Camila Vallejo and Occupied Chile
Francisco Goldman writes for The New York Times Magazine about the powerful student movement in Chile and its charismatic front-woman.
In what became known as the Chilean Winter, students at university campuses and high schools across the country organized strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings. The protests were the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in a 1973 military coup overthrew Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The students’ grievances echoed, somewhat, those of their counterparts across the Mideast or in Zuccotti Park. Chile might have the highest per capita income in the region, but in terms of distribution of wealth, it ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. A university education in Chile is proportionally the world’s most expensive: $3,400 a year in a country where the average annual salary is about $8,500.
Sebastián Piñerarsquo;s right-wing government was plunged into perpetual crisis. The Harvard-educated Piñera, founder of Chile’s major credit card, Bancard, and Chile’s first president since Pinochet to come from the right, promised to govern Chile and its economy in a new way — as a businessman whose billions didn’t come from mining or manufacturing but from investments. The student movement exposed the Piñera Way as business as usual — if public education was virtually abolished under Pinochet in the ’80s, his successors had done nothing to bring it back.
Just 40 percent of Chilean children receive a free secondary-school education, in underfinanced public schools; the rest attend partly subsidized charter or private schools. To finance their university educations, most students take out bank loans, which saddle them and their families with years of debt. Piñera defended Chile’s educational system by calling education “a consumer good.” Vallejo countered, saying that education was a fundamental right and that “for more than 30 years,” entrepreneurs had “speculated and grown wealthy off the dreams and expectations of thousands of young people and Chilean families.” By September, Piñera’s popularity ratings, so robust after the rescue of the Chilean miners in October 2010, had sunk to 22 percent, the lowest of any Chilean president in modern history, while the student movement’s national approval rating stood at 72 percent.