Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old president of the University of Chile student federation (FECH), a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography, was the most prominent leader of a student protest movement that had paralyzed the country and shattered Chile’s image as Latin America’s greatest political and economic success story. The march that Thursday afternoon in November would be the 42nd since June.
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 Piñera’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.
I had heard a lot about the joyful, carnival madness of the marches: hundreds of thousands of people roiling the streets of Santiago, with bands and costumes and colorful signs and floats and shouts. When a freezing rain fell on the day of a scheduled demonstration, protesters filled the streets in what became known as the March of the Umbrellas. Whimsical “happenings” and flash-mob actions drew international attention. There was the Kiss-In, when students made out for 1,800 seconds (30 minutes) in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace, to publicize the $1.8 billion it would supposedly cost to finance public education — and the 1,800 laps students jogged around the building, in round-the-clock relays; the protest where people dressed as zombies and danced to “Thriller”; the cacerolazos, tweet-ignited outbreaks of people banging on pots and pans, raising a swarming metallic-insect racket.
This march began at 6:30 p.m. in the Plaza Italia and proceeded through Bustamante Park. It was relatively small (official estimates were 7,000 people; unofficial 15,000) but still formidable. Horseback-mounted carabineros in olive green uniforms stood stiffly in a line at the edge of the plaza. Armored water cannons and troop carriers with wire-mesh windows were parked nearby. The protesters hoisted banners imprinted with the names of their schools; small marching bands and floats carried guitar players and drummers. Most marchers were students, but I saw people of all generations. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Vallejo, but she was nowhere in sight. Street dogs always ran in front of the big marches, my friend the writer-journalist Rafael Gumucio told me, and, right behind, came the student leaders, Vallejo protected by a barrier of young bodyguards, as rowdy secondary-school marchers shouted, “Have my baby!” and “Friend me on Facebook!”
The atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful, as if we were headed to a picnic on a beautiful summer evening. Shirtless adolescents leaned out of the windows of an occupied high school, shouting and pumping their arms. As another group unplugged the cable of a TV camera crew, my friend Patricio Fernández, known as Pato, the founder of an alternative weekly called The Clinic, shouted for calm. But even a march as seemingly peaceful as this one, I’d been told, would very likely turn violent. Hoping to erode popular support for the students, government spokesmen and conservative media portrayed the protesters as lawless radicals. Most notorious among them were the encapuchados, who wore scarves around their faces and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Students insisted that most encapuchados were from outside the movement and that at least some were infiltrators, planted to incite police counterattacks.
At the end of the march, about a dozen encapuchados appeared as if on cue, dancing into the streets with adolescent grace, hurling rocks and bottles at the row of armored carabineros with riot shields who stood waiting at the end of a long street. People began getting out their lemons. A pretty girl in a dress sat on the curb, red scarf held over her mouth and nose. Nobody seemed too worried. (The marches frequently end with arrests and students hospitalized, but so far there has been only one fatality, a 16-year-old boy killed by a policeman’s bullet.) An armored truck spraying water from mounted cannons — called a guanaco, for the llamalike Andean animal that spits — rolled toward the encapuchados. Pato and I pulled back into the park, where thousands of marchers milled peacefully amid the trees. The jeeps, called zorrillos, skunks, began wafting tear gas into the park. The crowd surged in the opposite direction, where another guanaco came rolling toward us, and I looked up into the impassive face of a helmeted policeman as he doused us with his cannon. People panicked, trying to huddle under trees, slipping in the muddy turf. Pato and I charged south into another guanaco. We were, thousands of us, trapped, in a guanaco pincer movement. I was drenched, my body and eyes burned, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I sprinted and slipped, tried to get up, fell again. I had a bloody gash on my forearm. I got up and ran to the right. Armored carabineros charged into the crowd, swinging their clubs. I heard screams behind me as I ran.
Pato and I took shelter behind the barred gates of an apartment building whose tenants let us in. Zorrillos zipped up and down the street, hunting for stray targets to gas. The police corralled fleeing marchers, most of them adolescents, pushing them onto the ground or into police vans. A chubby girl who screamed at us from the sidewalk to come out and fight was arrested moments later. I took pictures at the gate with my iPhone, but the tear gas drove me back into the corridor. My face, my eyes, were grotesquely swollen, and my skin burned all over.
In the early days of the protests, after students occupied the Casa Central, which houses the University of Chile’s main administration offices, carabineros used tear gas on the students, and professors gathered inside, refusing, at first, to let anyone out. Finally, they relented. “They made way for us,” Vallejo said afterward, “and then they attacked us directly.” Following another confrontation, Vallejo told a correspondent for The Guardian: “My whole body was burning. It was brutal.”
When I got back to my hotel and into the shower, my skin ignited as if from napalm. What was shot from the cannons that was reignited by fresh water? Days later, when I put the clothes I’d been wearing into a laundry bag, they lightly burned in my hands.
By December, the student protests had forced the resignation of two education ministers and succeeded in placing educational reform at the top of the parliamentary agenda. Much of this was thanks to Vallejo’s charisma and talent for capturing the public imagination. Back in October 2010, during the FECH elections, when few if any sensed the storm ahead and fewer still had heard of Camila Vallejo, she and four other students made a video called “Students of the Left.” Sitting on the lawn of a university campus, backed by a rockabilly score, they took turns enunciating campaign propositions, with Vallejo rushing her memorized sentences like a spelling-bee contestant. In a move worthy of a dorky student-council campaign, the students stood in unison and thrust out laser-emitting fists. But beneath their idealistic slogans and promises — “the university should be a motor of change in society” — there was a more vital message. Education wasn’t just a student issue; it was a symptom of what was wrong with Chile.
A few months after the protests began, President Piñera spoke from the steps of La Moneda. “We would all like education, health care and many other things to be free,” he said, “but when all is said and done, nothing in life is free. Someone has to pay.”
“Obviously someone has to pay,” Vallejo retorted, “but there’s no reason why it must be families financing between 80 and 100 percent of it.” Why not the state — through taxes on large corporations, the nationalization of resources, a reduction in financing for the military? When yet another march ended in violence, Vallejo and her fellow students collected hundreds of tear-gas shells and brought them to La Moneda. “Here are more than 50 million pesos worth of tear-gas bombs,” announced Vallejo, money, she said, that could have been spent on education. Students formed the shells into a peace sign on the plaza, and Vallejo crouched in the center. The resulting image was published all over the world.
By the end of 2011, Vallejo would be featured on the cover of the German weekly Die Zeit as the emblematic figure in a year marked by worldwide political protests. In a national media poll, Chileans elected her “person of the year.” So did readers of The Guardian. Vallejo’s Twitter account has more than 400,000 followers. Pop stars court her. (Franz Ferdinand’s lead singer tweeted: “Camila Vallejo. I have a crush.”)