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 Source: The Guardian 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.” …