Chilean rebel Camila Vallejo: 'The problem is bigger – it's structural'
Her call for free education in Chile led to a nationwide shutdown last year. Now student leader Camila Vallejo is aiming higher - she wants a social revolution
I almost didn't meet Camila Vallejo. She missed her flight from Chile, and by the time the allotted hour arrived, she was still 7,000 miles away in Santiago. To my surprise, I got a call the next day. Could we reschedule? Vallejo had charmed her way on to another plane, and was already scudding across the Atlantic. "If she can shut down a city," mused the press officer for the National Union of Students, whose conference for global student leaders Vallejo was due to address, "she can blag some air travel too."
In 2011, that is what 24-year-old Vallejo sort of did. The then leader of Chile's most prominent student union, Vallejo – a would-be geographer – helped inspire a wave of protests that stopped the country in its tracks.
Dozens of universities and hundreds of schools were occupied for months. Entire academic years had to be cancelled. Up to 200,000 students marched through Santiago every week, each a mini-carnival. The police response was often brutal: tear-gas and water cannon. There were even cases, Vallejo claims, "of torture, of sexual abuse". Police shot one boy dead. Vallejo (pronounced Va-yay-ho) was herself ambushed with tear-gas after a student meeting. "My whole body was burning," she has said: "it was brutal."
These weren't like the student protests occurring simultaneously in Britain: they were more radical, far more popular, and demonstrably more effective. At its height in 2011, the movement's approval ratings topped 70%. It forced several concessions from the Chilean government, and ousted two ministers from office. And at its centre was Vallejo, "a Botticelli beauty" – in the words of the novelist Francisco Goldman – who at 23 became both a nose-ringed national treasure and a megastar of the international left.
When she visited Mexico in June, crowds stood in the rain to see her. "I love you!" some of them cried, handing her flowers. "Camila Vallejo," wrote Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, one of her half-million Twitter followers: "I have a crush."
It feels strange to see her in a more becalmed context. We meet on a grey day in a conference room at the University of East London, buried among the scrapyards and dual-carriageways of the Docklands. Outside, aeroplanes screech across the runway opposite every other minute. Inside, three-dozen jetlagged student leaders from across the globe – drained by two days of solid conferencing – slide in sleepily, some several minutes late for her speech. Vallejo calmly waits at the back. It's a strange place to find a revolutionary.
What is she fighting for? Free education, first and foremost. According to the New York Times, Chile has proportionally the world's most expensive university education: degrees cost $3,400 a year, while Chile's average annual salary is only $8,500. More shockingly still, only 40% of teenagers get free high school classes. "The choice people have is between having debt," Vallejo tells me later, "or not having an education."
But Vallejo's demands go further. Her generation is pushing for a wider reimagining of Chilean neoliberal society – a society that they argue has not changed enough since the days of Augusto Pinochet, and which has created one of the world's largest gaps between rich and poor.
"We realised the problem was bigger, the problem was structural," Vallejo tells me, or rather I'm told she tells me by her translator Rossana Leal, a Chilean who grew up in Scotland after her family fled the Pinochet regime. I don't speak Spanish, and Vallejo doesn't speak English, so our every utterance must pass through the stoic Leal. Everything gets confused, and I don't feel I'm meeting the Vallejo whose fluent and arresting presence you can find so easily on YouTube. We speak for 75 minutes, but cover what would have taken 15 in Spanish.
Still, we give it a go. "The debate became about the link between education and the bigger economic model in Chile," says Vallejo, explaining how the Chilean movement became so radical.
The message, repeated in her speech, seems to jar with her surroundings. Her presentation is sandwiched by a talk from Lord Michael Bates, a Conservative who voted for fees, and another from Luis Juste, a banker turned corporate responsibility guru at Santander. So how does it feel to be squeezed between a banker and a Tory baron? And how much ground can Vallejo – a communist – really share with the centre-left NUS? Out of pragmatism, the NUS favours refashioning fees, rather than culling them completely, and its leaders have not always been particularly supportive of creative protest.
"It makes it much more relevant to be here," says Vallejo, who gives a wry smile once Leal's translation filters through. "It's important not to only talk to people who are convinced. We want to enable a continuous debate about what's happening with education."
The Chilean movement only became so radical through a similarly lengthy debate, she says. "2011 was the product of 10 years of debate," adds Paul Floor Pilquil, Vallejo's colleague at the University of Chile student union (Fech). A decade ago, he says, Chile's main student bodies were as bogged down in the smaller issues as they are now in Britain. "But then we started to connect all the specific problems."
Pilquil's intervention is significant not just for what he's saying, but that he's saying it at all. The interview was supposed to be a one-on-one with Vallejo, but – for diplomatic reasons – Pilquil has to be here too. Why? Because Vallejo is no longer the Fech president. She was ousted last winter by a law student, Gabriel Boric – and is now only his deputy. As such, she can't be seen to hog the limelight.
Nine months on, Vallejo laughs off the loss. It was almost a blessing, she claims: "The role of the president is very administrative. They have to see how the money is spent."
The presidency had been draining in other ways. Vallejo received death threats that were serious enough for her parents – one-time opponents of Pinochet who now run an air-conditioning business – to persuade her to move home for her own safety. "Kill the bitch," a later-sacked government official tweeted, in a riff on a quote from Pinochet.
Vallejo lost the presidency in part because she was seen to be too prepared to engage with institutional hierarchies. She's a communist, for a start, she wants to form partnerships with centre-left parties, and she hasn't ruled out running for parliament.
"We're talking about the now," says Vallejo. "We're talking about taking our proposals to the elections next year."
It's a position that puts her at odds not just with other Chilean students, but with leftwing ideas on the rise in the rest of the world too. The Occupy movement – with which the Chilean student occupations are sometimes lumped – is seen as mainly anti-authoritarian; it rejects parliamentary democracy, and there's also clear water between it and the old-school workers' left. By contrast, Vallejo can see the logic in running for office.
Why? It's cultural, says Vallejo. Salvador Allende, the Marxist president deposed by Pinochet's 1973 coup, "is one of the most important political figures I admire". Allende reached the presidency through democratic elections, which in Vallejo's mind shows how the electoral system can be used for hard-left ends.
Some of her contemporaries disagree, but Vallejo doesn't necessarily see this as a bad thing: "I'm not going to deny we don't have different political views, [and] we don't know if this debate is ever going to find a solution," says Vallejo, as another jet screeches to a halt at the nearby City airport. "But we know the debate itself is important."
It's an oddly low-key statement to end on, but then this has been an odd morning: one grey day in the Docklands, communist Camila Vallejo has blagged a flight halfway round the world to share a platform with Conservative Michael Bates.