Hard-Left Heartthrob

By Margolis, Mac | Newsweek International, October 10, 2011 | Go to article overview

Hard-Left Heartthrob


Margolis, Mac, Newsweek International


Byline: Mac Margolis

Chile's youthful revolutionary leader is rattling a nation--and a continent--as she champions education reform.

It is 7 p.m. in Brasilia, and the streets of Brazil's capital are jammed with homebound commuters, but in a basement auditorium of the darkening congressional building, a student rally has hit fever pitch. "Ca-mi-la, Ca-mi-la, Ca-mi-la!" they chant. All day they'd strained for a glimpse of Camila Vallejo, the Chilean undergrad who turned a campus quarrel over high-priced education into a national political revolt that has roiled the Andean nation and electrified Latin youth from Mexico City to Puerto Montt.

Now Vallejo was taking her Chilean Spring on the road, and Brazilians were not about to miss out. Thousands of them had marched with her under a withering sun to the doors of Congress. They had trailed her inside where she spoke before the human-rights commission, posed for photo ops with heat-seeking lawmakers, and dashed off autographs, leaving a vapor trail of reporters, photographers, and TV cameras wherever she turned. And now that the dark-haired woman, wearing loose-cut jeans, a diaphanous blouse, and a billboard smile has taken the stage, her followers are in a lather. "Save your wolf whistles for later," Vallejo jokes.

It's a welcome she's gotten used to. Camila Amaranta Vallejo Dowling is not your cookie-cutter revolutionary. With soft green eyes, a silver nose ring, and 63,000 fans on Facebook, the Santiago-born student leader would be a better fit on the catwalks than at the barricades. A year ago, she was just another denim-clad undergrad at the University of Chile in Santiago. But at 23, this geography major has become the most visible face of a political movement that has shaken South America's most orderly nation, helped shove the respected billionaire president Sebastian Pinera's approval ratings (now 22 percent) off a cliff, and set tennis shoes marching throughout the hemisphere.

Student siren, beauty and the beast, flower of the Chilean Spring--there's no lack of metaphors to describe this arrestingly attractive Communist Party youth cadre, whose call for affordable education in Chile has struck a chord across the continent. The student movement is bigger than Vallejo, but she is the polestar of the five-month revolt that has sent millions to the streets in Chile's biggest political upheaval since the military coup in 1973. The protests have halted Santiago, toppled the chief of police, and ousted a top bureaucrat at the Culture Ministry, whose menacing Twitter post--"Kill the bitch and eliminate the litter"--was straight from the playbook of the late dictator Gen. …

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