2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
The Chilean Student Movement of 2011:
Camila Vallejo and the media
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:
“Let’s pretend you are the minister of education and you are charged with announcing reforms to the country’s higher education system. Which are the central points you would propose in such a reform?”
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:
“The state is lacking in both its supervisory role and that of guarantor.”
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,
“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Red de Televisión Chilevisión S.A.”
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
“we are all in love with her” (“todos estamos enamorados de ella”).
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.
1. The FECH (Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile) is the oldest student organization in Chile and traditionally the most politically active. The Confech (Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile) is the umbrella organization of the individual student federations of each university. Tolerancia Cero has been running since 1999 on the Chilevisión channel. [return to text]
2. Del Río, 42, a journalist and host of several radio and television programs on major channels, studied at the Universidad Finis Terrae. Paulsen, 55, the “liberal” member of the panel, is also a television journalist, and has worked in the establishment media during and since the Pinochet period, and as a correspondent for Time and The Wall Street Journal. He is also a professor of journalism at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez. Villegas, 62, is a sociologist, writer and journalist who has also appeared on many establishment media programs. I will discuss Eichholz’ particular background in the text. Official biographies are found at:
3. For a concise account of the history of economic neoliberalism and its implementation in Chile and elsewhere, see Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Piñera, elected president in early 2010, is a billionaire businessman and previously the 100% owner of Chilevisión. After his election he sold the company to an international division of Time Warner Inc. Piñera’s business practices were put under suspicion in late 2010, when a cable was released by Wikileaks in which the U.S. ambassador strongly questioned them as unethical and beyond “the line of what is strictly legal”:
After the high popularity ratings he enjoyed in the wake of the 2010 rescue of 33 miners trapped in a collapsed tunnel, Piñera’s presidential popularity plummeted in an inverse relation to the growth of the student movement, and by September 2011 was just above twenty per cent. Vallejo’s immediate reaction to what Piñera himself announced as the “gran reforma educacional” can be seen in a CNN Chile interview from November 2010:
4. For a press release with the student demands, see:
5. “Hagamos como si tú fueras ministra de educación, y tienes que anunciar una reforma al sistema de educación superior en el país. ¿Cuáles son los ejes que tú…plantearías en esa reforma?”
6. “Hay una falta de rol fiscalizador y rol garante por parte del estado…”
8. For more on the functioning of copyright in the case of YouTube, see YouTomb: http://youtomb.mit.edu/. For more general concerns about the effects of the DMCA see the Chilling Effects website:
9. The most visible student leaders have been Vallejo and the 24-year old Giorgio Jackson, the president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad Católica de Chile (FEUC) and, like Vallejo, spokesperson of the Confech.
10. See Monckeberg, María Olivia. El negocio de las universidades en Chile. Santiago: Debate, 2007, and an interview that can be found at: http://www.elclarin.cl/index.php?option=com_
11. An excerpt of the section of the Chilean Constitution that regards education can be found at:
12. The Legión de Cristo is a Catholic organization founded in Mexico by Marcial Maciel in the 1930s. It spread over Latin America by evangelizing the economic elites, and now operates worldwide. In many countries it owns and runs schools and universities, including, in Chile, the Universidad Finis Terrae. The president of the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, supermarket magnate Nicolás Ibáñez, is also a Legionario de Cristo. Maciel was dogged by accusations of sexual abuse of minors throughout his life, but not until 2005, at 85 years of age, was he sanctioned by the Vatican for his by-then widely known actions. In 2010 the Vatican ordered an worldwide “overhaul” of the Legión de Cristo to “purify” the order. See Wilkinson:
The Vatican also rewrote Maciel’s official epitaph, adding sections that referred to his “seriously and objectively immoral behavior” and his being “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion.” See Godoy:
On the presence of the Legión de Cristo in Chile, see Insunza, Andrea and Javier Ortega. Legionarios de Cristo en Chile: Dios, Dinero y Poder. Santiago: Universidad Diego Portales, 2008, and:
13. On the secondary students, or “pingüinos,” and the student movement, see:
14 García Linera, in addition to serving as Bolivian vice president under Evo Morales, is a much-published sociologist. See
15. Eichholz, Juan Carlos. ¿Hacia dónde te llevan Camila?:
16. Vallejo Dowling, Camila. Blog:
As of December 2011 this blog, where the entry had been originally posted, had been taken down. As of this writing the text may still be found at: http://blogs.cooperativa.cl/opinion/politica/
18. On September 11 Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson appeared on Tolerancia Cero. This time Eichholz was no longer on the panel, having reportedly left for the U.S. to work with professors from Harvard and NYU
This interview was more rancorous than Vallejo’s earlier interview, and frustration was especially evident on the part of Villegas, who repeatedly accused Vallejo and Jackson of using the sacrifice of the nation’s students for personal aggrandizement:
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