06/01/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Protest Gets International Support From Camila Vallejo, Chilean Revolutionary

OTTAWA - Quebec's student uprising is getting praise and encouragement from international protest superstar Camila Vallejo, the leader of Chile's own powerful university movement.

Vallejo, 24, was last month dubbed "the world's most glamorous revolutionary" by the New York Times and was the Guardian newspaper's person of the year in 2011.

Like one of her Quebec counterparts Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Vallejo is well-educated, attractive, charmingly bohemian, and media-savvy.

As the president of the University of Chilean Student Federation last year, she helped lead hundreds of thousands into the streets across Chile to protest the poor access to higher education.

The protests began anew this month, with 100,000 students in the streets of Santiago.

Vallejo told The Canadian Press in an interview from Santiago that she is getting updates on the Quebec protests from international student networks.

She spoke of the "extreme repression" by police that both Chilean and Quebec students have faced.

"The only thing I'd wish them is strength, that they keep their heads up, that they continue in this fight, which is one I imagine isn't limited only to the area of education, but one that is much larger, that has to do with a vision of a distinct society," said Vallejo, now vice-president of the university association.

"I hope that all the young people there ... maintain their conviction, strength, and hope."

While Quebec students are protesting a tuition fee hike that would increase tuition by 70 per cent over five years, the situation in Chile is much more dire.

Former dictator Augusto Pinochet privatized education at all levels in the 1970s, creating a system where access to the best universities are out of reach for all but the rich. That system has stuck — Chilean citizens foot 75 per cent of the bill for education.

Some must take out staggering loans to afford tuition that can cost as high as $1,000 a month for programs that last an average of six years. Quebec fees would cost $3,800 per year if the proposed hike is put in place.

The Economist magazine wrote last month that the "student movement has struck a chord in a society that is increasingly middle class but remains highly unequal."

The cause has won wide popular support in the Andean country, bringing other social groups into the protest movement. President Sebastian Pinera's support has plummeted as a result, and cabinet ministers have been shuffled.

The students have not gotten what they've wanted on the education front — the restoration of a public system, rather than one based on loans and vouchers. In Quebec, talks between the government and student groups broke down on Thursday.

But Vallejo says the Chilean movement has still achieved a lot.

"We've seen Chile change thanks to what happened in 2011. There's been a change in how we listen to civil society about the profound injustice that we face, of the anti-democratic political system we have, of an economic model that deepens inequalities, and of the necessity of better organization in civil society," said Vallejo.

Vallejo, a member of Chile's communist youth wing, sees some commonalities in the movements in Chile and Quebec. She said one of the lessons she has learned, that could be useful to her Canadian counterparts, is that it's not all about education.

"Here in Chile, there was an unease that was building up, that wasn't being expressed, and found an outlet through the movement for education," Vallejo said.

"We had a crisis, and there was a profound questioning of the development model we have in Chile, a neo-liberal model, of how our political institutions operate — not responding to the needs of the majority but to respond to the economic interests of certain business groups..."

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