For the last several months, Chilean students have been in revolt. They’re demanding “free and equal quality” university education for all, and they’ve launched what’s become the nation’s largest protest movement since the days of Pinochet to get it.
Since May, the movement has organized 37 protests, including a kiss-a-thon!, which have drawn up to 200,000 students at a time. More than 100,000 students have boycotted classes, and students have occupied around 200 state elementary and high schools and a dozen universities. These teenagers at a prestigious girls’ school, for instance, jumped the fence of their school one early morning and have barricade themselves inside for the last five months.
The movement’s charismatic spokesperson is an incredibly bad-ass 23-year-old named Camila Vallejo.
In just a matter of months, Vallejo has been catapulted from anonymous student body president to Latin American folk hero with more than 300,000 Twitter followers. Type her name into Google and there are more than 160,000 results just from the past 24 hours. Brazilian students now parade her as a VIP guest at their marches, the Chilean president invites her to negotiate a settlement and when she calls for a show of strength hundreds of thousands of students throughout Chile take to the streets. As an adept and wildly popular social media phenomenon, Vallejo has risen to become the most recognisable face of the student protesters.
Last week, Vallejo and other student leaders abandoned negotiations after it became clear that the government was only willing to offer partial reforms to Chile’s privatized education system. The next day, renewed protests were met with a violent police crackdown that left 250 arrested and 30 injured. Now, the students have teamed up with labor unions to call for a nationwide general strike on October 18-19.
The president says he hopes the student leaders will return to the negotiating table. But considering the students enjoy support from 70% of the Chilean public and have already demonstrated they’re willing to keep this up for as long as it takes, he might want to make some concessions. When Vallejo says they’re ready to “make the government pay in the next elections,” that’s doesn’t sound like an empty threat. That sounds like democracy.