President Sebastián Piñera’s popularity had soared after the intense media coverage of the rescue of 33 trapped copper miners in 2010, and he soon announced a sweeping neoliberal reform of the education system. A year later, after a society-wide reaction against his plan, his popularity rating was around 20 percent.
The student leader Camila Vallejo at the protests during the Chilean winter of 2011. Photo: Diego Salinas Flores.
At first the government downplayed the student movement, but when the protests continued to grow, by August the official strategy shifted to the use of force. The television show described below came before these big August 2011 protests and likely contributed to them.
During a two-day national strike in late August 2011 carabineros reacted with force but were sometimes on the defensive.
Camila Vallejo appeared on the Chilean interview program Tolerancia Cero on June 5, 2011.
The program opened by defining Vallejo as chief spokesperson for the student movement.
Vallejo had appeared at the head of many 2011 protests, as shown on Tolerancia Cero.
The majority of YouTube commenters saw the program as a triumph by Vallejo over the conservative establishment position.
After a copyright claim by Chilevisión, YouTube pulled the video of the program.
by Matt Losada
When, on June 5, 2011, Camila Vallejo, president of the Federation of Students of the Universidad de Chile (FECH) and then-spokesperson for the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confech), was interviewed by the four hosts of the Chilean television program Tolerancia Cero (Zero Tolerance), the questions revolved around the student protest movement that was only beginning to make its presence felt. [open endnotes in new window]
Her performance in the interview was impressive, considering that the 23-year old geography student faced at-times aggressive questioning from four nationally known intellectuals. The program provided a very visible platform—on an establishment medium—for the diffusion of a powerful image of the leader of the movement and a clear exposition of student demands, as the well-prepared and eloquent Vallejo countered one by one, with calmly reasoned responses, the arguments of Fernando Paulsen, Matías del Río, Fernando Villegas and Juan Carlos Eichholz.
The Confech had organized student marches in April and May in response to the accelerated implementation, by the incoming conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera, of a neoliberal education policy that would require public universities to compete for state funding with private universities—a measure intended, according to Vallejo, to force the former to increase labor flexibility—and freeze funding for public low-interest student loan programs, thus driving students into higher-interest loans provided by private banks. The Confech countered by calling for education to be treated as a right not a commodity, and demanding that the Chilean state privilege public education. Such policy changes would effectively shift the course of national education policy away from the neoliberal model that has dominated since the Pinochet period.
Del Río opened the program by welcoming Vallejo as “Carla Vallejo,” then referred to her as “Camila Vallejos,” after which Eichholz—the youngest member of the panel and lawyer, member of the Legión de Cristo, professor of “Strategic Leadership” (Liderazgo Estratégico) at the private Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez and chief of Piñera’s cabinet when he was a senator—started the questioning. This foremost official intellectual of local economic might proposed a role-play scenario:
Unshaken by this stratagem, a cool Vallejo prefaced her answer by refocusing the debate on the insufficiencies of the current neoliberal approach used by the Chilean state:
Locating the problem in the state’s fundamental unwillingness to regulate private enterprise in education and to carry out its constitutional mandate to provide quality public education, she went on to lay out the changes proposed by the students.
The hosts then went on to pose questions to Vallejo that basically amounted to a series of conservative talking points critical of the movement. Vallejo refuted each effectively, and at moments the frustration of Villegas and Eichholz became evident. Villegas insisted that the positions of the students today are following what he called the “classical ideological lines” (“líneas ideológicas clásicas”) of the left of the past. The unspoken subtext is that this is the left of Salvador Allende that was destroyed by the violence of the Pinochet regime, a destruction that Villegas seemed to justify by voicing this accusation. He characterized that left position as the knee-jerk demonization of profit, before going on to defend today’s private universities, first by way of anecdote—mentioning cases in which these have invested in the creation of libraries—then by claiming that they have widened the accessibility of higher education to those sectors that did not have such access in the past. For his part, when given an opening in the discussion, Eichholz contributed a recitation of the neoliberal mantra that the profit motive results in an organization that is “efficient in the administration of resources” (“eficiente en la administración de los recursos”). Vallejo responded by restating that the position of the students is that profit (“lucrar”) should not be the raison d’être of any university, as it is today in all too many institutes of higher education in Chile, and by calling for a greater will on the part of the state to regulate the system and for the removal of subsidies from private institutions. Villegas and Eichholz became visibly frustrated at their failure to convincingly argue the official position, and upon viewing the program it clearly appears to be an ideological misfire, in which Vallejo went into the maw of the establishment media and beat it at its own game.
Soon after the program aired, it was posted on YouTube, where it remained available for several weeks, generating a long thread of user comments that overwhelmingly interpreted the interview as a classic David and Goliath triumph for Vallejo over the conservative establishment. But by late August the video had been taken down by YouTube, replaced with a message reading,
Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, Google Inc., the owner of YouTube, has little choice but to remove content when faced with a copyright claim. In theory the company could investigate the copyright claim and decide whether or not to comply, but in practice this would be prohibitively expensive. While the video itself remained accessible on the website of Chilevisión — recaptured and confined to a corporate-controlled profit-generating space where it was much more difficult to find — the thread of comments was no longer available. Such comments, the vox populi graffiti of the new media, could be seen as an effective mediator of mimetic desire and thus an important generator of public opinion. Since the removal of the video and comments thread coincided with surging unrest sparked by the student movement, and as of late-August several other episodes of Tolerancia Cero continued to be available on YouTube, the events create the appearance, justified or not, of a selective, politically motivated use of international copyright law to suppress local dissent.
The student protests and the threat they pose to the continued dominance of the neoliberal economic model in Chile brought about a series of events that has underlined the current dynamics, both local and international, of the old vs. new media divide. Establishment media, in the form of news and interview programs on the traditional corporate television channels, have on occasion offered space to the leaders of the student movement but not without stacking the deck against them—as seen in the format of Tolerancia Cero, in which four media veterans acting as officially-sanctioned intellectuals of local economic power question a single, young representative of the students. Corporate television also carefully controls distribution. Such control exercised over the traditional media is contrasted to the new media distributed through the Internet—video-hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo, and blogs, both personal and those of official student organizations. These have been used very effectively by the students to publicize and generate participation in the movement. The case of Camila Vallejo’s appearance on Tolerancia Cero and subsequent events—the unauthorized posting of the program on YouTube and its subsequent removal following the copyright claim by Chilevisión—is very revealing of both of these dynamics, on which some background will be useful.
The investigative journalist María Olivia Monckeberg, who has researched and written about the business practices of private universities in Chile, identifies two principal problems with recent education policy. First, even though many of the private universities are owned by foreign and local capital, they receive government subsidies. Part of the state’s education budget, then, goes directly into the hands of investors who have no stake in the education of the Chilean population and thus only a secondary motivation to fulfill the mission of quality education called for in the Chilean constitution. Given that the constitution prohibits profit (“lucro”) in the educational system, this is understandably a cause of great concern for both Monckeberg and the students.
The implications of the second problem are more ideological than economic. The private universities are often owned by or closely linked to highly controversial organizations. The universities Los Andes and Finis Terrae, for example, are run respectively by Opus dei and the Legión de Cristo, and another, the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, has close ties to the Legión. All three strongly promote a neoliberal economic agenda (while benefitting from state subsidies, thus inviting accusations of hypocrisy), and they are identified by Monckeberg as ideological training grounds for Chile’s conservative elite in matters both moral and political. This alignment of interests aroused the concern of many when after the victory of the right in the elections of 2010, the Piñera government began to implement policies that would further erode the traditional universities’ financial standing in favor of private universities.
By early June the student movement had begun to strengthen rapidly, and after June 5, the date of the Tolerancia Cero interview with Vallejo, it quickly spread to secondary schools—hundreds of which were occupied indefinitely by their students—then to the non-student general public. By late June protests in Santiago attracted nearly one hundred thousand marchers, numbers that continued to grow through the winter with each near-weekly protest. While it is impossible to say what role the interview with Vallejo played in this rapid expansion, her importance as the movement’s most eloquent spokesperson and symbol is unquestionable. Soon even the vice president of neighboring Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, acknowledged the benefits of her charisma to the protests, declaring that
A month after the program aired, the student movement having further consolidated itself and spread to non-student sectors, Eichholz wrote an open letter to Vallejo on July 2 in his regular column in the establishment newspaper El Mercurio, entitled ¿Hacia dónde te llevan Camila? in which he accused her of leading the protests in the “interest of certain groups or even individuals” (“intereses de ciertos grupos, o incluso personalidades”), referring specifically to “political and union leaders” (“dirigentes políticos y gremiales”), and he demonized the movement by describing it as irrational and radical. He then went on to characterize Vallejo as naïve and called on her to do whatever she could to defuse the movement.
Without carte blanche access to established media, Vallejo published a response on her personal blog the next day entitled Hacia la razón del pueblo, Eichholz, in which she countered the accusations, traced the imposition of current education policy to the Pinochet period and the interests of today’s economic elite, and again laid out the student demands that education be treated as a right, not as a commodity. This open letter was immediately republished and linked to on many other websites, a viral distribution on new media that quickly reduced the advantage in “old media” visibility enjoyed by Eichholz. In addition to the use of blogs and their own websites, the student organizations have employed the video-hosting site Vimeo—which, unlike YouTube, only accepts content generated by the users themselves—where their “reformaeducacional” account includes short spots with high production values, featuring calls to protest by the leader of the student organization of each university.
In a general sense, the events of 2011 have made evident a glaring imbalance in media access at the same time that they have clearly demonstrated the rhizomatic possibilities of new media in oppositional movements. Content generated or diffused by users include appropriation and distribution of the ideological misfires of the establishment media, consumer-grade videography showing carabinero brutality at protests, programmatic statements and user comments. Such material put online has allowed consumers to become media producers (or “re-producers” in the case of the online revival of the Vallejo interview), tempering the immense advantage enjoyed by economically dominant sectors due to their access to the traditional media, and contributing an online organizational dimension to a community based on an oppositional politics that has not shied away from taking to the streets. But the same events have also demonstrated the resiliency of corporate power’s control over channels of production and diffusion—YouTube, the television and print “old” media—resulting in part from the use of current copyright law.
Since April of 2011, the protests have gradually expanded into a society-wide movement confronting stubborn entrenched economic power. The student demands are such that, if met, they would represent a decisive rollback of neoliberal economic policy in the very nation proclaimed as its model success story. The Piñera government, however, staffed entirely by neoliberal ideologues, is under enormous pressure not to cede to student demands. As a result it has insisted on maintaining the course imposed by the Pinochet regime, in spite of the devastation wrought by neoliberal economic policy on the poorer and middle sectors, which have in turn helped fuel the spirited protest movement. The role of the media has, as could be expected, been very telling of the power dynamics at play in the conflict.