Chilean student protest leader brings glamour, nostalgia to fete of D.C. leftists

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the assassination of the former Chilean official Orlando Letelier. He was killed Sept. 21, 1976, not April 21 of that year. This version has been updated.


Chilean students' leader Camila Vallejo takes part in a march to demand that President Sebastian Pinera's government overhaul the education system to guarantee free, quality public education for all Chileans in Santiago on June 28, 2012. (AFP/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
October 18, 2012

She was born in Chile 24 years ago, just months before Gen. Augusto Pinochet was voted from power. She never knew the abuses her parents suffered as working-class communists under a military regime that vowed to extirpate communism from the land. She never knew the brutality thousands of Chilean students faced for chanting slogans against dictatorship.

Camila Vallejo, a fetching young woman with tousled tresses and a silver nose ring, grew up in a different Chile — an era of democratic rebirth and economic boom. Yet she has become a glamorous global symbol of youthful struggle against official injustice, this time in the form of harsh free-market policies promulgated by Chile’s elected rulers.

“How do you feel when people say you are as influential as Lady Gaga?” a Spanish-language TV reporter asked Vallejo on Wednesday at a news media briefing in Washington, where she traveled to meet with college students and receive a human rights award. Vallejo, blushing and briefly flustered, quickly returned to her critique of neo-liberal economic policies and social inequality.

She rose to sudden fame last year as the telegenic symbol of a movement on Chilean college campuses that began as a protest against expensive tuition costs. It soon widened into a crusade against the broader free-market and privatization policies that were forced on Chile during Pinochet’s 17-year rule and are being strongly embraced by a conservative civilian administration that took office in 2010.

Months of demonstrations drew both Internet-era publicity and Pinochet-era repression. Exuberant young crowds banging metal pots or dancing in choreographed moonwalks were chased down by police vehicles and sprayed with gas and water. Vallejo, a youth leader of Chile’s Communist Party and president of the University of Chile student federation, was compared with Che Guevara.

When she arrived in Washington this week, between visits to campuses in New York and Boston, she was swarmed by students at American University, where some have been trying to form a similar movement against what they call oppressive debts for college loans.

“I’m not easily star-struck, and she was very approachable, but somehow I felt too intimidated to ask her a question,” said Mike Wang, 19, a junior and student activist who helped organize the campus discussion Tuesday with Vallejo and a fellow Chilean student leader, Noam Titelman. “It was like meeting a big celebrity.”

On Wednesday evening, at a packed gala in the majestic Carnegie Institution for Science on 16th Street NW, Vallejo mingled with hundreds of admirers who had gathered at the ceremony for the 36th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards (recipients have included Pete Seeger and a migrant shelter in Mexico). Onstage, wearing faded jeans and scuffed boots, Vallejo laughed nervously as she read her acceptance speech in halting English, stumbling over words such as “sovereignty.”

“We must recover from the terrible consequences of Pinochet if we want a true democracy,” she declared, describing how college privatization has created a gulf between wealthy and poor students. “In our country, there is no justice, even if we don’t have a dictator anymore.”

The audience, a melange of leftist and Latin American activists, hung on every word. Sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank with long-standing ties to Chile, the event drew graying veterans of the Central American policy wars, liberal scholars and nonprofit officials.

More than anything, the evening was an extraordinary coming together of Chile’s past and present. Seated in the front row was Isabel Letelier, the widow of Orlando Letelier, now in her 70s. Letelier, an official of Chile’s one-time socialist government, was assassinated in Washington on Sept. 21, 1976, along with his American assistant Ronni Moffitt. Both were working for the IPS at the time.

The spectacular crime, a bomb planted on Sheridan Circle by agents of the Pinochet regime, spotlighted the ruthless reach of the regime that toppled socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. Two men were ultimately convicted in the bombing.

“When I saw these young people marching in the streets of Chile again, I was astounded. They are so brave, and they bring us so much hope,” said Isabel Letelier, who nominated the student movement for the award. They represent the ideal that everyone can live together in a truly democratic Chile.”

The government in Santiago sees Vallejo and her fellow activists quite differently. To President Sebastián Piñera and other conservative leaders, they are attacking a free-market system that transformed Chile from a bloated and dysfunctional welfare state into a model of efficiency and growth, based in part on the privatization of public functions.

The high-profile protests have led to several changes in Piñera’s cabinet but not in its fundamental economic model. Vallejo, who has faced tear gas and death threats, said the most difficult moment in her crusade for a debt-free college education was her meeting with Piñera and his education minister.

“I felt such joy because our movement had become so huge that these officials had to meet us, but then I felt such frustration and impotence at their negative response,” she said Wednesday. “So many people were counting on us, and we ran into a wall. They didn’t move a centimeter.”

Vallejo, whose conversation is sprinkled with the leftist vocabulary of “struggle” and “solidarity,” is nonetheless guarded about her membership in the Communist Party of Chile and her family’s place in its long and vertiginous history.

Her parents in Santiago are longtime activists in the party, which was an influential segment of Chilean democracy for half a century. After the 1973 coup, leftists of all stripes were widely persecuted, but Vallejo said she knew little about her parents’ experiences.

“I heard they said in an interview that they had been tortured, but they never told me,” she said. Asked whether their political ideology had inspired her to become a student activist, she shook her head. “My main education came in the student movement of 2011,” she said vaguely.

At the sold-out awards ceremony, musicians played songs by Victor Jara, the Chilean leftist troubadour who died in the coup, but there was no mention of the brutal ideological wars that once tore Chile apart. Instead, the evening’s message was couched in nostalgia for the lost idealism of the past and focused on criticism of military policies that once again threaten to divide the Andean nation along class lines.

What Vallejo and her fellow students are doing today, said John Cavanagh, director of the IPS, “means that Pinochet didn’t win.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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