In Chile, a 23-year-old woman has been leading students protests against the government of President Sebastian Piñera. Her high-profiled actions are posing a serious challenge to the government and may lead to a significant overhaul of the country’s education system.
Until a few months ago, Camila Vallejo Dowling was almost unknown in Chile. But recently she became the second female leader in the 105-year history of the University of Chile’s student union. When students protests gradually started last May, she quickly became their face and voice, and has led popular protests and cacerolazos – a kind of popular protest during which participants bang pots and pans.
The student leader said that the government strategy of violent students repression only aggravated the situation, cancelled dialogue and worsened the political climate in the country. Students’ demonstrations provoked a drastic fall in popularity of the government of Chilean billionaire Sebastian Piñera, whose positive image came down to 26% among respondents and obliged him to take emergency measures to confront the crisis.
Although Vallejo preaches non-violence, she has received several death threats and has been given police protection. Vallejo is demanding better salaries and work stability for teachers and for the government to assume responsibility for education at the universities which, according to her, are no longer accessible to the general population. She acknowledged, however, that it is very difficult to obtain structural reforms with a rightist government, saying that what they want is a long term political and educational reform in the country.
Students are demanding a new framework for education in Chile, and an end of the Chilean school voucher system and its replacement by a public education system managed by the state. Presently in Chile, only 45% of high school students are in traditional public schools. Most universities are in private hands.
The majority of Chileans (estimated in 72 to 80%) support the student movement, which has been energized by a 48-hour nationwide strike by the Workers United Center of Chile (CUT). Although Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla stated that the strike was a “great failure,” the CUT released a press statement saying that 82 social and labor union organizations had joined the strike.
As a response to student demands, President Piñera said that the government would improve education financing, cutting interests rates on students’ loans from 6.4% to 2%, would help indebted students and would provide fellowships. But the government promises did little to control the uprising.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, education costs in Chile make it the country with the most expensive higher education. According to Chilean economist Marcel Claude, student’s debt is close to 174% of their annual salary and 50% among them are heavily indebted.
President Piñera’s response to new demonstrations was to announce a US $4000 millions in education through a new proposal called GANE (Great National Accord for Education) which was also rejected. Should popular demonstrations gather momentum, the government may confront a situation very difficult to deal with, particularly after workers joined the student protests.
When Camila was recently asked about the effect on people of her striking good looks she responded, “I am attractive and don’t have any problems in acknowledging it, but I didn’t decided when I was born how I was going to look like. What I decided is which was going to be my political project and my work with the people.” In the unstable political situation of Chile now, the leadership of a 23-year-old woman can help chart a new course for her country.