Pressure grows as Chile student leader opens talks

AP News

10/5/2011 3:33:38 AM - AP News

Camila Vallejo handles a microphone as if she were born with it, rallying huge demonstrations for education reform that only seem to grow bigger each time police turn up with tear gas and water cannons.

Speaking at length without notes before tens of thousands of people, or holding her own with leading figures of Chile's political establishment, the 23-year-old geography student has become the public face of a movement that has repeatedly forced Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to make concessions.

Finally, after five months leading the biggest marches in two decades of Chilean democracy, the students have begun face-to-face talks with the government over their demands for profound changes in what they say is the country's unequal and underfunded public school system. Wednesday's closed-door session focuses on removing taxpayer support for private institutions, and using the money instead to make public universities free to all _ a demand Pinera had refused to even discuss.

The president still shows no sign of bending _ "nothing is free in life," he says _ increasing the pressure on the student leaders like never before.

Failure to reach agreement quickly could prompt uglier and more violent confrontations, which could turn Chile's 17 million people against the movement. Without clear results, the moderates could soon lose control to more radical voices.

At the center of the tumult is Vallejo, the daughter of Communists and student president at the University of Chile, the nation's largest and oldest university. She has led the sprawling movement through the force of her rhetoric, her skilled use of social media and her insistence on building consensus for major decisions.

Vallejo also has become a cultural phenomenon, a YouTube sensation and an international celebrity. One fan made an animation casting her as a superhero battling a presidential villain. Others croon love songs in her honor. Her Twitter audience has grown to nearly 300,000, half as much as the president, in just a few months, enabling her to quickly send followers into the streets nationwide. Her online comments are constantly re-tweeted. Entire families answer her call to bang pots and pans, reviving dictatorship-era protests known as "caceroleos."

When she appears in public, surrounded by a phalanx of Young Communists and a police detail added in response to death threats, people shout "Camila, I love you!" raising cell phones to snap her picture.

The Associated Press persuaded her to sit still for a lengthy interview in a student government office, where said the next phase of the movement will be more complex and difficult. Young people have good reason not to trust politicians, she said _ and if Pinera doesn't agree quickly to their demands, they must "make sure the government pays the consequences" in the next elections.

While the students want to put the Chilean state back at the center of education funding and administration, Pinera and his center-right government would improve the existing system, which was largely privatized during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The students want "free and equal quality education for all."

Pinera insists on "free education for those who need it, and enough financing for all the rest."

Vallejo sees hypocrisy in Pinera's caveats, noting that polls show most Chileans back the students.

Chilean political analyst Marta Lagos, who directs the influential Latinobarometro poll, said Vallejo has captured the mood of post-Pinochet Chileans.

"She was in the right moment, in the right place, and is the right person" to lead this movement, Lagos said. "She doesn't leave the sensation that she seeks fame, she doesn't overact, she doesn't go around smiling. She has a series of characteristics that makes her seem serious, solid."

And like others in her generation, born in the final years of the dictatorship, she didn't grow up in fear.

"The whole generation is that way," Lagos said. "These young people in the streets, beginning with her, are aware of what happened in the dictatorship, but they don't know what it was like to live through it ... they've lost their fear of authority."

Giorgio Agostini, a prominent Chilean psychologist, says Vallejo shows intelligence and leadership skills, but is wrapped up in ideology. "This has her trapped, in the sense that it's difficult for her to listen and empathize with other positions," he said.

Vallejo is one of 36 student presidents and more than a hundred thousand young people who have boycotted high school and college classes since April 28. There are others in the executive committee who also have influential roles and obvious charisma.

But she knows that whatever happens next, the weight will fall disproportionately on her shoulders.

"There's an overwhelming exhaustion that stays with you, like a mental exhaustion, the stress you carry like a backpack," she said. "Because whether it's true or not, the media have created this image that you're responsible for everything, the good and the bad."

Chileans constantly talk about Vallejo's beauty _ another factor key to her leadership, because Chilean society remains "quite discriminatory," Agostini said. "But she doesn't use this, or need to _ her seriousness augments her credibility."

Along with the praise has come no small amount of sexist and paternalistic commentary in Chile's macho, father-knows-best society: Newsweek said "she would fit better on a models' runway than at the barricades," and when she refused to dance at a demonstration, the Chilean newspaper La Ultima Noticia ran her picture with the headline "Camila won't move her butt," prompting the student federation to denounce the media site's headline as an attack against all Chilean women.

She counters the scrutiny with seriousness debate. When Pinera called his proposed 7 percent increase in education funding for 2012 the biggest in Chilean history, Vallejo countered with a budget analysis that showed it to be miserly at best: "How can this be an extraordinary effort if in 2011 it increased 13 percent, in 2009 15 percent and in 2008 24 percent?" she tweeted.

It's no simple thing to negotiate with Pinera, a billionaire entrepreneur-politician known as one of the world's craftiest businessmen. And the president just raised the stakes by proposing 3-year prison terms for taking over schools or confront riot police.

"In a democratic and free society, violence and delinquency is a cancer, and the government must fight to guarantee public order," Pinera said.

Vallejo called it a provocation: "You can't play around with something that is a right of all society, which is the right to demonstrate, the right of expression, and this is what they're attacking with this reactionary law," she said, insisting that students keep marching as their leaders go behind closed doors with the government.

"I'm so tired, I'd obviously like to step aside for a while," Vallejo said. "But I know this is important, and if the people I work with demand that I be there, once again at the top, it'll have to be."