Camila Vallejo: Speaking out for Chile's students
There’s a new youth movement going on in Chile—and 23-year-old Camila Vallejo is at the head of it all!
Vallejo, the current leader of the University of Chile’s student union, is behind protests that started in early June by young people upset about the quality of education in the South American country. Vallejo, who is also a member of the Chilean Communist Party, is only the second female to be elected president of the university’s student union in the organization’s 105-year history.
During a recent interview, Vallejo (dubbed “Commander Camila" by her admirers) described huge levels of discontent in the country. “It is always the youth that make the first move. We don’t have family commitments,” she said, “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.”
Hundreds of thousands refused to attend school
According to reports, hundreds of thousands of high school and university students in Chile have refused to attend school, calling for an end to a tiered system where there are few elite colleges and a slew of underfunded public universities. Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, is feeling the pressure as his approval ratings plummet after he claimed that education was a "consumer good" and that "profit (in education) is the compensation for hard work."
Vallejo has insisted that she and her fellow protesters do not want violence and has organized many protests in which its participants clang pots and create peace signs out of the tear gas canisters the police shoot at them. Vallejo’s protests have resulted in some superficial government interest and Minister of Education Joaquín Lavín was even replaced, but it is not the kind of instutional change the students are really looking for. As Vallejo power and influence has grown, so has fear for her safety. After recieving threats against her life, she was placed under police protection this past Tuesday. Tatiana Acuña, a former government official in the ministry of culture, was recently fired after suggesting in a statement that assassinating Vallejo would end the protests.
It’s obvious how much influence Vallejo has in her country and how much she has inspired her fellow youth. Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera even spoke about her, telling other students that everyone loves Vallejo. “You need to talk about what is happening in Argentina, Brazil or Chile,” he said, “where there is a young and beautiful leader, who is leading the youth in a grand uprising.”
Banner reads “From student power to popular power. Photo by Álvaro Rivera Rojas.
Citizens unite to demand change
Old and young join activists across the country in day two of the national strike
Participants in Chile’s recent movement for educational reform and their citizen allies united Thursday in marches across Chile, converging their efforts to send a unified message to their government: Chile debe ser distinto — Chile must change.
Banner reads “From student power to popular power. Photo by Álvaro Rivera Rojas.
“All of the demands are becoming unified,” Cecilia Leblanca, a Chilean professor, said during the march of the various organizations taking part. “We are tired of this government that has taken away the rights that we spent years fighting for.”
Chile’s most powerful labor confederation, the Central Workers Union (CUT), organized the march — the major focus for the second day of the two-day national strike. Since June the CUT has worked to garner support for the strike from organizations ranging from transportation and sanitary services to health and department store unions.
During Thursday’s marches everyone from labor unions representatives to members of the student movement to environmental protection groups marched in solidarity with the CUT. The strike’s demands range from free public higher education to constitutional reform to changes in the nation’s tax and labor laws. The most immediate action strikers have called for is a plebiscite to grant citizens the power to put these demands to a vote.
In Santiago, a march starting in Plaza Italia attracted citizens from all walks of life —from families with toddlers to retirees in their 70’s and 80’s.
“I was a student during the Allende administration and I participated in the political protests against Pinochet,” Adriana Gomez, one of several members of the Feminist Federation participating in the march, said. “(The movements) are much stronger now. We are angry but we have also decided together that we will not tolerate this any longer.”
Citizens who did not actively participate in the march showed their support by banging pots and pans and joining in chants from inside the surrounding apartment buildings. At one point confetti was thrown from the roof of a 20-story apartment building, showering down for minutes on the hundreds of protesters below.
The march starting in Plaza Italia was one of four marches across the city. Each started in a different district around 10 am and later converged on the intersection of Cumming and Alameda — only blocks from the Moneda presidential palace.
CUT president Arturo Martínez said there were too many protesters at the intersection to count.
“The streets of Santiago are full,” Martínez said to Radio Cooperativa. “We have a city that is saying something and they should be listened to.”
In Valparaiso an estimated 50,000 people marched to the National Congress building. Similarly, further north in the city of La Serena 10,000 gathered to march in support of the strike. An estimated 600,000 Chileans participated across the country, according to the CUT.
Though the morning was mostly peaceful in Santiago, once the marches converged violence eruptedt. Protesters reportedly ignited fires and set up road barricades, vandalized nearby banks and tried to set fire to the National Gratitude Church. Carabineros, in turn, responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Thursday afternoon’s violence followed similar confrontations between police and citizens late Wednesday. Throughout the night protesters reportedly blocked road access in 40 areas of Santiago, burned and stoned Transantiago buses and looted and vandalized public property.
The activity ended in 71 arrests in Santiago, 107 across the country and left six Carabineros wounded.
During a hospital visit to some of the wounded police officers Thursday morning, Carabinero Director of National Security and Public Order Aquiles Blu called Wednesday “one of the most violent nights in recent weeks.”
As they did Wednesday, most public services ran smoothly Thursday. The minister of labor estimated that only 9.1 percent of public employees joined the strike and 90 percent of services ran normally.
During Thursday’s march many public union workers did participate, however, despite threats Wednesday by the Labor Ministry that employees who chose to participate faced losing a day’s pay and other repercussions.
“This was a moment for us to exercise our rights (to demonstrate). For us it was worth it.” Silvana Arriaza, a member of the National Board of Jardines Infantiles (daycares), said of choosing to participate regardless of the ministry’s threats.
“This is the time for change.” This movement in Chile has been coming for years, Ariazza said, and she wasn’t going to miss it.
In spite of freezing climate, 100.000 Chileans march for education reform
Source: Ivan Ebergenyi – The Santiago Times
Friday August 19th
Thousands marched down Santiago’s Alameda thoroughfare on Thursday, calling once more for sweeping reforms to Chile’s public education system. The march began around 10:30 when 4,000 demonstrators gathered at the downtown corner of San Martin and Alameda, then continued westward down Alameda past the Los Héroes subway stop.
Weather conditions were harsh in Santiago. The downtown was hit with unusually low temperatures and incessant rainfall. Higher parts of Santiago even had snow for much of the day.
But the weather failed to dampen the festive atmosphere as the procession turned south and continued until turning east before ending at Universidad de Chile’s engineering faculty, where local media reported it to have swelled to 100,000.
Preceding Thursday’s march were isolated incidents involving a group of 20 “encapuchados” or hooded youth who had set up burning barricades on Alameda in front of the administrative building of Universidad de Chile as early as 7 a.m.
Despite this start, the march was notably peaceful. The only other disturbances reported were at the march’s end at the corner the Beauchef and Blanco Encalada, where a small group of people started to throw rocks at police officers.
Students prevented rock-throwers
According to Radio Cooperativa, student demonstrators stopped the rock-throwers by forming human chains to fence them in.
The march was organized by student leaders and teachers, and members of other labour unions came out in support of the students’ demands, which at their core aim to end profiteering in the country’s education system and shift the burden of financing from municipalities to the state.
“The decentralization of education in Chile began in 1980,” Patricia Urbano told The Santiago Times. Urbano, a grade school teacher for 25 years, took to the streets in support of reforms she believes are much needed for her students and their parents.
“That’s when the state ceased to manage education directly and took on a role as a mere subsidizer.”
Like many others who came out on Thursday, Urbano believes that the root of the problem in Chile’s education system started during the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
She and other protesters believe that the current system places too great a burden on municipalities that receive state funding for education only based on attendance. Prior to the 1980 Constitution, state funding was centralized and payment for tuition was calculated based on income levels.
Though the 1980 Constitution maintained the illegality of profit in educational institutions, the regime encouraged the emergence of private institutions, which critics blame for the emergence of a class-based education system.
“What the students are calling for is free education like what they have in Argentina and Mexico,” said Urbano.
This is what Nicolás, a student at a Santiago university, also wants. A civil engineering major, he has to pay 6,300 dollars per year. It is a heavy burden to bear in a country where the average yearly income is 10,080 dollars per person and most university programs are five years long or more.
“All the schools participating in this movement have different demands,” Nicolás said when asked about the government’s proposals announced on Wednesday.
“But they all have at their core the call for a halt to profiteering from education. You need to have it under state control and it has to be free.”
The government’s latest education proposals were a response to the student leaders’ rejection of a 21-point proposal offered on Aug. 1. The new proposals include lowering interest rates for student loans from 6% to 2%, as well as extending scholarships to the country’s poorest 60%, as opposed to the 40% included in the Aug. 1 proposal.
“Interest rates for university students in this country are usurious,” said Mario Ruiz of the union of Banco de Chile employees, currently striking for better wages.
Ruiz has worked for 38 years as a banker and says he understands the plight of students and parents who need to take out loans in order to pay for an education.
“The banking sector in this country has a 27% return on equity,” he said. “When this happens in European countries, the authorities intervene. Here in contrast the banks are congratulated in Congress. As it stands right now, 70% of the country needs free access to education, because their salaries are simply not high enough to pay for it”.
Chile’s GDP is expected to grow 6.6% this year but currently less than 5% of students attend private schools.
Students and teachers from such schools were not absent from Thursday’s demonstrations.
“The kids are aware of how privileged they are,” said Amelia Bustamante, a high school teacher who has worked for 18 years at Santiago’s Teresimo Enrique de Ossó private school. She attended Thursday’s marches along with a group of her students.
“And they also don’t think it’s fair for the system to be so unequal. They think that quality education is a privilege that should be shared, and that’s why they’re out today.”