Protests against the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera have been shaking Chile's society for nearly four months now. The international media has not least gained interest in the movement due to the attractive and charismatic student leader Camila Vallejo. She has led the largest protests in Chile since dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down in 1990. The 23-year-old geography student has dismissed the numerous references to her looks as insignificant.
"What's more important than my appearance is that the people have understood that this is about the substance of our political demands," says Vallejo, a member of the Chilean Communist Youth and head of the Student Federation of the University of Chile, Fech. "Chile waited 20 years for a true democracy. We've experienced that our prosperity has only grown slowly, that there have been in part massive cuts in social welfare while the neoliberal economic model continues to take effect."
The students have won support from other groups: teachers and workers have also joined the fight. Support for Pinera's government is at its lowest level since he took office in March 2010. Opposition has grown to record figures.
Deutsche Welle: Why has this student movement found such strong support among the population?
Camila Vallejo: The young generation is just the spearhead of a general deep dissatisfaction that is breaking out. Many people were scared up to now to publicly discuss politics. But this isn't just about dissatisfaction. There are also concrete social and political demands, for example introducing binding referendums.
Planned legislation also has to be able to emanate from the people. We need an assembly to work out a new constitution and we have to renationalize our mineral and natural resources. These are just some examples. There is a great disenchantment with politics. Decisions that affect large parts of the population are made by a few behind closed doors.
Which problems need to be solved first?
Our central demands relating to the financing, democratization, quality, multiculturalism and access to higher education are all directly interconnected. They are part of the structural reform of our education system which we are seeking. The most disputed aspect is financing. This debate is being led in a very ideological manner. We are demanding free access to education. There can be no profits gained from education. There is a conflict between state and private expenditure in the education sector. But education is a human right and must be the property of the people.
What sort of expectations do you have from the dialogue with the government?
After the government agreed to talk with us and the president personally sat down with us at the table, the expectations all over the country are very high. The government is proceeding in a strategic manner and is hoping the talks will lead to an end of the protests, which have thrown the president and his cabinet into a political crisis. But the latest statements by Pinera and education minister Felipe Bulnes on nationalization and profit seeking in the education sector indicate that the government is not willing to negotiate these demands. They want to hold on to a market-oriented education system, which merely serves a minority of society.
Are the conditions for dialogue even still in place after police shot a student during the general strike at the beginning of September?
We have always been willing to enter into a dialogue. We have always openly put our demands on the table. It was the government who refused this dialogue, who claimed that our demands were unclear. But an open dialogue requires the readiness and the political will of all parties. We are ready to do so.
What does it mean for you personally to head such a protest movement? Are you aware of its importance?
I am by all means aware that this movement represents a milestone in Chile's recent history and that this phenomenon is being observed worldwide. The beginning of the protests coincided with my election as head of the Student Federation. It was a great responsibility for me to represent my fellow students and their demands. This role as a spokesperson has catapulted me into the public eye. That has given our political project and our demands greater weight. I see my role as one of making the student movement into a wide social movement.
Interview: Victoria Dannemann (sac)
Editor: Rob Mudge