Posted September 30, 2011on:
Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Camila Vallejo. Now I am fascinated by this charismatic student leader in Chile who has been shaking the political establishment in her country. She is spearheading a populist movement that has the right to “quality education” at its core. Boldly outspoken, Vallejo is only the second female leader in the 105- year old history of the student union in the University of Chile. Hundreds of thousands of university and high school students have been boycotting classes since early June, clamouring for better and more affordable education and an end to the two-tier system that creates a few affluent, elite institutions amid many underfunded public ones.
Last month, transport workers and other public sector employees joined the student movement in public strikes that led to a two-day nationwide shutdown. The government has promised to spend a further US $4 billion on education and to cut the interest rates on student loans by more than half. Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Vallejo as she has been receiving death threats. A government official lost his job after suggesting that the protests would end if she were assassinated. Chile’s President is the billionaire business tycoon, Sebastian Pińera, whom opinion polls reveal only enjoys 26% of electoral support. Meanwhile, Vallejo has become a cult figure with songs about her appearing all over Youtube. She is tipped to be a future President.
She tells reporters: “Why do we need education? To make profits? To run a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.”
Here is a 23 year-old woman taking on the whole educational and political system!
The typical response of Christian students, especially in the privileged universities of the world, whenever I talk to them about engaging in acts of social transformation is either “That sounds idealistic…” or “But, we are only students…” And in the case of many graduates (even those in the mass media and politics), they shrug their shoulders and say, “We are so powerless…”
What needs to change in Christian university groups and churches for them to be attracting students like Camila Vallejo, let alone producing people like her?
At the same time as these momentous events are unfolding in Chile, students in New York and other cities in the USA have also been out on the streets every day since 17 September in peaceful protests against the takeover of American politics by corporate power. They call themselves “Occupying Wall Street” and describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”
Last Saturday, more than 80 of them were arrested by police in NYC. But this has not deterred them. They write on their website: “As members of the 99 percent, we occupy Wall Street as a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”
All these are signs of hope. It is poles apart from the irrational violence that gripped parts of London in August. It expresses the “Direct Democracy” I called for in my Blog post of 2 July. To Christian students and churches, all I can say is, “Get involved!” (You can listen, too, to my plenary Bible exposition on Loving God & Neighbour at the IFES World Assembly in Krakow, 31 July, available at http://www.ifesworld.org/media/audio/wa2011-aen-mark-vinoth).