Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Camila Vallejo. Now I am fascinated by this charismatic student leader in Chile who has been shaking the political establishment in her country.
She is spearheading a populist movement that has the right to “quality education” at its core.
Stunningly attractive as well as boldly outspoken, Vallejo is only the second female leader in the 105-year-old history of the student union in the University of Chile.
Hundreds of thousands of university and high school students have been boycotting classes since early June, clamoring for better and more affordable education and an end to the two-tier system that creates a few affluent, elite institutions amid many underfunded public ones.
In August, transport workers and other public sector employees joined the student movement in public strikes that led to a two-day nationwide shutdown.
The government has promised to spend a further $4 billion on education and to cut the interest rates on student loans by more than half.
Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Vallejo as she has been receiving death threats.
A government official lost his job after suggesting that the protests would end if she were assassinated.
Chile’s president is the billionaire business tycoon, Sebastian PiÅ„era, whom opinion polls reveal enjoys only 26 percent of electoral support.
Meanwhile, Vallejo has become a cult figure with songs about her appearing all over YouTube. She is tipped to be a future president.
She tells reporters: “Why do we need education? To make profits? To run a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.”
Here is a 23-year-old woman taking on the whole educational and political system!
The typical response of Christian students, especially in the privileged universities of the world, whenever I talk to them about engaging in acts of social transformation, is either “That sounds idealistic …” or “But, we are only students …”
And in the case of many graduates (even those in the mass media and politics), they shrug their shoulders and say, “We are so powerless …”
What needs to change in Christian university groups and churches for them to be attracting students like Camila Vallejo, let alone producing people like her?
At the same time as these momentous events are unfolding in Chile, students in New York and other cities in the United States have also been out on the streets every day since Sept. 17 in peaceful protests against the takeover of American politics by corporate power.
They call themselves “OccupyWallStreet” and describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”
Recently, more than 80 of them were arrested by police in New York City. Another 700 were arrested on Saturday. But this has not deterred them.
They write on their website: “As members of the 99 percent, we occupy Wall Street as a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”
All these are signs of hope. It is poles apart from the irrational violence that gripped parts of London in August.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka.