In Chile, a 23-year-old woman has been leading student protests against the government of President Sebastian Pinera. Her actions pose a serious challenge to the government and may lead to a significant overhaul of the country’s education system.

In many countries, students have become increasingly active participants in protests against the government, as recent events in London and Madrid have shown.

In Central America there were student demonstrations in Santo Domingo and in South America in Venezuela. In March 2010, student protests led to cancellation of classes at universities in San Francisco de Macoris, in the northeast of the country, and in the capital Santo Domingo. Students protested against bad conditions at the medical and engineering schools.

Last December, students in Venezuela, angered at new laws that they thought tightened the government’s control over universities, led several protests. These protests were prompted by the perception that President Hugo Chavez intended to promote socialist ideology in universities, some of which are bastions of anti-government protests in the country.

In Chile, Camila Vallejo Dowling was unknown until a few months ago. But recently she became the second female leader in the 105-year history of the University of Chile’s student union. When student protests gradually started last May, she quickly became their face and voice, and has led popular protests and cacerolazos — a kind of protest during which participants bang pots and pans.

The student leader said the government strategy of violent repression of students only aggravated the situation, prevented dialogue and worsened the political climate. Student demonstrations provoked a drastic fall in popularity of the government of Pinera, a Chilean billionaire whose positive image slipped to 26 percent in a survey and obliged him to take emergency measures to confront the crisis.

Although Vallejo preaches nonviolence, she has received several death threats and has been given police protection. Vallejo is demanding better salaries and work stability for teachers and that the government assume responsibility for education at the universities which, she says, are no longer accessible to the general population. She acknowledged, however, that it is very difficult to obtain structural reforms with a rightist government, saying that what they want is long-term political and educational reform in the country.

Students are demanding a new framework for education in Chile, an end to the Chilean school voucher system and its replacement by a public education system managed by the state. Currently, in Chile, only 45 percent of high school students are in traditional public schools. Most universities are in private hands.

The majority of Chileans (estimated 72 to 80 percent) support the student movement, which has been energized by a 48-hour nationwide strike by the Workers United Center of Chile (CUT). Although Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla said the strike was a “great failure,” CUT’s press statement said 82 social and labor union organizations had joined the strike.

As a response to student demands, President Pinera said the government would improve education financing — cutting interests rates on student loans from 6.4 percent to 2 percent — would help indebted students and would provide fellowships. But the government’s promises did little to control the uprising.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, education costs in Chile make it the country with the most expensive higher education. According to Chilean economist Marcel Claude, student debt is close to 174 percent of their annual salary and 50 percent among them are heavily indebted.

President Pinera’s response to new demonstrations was to announce $4 billion in education funds through a new proposal called GANE (Great National Accord for Education), which was also rejected. Should popular demonstrations gather momentum, the government may confront a situation very difficult to deal with.

In Chile’s unstable political situation, the leadership of a 23-year-old woman can help chart a new course for the country.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and writer.

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