Just don't call her Che
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.