM

Article image
The 18-year-old voice of Chile's nationwide student uprising

Moisés Paredes speaks for a movement which has defied police brutality to put education reform high on the election agenda

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

28, Jun, 2013 @3:11 PM

Article image
Chilean rebel Camila Vallejo: 'The problem is bigger – it's structural'

Her call for free education in Chile led to a nationwide shutdown last year. Now student leader Camila Vallejo is aiming higher - she wants a social revolution

Patrick Kingsley

20, Nov, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Students march for a better Chile | Cristian Cabalin

Cristian Cabalin: Chile's education system both reflects and perpetuates the inequality of its society. These protests hope to reform both

Cristian Cabalin

22, Jun, 2011 @2:32 PM

Chilean student protesters forcibly removed by police from school sit-ins – video

Secondary school students in Chile's capital Santiago are detained by police after staging sit-in protests over the government's education policies

17, Aug, 2012 @8:56 AM

Article image
'They smashed me in the head': anger at Piñera as Chile's bloodied protesters allege brutality
Death toll rises to 15 in worst unrest Chile has faced since Pinochet, as armed men in masks prowl Santiago firing at defiant protesters

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

22, Oct, 2019 @2:33 PM

Article image
Chile student protests explode into violence
Riot police clash with protesters calling for education reform as anger with Sebastiàn Piñera's government boils over

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

05, Aug, 2011 @6:20 PM

Bolivia and Chile's tunnel vision | Benjamin Dangl

Benjamin Dangl: Bolivia wants Chile to allow it access to the Pacific. One idea: a 150km-long tunnel to the sea to solve the crisis

Benjamin Dangl

06, Jun, 2009 @4:00 PM

Article image
Chile students' debts go up in smoke
Artist named Fried Potatoes removed tuition contracts he says were worth up to $500m from private university and burned them

Jonathan Franklin in Santiago

23, May, 2014 @4:49 PM

Article image
Peru's tribal groups chide president for vetoing rainforest law

Alan Garcia blocks legislation that would have helped halt oil, gas and mining projects on land belonging to indigenous people

Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

24, Jun, 2010 @6:15 PM