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Chile's Commander Camila, the student who can shut down a city:
Camila Vallejo's call for better and cheaper education has seen student protests transform into a two-day nationwide shutdown

Not since the days of Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos has Latin America been so charmed by a rebel leader. This time, there is no ski mask, no pipe and no gun, just a silver nose ring.

Meet Commander Camila, a student leader in Chile who has become the face of a populist uprising that some analysts are calling the Chilean winter. Her press conferences can lead to the sacking of a minister. The street marches she leads shut down sections of the Chilean capital. She has the government on the run, and now even has police protection after receiving death threats.

Yet six months ago, no one had heard of Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old spearheading an uprising that has shaken not only the presidency of the billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, but the entire Chilean political class. Opinion polls show that 26% of the public support Piñera and only 16% back his recently ousted Concertación coalition.

Wednesday saw the start of a two-day nationwide shutdown, as transport workers and other public-sector employees joined the burgeoning student movement in protest.

"There are huge levels of discontent," said Vallejo in a recent interview. "It is always the youth that make the first move … we don't have family commitments, 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."

Elected as only the second female leader in the 105-year history of the University of Chile's student union, Vallejo, who is also a member of the Chilean Communist party, is the face of a movement the likes of which has not been seen since the last years of Augusto Pinochet in the 80s.


Hundreds of thousands of high-school and university students have refused to go to lessons since early June, calling for better and more affordable education and an end to a two-tier system that creates a few wealthy, elite colleges amid many underfunded public ones. Vallejo has organised several cacerolazos – protests in which participants bang pots and pans. Some demonstrations have turned violent.

"We don't want violence, our fight is not versus the police or to destroy commercial shops … our fight is to recover the right to education, on that we have been emphatic and clear," said Vallejo as she stood outside the presidential palace.

The government has rushed out a number of initiatives to try to head off protests, promising to amend Chile's constitution to include a guarantee of quality education and cutting interest rates on student loans from 6.4% to 2%. But the promise of an extra 1.9 trillion Chilean pesos (£2.5bn) in education spending has done little to quell the uprising. Few analysts believe the students will back down despite a heavy police presence at recent demonstrations.

As she spoke, Vallejo was surrounded by students laying out a huge peace sign made up of hundreds of empty teargas canisters that had been used against students.

"Here we have more than 50m pesos' worth of teargas bombs," said Vallejo. "Imagine how much was used on the regional or the national level? This is unacceptable, we want to reiterate our demand that we made to the minister of the interior that he step aside."

Tatiana Acuña, a government official in the ministry of culture, was recently fired for suggesting that the assassination of Vallejo would end the protests. On Tuesday, Chile's supreme court ordered police protection for the student leader.

Vallejo has become a cult figure – with odes on YouTube and predictions that her charisma may well catapult her into Chilean politics. "We are all in love with her," said the Bolivian vice-president, Álvaro García Linera.

At a recent gathering of Bolivian youth leaders he urged students to follow the example of the youth movements in the rest of South America. "You need to talk about what is happening in Argentina, Brazil or Chile, where there is a young and beautiful leader, who is leading the youth in a grand uprising," said García Linera.

Vallejo said on the subject of her looks: "You have to recognise that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarised in such superficial terms.

"We do not want to improve the actual system; we want a profound change – to stop seeing education as a consumer good, to see education as a right where the state provides a guarantee.

"Why do we need education? To make profits. To make a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute."


In Chile, Dissent Has A Woman’s Face

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 Vellejo 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.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and writer.MORE

Ya know? Yes, she's beautiful. And the fact that the media are falling all over themselves to note that, ignoring that they would have ignored her if she wasn't? PISSES ME OFF. Also, teh GUardian keeps going "protests turned violent" completely erasing who turns the protests violent ...THE FUCKING POLICE.

We are prepared to give our lives for education
High school kids on hunger strike
SANTIAGO, Aug 25, 2011 (IPS) - As students and teachers continue their massive protests in the streets of Chile's cities, one of the most extreme methods of demanding higher-quality, free public education is the hunger strike being undertaken by 28 youngsters at secondary schools across the country, four of whom have not taken food for nearly 40 days. One teenage girl in the south of Chile had to be urgently admitted to hospital on Tuesday, Aug. 24 in unstable condition, and last week another young woman in Santiago required medical attention. Several of the hunger strikers have lost 10 kg or more.

The government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera, under heavy pressure from the ongoing demonstrations, is attempting to pass on responsibility for solving the crisis to Congress. Its proposals have so far been characterised as insufficient by the teachers and students fighting for radical changes to the education system. To cap Piñera's problem, social grievances have expanded beyond the issue of education, and Thursday was the second, and last, day of a nationwide general strike called by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, the main union federation, to demand structural changes in the political and economic system, that was also joined by 80 other social organisations and opposition parties. The protest by students and teachers has lasted over three months so far, making it the longest demonstration since 1990, which marked the end of a 17-year dictatorship that in its dying days imposed the present education structure, which subsequent democratic administrations have left unmodified.

Education Minister Felipe Bulnes was particularly critical of the hunger strike, saying it "does not solve any of our problems; in fact, it only complicates the situation." Francia Gárate, an 18-year-old in her final year of secondary school, joined the hunger strike over a week ago and told IPS they were fasting "so that they take us seriously." "I would ask (Piñera) to realise that we are not playing games; he should wake up, because what we are doing is not a game, and we are prepared to give our lives for education," Gárate emphasised. MORE
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